Chameleons' Mark Burgess:
Under the Radar
story by tim mcmahan
Lazy-i: June 18, 2003
with Mark Burgess
w/ Dickson LeBron from Atomic Breathing
Thursday, June 26
Omaha Healing Arts Center
1216 Howard St
really is no reason why you should know who Mark Burgess is, or
for that matter, his band The Chameleons. They never sought commercial
fame; in fact, some might say they went out of their way to avoid
in 1981 just outside of Manchester, England, The Chameleons were
arguably one of alternative music's most influential bands of that
decade. Headed by vocalist/bassist Mark Burgess, bands as diverse
as The Cure, Kitchens of Distinction, For Against, Comsat Angels,
Catherine Wheel and Echo & The Bunnymen have either been influenced
by or compared to The Chameleons, while current-day faves Interpol
owe a great debt to the band for their sound.
The Chameleons began
developing an underground following with their debut, 1983's Script
of the Bridge, released on Statik Records. By the time Strange
Times was released on Geffen in 1986, The Chameleons were on
the cusp of breaking through to a commercial market that The Cure
would cultivate a year later with Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.
But it was never to be, because despite critical acclaim, Strange
Times proved to be their last album. The band broke up in 1987.
Over the course of 15
years, Burgess and company watched as The Chameleons developed a
following bigger than what they had enjoyed back in the '80s. It
was constant requests from those fans that drove the band to organize
a successful reunion tour of Europe and the United States last year.
from a friend's home in San Francisco that he's using as a homebase
for the solo-acoustic tour that brings him to Omaha June 26, Burgess
said The Chameleons' reunion was a natural.
"Time heals all
wounds," he said. "None of us could remember why we ever
fought. When it was suggested that we play some shows together,
it seemed like a good idea. We did five nights at a venue outside
of Manchester, and then went on the road to Europe for 40 shows.
Then last year did a tour of America. We discovered that a lot of
people were flying to America just to see those shows."
Burgess, who now lives
in Hamburg, said prior to the reunion band members had rarely been
in contact with each other, and that the reunion was purely fan-driven.
"We knew people were still buying our records because we were
getting royalty checks," he said. "Even though we had
an idea that the band was more popular than when we were originally
together, we weren't prepared for the reception we received."
Despite that, The Chameleons
continue to remain under the popular-culture radar, which is no
surprise to Burgess. The band never tried to write commercial-friendly
radio material. "We were about making records that interested
us. We weren't interested in mainstream acceptance," he said.
"Our songs were seven, eight or nine minutes long. That's not
going to get you played on the radio, and without radio, you won't
break into the mainstream. We just wanted to make good records,
and the fact that they're still selling today means we did something
"I always thought
of us as an underground band. As long as we could keep it going
financially, we were more interested in staying out of the music
industry. We found it insidious and not very artistic."
though we had an idea that the band was more popular than
when we were originally together, we weren't prepared for
the reception we received."
circa 1984. Burgess is first from left.
lot of people have made the Interpol connection, but I don't
is a good way to describe The Chameleons' sound, which combines
warm, ethereal melodies with crashing, chiming guitars. A typical
song could go from a study in dark-night textures to a rising, glorious
celebration. The key sonic features include echoing guitars, a throbbing,
driving rhythm section and Burgess' intimate, personal vocals.
Burgess said comparisons
to The Cure are most likely based on the fact that Dave Allen, who
produced the Chameleons' later CDs, also produced The Cures' most
popular late-'80s recordings, including Kiss Me
Disintegration. The Interpol comparisons, however, are a
complete mystery to him. "A lot of people have made the Interpol
connection, but I don't hear it," he said. "But that could
be because I'm in the band and so close to it."
Burgess said citations
of their influence on other bands are "extremely flattering."
"It makes you feel
like part of a great tradition," he said. "We got turned
on by bands that inspired us. It's a wonderful feeling because you
feel like you've made an impact."
The band currently is
on a hiatus with the recent birth of guitarist Reg Smithies' son.
"The baby's his focus right now, so there's not much we can
do in the immediate future," Burgess said. "I got the
idea of just going out and playing on my own. I never done anything
quite like this before. It's something very different, and I'm trying
to keep what I'm doing fresh. People have responded quite well to
it in Europe."
He said many dates on
the American leg of his solo tour were suggested by people in cities
around the country, including Omaha's Stephen Sheehan (Bliss Repair,
ex-Digital Sex), who wrote Burgess asking for a tour stop.
"A few people went
'Huh?' when they heard Omaha was on the tour," he said laughing.
"I was surprised about Omaha, too. I looked at it geographically
and it made sense. Stephen wrote me a nice letter saying, 'You'll
probably be surprised, but rest assured there are people who want
to see you.' I'm happy to get invited and hopefully people will
be open for it and enjoy it."
Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader June 18, 2003. Copyright ©
2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.