Singer/songwriter, guitar man, and master storyteller Michael Chapman began his recording career with the stellar Rainmaker on the venerable Harvest label in 1969, and he’s spent the decades since exploring the common ground between jazz, rock, noise, and guitar soli. His records have been reissued by Light in the Attic, his songs performed by William Tyler, Hiss Golden Messenger, Lucinda Williams, and dozens more, and time has not diminished his output. In 2015, he released Fish, the latest in a long series of soulful and remarkable recordings. On the occasion of his 75th birthday January 24th, Aquarium Drunkard corresponded with Chapman about his long career, David Bowie, the music business, and the restorative powers of wine. | j woodbury
Aquarium Drunkard: Let’s start with your early days, playing around in the late ‘60s in London. What was the scene like then?
Michael Chapman: The early days in London? Well, that’s a popular misconception. I never ever moved into London. Others were drifting down there, like Bert Jansch, he came down from Edinburgh, and Ralph McTell who came in from Croydon. It was a very southern thing and I’m strictly a northern person. I stayed up in Hull. It was at least 75% cheaper to live in Hull than London and I’m a Yorkshire man — I don’t waste money. But, I’d go down to London and play. A lot of places wouldn’t hire me though because I wanted the same kind of money (as little as it was in those days) as the other places I was playing up country. They would say, “Well, this is a London gig, it’s important” and I’d say, “Yeah, but these guys just have to get on the tube and across town and they’re here, whereas for me it’s nearly a 300 mile drive [round trip] , so you pay me what other places are paying me and I’ll play.” So, I steadfastly remained an outsider and all that.
AD: You recorded your first few records, Rainmaker, Fully Qualified Survivor, and Wrecked Again, with Gus Dudgeon. How would you describe your working relationship with him?
Michael Chapman: Working relationship with Gus was fine most of the time because he was good fun to work with, and he knew what he was doing — most of the time. In those days everyone, including Gus, was flying by the seat of their pants because it was all new. [But there were] complicated recording techniques and Gus knew more about it than most people — remembering it wasn’t that long back that he’d been just the tea boy at Decca. Sure, it got fraught from time to time, especially the time of Wrecked Again when we had a major fall out mostly about finance — as usual. But it was mostly good fun working with Gus. He got on really well with my bass player Rick Kemp and they were both incredible mimics, so things would often grind to a halt because everyone was cracking up. It was just too funny to work.
AD: Those albums featured string arrangements by Paul Buckmaster. At the time, what did you think of the strings? Coming from a folk background, did they sound strange to you in your songs or was that sound exciting?
Michael Chapman: I just love those string arrangements, I think they’re just an absolute masterpiece. Another misunderstanding: I never came from a folk background. That was one of the other things — apart from being very northern — that made me the outsider. I didn’t know anything about folk music. It’s just not my thing, or very little of it is, but I played in folk clubs because those were the only places where you could play acoustic guitar and be heard. You couldn’t take your acoustic guitar into rock clubs; we just didn’t have the technology to get it loud enough. It would just sound like the band had gone home.
AD: Mick Ronson played on Fully Qualified Survivor. How did you come to work with him?
Michael Chapman: Mick played on Survivor and he lived round the corner, basically. He was in a band called The Rats who were terrible, but Mick had “star” written all over him and I asked him to be on the Survivor album. Gus and the record company were saying, “No, we’ve got these London session guys for you to play with,” and I said, “Sack’ em.” They knew about Rick Kemp because he was on Rainmaker and as soon as he started playing on that album they understood immediately why I thought so much of him so they accepted him for Survivor, but as soon as Mick started playing everyone just fell about cause he played so amazingly.
When the album came out I decided I needed a band to work this material, and I asked Mick to be in it. And he said no, flat out no, he wouldn’t leave his mates in Hull, The Rats, which is why, when David Bowie turned up, he took ‘em all lock, stock, and barrel. He sacked the singer and turned him into a roadie and Trevor and Woody and The Rats became the Spiders from Mars and some people think they got a bit better. I’m not of that opinion, but there you go.
We used to meet Bowie and strangely enough, the day before he died, on the Sunday, there was a big article in the Sunday Times about the very early days of Beckenham and the Arts Labs and all that hippie kind of stuff, which is where I first knew him and we used to stay in that big funny house that he had. We weren’t close, but we worked with each other. And then, of course, he just became mega, and the last time I actually really talked to him I was going into my publishers to borrow £300 to keep my band on the road and he was going in to the same publishers to borrow thirty grand to keep his band on the road. I was going out as David was going in and he said, “Oh hello Michael, how are you doing?” I said, “I’m fine, how are you?” He said, “What are you up to?” and I said, “I’m just about to go out for something to eat,” and he said, “Dressed like that?” [Laughs] Because, of course, I’ve always looked like a pile of laundry, but there you go.
AD: Can you tell me how being in Memphis influenced your music?
Michael Chapman: I mean, that’s all because of Don Nix, of course, the Memphis producer. I spent a couple of long, long tours opening for John Mayall and I knew that he’d recorded with Don Nix, whose records I loved. I’d buy anything with his name on it as producer. I rang John up and said, “Er, Don Nix, do you think me and him could get on with each other? ‘Cause I’m looking for a producer.” John said, “You two were designed for each other.” He was right, although Savage Amusement was an extreme record to make. It’s an extreme record. Some of that weird stuff. And it doesn’t sound all that Memphis, but I mean Don is like rock n’ roll royalty. My wife finished up singing Don Nix songs with Don in a back garden in Memphis not that long ago, so he’s still knocking around. I didn’t see him last year, but I saw him the year before. I’m always pleased that he’s still going.
AD: That version of “Suffleboat River Farewell” is killer. You seemed more drawn to rock n’ roll in the mid’ 70s. What was behind your move toward more aggressive sounds?
Michael Chapman: Aggressive sounds right. I’ve always loved rock n’ roll. You see, when I write a song, if it’s an acoustic song then that’s how I do it, and if I hear it with strings, and I can afford it, then that’s how I do that one, and if I see it with a rock n’ roll band then that’s how I’d do it. It’s the song that dictates what sort of backing there’s going to be.
AD: Eventually, you started putting out records on your own.
Michael Chapman: I was very ill back in the early ‘90s. I had a heart attack and couldn’t work for a year and people had basically forgotten about me so I had to start again, and the likes of EMI and Atlantic etc. weren’t exactly sending helicopters to my house with big checks. So, there was a studio down the road that I put a bit of money into and I’ve worked there ever since, putting my own records out. I sold them at gigs as merchandising. I have a guy who looks after my website who sells them through mail order and I’ve made more money by doing that than I ever did signed to the world’s two biggest record companies, EMI and Decca. I found it liberating ‘cause nobody could tell me what to do. Nobody could say, “Oh, you have to sign this contract that says you have to make five records over the next five years and if you don’t then you owe us a load of money.” I could just do exactly what I want. I had sole financial and artistic control and that was — I hate that word “liberating” — but it was. I had complete freedom to misbehave, if I wanted to. Funnily enough, though, talking about putting my own records out, I’ve just signed my first-ever U.S. record deal and will be recording in February in the States with some young U.S. musicians, and I’m so looking forward to it. Can’t say any more than that at the moment as the record company wants to announce it themselves at a later date. Some things take a while, but hopefully this will be worth the wait.
AD: You toured with the No-Neck Blues Band and Jack Rose. Was that invigorating?
Michael Chapman: Yeah, that really was invigorating, indeed, especially the No Necks. I mean, me and Jack were both acoustic guitar players and we got on like a house on fire, as I did with the No Necks, even though they were so different from anything musically I’d ever come across before. They expanded my musical horizons in ways that I could never have even imagined.
AD: It seems like The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock was inspired some by those guys. Did you have inklings of wanting to explore that sound — experimental electric guitar, drones, and feedback — for a while?
Michael Chapman: The Resurrection of the Clayton Peacock obviously was a reference to John Fahey. I mean, that was Thurston Moore and my wife Andru. They ganged up on me at the Jack Rose memorial in Philadelphia, and Thurston said to Andru, “Get him to make a noise record, I know he can, I think he secretly wants to, get him to do it,” and nagged me until finally I just went into the studio and recorded it in about four hours. No, that’s not right: I did two afternoon sessions of maybe two or three hours and it was such great fun to do, you know, to see what I could get out of a guitar without actually playing it. It’s incredible. I did a gig a bit back with Fred Frith and the things he got up to were just astonishing. Love it.
AD: You inspired a great deal of young artists.
Michael Chapman: Did I? Did I inspire a great deal of young artists? I mean, I don’t know. I know people like Steve Gunn and those guys listen to me. I’m always surprised how many young Americans have ever heard of me, because my records were never released over there. They must have had to look very hard, and I take that as a huge compliment, of course. You know, people as I said like Steve Gunn, William Tyler, Kurt Vile, and obviously Thurston. I mean, Thurston’s a walking dictionary.
AD: I think a tribute album like Oh Michael, Look What You’ve Done attests to your influence. Did you listen to that record? How did you feel?
Michael Chapman: [Laughs] That was not my title and that was started off by Andru. She spent two years phoning people getting them to record songs of mine, into what was almost a double CD —- a secret surprise for my 70th birthday — and then Josh Rosenthal at Tompkins Square cherry picked it and got some Americans to add some tracks. That was an absolute high point in my life. I never ever thought that Lucinda Williams would do a song of mine, and her version of “That Time of Night” is just amazing. You can’t imagine how happy I was when I first heard that. I always take it as an enormous tribute when people do my songs. I love Thurston’s version of “It Didn’t Work Out,” because only Thurston would come at it from that angle.
AD: You’ve toured with Thurston Moore, Kurt Vile, Bonnie Prince Billy. What’s your assessment of the current musical landscape?
Michael Chapman: I think it’s vastly interesting, going out and playing. I think it’s going to be the only way musicians make money because downloading is theft in my assessment. I make an album, I don’t want people just to take one track off it. They should buy the album and it should be something they can hold in their hands. As you can tell, I’m not a great lover of downloading. I think it should be stopped but you can’t stop it can you? The fish is out of the tank.
AD: Speaking of fish — that’s the title of your most recent LP. It’s excellent, too. You’re considered an elder statesman, but the album sounds fresh and youthful. How do you retain that spirit?
Michael Chapman: That’s easy — red wine!