Shoegaze Legends Chapterhouse Tour and Talk to PopMatters

They’ve fought a volcano to tour North America, so the very least you could do is turn out to hear first wave British shoegaze legends Chapterhouse bend nature to its will with howling guitars. Chapterhouse begins its brief journey on Friday, October 1. It may prove to be the group’s final act.

Because fame is fickle, especially in Great Britain, Chapterhouse was swept up in the early ‘90s as darlings of “the scene that celebrates itself” before being unceremoniously dismissed as pointy-headed navel contemplators by a hyperbolic media suddenly in thrall to Britpop.

History has been far kinder to Chapterhouse, whose legacy has survived thanks to a stellar debut (Whirlpool), a genre-defying sophomore effort (Blood Music), and an expansive career retrospective which left its fans longing for more. With their North American tour looming, Andrew Sherriff and Stephen Patman took the time to speak to PopMatters.

“Bar another volcano, we’ll be there,” says Sherriff, joking about the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, which left Patman stranded in Japan back in May just as the band was meant to begin the tour it is finally able to undertake.

“Although we were psyched up and really wanted to come out and do the shows, we were also quite tired, because there was an intense period where we had the Japan tour and the Scala gig in London as well,” Sherriff said. “It was quite full on, and in a way we had more time to be relaxed for this tour. We’ve been taking full day rehearsals rather than evening rehearsals, and we feel that we’re in a better state to cope with this now.”

The break allowed the band’s members to regroup and to reschedule their postponed dates, which features electronic artist Ulrich Schnauss at each of the seven shows, along with a different support act every stop along the way. The tour may not allow Chapterhouse to reach all its fans, but that it’s happening at all is something of a minor miracle.

“We’re in a situation where we’ve got to try to cram as many shows into a limited amount of time, and we don’t really have much flexibility there,” Patman says. “What’s there is set in stone. We’ve been getting a lot of offers to extend things out a little bit, but we’ve got to keep it pretty tight.”

Chapterhouse was formed in the late ‘80s by guitarist/vocalists Sherriff and Patman, along with guitarist Simon Rowe, drummer Ashley Bates and bass guitarist Jon Curtis. Following a tour with Spacemen 3, Curtis was replaced by Russell Barrett, and the band began releasing what have now come to be regarded as seminal EPs. Right around the time My Bloody Valentine first blended wall-of-sound guitars and dance beats with the Glider EP, Chapterhouse released “Falling Down” on the Freefall EP, followed later by “Pearl”, a swirling masterpiece built around samples of Led Zeppelin and Schoolly D.

Whirlpool (1991) is rightly considered the quintessential Chapterhouse release, and the standalone “Mesmerise” single which followed later the same year was cut from the same mid-tempo cloth as “Pearl”. While the band’s music to this point often integrated dance rhythms into the effects-laden shoegaze aesthetic, Blood Music’s club sound was something of a surprise. Though Sherriff and Patman express disappointment in how much of the completed album was mixed, it’s still a worthy follow-up to their debut full-length.

“We look back at the production of Blood Music and are not particularly happy with the way it was produced,” says Sherriff. “Basically nearly every track had a different producer on it.”

Those issues are being put to bed on tour.

“We’re not doing a great deal of material from Blood Music, but the tracks we are doing are addressing them in the way we wanted to do them at the time”, says Patman. “In all honesty, we were behind what was happening at the time, and we felt it was a movement and were into those things. But there was a lot of input from various things that might have driven us down certain routes, and it got a little bit overblown, the production just made it a little bit too bombastic. The nice thing about the place we’re in now is that we’re able to address the songs that we’re still proud of and present them in a way that we felt they should have sounded then.”

If not for Schnauss, Chapterhouse might not have reunited at all. The German musician has cited the band — and Blood Music in particular — as an influence on his own sound, and after covering the album’s epic closer, asked the band to perform the song with him at the 2008 Truck Festival in England.

“This was actually prior to us even considering reuniting,” Patman says. “Ulrich was doing a cover version of ‘Love Forever’ for a compilation. We got to know him, I’m not even sure how, but we kind of talked about possibly helping out with vocals and guitar on that. He put together the track and then we got together in the studio. Andy did some vocals and I did some guitar, and it kind of became part of the mix. And when the Truck Festival came along, Ulrich was playing and the guys putting it together, Sonic Cathedral, asked if we’d like to just go on at the end of the night and play that track as a bit of a collaboration. Since it was a no pressure thing, it didn’t really involve us doing much except for just working the song out a bit. We asked Simon (Rowe) if he wanted to come out, too. We just did it really as a one-off thing, and it wasn’t for another year or more before we were officially approached by Club AC30, who were a label and club over in London, who I suppose are focused on the whole Nu-Gaze thing, if you want to call it that.”

Club AC30, which in a sense celebrates the scene that celebrated itself, isn’t just a club night designed to bring the ethereal sounds of shoegaze into the present, it’s also a record label which profiles contemporary bands who work within the genre, like Exit Calm. Through Schnauss, Club AC30 forged a relationship with Chapterhouse, which led to the band’s first gig — during the Reverence festival in London — and the tour that was cut short by a volcano earlier this year.

“Even though we’ve been asked quite frequently over the years to reform, we’ve kind of really not had any particular drive to do it,” Patman says. “We figured we’d leave it all in the past. We’re all still really good friends, but it wasn’t something we’d really considered all that seriously. Yet when we were offered this, we thought it could be fun. If we could put together a Japanese, American tour and just basically have some good experiences out of it again, we just thought we’d give it a try.”

“We kind of basically decided that we would only play the ICA [London] if we did Japan and America as well to make it worthwhile all the rehearsing,” Sherriff adds. “We always said the only way we would reform is if we got to play Tokyo, New York, L.A., Chicago, those sorts of places. Not Hull.”

Sherriff says the band is playing together again in Chapterhouse for all the right reasons.

“We’re not trying to sell anything, we’re not trying to sell our egos,” Sherriff says. “We’re just out for the pleasure of playing again. And also, in the climate of so many new bands at the moment kind of embracing what we were doing back then, and also citing us as an influence, it seemed like a really good climate that if we were going to do this to do it now. We’ve all remained great friends, so to go back to something we enjoyed so much felt really good. It affirmed it was something that we should do just purely for the life experience.”

Patman agrees.

“We can do what the fuck we want,” he says. “The whole machinery of selling records means there’s a label behind you pushing you in certain areas. And that was an area of the band that we felt very confined by, and were pushed into bad decision-making. If anything, this makes it possible for us to do it exactly how it should have been done in the first place. And also we’ve gained a lot of years in musical experience. We’ve all been working in music since, and we’re in such a far better place.”

After the dissolution of Chapterhouse, the band’s members moved into different musical areas, with Sherriff, Patman, and Bates currently working in a team of four composers writing music for film and television. Bates is also a member of Tunng, while Rowe is a founding member of Mojave 3, something of a shoegaze supergroup with Neil Halstead and Rachel Gowsell of Slowdive.

Because they all remained friends, initial rehearsals for the Chapterhouse reunion went smoothly. And the time apart also allowed the band to bring its equipment into the 21st century along with its music.

“We had to actually buy [guitar pedals] again,” said Sherriff. “We’ve sold them or moved on. Well, I will say now that there’s a lot of what are called boutique pedals that weren’t available back then which sound really good. Back then we were kind of using a lot of digital multi-effects. We wanted this time for it to be a bit more like we initially wanted Chapterhouse to be. The set’s going to be mostly live. There’s a couple of tracks — “Pearl” obviously, and “Love Forver” that use sequencing, but the rest of them are completely live. We wanted to have more pedals rather than sequenced up multi-processors.”

“A lot of the sounds from back in the day for the band came from two specific multi-effects processors that came out,” Patman continues. “You kind of plugged your guitar through it and you had a lot of scope. But they were quite synthetic, and we kind of wanted to go back to basics and have a guitar plugged into some pedals plugged into an amp, and try and recreate what we were doing back then, but with much more rudimentary equipment. Like Andy said, there’s a lot more stuff out there that you can buy. Back in the early ‘90s it was pretty slim. You could buy your heavy metal pedal or your wah, but there’s so much more available to do that. We’ve kind of heavied stuff up a bit, made it more raw. Pressure from the label was constantly to keep things accessible, and it kind of drove us down a route where we had to clean ourselves up. We’ve kind of gone back to our roots and are doing it with a sense of a band just kicking it in a room.”

The live shows will serve as a celebration of the music of Chapterhouse, a band which like so many before and since saw its support in the press suddenly withdrawn in favor of a new scene.

“The press was going through a phase at that time, especially in the UK,” says Sherriff. “It was a transition in music, and there wasn’t anything happening in the mainstream of any consequence. There were a few bands doing things in the underground who were beginning to cross over, but there was a lot of pressure for journalists to kind of find the next big thing, and they jumped on a few bands thinking that might be the case. The shoegaze genre really didn’t cross over into the mainstream, and I think a lot of journalists were disappointed by that, so they reacted against it. But the English music press is notorious for that.”

Patman says the band’s fans knew better than to buy how they were presented in the tabloid music press.

“I think the people who came to see us live and bought the records realized that we were nothing like what the press portrayed us to be,” he says. “That was almost a caricature that suited them. And their motives for doing that, I don’t know. But we weren’t the band that represented shoegaze the most. We were quite rocky compared to some of those bands, and dancey as well. But I think we suited their purpose more than some of the other bands, so that’s what happened.”

The future of Chapterhouse is uncertain, though new incidental music is being created as part of a forthcoming DVD about the reunion tour. The tour, which begins on Friday, October 1 at Lincoln Hall in Chicago and finishes at Mezzanine in San Francisco on Tuesday, October 9, also includes dates in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Boston, Toronto, and Los Angeles.

“We’ve always treated this as a one-off thing,” says Sherriff. “It’s very unlikely that we’ll be returning to the States. If something came along that seemed like it would be fun, we might do it. But we’ve got no plans to do this any longer.”

The Rownderbout compilation, a highly-coveted two-disc set released by Dedicated in 1994, either sets the record straight or serves as a reminder to Chapterhouse about what the band might eventually do should it decide to record again.

“It’s odd really, because [Rownderbout] was put together without our knowledge, and the first thing I heard about it was when some guy mentioned it to me in a pub, and I was like, ‘Oh really?’ because we’d split up by then,” Patman says. “The one thing it did, we were writing a lot of material in the lead in to splitting up, and we ended up with a lot of songs which the label was not releasing because they wanted to have a hit single, and we were just not that type of band. And a lot of that ended up on Rownderbout, and that represents that side of us more.”

Sherriff sees some of those demos and unreleased tracks as a blueprint for where Chapterhouse not only might have once gone, but could possibly go one day in the future.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently,” he says. “But the downside is that we just haven’t had enough time really. To do these tours, we’ve actually taken them as holiday from work, and we’ve been doing a lot of rehearsals in the evening or at the weekend, which means we’re not getting to see the families and so on. It’s unlikely that we’ll be reforming as a band, but it would be nice to record some new stuff. We’ve always been intending to release a record that had some of the music that we made between Whirlpool and Blood Music, some demos, and it would be nice to re-address a couple of the songs on Blood Music and other periods that we felt weren’t recorded properly.”

For more information on the band’s North American tour, visit the official Chapterhouse website.