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Chameleons frontman Mark Burgess brings his influential post-punk band’s legacy back to life 

With a U.S. tour and a Julee Cruise collaboration on the horizon, Burgess is back. - RAINER KNÄPPER
  • Rainer Knäpper
  • With a U.S. tour and a Julee Cruise collaboration on the horizon, Burgess is back.
‘No wonder I feel like I’m floating on air,” sang Mark Burgess on “Second Skin,” one of the Chameleons’ very first songs. And, in some ways, he’s still floating.

On the eve of a six-date American tour, the Manchester musician is revisting the legacy of an influential group whose darkly layered mix of cascading electric guitar, hypnotic rhythms, evocative vocals and sublimely catchy songwriting served as a mid-’80s template for subsequent bands ranging from indie shoegazers Slowdive to postpunk revivalists Interpol.

Two years ago, Burgess’s appropriately named Chameleons Vox embarked on an American tour in which they performed his original band’s debut studio album, Script of the Bridge, in its entirety. This new tour, he says, will be a mixed bag of material spanning three decades.

While The Chameleons never enjoyed huge commercial success, their artistic accomplishments have earned a ceaselessly loyal following, as well as countless superlatives from major music critics. The group’s third album, Strange Times, wrote The New York Times, “will delight anyone who’s still playing a worn-out copy of the Beatles’ Revolver. In fact, it should delight just about anyone.”

“Well, it’s hard for me to be objective obviously,” says Burgess when asked about how his songwriting has evolved through the years. “But I’d say that, earlier on, my themes were more universal — the sorts of themes that any sensitive young man who couldn’t get a girlfriend could relate to. Although when I started playing this material again after a long layoff, I was surprised at how relevant many of those themes were, despite the shifting times.”

As time went on, Burgess’s lyrics became more personal, while still maintaining the general “arc of alienation,” as he puts it, that has continued to permeate his lyrics.

“I personally think I got better as a writer,” he says, “although those who fixate on those early records in particular would probably disagree.”

The Chameleons were first formed in 1981, a year after Truman Capote published his book Music for Chameleons and two years after the right-wing Margaret Thatcher took office as prime minister. Burgess had been planning to study drama when guitarist Reg Smithies and guitarist Dave Fielding invited him to join their band as lead singer and bassist.

With John Lever on drums, they formed the classic Chameleons lineup, creating a sound as densely atmospheric as the Psychedelic Furs and U2’s best recordings with producer Steve Lillywhite.

“We did work with Steve Lillywhite very early on, so I’m sure that rubbed off on us,” says Burgess.

“We all came to him via different records. Dave loved his work with U2, I’d loved what he’d done with Jon Foxx’s Ultravox, John discovered him via Peter Gabriel. And my favorite Chameleons record is still ‘In Shreds,’ which he produced. I think everyone was chasing that big sound, you know, huge drums and soundscapes. Although, to be honest, we were by and large outcasts to the sorts of electronic ambient pop music pioneered by bands like Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, The Eurythmics and Human League.”
Even so, the band would go on to become legendary among goth-rock fans, who still speak of their music with the same hushed reverence as Siouxie & The Banshees, Echo & The Bunnymen, Bauhaus and The Cure. “I loved seeing them there,” says Burgess of the black-clad enthusiasts who began showing up at shows. “Especially the girls. I think Goth women look fantastic.”

Which is not to say that the group’s perpetually against-the-grain mindset was embraced by the industry itself. “We were suddenly playing festivals with the likes of Sisters of Mercy, but even then we stood out starkly,” says Burgess. “I recall a T-shirt manufacturer hiding our shirts at one such festival, because they weren’t black; they were day-glo colors with a crazy hippy smoking a spliff. But we made a killing on them years later,” he jokes, “when the acid-house scene exploded.”

The T-shirts at the merch table on this year’s tour may not have day-glo hippies, but there will be a new 12" EP available, as well as a 2015 live album that shows the current band’s ability to capture the spirit and sound of the original ’80s lineup, which unexpectedly reunited to record and perform three equally brilliant albums in the early 2000s.

Could anything like that happen again? “The short answer is no chance whatsoever,” says Burgess. “I still see Reg, but he’s very happy away from music raising his family and living a happy, sane life. I lost touch with Dave years ago, and I have no idea where he’s at, although I heard he is making music again, which makes me happy. As far as the Chameleons goes, it’s something they chose to leave behind, and I respect that.”

But Burgess, who’s also fronted The Sun and The Moon and several other bands through the years, is still well occupied on the music front. Plans include a collaboration with Julee Cruise, the dream-pop artist who wrote the Twin Peaks theme song and is credited as “the girl singer” in numerous episodes.

“We’ve each been mad busy, but it’s something that we really want to find the time to do,” says Burgess. “I sent Julee a song I’ve written with Reg Smithies, my former Chameleons bandmate, and she loved it. I’ve also suggested one or two other things that she liked, and I’ve enlisted Justin Lomery, who’s playing alongside me on this tour, and he’s very excited, too. We’re huge fans of Julee. And yes, I’m an avid David Lynch fan, and have many of his films and projects, and happen to think that Twin Peaks: The Return is absolutely stunning TV.”
Burgess also continues to follow politics, a subject that sometimes finds its way into his lyrics, and may be as responsible for that “arc of alienation” as anything else. For an EP by The Sun and The Moon, he rewrote — of all things — Alice Cooper’s “Election,” adding lines like “They shut down our hospitals, they shut down our schools.” That was near the end of Thatcher’s long reign, during which many Brits seriously considered leaving their country.

“Oh, I was at that point in 1978 when they first elected her; the Chameleons song ‘Singing Rule Britannia (While the Walls Close In)’ was very much inspired by her ascension to Number 10 Downing Street,” says Burgess, singling out the profit-driven privatization of his country’s fresh water supplies and public transportation.

“I hate what she did to my country and the kinds of ideals she instilled,” he adds. “Having said that, the level of resentment I have for her style of politics pales against the resentment I have for Brexit. I think I’m going to need a new country of residence in the not too distant future.”

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