Thurston Moore Interviews Michael Chapman

Sonic Youth's frontman talks to the British folk legend for the Fretboard Journal #16

Not too long ago, I received a copy of Michael Chapman’s CD, Time Past & Time Passing, and was knocked out by his formidable chops and expert songwriting. I also felt chastened by the fact I had never heard his music before. What good is my music radar if a player as talented as Michael Chapman has managed to slip under it for as long as he had?

Michael Chapman, as you probably don’t know, first appeared on the British folk scene in 1967. He started his musical career in Leeds, in the North of England, and later moved down to Cornwall, which had a thriving folk-music circuit. Chapman’s style was similar to that of players like Bert Jansch, Davy Graham and John Renbourn, in that he mixed elements of British folk, blues and jazz, but he blended them in different proportions--leaning more to the electric end of the spectrum.

From the beginning, Chapman was a sonic experimenter, and his eclectic LPs uneasily placed acoustic fingerpicked solos next to straight-ahead rock songs and long, meandering jams. Still, when it all came together, as it did on 1970’s Fully Qualified Survivor--which featured fellow Northerner Mick Ronson, pre-David Bowie, on guitar and Rick Kemp, pre-Steeleye Span, on bass--the results were magical. In 1978, he wrote Playing

Guitar the Easy Way, one of the first instructional methods to deal with open tunings like DADGAD.

I heard through the music grapevine that Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth was a big Michael Chapman fan and was interested in interviewing him for the Fretboard Journal. I knew that Moore, another sonic explorer, was extremely knowledgeable about obscure musicians and figured he would be an excellent choice to help shed some light on an unrecognized guitar master. --Michael John Simmons

Land’s End to London

Thurston Moore: As legend has it, you’re from Yorkshire.

Michael Chapman: Yeah, Leeds.

TM: Is that where you grew up?

MC: Yeah. I left when I was 22 ‘cause I was teaching in the college over in Lancashire--I became another person for three years. Very strange... And then I resigned from teaching before they sacked me, you know, and went down to Cornwall on holiday--went into a folk club, played for a half an hour. It was open six nights a week, and the guy said, “At the end of the week, you get a share of the proceeds.” And I got two pounds more per week than I did at the college. So I thought, Lie on the beach all day, have a few beers, play the guitar for 45 minutes; the place is packed with girls, I can handle this.

TM: You got a place to stay?

MC: Oh, no, I was living back of my van, down on the beach.

TM: Were they feeding you?

MC: No, I was getting paid.

TM: You had been teaching photography and art history.

MC: Well, photography and life drawing, fine art, yeah.

TM: And what is the origin of that?

MC: I left home very early because I fell in love with education, and my mother wanted me, at 16, to quit school--go into the steelyard with my father. And I didn’t fancy that. I wanted to go to college and get a degree and get my education, and so we had a big fallout, and I left.

But playing the guitar paid for my education. Strangely enough, because both my parents were working--because we weren’t earning much, we all had to go out to work--it disqualified me from the government grant for education. They presumed that they were earning a lot of money ‘cause they were both working--it was such a middle-class setup, and I’m from the wrong side of the tracks completely.

So I had to earn a living. I was in four or five bands. I’d play anything with strings. I played standup bass, I played banjos, I played in New Orleans bands.

TM: So you took to guitar playing fairly quickly and easily.

MC: Yeah, it’s always been something I could do. It’s never been anything that I sort of studied--apart from learning Django Reinhardt solos, to get the chops down--I just found it something I could do.

TM: And you decoded the theory of guitar…

MC: No, no, no, I just would listen to records and put my finger on them to slow them down, ‘cause I can’t read or write music. And I’d buy records and I didn’t know there were two-handed guitar players. ‘Cause you never saw a guitar player. There were no books, there were no videos; they weren’t on television. So when I got my first guitar, about two weeks later somebody says, “No, you’ve got to use the other hand as well.” I said, “No, that’s too difficult.”

TM: How old were you then?

MC: 15. No, far too difficult.

TM: Two hands?

MC: Yeah.

TM: Gotta smoke with one hand, right? Do you remember the first guitar you bought?

MC: Yeah, it was six pounds. I actually persuaded my mother to sign the forms for the payments. Six pounds, which was about $10.

TM: We’re talking early ‘60s?

MC: No, ’56. I was still at grammar school, so I was 15, and skiffle had just started.

TM: Were you interested in that?

MC: Well, it was just three chords, you know? Any four kids from school could have a little band. No microphones…

TM: Play rhythm, you’re in.

MC: Yeah, yeah, and I just fell in love with the thing.

TM: Were you playing in those kinds of bands? 

MC: There was a famous skiffle group in England called the Vipers, and I thought they were terrific. And, of course, the most famous one was a guy called Lonnie Donegan, who made very poppy skiffle records.

A jazz guy in England called Ken Colyer, who did skiffle the proper way--just a string bass and a banjo, and I think he played guitar, and not the sort of pop stuff that Donegan was doing--he was doing “Southbound Train” and all these old songs. I’d just think, Where did they come from? That’s a hell of a lot better than “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”

TM: Were you ever able to see Ken Colyer and the Jazzmen play?

MC: Yeah, they were really London-based, but they did venture north at certain times. There’s a price to pay for living as far north as I do.

TM: Yeah, but there’s something to be said about developing something within your own means as well.

MC: Oh, yeah, I mean, I still don’t play like anybody else, ‘cause I can’t.

TM: Listening to your records through the years, I’ve always been amazed by your technique, because there’s a certain dexterity there.

MC: That’s from copying Reinhardt solos. And, first of all, I tried to figure out Big Bill Broonzy, but with a flat pick, ‘cause I’d never seen anybody do that [fingerpicking]. So I got quite quick with the old flat pick.

TM: When you started playing Cornwall, there was quite a scene there, right?

MC: Oh, yeah. There were two centers of it; there were two folk clubs, and they were both open six nights a week. The one on Friday nights had a midnight session, and the other had a midnight session on Saturday night. And the one I was in was down right near Land’s End and was very Cornish. The one further north was near Newquay and was very South London: Ralph McTell, Wizz Jones, Pete Stanley, Pete Berryman--they all moved to Newquay for the summer and played in the bars and this little folk club. And what’s his name from the [Incredible] String Band, Clive [Palmer].

They were all down there; just living in terrible, little, dump caravans and playing in this club. And if you saw it, I mean, it would have been condemned. No electricity.

TM: And would you go to London and play at this time?

MC: No, no, no…

TM: Was Les Cousinsopen at that time?

MC: Yeah, it was, but, see, because I was working six nights a week in Cornwall--and then doing seven shows ‘cause I was doing an all-nighter as well--I thought I was famous. So I moved to Hull to follow this girl that I’d fallen in love with--she went to art college there--and said, “I’ll be a professional musician,” and by Christmas we were starving. I’d forgotten one thing: I didn’t have a phone. [laughs] What kind of a dummy is that?

TM: All these London cats knew you, and you knew them.

MC: Yeah, and I managed to talk my way into a gig at Cousins, ‘cause if you played Cousins, that would guarantee you 10 people would walk up to you and say, “Can you play here, can you play there?” It was like an employment market as well as a club.

TM: Were these guys friendly guys?

MC: Yeah, mostly, yeah.

TM: When you think about this scene, you think about how Roy Harper kind of had an edge…

MC: I never met Roy ‘til much later. Ralph and Wizz--Ralph was always really good. Ralph’s a gentleman, a great guy. Wizz could be a bit frustrating, ‘cause at that time he saw everybody as competition. “Who’s this Yorkshire guy coming down the street in the gig?”

But mostly we got on fine. Me and Pete Berryman would usually start playing, and there were no chords, no rehearsals, nothing; we’d just play off the tops of our heads.

TM: Was John Martyn around then?

MC: No. I didn’t meet John until I was playing Cousins regularly in London. The first time I met him, I was driving back to Cousins to do an all-nighter, from Southampton, and there’s John, standing on the street corner, middle of winter, no shoes, T-shirt, guitar--he was something.

TM: And you knew Jackson C. Frank?

MC: Only through Cousins. He used to hang out there and just sit on the stairs talking to Fat Andy, the Greek that used to run it--just somewhere to go, I think. I never knew Jackson, I never heard him play; he was just there.

TM: Yeah, he’s interesting just because he’s a stateside cat, and the last time people really saw him was when Wizz played here many years ago, in Amherst, and Jackson was there--just wild-haired and just kind of wooly. And for those of us who knew Jackson C. Frank, he was kind of a disappearing act, and then all of a sudden, here he was. Basically he came to see Wizz, whom he was friends with through the years, and that was kind of fascinating. But then he died shortly thereafter.

MC: I mean, Jackson left an indelible mark because he left “Blues Run the Game,” which Bert [Jansch] did and therefore all Bert’s disciples did.

TM: Then Paul Simon came to town…

MC: That was before I got there.

TM: …and he was producing Jackson and taking a lot of ideas back into America and popping ‘em up a little bit.

MC: Yeah, yeah.

TM: And you knew Bridget St. John, who moved to the Village.

MC: Well, yeah, I was playin’ Cousins, and John Martyn brought Bridget down there, and I thought, Nice girlfriend, John, you know? As it turns out, it never was the case, but how could you not be in love with Bridget? She’s just magic. We did a gig in New York the other night.

I really want to damage her guitar, just run over it. It’s awful. We did some gigs in England back in the last year, and I said, “Bridget, let me run over your guitar, please.”

The Primitive Days

TM: You’re still in Brampton?

MC: Just near Brampton, yeah. That is the one thing that’s saved me from complete lunacy, I think, is having the farm to go back to, and I can just switch off. You know, my friends are all farmers and truck drivers and don’t have anything to do with the music scene.

TM: When you’re on the road, do you go guitar shopping? Do you like to do that?

MC: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

TM: Are you a total guitar head?

MC: Especially vintage. I was looking at a Switchmaster this afternoon.

TM: A Switchmaster? Which is what?

MC: A Gibson--1954, big jazz guitar, three pickups. It’s a piece of furniture; it’s huge.

TM: Do you buy a lot of guitars?

MC: Well, I haven’t for a while, actually. I’ve been very well behaved, but people give them, which is always nice.

TM: That is nice. I imagine you have a pretty decent collection.

MC: I had. I drank a lot of it. [laughs]

TM: I noticed on your website that you have a link to Fylde Guitars? Do you play those?

MC: I did. Bridget got one--again the Bridget and John connection. I was around her house and played them. I said, “These are nice,” and she said, “Well, ring him up, he’ll make you one.” And I had a few flush ideas at the time, so I rang Roger up and said, “Build me a guitar, but I want it black and I want, like, the tree of life in silver and mother of pearl up the neck, and put very little sound into it, ‘cause I want to boogie up and plug it in.”

‘Cause I was having trouble with bottom-end feedback--getting acoustics loud, you know--in those fairly primitive days. And we didn’t have the pickups that we have now, so he built me that guitar, and I sold him a lot of guitars in Europe, ‘cause it looked fantastic and for the time it sounded great. And then, just as a gesture a bit later, he just gave me the one I’ve still got, which is an Oberon, I think it’s called.

TM: Speaking of acoustic guitars and feedback, one thing I always wanted to ask you is, on Millstone Grit, “New York Ladies,” at the end of that track is an acoustic guitar doing some feedback.

MC: No, it’s a Gibson ES-175.

TM: That’s not an acoustic guitar? But that sounds like it’s the strings resonating against an acoustic body through an amp.

MC: Yeah, but then I turned around to face the amp. It’s an old Gibson jazz guitar, a 175. They’re built for jazz volumes, so they feedback pretty early if you turn and face the amp.

TM: That was from ’72, Millstone Grit, something like that? It could possibly be the first sort of hollow-body feedback on record that I know of. I mean, people talk about Jeff Beck doing the first electric-guitar feedback on a recording, documented, but that sound that you have is a sound that I’ve always been using when I improvise, when I do noise improvisation.

And I’ve gotten really into doing acoustic-guitar, hollow-body, amp-feedback stuff, and just sort of improvising as such, and I’ve never really heard too much of it recorded anywhere. These days, you hear everything--I mean, everything’s on tape--but to hear that recording from the early ‘70s and that sound, I’ve never heard that sound on any other record. And so I’ve always wanted to ask you about that.

MC: I’d just come back from having a horrendous time in New York…

TM: That’s what it is; it’s the sound of New York.

MC: …and I didn’t know how to stop it, so I just put some scissors across the tape.

TM: I’d like to ask you about the development of your style. It’s obvious you were very interested in blues and jazz players.

MC: Oh, yeah.

TM: Getting into the company of these British folk players, there seemed to be some shared language there. Were you inspired and intrigued by these guys who were your contemporaries? Or was it more of a shared kind of development?

MC: Because I’ve always lived in the North, I never became part of that London acoustic-guitar-mafia scene. I’m always the visitor, you know, and I think my playing stayed as it is because of that. I would hear Bert and John records or whatever, and if Ralph made a new album, he’d always send me one, but they weren’t my thing. I was heavily into jazz guitar at the time, and the other people I liked were Big Bill Broonzy and Sam [Lightnin’] Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. So I had this kind of weird dichotomy of Kenny Burrell and Grant Green, and Mance Lipscomb and Bill Broonzy. But as long as they had their guitars, I was always interested.

TM: Now what about rock players at the time?

MC: It’s never been my thing.

TM: Even in the ‘60s?

MC: Yep.

TM: And you had people like the early Pink Floyd or even people like Hendrix coming up…

MC: Do you know--I have never heard a Pink Floyd record.

TM: Still?

MC: Still. I have never heard Tubular Bells, although I was there when it was being made.

TM: Were you a Stones fan, a Beatles fan, a Kinks fan?

MC: My wife was a huge Beatles fan. She was vastly disappointed when Jane Asher turned up. I quite liked the Stones, they were all right, but it didn’t bother me.

TM: You weren’t really racing to it.

MC: I was a big Hendrix fan, and he came to Hull one time, and they wouldn’t let me in for free. I thought, Well, I’m a star so I’m not paying. So I didn’t go, and it was only 10 shillings.

TM: But as far as that kind of electric rock…

MC: It was never my thing. I quite liked Fleetwood Mac ‘cause I thought Pete [Green] was a great guitar player.

TM: But you’ve written and recorded rock songs, to some degree--your own style of them.

MC: Yeah, I think it’s ‘cause I never got a Les Paul. I can’t play Les Pauls. I would love to play Les Pauls. I couldn’t play and sit down; I couldn’t play and stand up. I love the way they look, I love the way they sound; I cannot play them. And maybe if I’d been able to get a Les Paul, things would be different.

TM: What about Jaguars and Jazzmasters?

MC: No, I didn’t like them. I was a Telecaster freak. And then my roadie said, “For Christ’s sake, Michael, get yourself a Strat.” So I got myself a Strat and stuck with them for a long time--if I wasn’t playing a big Gibson jazz guitar.

TM: I only played Jazzmasters, for the most part, and then hot-rodded cheapo guitars. Les Pauls--it’s a different vibe, it’s a matter of what you’re going for, but they’re real singular in what they do. It’s like this one-dimensional thing. With the Fenders, especially the Jazzmasters, I feel like there’s a more dynamic interplay between the player and the instrument.

MC: There were a whole bunch of what I used to call the “100-pound bands”--they had 100-watt Marshall stacks, charged 100 quid and probably paid 100 quid for the van. Free were the best of the100-quid bands, and when Paul [Kossoff] was on tour, if he was still under control, he could make that Les Paul sing.

TM: Yeah, he’s a killer guitar player…

MC: …if he hadn’t been misbehavin’ too much, yeah. We did a lot of gigs with Free, and it was a great combination.

TM: But you had Mick Ronson playing with you for a while, a rock ‘n’ roll guitar player.

MC: Yeah. Mick was incredible, yeah. That was my idea--that Mick would be in it, and it would be a four-piece.

TM: Now was he a Hull guy?

MC: Yeah, he lived around the corner. He was a gardener at a girl’s school. And if you looked like Mick Ronson and you’re the best guitar player in town, who’s gonna leave? [laughs]

But Mick was always very faithful. I said, “Come on the road with me, I’ve got TV shots here, I’ve got gigs there.” And then, when he came to do Fully Qualified Survivor, I introduced him to [producer] Gus [Dudgeon], I introduced him to David [Bowie]. And he wouldn’t go with David unless David took the rest; they became the Spiders from Mars. He was just a regular, standup guy.

TM: David Bowie?

MC: No, Mick was.

TM: You never met Bowie?

MC: Oh, yes, I have met him, and I’m sayin’ nothing. [laughs]

TM: Come on, this is Fretboard Journal! Bowie’s never gonna read this!

MC: The last time David Bowie spoke to me, we were at the same publisher, and he was walkin’ in as I was walkin’ out, and he said, “Oh, hello, Michael, where are you going?” And I said, “Oh, I’m going to dinner.” He said, “Dressed like that?”

Savage Soothed

TM: You like to improvise.

MC: Oh, yeah, but I don’t do it as much now as I used to.

TM: You’ve never made a recording of completely improvised music though?

MC: No, I’m not clever enough.

TM: Oh, I think you could and I think now is the time, because it’s so much the focus of a lot of these people who are so into you now. This whole new, young scene of improvising, avant-garde noise musicians--who are into you and your history--are consistently putting out these pretty great recordings of improvised music from different approaches.

MC: The nearest I’ve got are the Americana things. Do you know them?

TM: Yes, Americana 1 and Americana 2.

MC: Yeah, the swampy one and the high-desert one. That’s the nearest I’ve got to that--where I’m basically just playing atmosphere. I’d just go and wander around for three or four weeks and then come home and try and capture the atmosphere in music. That’s what those are about. I’m gonna do Americana 3, but nobody’s biting.

TM: You also have done your own label, Rural Retreat, and you’ve done cassettes, which I’m interested in, because there’s a whole scene of people doing underground improvised music, and a lot of it is really focused on the cassette as a form.

MC: You know, that was just out of sheer necessity. It belongs to a period that my wife calls “Michael Chapman: The Missing Years.” That was when I drank all the guitars.

TM: I imagine that is late ‘80s?

MC: Yeah, mid-‘80s. I was pretty disgraceful in those days.

TM: Because I was looking at your discography, and there’s about five years where there’s no records coming out, so I figured something was going on.

MC: Why she didn’t leave me I’ve got no idea. I was pretty disgraceful for quite a long time. I decided to straighten myself out, and nobody wanted to know, so I just went into a music shop and turned some tape machines on and made a little album called Still Making Rain. And then a proper record company heard it, ‘cause I’d sell quite a few just at gigs, and they put it out on CD. And then another record company said, “Ah, he’s back; he’s all right again. I suspect we can actually deal with him.” And that basically kick-started it all again. I just had to put Europe back together ‘cause I had a pretty bad reputation, and deservedly so. There’s a lot of self-inflicted damage.

TM: Speaking of that, you were acquainted with John Fahey.

MC: Yeah, yeah, I met John in Europe, it would have been in ’76, ’77…

TM: Because I toured with John.

MC: Interesting experience.

TM: Yeah, and you’re talking about burning bridges across the touring landscape--that brought to mind Fahey.

MC: We were holed up in this hotel in Bremen for three weeks together, working for the same promoter; sometimes we went that way, and sometimes we’d play it together. And it was never less than interesting. And then--I don’t know whose idea it was--I got a call to go to Los Angeles and do some gigs over there, and we did McCabe’s and the Ice House and various places. And John could get me into trouble; I’d kind of straightened out by that time. Well, you know; you know better than I do, probably.

TM: It’s not that he looks for trouble.

MC: No, no, he’s a trouble magnet.

TM: Journeyman, what was that? That was a live cassette, but was it a legal cassette or was it a bootleg cassette?

MC: No, I did it.

TM: Because I’ve seen it listed as “legal bootleg.”

MC: Yeah, well, when in doubt, bootleg yourself. I used to just stuff things together for collectors--a desperate attempt to sell some tapes. [laughs] There’s Wood and Wire, and there’s all kinds of things.

TM: In the ‘90s, you had a track called “Geordies Down the Road” where you did a lot of noisy, kind of industrial things. Was that something that you were using just as an effect on that one track, or is that something you were interested in? Fahey was interested in throwing in that…

MC: No, it’s just adding atmosphere to the song. Geordies are the working-class guys in the Northeast where I lived, and I was playing in Australia in a bar, and there’s four Geordies in there who were miles away from home, because there was no work at home. So it’s “Geordie’s down the road, he wants to be a worker.”

I actually witnessed our beloved leader, Mrs. Thatcher, shutting down the northern steelworks, so it’s about all that--crooked politicians and forcing people out of work that were perfectly willing to work. That’s what that song’s about, and I wanted the noise of the steelyards on the record, because that noise was disappearing fast.

TM: You did that record Playing Guitar the Easy Way in ’78, where each song was in a different open tuning. Now it’s 30 years later; if you did that project again, would you do it differently?

MC: I still think it was a good idea. The problem is the printers could never get it to be right--the list of tunings at the end is haywire, so it reduces the whole thing to rubbish. They didn’t have flats and sharps in that particular type font, so he left them off!

TM: Yeah, it’s kinda cool in a way. Who knows who’s learning off of that chart?

MC: Anyway, it wasn’t meant to be for people startin’ the guitar; it was for people who had maybe got bogged down a bit and then maybe wanted to write some songs, and here comes an interesting way to find some new chords, which is what I did, you know, I just went.

TM: You said you’re not really into reading and writing music, so you’re not doing any sort of staff notation.

MC: No, no, and I can’t do tab either. What I do is what I call “telephone numbers”: If you know the tuning, then just write down the fret numbers, because then you’ve got the chords. If there’s any improvisation on it, you’re on your own.

TM: I always wanted to do a record called How Not to Play the Guitar.

MC: I think we’ve made some of them, haven’t we? [laughs]

TM: How interested are you in alternative tunings? You talk about Ralph McTell hipping you just to drop the D, and then all of a sudden you realize, “Oh, OK, I can do this.”

And that’s happened to me as well. Around ’78, there was a guitar player who was doing a lot with alternative tunings, and I hadn’t really thought about it. I always would hear it in my head, but I never thought, Well, maybe you should just start turning the pegs. And I was getting into it way more radically, where I would just strum the guitar openly and just tune the pegs until all six strings would create some kind of thing. Then I would note it and then take it from there.

MC: Yeah, I mean, if you tune the guitar to D, and then you tune it to G, the chord shapes are the same; you just move ‘em over a string.

TM: You worked with Don Nix, too.

MC: Oh, yeah.

TM: Now did you go to Memphis and work with him?

MC: He finished the album in Memphis. He took it back and promptly disappeared for three months. Duck Dunn was ailing in the hospital in California, and Don felt he had to go, so we basically lost the producer and the album for three months; we hadn’t gota clue.

TM: Well, he mixed it there.

MC: In Ardent, yeah.

TM: That was Savage Amusement. Now, Savage Amusement, was that more or less your punk-rock band in a way?

MC: No, that was supposed to be the Memphis soul band. [laughs]

TM: Because it had this aggression to it.

MC: Oh, yeah. It was a dangerous album.

TM: I was curious because, at the time, especially in Thatcher’s Britain and the ‘70s, punk rock is happening, and hippie is kind of falling out. What was your take on that whole thing--the Sex Pistols and the Clash and…

MC: I loved it! It was skiffle again, right, but with louder amplifiers. You know, four guys and an amplifier and a will to play. I thought it was great.

TM: It had a lot of “pub” kind of camaraderie.

MC: Yeah, yeah, you didn’t have to have 500,000 pounds and play like Yes.

TM: There’s a story in that Dazzling Stranger book by Colin Harper about British folk history where he talked about Bert Jansch going to San Francisco in the ‘70s and staying at this house and just kind of drinking and being a roustabout to some degree. And he talked about Bruce Loose, who started this band called Flipper, kind of a big-time hardcore-punk band in America, getting a lot of his attitude ideas from Bert Jansch. So, in a roundabout way, this book says that Bert Jansch kind of spearheaded the American hardcore-punk movement on the West Coast.

MC: I think you better tell Bert that. I would love to see his face if you tell him.

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[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in The Fretboard Journal #16. Since publishing this piece in the Winter of 2009, Seattle's Light in the Attic label has reissued two classic Michael Chapman albums: Fully Qualified Survivor and Rainmaker. Both are highly recommended.]

The full article text and exclusive photographs are available in the print edition of The Fretboard Journal.