Sunday, 2 August 2015

'The Vast Majority Of People Are Content To Be Apathetic’: A Chat With The Chapman Family Singer Kingsley Chapman

In February 2015, on the release of my recent novel about post-punk How I Left The National Grid I had an extended conversation with Kingsley Chapman on this nebulous and multi-pronged subject. At the time he was not speaking publicly about forming a new band following the split of The Chapman Family, though interestingly this issue is dangled towards the end of the conversation. It was soon after that I asked Kingsley if he would play at the launch party of the book, and he agreed. In my novel the main character, Robert Wardner, strangles himself with a mike lead onstage and there was some discussion at the time about the fact that Kingsley used to do this too- a connection I hadn't quite made. On the night of the launch Kingsley resurrected that act during his set- which left me with conflicted feelings that him and I kicked about backstage afterwards. Happily, his band, ‘Kingsley Chapman and The Murder’ have since recorded an excellent first single on Too Pure, ‘Lovers’, which was recently released (see links below).

A brief excerpt of this conversation was published by Narc Magazine in February, but I see no reason why I can’t now publish the whole thing here. I don't think Kingsley has ever elucidated in detail the breakdown of his band and the matters he contended with around that time, and I think its a subject worth exposing here.

GM: I think what I found most exciting about The Chapman Family, was a sense of this music being created out of sheer will. I remember reading an interview where you said ‘since the band started I’ve learnt to play.’ Does that foster a tighter bond between the band, if to some degree you’re learning together?

KC: I started the band because everything I was seeing and hearing was impossibly dull and/or worthy. The Libertines flame had flickered and The Strokes had pretty much burnt out by the mid 00s and at every gig I went to there were bands singing in mockney accents just like Carl and Pete regardless of what area of the country they came from. When north eastern bands start singing like they were born within the Bow Bells you know there's a problem. There were pork pie hats and Breton shirts aplenty and the two lad singers - there were always two lad singers - would battle over the centre mic and sing songs about nightclub dance floors whilst trying to put across some sort of hackneyed illusion of pseudo heroin chic. Here comes a twee ballad that apes Wordsworth, here comes an uptempo shambolic song about getting off your tits in a squat that you've never lived in, here comes a song with a girls name in the title etc etc. It was all the fucking same. 

I'd been a shameless indie kid for years by this point, an absolute stereotype: going to Leeds Festival every year but never watching a headliner, believing every word that the NME said, only liking bands before my friends liked bands, that sort of thing. I had three Hot Hot Heat records but by about 2005 I was utterly broken. Me and Paul (the guitarist whose bungalow loft I lived in) were going to these shows week in week out but they were just blurring into nothingness. Music to us was supposed to be about excitement and a rush but all we were seeing were posers who were using being in a band to break into children’s TV presenting or Hollyoaks. It was about as dangerous as cold mushy peas. We decided to start a band that we'd think would be exciting to be in and exciting to watch.

There's nothing more tedious than watching a band of highly skilled musicians playing together. One of our rules from the start was that we'd never have any guitar solos. It sounds ridiculous but I honestly can't see how not being able to play an instrument should hold you back from being a musician. I wanted the "music" to be primal, rooted in passion and anger and if the best way of doing that was to smash a telecaster onto your forehead or to rip all of the frets out of a guitar and rub it over the floor then so be it. As time went on and we did learn to play we probably lost some of that opening rush. We developed and at points almost became professional. It could even be argued that by getting better at what we were doing contributed to our downfall.

We felt we were different because we were reactionary and playing on purely emotional terms. We were occasionally unlistenable and unwatchable but that was all part of the ethic - only two reactions were valid, either good or bad. We wanted people to either really love us or really hate us, we never wanted the middle ground. There's nothing worse than sweating blood in a show only to ask someone's opinion of it at the end for them to say "it was OK." I wanted people to either hit us or hug us. It's the vitriol that I remember most - getting bottled for half an hour at Newcastle's Evolution Festival in 2009 was a highlight. We were first on the main stage and people were getting so angry with us that they were throwing their lunch at us along with coins and shoes. It was magnificent.

GM: I ask because the band came across as very ‘post-punk’ to me. That is, using a DIY attitude to make music, but at the same time putting across focused, intelligent ideas. How much were post-punk bands influential to your work?

KC: I'm a firm believer in (to misquote the comedian Lenny Bruce) that you should be influenced by every second of your waking hour. Every band I've ever seen, every article I've ever read, every book, every time I've acted like a prick, every news article on a war in a far off place, every cat stuck up a tree etc. It's all important. Our DIY attitude was pretty intense. I'd write endless hand written letters to indie DJs like Steve Lamacq and John Kennedy informing them about our gigs and how rubbish the music scene was; I painted hundreds of brightly coloured slogan t-shirts to throw out at gigs and festivals so that we could push the illusion to people that we were bigger than what we were. We tried to produce everything to our own specifications from music to videos to photography and if anyone else tried to mess with what we perceived as our image we'd get insanely protective. I'd always wanted a gang mentality for the band but we took it to extremes - we wouldn't let anyone in and we hardly ever made friends despite the fact that in reality we were four of the most polite and genuine people you'd ever meet. We were terrifyingly paranoid. To be fair it was done this way partly due to our dire financial situation - we simply couldn't afford designers and photographers - but mostly it was done like this as we wanted to stay in control and attempt to innovate in whatever way we could. 

We didn't want to do things like everyone else. We didn't want to send a faceless CDR to a record company with a beautifully typed covering letter and a glossy photo. Our scribbled notes were covered in coffee, beer stains and swearing and our photos were battered Polaroids of the industrial Teesside landscape. I think people like Lamacq bought into it as it reminded him of the Ghost of Indie Past. We were fiercely independent, frustratingly so in fact - we saw everything as selling out. In the early years we shunned help, regardless of the workload we were giving ourselves as we didn't really want anyone to assist us. We thought they'd ruin our little dark utopia. When we eventually got management and PR people involved we pretty much drove everyone around us insane. In our heads they didn't know who we were, they didn't understand the songs, they couldn't understand our accents, they didn't understand us, they were all idiots (...they weren't though, they were just trying to do their jobs). We were northern, confrontational and bolshy and we always tried to stick to our guns. Those southerners just didn't get we thought. We would argue with them all the time. It got to a point in 2009 and 2010 where I was spending more time arguing in emails than doing anything useful like writing songs for our debut album or trying to learn how to play. It drove me quite mad.

GM: On the subject of post-punk, The Chapman Family seemed to use some of the tools of the post-punk movement. For instance, the letter in Artrocker that started ‘The country is in ruins’ seemed to be a manifesto. Was the use of such ‘tools’ just the way you decided to communicate, or were you conscious of other bands (e.g. The Manics) who used these methods?

KC: It wasn't a completely conscious move but the Manics influence was there from the start. For me personally it's impossible not to be swayed by a band who were at various points the most dangerous and exciting band in Britain. Magazines and radio would try and push this angle as it was an easy way into our world. We wouldn't complain though and if that meant me and Pop doing numerous "Richey and Nicky" style promo shots and interviews then so be it. Pop would be the hyperactive cool aggressive character who was never shy of an opinion and I'd sit in the background waiting to make a witty pun or moan on about how the music industry/Country/Government/Olympics/Royal Family were fucked up. I would write blog after blog ranting and raving about whatever took my fancy. There was definitely a personal agenda to make us seem active, reactionary and angry but it wasn't forced - I've never written anything in a blog or said something in an interview that I wouldn't say to someone in a pub.

I find the 2000s to be a tremendously interesting period of time as despite all these wonderful toys and devices that we've invented for ourselves like the internet, smartphones, drones, and a million television channels, the vast majority of people are seemingly content to be apathetic. We're being manipulated left right and centre by politicians and the corporate media yet as long as we can afford a craft beer with a retro label or retweet a video of a cat in a non-cat related scenario then we just don't seem to care. There's wars going on and people dying all over the planet and homeless people stacking up on our own doorstep but who gives a fuck about that if there's a possibility that someone might be having real life actual human sex in the Big Brother house? I'd get so many angry messages from people who hated the fact that I bothered to sit down and try and put my feelings across. There's nothing worse than a vacuous pop star with nothing to say and there's nothing wrong with having an opinion. We can't just allow ourselves to sit back and let horror and hypocrisy occur unchallenged - we need to realise that each and every one of our voices and opinions are valid. We were never media trained or had aspirations to become anything other than what we were and I found it really surprising that people were genuinely shocked that we would talk and write in the way we did. It put a hell of a lot of people off the band and was probably largely responsible for why we didn't ever get too big or make any money but that's ok - the people who identified with it became rabid. 

GM: When The Chapman Family were most active, it was a particularly dark time for the North East. The recession was hitting hard and unemployment was high. Did you consciously try to capture your environment in sound, or was it more a personal expression?

I've always said that I think you need to be honest in what you write and where you come from. If I grew up in California then I probably wouldn't be in the mood to write noisy clattering gloomy rock music. Nothing pisses me off more than a Brit singing in a mid-Atlantic accent. If you're from Manchester be a Manc; if you're a Teessider, don't cover it up. I love hearing the little idiosyncrasies in people's voices. I once had someone come up to me after a gig at Camden Barfly who was fascinated with my pronunciation of "bungalow" from one of my lyrics. They were speaking to me as if I was an exotic zoo animal but I didn't mind, we should embrace the fact that we're all different. People should sing in their own voice, their own accent and sing about things they know. It's too easy to spot a fake. I despise careerist indie with all my being. Music should be something that's in your heart, an absolute yearning that you need to express - it's not a fast track to get girls or something to use as a career platform to get exposure in other fields - it's absolutely a dirty primal urge. I love watching bands and seeing people perform and that primal can tell when they have it, you can see that fire in their eyes as they dominate the stage like they're possessed. We don't need any more ego driven drivel, we've overdosed on it. 

My home is intensely important to me and it goes hand in hand with everything I've ever written or performed. I wanted us to be the sound of rusty run down steel mills and derelict shipyards populated by ghosts. Teesside is a misunderstood industrial nirvana, an ex-colossus that's been abandoned by everyone it had ever loved. The recession hit the north east more than any other part of the country. As a Labour heartland it soon became apparent that we weren't a top priority for David Cameron when he came to power and the cuts when they eventually came hit our region more than most. They made the poorest area of the country even poorer. It was a complete kick in the teeth. On top of that we had the Queen's Jubilee and the Olympics to contend with where seemingly the whole nation was ordered to celebrate and be joyous. No one was allowed to disagree. No one was allowed to spoil the party. 

There's no finer portrayal of modern Britain than seeing a queue for a food bank as the Queen floats down the River Thames in a barge made from gold - a barge that we, the people, paid for out of our taxes. What was more frustrating to me was that we all fell into line - we waved our red, white and blue symbols of historic slavery in the street and cheered as tax dodging multimillionaire pop stars pranced about in front of the palace like toadying jesters. At the same time our libraries were being boarded up, our roads weren't getting swept and our sports facilities and parks were getting sold at a knock down price just so the council could balance the books. With all this stuff going on of course it was going to have an effect on what I wrote. Looking back I'm proud that we reacted in the way we did even if it did kill our career stone dead. When we were searching for a new label after getting dropped as our album didn't sell we'd have conversations with industry types who had been told to beware of us as we were quite clearly mad and impossible to control or manage. We weren't, we were just intense.

GM: To what degree did forming and evolving the band shape your own identity?

KC: Regardless of whether we ultimately succeeded or failed, being in the band significantly shifted the direction my life was taking. I was a criminally shy call centre worker with a weird name who would go out at the weekend and waste all his money on whatever he could get his hands on. I've always loved music and going to gigs but I would never have dreamed I'd get to play at Glastonbury and Reading Festivals or fly over to Tokyo to play a single concert in a ten thousand capacity dome. We never started the band to get famous or make it big - getting a gig at our local club was an achievement as far as we were concerned. When things started to steamroller for us between 2008 and 2009 it was almost impossibly exciting, real edge of the seat stuff. We let ourselves get caught up in the hype completely and became pretty uncontrollable. It wasn't an ego thing and we weren't total dicks, we were just rabbits in the headlights and none of us were prepared for it. We were incredibly naive and I know from looking back that I got far too lazy in terms of songwriting, instead becoming more obsessed with where the next free drink was coming from and how many Facebook likes we were getting. I was an emotional void and impossible to get along with on any level either socially or professionally. It was only when we hit rock bottom that I started to clean myself up but by then in terms of a music career it was way too late.

I've met some amazing people and got myself into a whole series of unbelievable scenarios that a grown man with a drink problem from the most deprived area of the country shouldn't really get himself into. Naturally I've also met some utter sharks. When we called time on the band last year and I subsequently had a year of trips to and from the hospital and it was interesting to see who did and who didn't stay in touch. It was a difficult thing to come to terms with that to many of the people I'd worked with over the years I was just a production line product. I was something that needed to be marketed, something that needed its ego stroking every now and then, something that was costing someone a lot of money and something that was disposable when things inevitably went tits up.

GM: Have you been keen to draw a line in the sand, after the band, to put it behind you or was it just about moving on?

There were numerous reasons why we called it a day. I think we all felt we were in danger of becoming an act which just soldiered away in the corner and would be endlessly remembered as a band that had managed to fuck up a few golden opportunities that had come their way back in the 00s. No one would let us forget our past,no one would let us forget our failure. We were in a pretty confused state too. We were trying to write as many songs as possible but they were coming out in a huge jumble: there was a big piano ballad; an industrial rock song; a twee pop singalong; a miserable goth epic; a Roxy Music rip off etc. We were four or five bands battling within the same band and it was getting messy. Our drummer was moving to London to do a music course at Goldsmiths which would have meant recruiting yet another member and once again learning all the old songs so that everyone was up to speed. Maybe it was just me but my spark and enthusiasm was ebbing away. I'd been having severe panic attacks since I was 18 and they flared up again bigger and better than ever before in my latter days as an indie pop star. When we played Bestival in 2012 at the end of the set I collapsed in a heap and had to be taken away in an ambulance. There's nothing worse than seeing an adult male being dragged through a festival site by a security guard dripping wet from sweat, dribbling from his mouth, unable to speak or move as his limbs have seized up whilst dressed like a poor mans Brett Anderson. The panics were happening more frequently through 2012 and 2013 and my doctor seemed unable to help blaming stress for my outbreaks. It turns out that I'd been misdiagnosed by every doctor I'd ever seen since I was a teenager. I needed an operation and a rest. The opportunity came to give the band a fitting finale in the town where we started it so we took it.

I definitely miss the excitement of being in a band. The sheer thrill of our early years was something I'll never forget. it was pure and innocent...and loud and violent. I don't miss the paranoia or the monster than it occasionally made me though.

GM: Would you consider forming another band, or did you say what you wanted to say in The Chapman Family?

If you had asked me two or three months ago I would have said that I'd never form another band, not in a million years. The whole merry-go-round, the politics, the grind really didn't appeal. But I don't know now. I look back on the old band as something that is definitely over and never to be started again but something new? Maybe. I've recently been given the all clear from the doctors and in a way I feel like it's given me a second chance. My body was genuinely falling apart but now I feel like I did about ten years ago when I was pissing and moaning about pointless wanky indie bands in my local club. I feel indestructible again and since the fallout I've lost a few people from my life either intentionally or unintentionally but I've gained some pretty special ones too and they've made me realise that there could be more to life than sitting and moping over past failures. I'd been missing inspiration for what seemed like an eternity and I was probably content to just drift off into nine to five drudgery and anonymity but luckily I've met someone who inspires me beyond words and they make me feel like maybe I'm not quite ready for the knackers yard just yet. I don't really have any unfinished business with anyone specifically but I definitely have a couple of points left to prove. I'm still an angry bastard and I think I have something relevant to say that no one else is bothering to go on about. The band was started with the intention of causing a bit of a ruckus and to ruffle some feathers but in all honesty despite some minor early successes we failed completely. However, the world seems to be filling up again with arrogant peacock strutting careerist arseholes and misogynist lads hell bent on rohypnolling the planet and frankly I can't allow that happen without putting up a fight. 

GM: I ask because it’s my perception, knowing people who loved coming to your shows and owning the records, that the music had a large impact in their lives. Do you have any sense of that sort of a legacy, that you perhaps want to protect at all?

I don't know whether that's for me to say in all honesty. It's incredibly humbling to know that people out there have our logos and lyrics tattooed onto their bodies for instance. When we did our final show in Stockton last year we had people come to see it from all over the country and Europe, not just our hometown. It was horrible to say goodbye to those people, those true sweet lunatic fans, as you felt like you were letting them down but there was no logical way we could carry on; I was getting sicker and the band was getting more frustrated. I still get messages today from young bands who saw us at gigs and are influenced by our attitude and noise which warms the cockles somewhat. We never reinvented the wheel with our music - we didn't try to - but we definitely tried to swim against the tide of what was out there and any band or performer who tries to do that in the current musical climate gets my immediate respect. We have no legacy. We left as much of a legacy to music lovers as the 2012 Olympics did to Middlesbrough. In our ideal scenario we would have been the trigger for a whole new scene where anyone could make a noise if they wanted to, regardless of talent, and the Brit School would have been burned to the ground. We wanted to see a new breed of musician brought up on passion, blood, sweat and tears where anger was the primary motivation, not celebrity. We tried our best but we fucked it up.

Kingsley Chapman and The Murders’ debut single lovers is available here-

Guy Mankowski’s novel on post-punk, ‘How I left The National Grid’, is available here-