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[Q&A] Chapterhouse discuss shoegaze, reunions, and that early '90s London sound

One of the key bands in the early ‘90s “Scene That Celebrates Itself,” Chapterhouse’s contribution to the infamous but short-lived shoegaze genre can be summed up neatly within the four ultra-clean minutes of acclaimed 1991 single “Pearl.” With swirling guitars, a relentlessly smooth baggy beat (lifted from a John Bonham sample) and hypnotic, dream pop vocals wistfully dipped down from the moon and enhanced by Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell on backing vocals, few songs are as striking and identifiable.

In advance of Chapterhouse’s show Oct. 5 at the Middle East in Cambridge (9pm, 18-plus, $15), I reached dual guitarists/vocalists Stephen Patman and Andrew Sherriff by the phone last week from their studio in the UK to discuss their reunion, the continued shoegaze legacy and what’s next for the band. This conversation was no small thrill for someone who still, quite frequently when DJing, blends the cello outro of Ride’s “Vapour Trail” into the shinny, guitar/drum lead-in of “Pearl.” Yeah, that still happens in certain parts of America. Here’s the transcript of my Q&A:

In November 2009, Chapterhouse played their first gig together in 14 years. So the obvious question off the top is, why now?

Two years ago we did a track with Ulrich [Schnauss, the German electronic artist also on Tuesday’s bill with 28 Degrees Taurus]. He did a cover of “Love Forever” for a compilation put out by Sonic Cathedral, and they were curating a festival. We helped him out with the cover by doing guitars and vocals, and guy at Sonic Cathedral asked if we’d come down and play this track with him. We asked Simon [Rowe, Chapterhouse guitarist] to come along, too, but it wasn’t as a band, it was backing Ulrich on stage for his version of the track.

Then we just realized it was quite fun, and we never really thought about it and even though we’ve been asked about it over the years, we never took it seriously. That sparked it. But what validated it was last year when we were approached by Club AC30, they were kinda like the rival of Sonic Cathedral. They do similar clubs, and put out some new bands. They said, “We do this three-day festival, at this venue in London near Buckingham Palace and would you be up for headlining one of the nights?”

For some reason it felt right. And we said if they can get together a Japanese tour and American tour, then it’d be worth our while getting back in shape. We’re not spending three months rehearsing for one gig. So they put Japan together, and that was the clincher. We were just doing it for fun. We could take out families out with us and just have 10 days in Japan, all covered by the gigs and just have a good time.

The reaction has been well-received. I read somewhere that you guys once said that Chapterhouse would be a band only appreciated after it was long gone, something to that effect. Has that proven true? I mean here we are in 2010...

I think so, yeah. Of that time period, the bands that were labeled as shoegaze bands have had a sort of longevity over the other bands in different scenes at the time. And I think young people have been picking it up. At the gigs there are an equal number of people from our generation to people from the younger generation, so they are definitely discovering this music, and I think that yeah, they do appreciate us in a way that’s taken out of a time where we were before, where there was so much, kind of, press attention. Now its all very internet based.

Right, and now people can just find stuff on their own, they’re drawn to this ambient sound, as opposed to in the early ‘90s having to read about it in the NME or some other publication.

Absolutely, I think that’s made a huge difference. You can search a band out now very easily rather than going to some record store and trying to find some obscure record in the back of the bins. We knew at the time we were out of our time, even though the scene now has had an impact on the history of music, at the time it was a blip. You couldn’t get guitar music on the radio, you couldn’t get any kind of radio play or TV coverage, the charts were just overblown by mainstream pop music, and there wasn’t a route into commercial avenues.

Oddly enough after the explosion of grunge and Britpop, guitars did mutate and move over to the mainstream. At the time we felt we weren’t ever gonna be a big band, but thought we were making music that 15 or 20 years later people would still be listening to. We couldn’t guarantee that at the time, but it seems to be coming true. And it reflects the way we were as teenagers, we were listening to Velvet Underground and the Stooges, who had no commercial success, but if anything they made more bands form than any other. And I think that’s was one thing we set out to do -- we wanted to make music to inspire someone to form a band.

And you can really hear it. Bands like the Big Pink, Asobi Seksu, Depreciation Guild, all have that shoegaze sound, and most of it is considered cutting edge by 2010’s standards. Nu-gaze...

Yeah, it kinda crept up on us, really, because I must admit I haven’t got my finger on the pulse of music. But getting involved with this whole thing has really opened our eyes to how many bands there are out there. It’s been more like, friends telling me “have you heard that band, they sound just like Chapterhouse” [laughs] ...It’s nice, if anything, it really validates what try to do back then.

Well that term shoegaze almost became a dirty word, like a journalist thing. Now it’s everywhere again. Do you hate that word, or do you find it endearing, in a way?

That was our natural reaction to it. It wasn’t a real insult, but it was a bit of a piss take. It was a mocking term. But its actually taken on... quite often insults do take on their own life, identity, and people turn against the original use. Kids on the internet are saying shoegaze this, shoegaze that, they don’t see it as anything but a term of endearment. So in that sense I think it has changed. It has become easy to categorize that type of music now, it’s quite a handy term, I compare it to “dream pop.”

Haha well, 20 years from now I’ll be asking Beach House about their feeling on “dream pop.”

If anything, we thought we were a psychedelic band, we were making drug music as far as we felt. And I suppose it’s a modern-day term. You see band call themselves experimental psychedelic shoegaze [laughs]. Those three words go hand in hand!

This legacy, of bands like Chapterhouse, Ride, Slowdive, why did it resonate so deeply with people?

With any artist movement, people from a similar age group and background get exposed to similar influences. And I guess those original bands, we all came out around the same time. We’d see them at gigs, and there was a vibe because we were all pretty much based in London even although we came from other places. It was a very London thing really.

Our towns were just 40 kilometers from London, so when we were teenagers we’d be going up to London to see shows and bands play. The Slowdive guys were also in Reading, a couple of years younger than us, so we knew them way back before the bands formed, and the Ride guys were from just down the road in Oxford. We were all a similar age, into this similar kind of music which was everything from Stooges and Stones and Beatles and ‘60s garage Pebbles compilations, and then Echo & the Bunnymen and 4AD, the Cocteau Twins, and also all the Subpop stuff like Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth, who had a huge influence on us.

Sonic Youth showed you could make sounds with guitars that no one had ever heard before, and that’s what really inspired us. And then the Mary Chain really consolidated that when we were like 15, and it was inspiring to hear this wall of white noise. They were all the bands, the catalysts.

Looking ahead, after this tour, what’s next for Chapterhouse? Any new material on the way?

We’re planning to do a DVD release of some of the shows, and bits from the tour. We’re probably going to write some new material for the segues and sections. That’s a plan for some new material. We’re thinking more abstract instrumentals and stuff.

We may release a rarities kind of thing. In a way we’re a bit fed up with lots of different record labels having released the same songs in about eight different packages so we have some of the demos and 4-tracks and actually have stuff people haven’t heard, like the stuff off disc 2 of Roundabout. It’s stuff that might have its flaws but still has a charm. And it’d be nice to release stuff that people haven’t heard or haven’t been able to get a hold of, but that’s been on the back burner because of the tour.

This whole project has been about reclaiming Chapterhouse for us, and for many years the records were out of print, and all you could find out about us were some appalling albums and videos on YouTube.

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