“There Isn’t Any Noise”: An Interview with Shoegaze Legends Chapterhouse
Even if you’ve never heard Chapterhouse’s music—and with much of it out of print or just recently reissued, your ignorance would be forgiven—you probably know what it sounds like. Wild Nothing, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Deerhunter, No Age—pretty much every month Pitchfork gives a Best New Music nod to a band that draws on the U.K. quintet’s shoegaze template. Their 1990 debut “Whirlpool” is a classic of the much-beloved genre. With their dance-heavy theatrics, tracks like “Breather” and particularly “Pearl” hint at what My Bloody Valentine’s third LP might have sounded like if they had ever gotten around to finishing it.
And now, after a hugely successful reunion show in London last November, Chapterhouse has just embarked on their first North American tour since 1994. (The band played Brooklyn’s Bell House last night and will perform at Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan tonight before heading to Boston on Tuesday.) Before the band arrived in the States, guitarists and vocalists Stephen Patman and Andy Sherriff responded to a few questions via e-mail about what broke up the band 15 years ago after releasing just two records—and what got it back together again.
Can you guys describe how that first reunion show last November in London came together?
We’ve been asked to reform numerous times over the years but never really took it seriously. It was always something that we planed to just leave in our past. We’ve remained good friends so nothing has stood in our way, but we had no imminent drive to do it.
The initial spark came when Ulrich Schnauss did a cover of our song “Love Forever” and asked Andy and I if we would like to contribute to it. We did some vocals and guitar for the track and it came out on a Sonic Cathedral compilation. A few months later Sonic Cathedral were curating a stage at Truck Festival in Oxfordshire and asked if the two of us would like to join Ulrich on stage at the end of the night to perform the cover live. Since it didn’t really involve a lot of work to get one song together we asked [guitarist] Simon [Rowe] to join us and did the gig. This gave us a little insight that it was quite fun to play together again but we took it no further. Then last year we were approached by Club AC30 (a record label and club that specializes in what is now termed “nu-gaze”) who asked us to play their yearly three-day mini-festival, Reverence, in London. We had a chat amongst ourselves and for some reason it felt like the right time to do it.
Why did you decide to push ahead with a full-fledged tour?
We explained to the Club AC30 guys at the time that it was not worth all our time and effort to get back into shape again for just one show and we would only bother if they could put together a tour of North America and Japan. So this tour was always part of the plan. This is all about the fun of playing together again—we’ve just put together things that we’ll enjoy and that we hope will be a cool experience for everyone. Japan was great, the States will be a gas.
What songs are you having the most fun playing again live? Why?
We’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to revisit some of the songs that we didn’t think were produced well on record. Our later stuff [like 1993’s “Blood Music”] got a bit overblown with technology and we decided to strip things back and approach the songs in a more straightforward ‘band kicking some ass’ kinda way. We’ve also had the ability to cherry pick our favorite songs and do them some justice. I think people will be surprised at the songs we’ve chosen as we always preferred our B-sides and less “radio-friendly” material. We aren’t trying to sell anything. so we can play whatever the fuck we want. It’s a great freedom.
What cities are you most looking forward to playing this time around?
It’s hard to be specific since we’re looking forward to each town for different reasons. I’m looking forward to NYC and Toronto as I have some great friends in those cities and I’ve spent a lot of time there. I’m looking forward to Chicago, Boston, LA and San Francisco for the precisely the opposite reason—in that I haven’t been to those cities for a long time and want to check them out again.
Of course, you guys have always been associated with other British shoegaze bands of the early ’90s (groups like Lush, Slowdive, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, etc.). Do you think that association is justified? Did you feel a kinship with those groups at the time?
I think it’s just natural that kids of a similar age, listening to the same kind of music, would end up making music that has a certain collective consciousness. This has always been the case in music. The Slowdive guys were a couple of years younger than us in the Reading alternative scene so we were good friends and they used to support us at some of our early shows in Reading and London. The Ride guys were from just down the road in Oxford so we met them at our small pub gigs when we played there. We shared the same management with Lush and Moose after our move to London so many drinks were shared. But we were all doing very different things musically and hearing what each other were coming up with for the first time.
Did the British shoegaze movement feel any strong connection with the grunge movement in the U.S. in the early ’90s?
Ironically, the grunge scene was probably the nail in the coffin for what we were doing, at least in the U.K. We really liked the early Sub Pop stuff like Dinosaur Jr, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees. But when grunge crossed over to the mainstream and it churned up crap like Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots we couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to that stuff.
Can you talk a little bit about the metamorphosis of the band’s sound between “Whirlpool” and “Blood Music”? Why the jump to a bigger, more dance-heavy sound? What new influences were you incorporating into the second album?
To us, “Blood Music” felt like a logical progression from what we had been doing. But in retrospect, I can see why people might have seen it as a quantum shift. The club and free party scene was a growing and pervasive movement in the U.K. at the time and it had it’s effect on us. Our ethos had always been centered around making music that elicits the otherworldly and takes you to a place outside of yourself—for want of a better term “drug music”—in the spirit of The Byrds, The Beatles, Captain Beefheart and all the ’60s psych bands we were influenced by. We felt a certain kinship with what was going on in the dance scene and although it was at odds with a guitar band it made sense to us at the time. Drugs helped.
At the same time, we were getting a lot of commercial pressure from our record label. In the end the production values imposed on us for the “Blood Music” recordings didn’t serve the songs we were writing at the time. We were always very frustrated with the way some of those tracks turned out and it’s been a real pleasure to re-evaluate them for these new live shows.
Can you give me the full story behind the “sampling lawsuit” brought against “Blood Music”? Which songs were involved? How did it get resolved?
We were recording an instrumental for “Blood Music” called “Deli” at the producer Youth’s (from Killing Joke) studio in Brixton. An American poet friend of Youth’s had recorded some of his poems at the studio and the guy we were working with on the track pulled a tape out and suggested we put some of this recording into the mix. He assured us that the guy would be cool about this—of course, it turned out he wasn’t. There were further issues that he had with Youth and, basically, he used this situation to get back at Youth and we were caught in the crossfire. Somehow the guy got legal aid and halfway through our last American tour we received a lawsuit that informed us that “Blood Music” had to be withdrawn from record stores. SonyBMG, or whatever they are called now, pulled the plug on the album and effectively said, “lets forget this one, go write another.”
Was that the biggest factor behind the band’s breakup in 1995? What were the other reasons?
I think my previous answer sets the scene. The label had spent a lot of money on “Blood Music” and wanted it back. We continued to write material for a third album but wanted to return to our original remit. The label wanted a Top-20 hit and that was never what we were about. We wrote a lot of material but they wouldn’t release it and they refused to drop us from our deal. After a certain period of time all the joy had gone from what we had set out to do and we felt the only way to end it was to break up and go our separate ways.
When Chapterhouse called it quits, did you guys feel like there was still some unfinished business left to attend to or did it really feel like the right time to part ways?
At the time we always envisioned writing several albums with each one developing on from the last. Our brush with a major label severely compromised those intensions, at least for Chapterhouse. We have all retained our love for music and have continued to work within that field but are not so interested in selling it to the public.
Chapterhouse has clearly been a major influence on a lot of indie bands that have cropped up recently in the States (Pains of Being Pure at Heart, A Place to Bury Strangers, Wild Nothing, etc.). Given the relatively small size of your discography, did you ever expect to have such an influence on music 15 years after the end of your band?
The reason we started a band was from hearing The Velvet Underground, The Stooges and The Jesus and Mary Chain as teenagers. They were our inspiration to make music and had very little commercial success in their time. There’s a list of great bands as long as my arm that suffered the same fate. We always felt that commercial appreciation was fleeting and shallow but if we could leave something behind us that might change things, even just a little, then that was the whole point. We wanted to create music that would inspire people in the same way. Selling records is a band’s bread and butter but it shouldn’t be the sole reason for making music. Despite the disaster story I spelled out above, it’s been very gratifying for us that the thing we set out to do is actually manifesting itself and a bunch of people with the proper vision and drive are attempting to fill this world with some decent fucking music.
What do you guys listen to these days? What was the last record you bought?
I can’t speak for all of us and our tastes are very eclectic so I’m going to swerve this question. I have to say that there’s very little being made these days that seems to be shaking the boundaries of music. I watched Reading Festival on television recently and was astounded at the sight of thousands of teenagers singing along to what sounded like tired old dad rock. I thought that as you got older you were supposed to mellow out and consider all new music just noise. The problem for me is that there isn’t any noise.
If you could go back and do Chapterhouse all over again, is there anything you’d do differently, at least in terms of your relationship with labels?
We wouldn’t have signed to a major label—it compromised a lot of decisions that we shouldn’t have had to make. I regret every promo video we ever made, but they were all pretty shitty back then anyway. Having said that, it’s very easy to analyze past decisions retrospectively. You can’t really worry about things that you did in earnest at the time—you just have to learn by them.
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