Out of the Shadows: An Interview with Tom Chapman

Tom Chapman has quite a storied career.

In addition to earlier bands, he’s played with Bernard Sumner in both Bad Lieutenant and New Order and now he’s starting yet another new chapter with his latest band ShadowParty which includes fellow New Order guitarist and founding member of Marion, Phil Cunningham, Josh Hager of The Rentals and Jeff Friedl, a current member of Devo.

While it harkens back to the bands that inspired them such as Kraftwerk and of course Joy Division, they have their own sound that staggers back and forth between the darkness and strobing neon lights, which probably explains their band name. Their debut album has guest appearances by former verve guitarist Nick McCabe and legendary vocalist Denise Johnson (A Certain Ratio, Primal Scream).

Collide had a chance to speak with Tom as he and New Order prepped for their upcoming appearance at the 3rd Music Tastes Good festival in Long Beach.

New Order have been over here sporadically the last few years. Are you looking forward to coming back to CA?
Yeah we’re really looking forward to it. We fly to California for Music Tastes Good in Long Beach and then over to Hawaii, which I’m really looking forward to. It’s one of those destinations in the world I’ve always wanted to go to so yeah that should be great and I’m really pleased it’s with New Order. These shows are going to be really special.

Hopefully you can take some time off while you’re there.
Well it’ll mostly be for work but hopefully I can get some time off.

There’s lots of hiking but if you don’t want to do any physical exertion, you can just relax on the beach.
That sounds nice though we are there for work not vacation but hopefully I’ll get some down time.

Speaking of work, what made you give yourself extra homework? I mean, you’re already working hard. Surely New Order keeps you busy enough. What made you say? Hey, I’m going to start something else?
It’s the kind of person I am. My relationship with music and always wanting to write, compose and collaborate with other musicians. So I’m quite a prolific writer.

So although we are very busy with New Order, myself and Phil Cunningham, we’ve always got time to work on a different musical project. Although I don’t like to call it a project because then it feels like its doomed, you know? So we decided to start ShadowParty and started working with the great musicians from Devo, you know, we love to collaborate.

Basically, that’s one of the things that I love doing as a musician. I like to work, to have a schedule and you know when I finish my tour with New Order I like to carry on working. I’m not very good at saying at home doing nothing.

Were these songs on the album where they lying around or is this something that you created solely for ShadowParty?
It’s interesting. The writing of the ShadowParty album pretty much happened after Music Complete was finished. The writing of Music Complete took place with the different teams of writers myself and Phil pretty much writing together. Jillian and Steve writing together as well and Bernard on his own. Then we’d all bring ideas to the table and present our demos.

So I guess I should say I was really on a roll after the album and you know, you’re into this sort of creative space and we’d worked on a good part of eight months on finishing Music Complete so there were still a lot of ideas left over that I wanted to sort of or pursue really and finish. You know, it’s one of those things when you write, when you compose and you’ve got these ideas and you think “I think that could be a really great track, but it’s not finished.” It bugs you a little bit so I was like, I wanted to finish some of those songs. So I wouldn’t say any of the ideas were leftovers from Music Complete but it was more the continuation of creativity if you would like and wanting to sort of put those ideas to bed or sort the problem out.

How did it come together? Was it music first or lyrics first?
A lot of it was music. I’m very comfortable as an instrumentalist. I would say ideas come very easily to me, structures of songs and then I would work with Josh Hager and Denise Johnson who worked on the album with us and present them full demos of songs that either I myself had come up with or with Josh on songs that we’ve written together as a band. So it’s usually music first and then lyrics last and I always think it’s the hardest part of completing a song. The melody is there but coming up with lyrical content is always the hardest thing. I think when you have to sort of switch your brain to different mode and trying to sort of write about things that matter to you is a bit hard.

You brought up Denise Johnson who’s worked with just about everyone in Manchester. What’s it like working with her like? Sometimes she’s viewed as a session performer or a backup singer. How much input does she have? What does she bring to the table that’s so special?
She’s not just a backup singer. I’ve known Denise since around 2000 in Manchester. We share mutual friends and she was always one of those people that I’d bump into at gigs. The first time I really worked with her though was when we were in Bad Lieutenant with Bernard and Phil and we covered a track by Elvis Presley of all people. It was “In the Ghetto” a track that we recorded for a charity called Centrepoint that aids young homeless from aged 16 to 25. She came to sing on it and she did a beautiful job.

We worked with her on Music Complete as well. She sang on “Plastic” and “Nothing but a Fool” and I just had this mental note that I’d really wanted to work on a personal level with Denise  because I think she’s a very talented woman and she’s got a hell of a voice.

I had this song when we wrote this album, this track I had in mind. I kept thinking I’d like to write with her in mind if you know what I mean and I came up with the demo of “Present Tense” and I just gave her the music. I programmed the whole track and presented it to her and she loved it.  She said “I’ve got something. I’ve got to come in and record it!” and I remember she came to my studio and sang it for the first time and I knew we were onto something good and she’d come up with most of the melody and the lyrics and it was just one of those special moments. Denise Johnson isn’t just a backing singer. She’s got a lot to offer and very talented.

Will she be playing onstage with you at all?
Well we just finished a run of shows in the U.K. and they went down a storm. Unfortunately though, Denise wasn’t able to join us as she was on tour with A Certain Ratio, so sadly she couldn’t join us. She joined us on a couple of shows before on the last tour so whenever she has a free schedule and we’re on tour Denise will join us, you know, so we’re always pleased when she’s on tour with us.

What’s the plan? The album is out, you’ve toured. What’s next? Is this an ongoing project?
Yes, absolutely. Like I said, it’s not a project. It’s a band. It’s a new band. It’s our baby and we’re promoting it as much as we can. It’s difficult when you when you start out as a new band but I guess we’re lucky because we’re associated with those great bands, so that does help and goes a long way to raise some people’s awareness but it’s tough. You know, we’re starting out. We’re trying to get on the radio, trying to get on TV shows, doing small shows and all but it’s exciting as well. You know, I think going out there and playing those shows with your own music, it’s exciting. It’s back to basics and it’s real so I just feel like a real musician in the back of a van [laughs] It’s nice to go from one extreme to another if you know what I mean. I love it. You know what that’s why I do what I do and  I wouldn’t have it any other way. So yeah we’re just going to keep going and keep promoting.

We’ll probably start writing next year for the follow-up album number two. We’ve already got so about ten Demos in the making so yeah, I think with the way the industry works now, you can’t be gone for too long when you’re new band you have to sort of keep sort of writing material and trying to put it out and then build an audience.

Very often artists look back at their first album and go “Oh we could have done this better or tried that.”  Any plans for the second as far as changing things up? Do you see a path of evolution?
We do. You know the album’s come out and it took a good part of maybe two years to sort of  complete and I listen to it now and I think well we could have maybe done a change to this little bit but it was also good to be able to put a stop to it because I think musicians will just keep going.

I have a bad habit of wanting to perfect the music which is normal, but you have to also be able to draw a line and say well that’s it, you know, stop, put it out and move on to the next thing and that challenges you to do something different for the next album than make it better and improve your songwriting.

That’s the best you can hope for and hope you catch fans along the way.

You self-produced this one right?
Yes, and it was mixed by myself and Josh Hager.

Will you be doing the second one as well or will you bring someone on?
I think so. There’s something very satisfying about producing your own album. We have the clear vision of what we want to do and how we want to sound and the instruments we want to use and the type of synthesizers we like using as well. You know, so we’re quite picky with the how albums should sound sonically and I guess it gives you this freedom to experiment. Working with a producer is great of course, don’t get me wrong, but If you have your own vision of how your music should sound and you know how to do that, that’s great.

Well, I think you have that pedigree by now.
I must say that working with New Order has been a great learning curve in the studio. Watching Bernard Sumner work and of course watching Stephen Morris and Gillian like a hawk, you know, watching their every move and trying to learn from them. They’re great as well because they’ll pass on a lot of information about what they’re doing and how to do it and you know, you just get to learn from the masters really and try to utilize those skills. So yeah Music Complete was great for that really, you know, it was a good exercise.

What’s the plan there? Are you guys getting in the studio soon or you’re going to take a well-deserved break?
It’s funny with New Order, you know because they don’t really make plans [laughs] .It’s strange with them things seem to happen sort of naturally with them, you know? In the last 8 months we took on this project with the 12 synthesizer keyboards.

It was for the Manchester International Festival. And so we basically looked at the back catalog and started in chronological order from Movement onward to Music Complete and chose a songs from each album and made a compressed setlist of songs we’ve not played before and we rearrange those songs with the 12-piece synthesizer Orchestra, which was almost like breaking a glass mirror and trying to re-glue all the particles with those synthesizers. It was a lot of work, but it really paid off. We worked with the visual artist Liam Gillick who’s based in New York, and he did a wonderful job bringing it to life.

It was great to sort of play songs that we’ve never done before like Sub-Culture, Shellshock and Vanishing Point, songs that the fans love.  We rearranged them with this orchestra. It was a lot of hard work but it was creative. That’s one of the beautiful things with New Order. Everything that we take on, every project that we take on has a creative edge, you know? It’s a band that needs to create and go forward so who knows?

We’ve not talked about going back in the studio. We’re still touring you know. After America I think we’re going to South America at the end of the year and then who knows maybe we’ll think it’s time to start writing again. Maybe we won’t? Who knows? [laughs]. 

Are there any plans to release the MIF concert?
We did we record it. We’ve just done a documentary about the production with Sky Arts in the UK, which is coming out the end of this month. The shows were filmed and we were interviewed about the whole process along with Peter Saville and Liam Gillick. It’s a very interesting documentary and explains the whole process of from the conception to execution.

Well hopefully we can get to see it over here in the states. In the meantime we’ll have to see you at Music Tastes Good or Hawaii. Enjoy the rest of the tour!

New order play the first day of Music Tastes Good this Saturday. Tickets are still available. ShadowParty’s debut is available now.