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A Quietus Interview

Resurrection & Revenge: Michael Chapman Interviewed
Russ Slater , August 1st, 2013 08:06

Michael Chapman's is a remarkable tale: a singer/guitarist veteran of the '60s who last decade connected with US artists such as Thurston Moore and Jack Rose and started making beautiful and exploratory, improvisational music. Ahead of his performance at Supernormal Festival, he tells Russ Slater about staring at woodpiles and why he hates being called 'folk'

Why had I never heard of Michael Chapman? I'm sure that's the same question that runs through everyone's minds when they first discover Chapman's music. How can it be that one of England's most original guitarists, a man who has continually found ways to experiment as a singer/songwriter - amassing close to 40 albums in the process - not be more widely known? Right now that question seems to be answering itself, as at the age of 72 Chapman seems to have found himself in vogue - well, as 'in vogue' as a songwriter exploring rock, songwriting and avant-folk can get. As I chat with him in his Northumberland home, it's clear from his enthusiasm for making new music that he's finally found his place in the musical landscape.

Read any biography of Chapman, and it will label him as being part of the folk scene in Cornwall during the '60s. Chapman was undoubtedly playing music there at the time, but he makes it clear that he doesn't see himself as being part of any particular scene. "I know nothing about folk music, I don't play folk music and I never have. Before I started writing songs I'd go into a folk club and start playing Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and Jimmie Rodgers and anything that came into my head. People call me a folk singer because I like to play acoustic guitars, and that's a cross I've had to bear all my life."

Chapman signed to Harvest around this time, producing four albums for the iconoclastic folk/prog label. While containing plenty of simple personal songs, consisting of just Chapman's voice and guitar, they contain moments of striking invention: the Indian raga 'Thank You P.K. 1944' on 1969 debut Rainmaker, or the pseudo-metal riff (played by Mick Ronson) on 'Soulful Lady' from its follow-up Fully Qualified Survivor.

Was there a catalyst or a desire that drove him to push these songs into new territory? "I just write the songs and then treat them the way I think they need to be treated," he replies, but stresses that there is a common link. "The thing about my songs is that they're lacking in sentiment. There isn't a whole bunch of room for it in what I write." This is twinned with honesty that lends songs like 'One Time Thing' ("Silvie she was just a one time thing / To lay with just for one day / And then to rise when the sun was new / And just be on my way") a real, ragged intensity. "Songs are my diary," Chapman says. "There are exaggerations in there, but they're all triggered off by something that's happened or somewhere that I've been."

'Kodak Ghosts', taken from the Fully Qualified Survivor album

After leaving Harvest, Chapman continued to make records for a number of labels in the '70s, and even found a way to survive through the '80s, in contrast to many singer/songwriters at the time. "A lot of them did [struggle], but [that was] because a lot of them came out of the folk scene and only wanted to play in folk venues," he recalls. "I've always said I'm just a journeyman musician, I'll play anywhere, so what got me through the '80s was that I was working in Europe and I was opening for big rock acts, playing for 3,000 people a night, just me and an acoustic guitar." With this touring came plenty of alcohol and late nights, which affected Chapman's productivity and also saw him try his hand at making a rock album. "I did Life On The Ceiling, which had a great rock 'n' roll band on it. We spent a lot of money on it, but it didn't work. I don't think I was ever designed to be a rock star."

It also eventually took its toll on his health. In 1990 he suffered a heart attack, after which he couldn't play music for a year. "People forgot about me," he admits. "I basically had to start again doing £80-100 pub gigs, where people had never heard of me. I would walk in there and I would just start playing and... it's quite a big thrill to get 150 people, who are not interested, so that you can hear a pin drop."

In 1992, once his playing returned to normal, he self-released Still Making Rain (wryly referencing his debut album) on cassette. His 1997 album Dreaming Out Loud received good press, and things began to happen again, especially when he visited the US and connected with various luminaries of the avant-rock community. "A friend of mine from New York took me over to the East Coast to do some gigs," he remembers. "I had a kind of underground reputation, very hip and groovy. America's a big place, so even in a minority of a minority of a minority of a minority, there's enough people for an audience. I started working over there and meeting these fascinating people who were playing a completely different kind of music to me, music that I was aware of, but that I never thought I'd be a part of. I met Thurston Moore and the No Neck Blues Band, wonderful people who were pushing the limits of music, going to the outer edges of it."

Chapman quickly found out that his real contemporaries were not the British folkies, but this group in the US making avant-garde folk music. He went on tour with Jack Rose ("I thought I was pretty good until I spent five weeks on the road with Jack Rose"), became good friends with Tom Carter of Charalambides ("Tom is just a lovely guy, a lovely player") and found himself being urged to head in new directions by Thurston Moore. "He cornered me years ago and said 'do a noise album'. I said, 'Oh come on Thurston, I'm not clever enough'," Chapman says. "Then I was doing, unfortunately, Jack Rose's memorial concert in Philadelphia and Thurston was on the bill, and he cornered my missus and said 'get him to do a noise album and I'll pay the bill', and that's how that started."

2011's The Resurrection & Revenge Of The Clayton Peacock was the result: a two-track improvisation album in which Chapman used singing bowls, hand drums and feedback to explore a new side to his music. "Someone called it a soundscape, which I think is quite a decent word to describe it. Now that's not folk music, you can't tell me that's folk music!" he triumphantly bellows, clearly wishing to shed that tag once and for all.

Clayton Peacock was the first of three albums for Blast First (Petite) records. The second was Pachyderm the following year, which saw Chapman improvising again, though this time using sparse guitar motifs. The third album will be called Polar Bear, and will be released very soon - when we meet, he's only just submitted it to the label.


Simultaneously, three of his early albums for Harvest have recently been reissued by Light In The Attic, a California-based record label. The label also wanted to reissue Window, but Chapman told me he wouldn't give them permission, because the record was never supposed to be released as it was. "I had to take the band out on the road, and I told the producers that all the guitars and voices I've done are guides and I'll redo all my parts when I get back in off the road. When I got back it was out." Still dismayed at not being able to finish his own record, he admits that he will give permission soon. "It is a piece of my history for those interested in that, even though I think it sounds like a piece of crap."

So it does feel like only now, after over 40 years of recording, has Chapman found a home for his music. He's been asked by Matador to write a single with Thurston Moore, and asked by another label to do a split 10" with Hiss Golden Messenger. Then there's the Michael Chapman & The Woodpiles project, an Americana-style collaboration that he made with a number of US musicians. It's currently freely available here, though Chapman is less than happy about the name. "It was a complete collaboration, so I don't see why it should have my name at the top of it," he declares. "And it shouldn't be the fucking Woodpiles, it's just that they know I love chainsaws, I'm a man of many woodpiles. And Jack Rose kind of dedicated a track to me called 'Woodpiles At The Side Of The Road' because when we were on the road he'd be staring out the window looking at women, and I'd be staring at the woodpiles."

With so many projects on the horizon and control over his recordings Chapman seems content, albeit with fingers crossed for future breaks and new opportunities. "I don't know if you saw it, but there's been a two-part documentary on Woody Allen [on TV]. In Part Two he said 'I won't make any film that I don't have total control of', and also 'I've never told an actor what to do'. And when I'm with other musicians in the studio, I'm not going to tell them what to play. He approaches films exactly the same way I approach making records. Now, he got lucky a couple of times, maybe I'll get lucky," he muses. "It's getting a bit late now, but I don't care."

Michael Chapman will be playing at Supernormal Festival at Braziers Park, Oxfordshire, which runs from August 9th-11th. For more information and tickets, click here to visit the Supernormal website.