‘The return of the Thin White Duke’, Alien Chameleon: bringing Bowie to the Durham music scene

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Durham has shown time and time again that it has a huge variety of student bands, and Alien Chameleon is no exception. After seeing great success at Rock Society’s Battle of the Bands, Alien Chameleon have proved that the music of David Bowie is as popular as ever.

Over recent years bands like Greta van Fleet have paved the way for a revival of the rock genre. When asked why Bowie works in the live setting, frontman Eric said ‘our performance [style] is more energetic… Bowie is a good choice because most of his songs are high-energy’.

Dramatic performances were a key part of what made Bowie successful, and Alien Chameleon feel that their focus on crowd involvement is what makes them stand out from other Durham bands.

When asked about the band’s name, Eric said that he chose ‘chameleon’, as it showed how they want to constantly adapt their styles, and to avoid being placed under one genre. True to this name, the group see themselves as adapting their setlist to their ever-changing tastes. This approach can be seen in Bowie’s own approach to music, exemplified by his many personas from Major Tom to Pierrot the clown. To Eric, the ‘alien’ part of the group’s name holds a double meaning, paying homage to the ‘alien’ Ziggy Stardust, but also referring to the fact that he is an international student.

When asked about the band’s name, Eric said that he chose ‘chameleon’, as it showed how they want to constantly adapt their styles, and to avoid being placed under one genre. True to this name, the group see themselves as adapting their setlist to their ever-changing tastes.

The band is led by frontman Eric Ji, whose acoustic guitar adds a folk twang reminiscent of Bowie’s early albums. At the Battle of the Bands, he was seen rocking an outfit evocative of Bowie’s let’s dance and thin white duke outfits. The similarities don’t end there, as Eric also shares a similar vocal range with Bowie.

The lead guitar is played by Sammy Earnshaw: Alien Chameleon’s answer to Mick Ronson, who cites his influences as being Hendrix and Mark Knopfler. Sammy opts for playing a Jackson, which gives a grittier edge to his playing. His blazing riffs are played with a John Entwistle-like nonchalance, and help to contrast with Eric’s energetic performance style.

Holding down the band’s rhythm section is Reyanud Wang, whose Green Day-influenced drumming gives a punk energy to the band’s sets. Reynaud admits to not having heard a Bowie song before meeting Eric, but that he would now ‘consider himself a fan’.

Ever the perfectionist, Eric says he prefers producing his own songs, as ‘if he’s not entirely happy, he can restart it.’ This more involved approach to recording is reminiscent of the McCartney trilogy albums, and will no doubt allow for a more consistent and personal expression of the group’s style.

The group also see themselves drawing upon their influences to make their own music. Eric is in the process of producing his own tracks, which should be hitting streaming services later this year. His love for the eclectic shines through here, as he draws upon elements of 80’s dance and shoegaze ballads. Ever the perfectionist, Eric says he prefers producing his own songs, as ‘if he’s not entirely happy, he can restart it.’ This more involved approach to recording is reminiscent of the McCartney trilogy albums, and will no doubt allow for a more consistent and personal expression of the group’s style.

Part of Eric’s creative process is getting input from other musicians. Ollie Brunt, a Durham session drummer, said what it was like collaborating with Eric on the new tracks: ‘Eric’s clearly a very talented songwriter: his chord structures and melodies are complex yet tasteful […] the first track we recorded felt spacey and dance-oriented, like something off Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ album’. Ollie helped in arranging another song they recorded, and ‘also wrote and recorded the guitar solo that’s on the initial version’.

After leaving Durham, the band say they want to continue to work together. Eric sees Sammy’s stomping ground of Manchester as being a way of getting their music across to a wider audience. When asked about where they saw the future of the group, they said that their next incarnation could be as being a backing band with Eric as the frontman, ‘like Bowie’s Spiders from Mars’.

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