Off To Never Land: The Sisters Of Mercy Interviewed
, November 12th, 2011 07:55
Ben Graham speaks to Andrew Eldritch, who says "Yes to everything that makes us hard."
We were somewhere around Bradford on the edge of the moors when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “Maybe you should play guitar, we'll get a machine to do the drums, and I'll just concentrate on singing…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Leeds 6. And a voice was screaming…
It's that voice.
More than anything, it's Andrew Eldritch's vocal style in the Sisters of Mercy that has divided fans and critics, just as Little Richard, or Dylan, or Lydon did when they first opened their mouths in public. And for me, Eldritch is up there with the greats. He sings in a deep baritone, sure, but so did Barry White. And Eldritch is a soul singer (the Sisters covered Hot Chocolate's 'Emma', after all; and they did it magnificently). A post-punk soul singer for a post-industrial age: less technique and natural range than his forebears, certainly, but like them favouring exaggerated emotional expression over strict adherence to melody, only rawer and even more extreme, as required by the times. That cracked and tortured murmur, seductive yet dangerous, wrapping itself with silken, snakelike guile around the cruellest, glittering metaphor before lashing out without warning into a brutal howl of anguished, existential pain. Betraying male vulnerability and insecurity in every over-telegraphed avoidance of signs of weakness, every feinting twist away from obvious sentiment. Eldritch the fencing champion since his schooldays, knowing attack is the best form of defence. Someone got close once; close enough to hurt him, and he's making damn sure that never happens again. Stay in control. Keep them at a distance, keep them off guard. And never, ever, take off the shades.
I'm too young to have seen the Sisters live in their original line-up, with Gary Marx and Ben Gunn on guitars, but I love the sound you can hear on bootlegs of their early live shows: the audible tape hiss before the drum machine kicks in, the guitars slightly out of tune and unstable, still rooted in the paranoid punk-funk of Leeds contemporaries the Gang of Four and the Mekons, wobbling and feeding back over Craig Adams' dirty monochrome basslines, and everything wrapped in so much echo it all seems to be doubling back on itself, with Eldritch's unearthly screams piercing, siren-like, from out of the aural fog. It's the addictive tension between control and chaos, between the metronomic machine beat and the guitars, raging and thrashing then dropping back to just the bass and echoing slivers of dread, and Eldritch cold and still at the centre, all poise and pose, mic lead coiling and uncoiling, channeling this vast ocean of painful emotion, but letting it through, drip by drip, 'til one by one the cracks begin to show, the dam wall threatening to burst…
“Doomy is just a housewife's word for realistic” – Eldritch
The Sisters of Mercy appeal to people who love the intellect and the irony in their music, the arch political commentaries and the emotional insight, the highly developed aesthetic sensibility and the dry, cutting humour. They also appeal to people who like a loud, stupid, relentless rock & roll noise. And people who like both, of course. They are the perfect balance of Leonard Cohen and The Stooges. They also understand the power and precision of a drum machine in a rock context - after Eldritch's voice, the second factor that divides listeners - perhaps even better than one of their major influences, Suicide, and certainly better than such unsubtle Johnny-come-latelys as Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. In their earliest days, their extended live covers of 'Sister Ray' would stretch Hawkwind-Stooges feedback noise out into near-dub territory, the landscape of Donna Summer and Georgio Moroder's 'I Feel Love,' dropping in and out around the scything constant of that dumbed-down beatbox, dancing in the echo and the strobe. And over it all Eldritch, the former languages student who came up from Cambridge to Leeds to major in Chinese, constructs songs with a poet's precision, drawing not just on Cohen and knowing references to the rock canon, but on the major poets of twentieth century modernism - Eliot in particular, from whom Eldritch has not just borrowed and re-arranged the odd line or image, but has also learnt much about structure and rhythm, the power and tension in an unresolved line. You can go back to Coleridge and Byron too, for that matter. And then forward to Burroughs and Hunter S Thompson. Which is where we came in.
But the Sisters were never really about poetry and experimental noise. They were a rock band. Openly so, when a rock band was the last thing you were meant to be, when all about them proclaimed they were The New Thing, ripping it up to start again. The Sisters though, loved rock, which was why they so often found themselves so bitterly disappointed in it. They loved rock in all its ludicrous grand passion, its over-reaching gestures, its leather trousered, lizard king foolishness, and they knew that only by accepting - nay, embracing - this inherent ridiculousness, could you begin to do any serious work within the form. If rock had, by the 1980s, become merely a repertoire of clichés and reference points, then why not use those clichés and references, both for their original power and for more multi-faceted and knowing purposes? They appropriated the then-discredited mythology of the 1960s, but understood that it was the darkness at the heart of the hippy dream - Manson, Altamont, Performance - that made it interesting and resonant. They played with imagery and expectation, contradiction and paradox. When all alternative bands toed the CND line with unimaginative, po-faced sincerity, Eldritch would talk about nuclear annihilation in interviews in terms of how awe-inspiringly beautiful it would be. On one level, the Sisters have always been a conscious, straight-faced parody of a rock band, but no-one, least of all the band themselves, has ever seemed to know exactly where the joke begins and ends. Certainly they are ironic, but they are also deadly serious. They have always been nuns, and they have always been prostitutes. Jesus Loves The Sisters, because the Sisters believe.
Half a dozen independent singles in four years: from the gonzoid ramalama of 'Body Electric' to the brooding, proto-doom of The Reptile House EP; from that guitar riff on 'Alice', to that guitar riff on 'Temple of Love.' Ben Gunn walked; Wayne Hussey arrived, layering his twelve-string arpeggios and ear for dynamics, detail and melody all over debut album, First and Last and Always. The post-punk darkness was married to an almost folk-rock prettiness, a bizarre collision that shouldn't have worked but did, beautifully, especially on the devastating 'Nine While Nine,' and the two side-closing torch songs 'Marian' and 'Some Kind of Stranger' - Eldritch out-Bowie-ing the dame with his groupie-celebrating rewrite of 'Rock n' Roll Suicide'.
The album reeked of post-speed comedown, and the kind of strung-out lucidity and enervated, controlled hysteria you only get several days into a serious amphetamine binge. So it came as little surprise when the Sisters Mark 1 collapsed soon afterwards; Marx forming the short-lived Ghost Dance, and Hussey and Adams putting together a new band they cheekily named The Sisterhood. This prompted Eldritch to rush-release his own album as The Sisterhood, both to lay claim to the name and supposedly to win a publishing bonus offered to the first party to put out a record. For contractual reasons, Eldritch was a shadowy presence on Gift, with vocals taken by near-soundalike James Ray, of Merciful Release signed band The Performance, and former Motorhead drummer Lucas Fox on the spoken word sections. Also credited was Suicide's Alan Vega and former Gun Club bassist Patricia Morrison, who intoned the phrase “two five zero zero zero” on the album's opening number, 'Jihad'. Some say this was the amount (£25,000) Eldritch won in court from the Hussey-Adams Sisterhood (swiftly renamed The Mission); others that it referred to the publishing bonus he'd won, while others claim that no money was awarded to either party by the courts or the publishers. Whatever, Gift remains a masterpiece, its grinding basslines and the minimal, haunting, Arabic-sounding synth melodies on 'Colours' and 'Rain from Heaven' still sounding entirely contemporary, still hinting at enticing cold wave vistas yet to be fully explored.
But if Gift was Eldritch's experimental phase, his next move was aimed directly at the heart of the pop charts. With the statuesque and photogenic Ms Morrison his sole bandmate, an impressive video budget, a 40-piece choir and Jim 'Bat Out of Hell' Steinman at the production desk, Eldritch resurrected the Sisters of Mercy name for the eleven-minute monster single 'This Corrosion'. A deliberately over-the-top epic of power, corruption and lies, it beat the rock-pop mainstream of 1987 at their own game while remaining genuinely subversive, as was the post-colonial cyber-rock of 'Dominion' – the thinking man's guide to the apocalypse, with Eldritch in trim beard and white linen suit- and the glorious T-Rex on crystal meth charge of 'Lucretia, My Reflection' - like, what if Billy Idol had read Dostoyevsky? All three were drawn from the magisterial Floodland album, in which the pre-Hussey Sisters sound of old was turbo-charged with a more commercial, machine-tooled sheen, all gleaming chrome and dark neon. No longer the provincial post-punk outsiders, the new Sisters were urban(e), assured, European (Eldritch had moved to Hamburg, after all); cruising the streets of Köln in a long black Mercedes, looking out through tinted windows, 'The Passenger' without the ripped backside.
The Sisters Mark II were strictly a studio project; the closest they came to live appearances was miming on Top Of The Pops. But all this changed in 1990 with the emergence of the Sisters Mark III: Tony James replacing Morrison on bass, and the addition of Andreas Bruhn and Huddersfield-born Tim Bricheno, ex-All About Eve and, according to Eldritch, supplying that M62 guitar sound that was crucial to the Sisters aesthetic. As the Sisters went back on the road their third album, Vision Thing, marked yet another dramatic shift in style, towards dense, chugging, minor key industrial rock. Eldritch lent heavily on Bowie at his most paranoid and melodramatic, and the four songs per side deliberately mirrored the balance of hard rock and acoustic ballads on the Stooges' Raw Power. If the title track and 'Dr Jeep' were viciously accurate deconstructions of US foreign policy in the first Gulf War, then 'More' and 'I Was Wrong' (“I was wrong to ever doubt”) found Eldritch taking the scalpel to his own emotional psyche with equal savagery.
Vision Thing was followed by two singles compilations, and a re-recording of 'Temple of Love,' featuring the haunting vocals of Ofra Haza (whom Eldritch had long admired from afar) that gave the band their biggest hit, reaching number three in the UK singles charts. Then, in 1993, with the Sisters reduced again to just a duo (Eldritch and new guitarist Adam Pearson), came perhaps the oddest Sisters release of all: the bizarrely uncharacteristic, almost-AOR of final single, 'Under the Gun', on which Eldritch duets with Berlin's Terri Nunn and, in the final moments, wrenches an empty, hi-gloss power ballad into a lengthy, deranged monologue dissecting the illusion and fantasy of capital-L Love as peddled by the popular music industry. In its way, it's one of the strangest pop records ever made. It's as though Eldritch had decided to make one last, anaesthetised play for the mainstream, then come round at the last minute and spat in its eye instead. And left the building, never to return.
Rumours filled the subsequent silence. Eldritch is at loggerheads with his record company. Eldritch has gone on strike. Eldritch is embroiled in legal action. Eldritch has gone mad, gone to ground in some German ghetto surrounded by 25 television sets and no off switch. Eldritch is dead. But in 1996 the Sisters re-appeared as a live band, consisting of Eldritch, Pearson, the ever-faithful Dr Avalanche and new guitarist Chris Sheehan. And in 1997, Eldritch delivered one final, contract fulfilling album to Warners, entitled Feel No Pain, which he insisted should be credited not to The Sisters of Mercy, but to “the SSV Project”, or more precisely, the acronym SSV-NSMABAAOTWMODAACOTIATW: Screw Shareholder Value- Not So Much A Band As Another Opportunity To Waste Money On Drugs And Ammunition Courtesy Of The Idiots At Time Warner. As Eldritch fully intended, Warners refused to release it, and Eldritch himself dismissed the album as under-average sub-techno. Which is a shame, as taken on its own terms - perhaps as a second Sisterhood album - the record definitely works, an experimental antidote to late 90s Chill Out music, a threatening, pulsing, disconcerting ambience: one long Bad Vibe. Feel No Pain recalls early Tangerine Dream and predicts the unsettling electronic drones of Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never, with fogbound banks of drizzling, spitting synths, a distant muezzin wail, no drums and whispered, barely audible vocals. Apart from the track about three-quarters of the way in, called 'Shut The Fuck Up.' That one's loud and clear. A perfect transmission from the void; the last dying signal from the troubled AWOL genius. One of our rock stars is missing.
The Sisters have continued their never-ending tour in the fifteen years since; passing the twentieth, and now reaching the thirtieth anniversary of the band, with no new record deal, or record releases of any kind, in sight. This is not for want of new material; since 1993, at least a dozen new and unreleased songs have appeared in the Sisters' set lists, with the Pearson/Eldritch composition 'Summer' earmarked for independent single release in 2001, but never seeing the light of day. In 2005, Sheehan was replaced by Chris Catalyst, guitarist with Leeds band Eureka Machines, and in 2006 Ben Christo took the place of Pearson, meaning that songs co-written with former members Pearson, Sheehan and Mike Varjak are even less likely to ever be released. Though this current line-up has also been writing new material, Eldritch has claimed extreme reluctance to deal with record companies or to meet their promotional demands, and of late has cited illegal downloading and the much-publicised meltdown of the global music industry as the reason why it wouldn't be profitable for the Sisters to release a new album. There is also the possibility that after all this time, any new Sisters release, no matter how good, would inevitably be an anti-climax: a possibility that Eldritch declined to comment on in the interview that follows. Yet the Sisters reverberate throughout 2011's better music: from Faris Badwan hanging cadaver-like from the mic stand as The Horrors' widescreen claustrophobia blasts through the dry ice around him, to Moon Duo's experiments in psych guitar, primitive drum machine and echo-laden vocals, and beyond.
We contacted the last of the great white gonzo soul singers by e-mail, and although the answers came back written rather disconcertingly in the third person, the phrasing and the sardonic, if somewhat evasive, humour are distinctly Eldritch. The Sisters' thirtieth anniversary world tour continues to the end of the year, with a sold-out show at London's Roundhouse on November 13th.
Andrew, from clips I've seen of the current tour, you look in better shape and sound in better voice than you have done in years. Do you have a health regime?
Andrew Eldritch/The Sisters: Yes. We may produce a fitness video. Chris is good at rugby league, because he's built like a brick palace. Ben is good at sleeping with people who might possibly be girls, so he has abdominal muscles like a Greek god. Andrew is very good at dancing around with a vicious metal stick, but therein lies our major problem: there are new laws prohibiting the consensual mix of sex and violence.
Do you still enjoy touring?
AE: Chris does. Ben and Andrew could always live without it. Except when they get to Mexico City.
What do you do with your time when you're not on the road?
AE: Andrew is an expert on the history of science-fiction cinema and Japanese sex films. He is also a news junky and a very political animal. Chris is never off the road. Ben Christo is Ben Christo. Be afraid.
Leeds' own Chris Catalyst has been playing in the Sisters since 2006; what difference does it make having a guitarist from the People's Republic of West Yorkshire in the band again?
AE: Never not had one. But he's the best.
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Sisters. What was the scene like in late seventies, early eighties Leeds when you started out? What was your relationship to contemporary bands like Gang of Four and the Mekons?
AE: We always got on very well with the Mekons. Gang Of Four were a bit more aloof, but we still love them, and modern guitarism owes a lot to Andy Gill. Andrew still has a thing about Ros from the Delta 5.
When you started releasing records and touring in the early eighties, you were often derided by the music press for being “rockist”, for daring to celebrate the influence of the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. Yet the likes of Joy Division had the same influences and were press darlings. Why do you think they picked on the Sisters?
AE: Mancs always big themselves up. Easy copy. Yorkshire people self-deprecate. Journalists are cheap and stupid people.
With the debut album First And Last And Always, the Sisters' recordings shifted towards a more psychedelic, 12-string guitar sound that was also somewhat more traditional and accessible. Were you pushing the band in this direction, or was it the influence of Wayne Hussey joining?
AE: It was the influence of Wayne Hussey. Any member can twist the Sisters if they convince. We like that. One of the great things about being in a great band is that you let yourself be convinced. We're all about belief. Everybody in this band, however much they believe in themselves, wants to be a part of something even greater. We want to be better than the sum of our parts. That's the whole point of being in a band.
That would have been a great album if it had been produced better. We decided after that album to produce ourselves, so the record company decided to mark us down for being 'artistic.'
After the original incarnation split, you quickly recorded and released the album Gift under the name The Sisterhood. Regarded at the time as a spoiler to lay claim to the Sisters name, I think it's a great record that still sounds ahead of its time. What are your feelings about that album now?
AE: Andrew still loves it. We still play bits of it in our concerts. Strange how things turn out.
Alan Vega is credited on the sleeve of Gift, but what was his actual involvement with the record?
AE: Andrew went back to Vega's apartment with a DAT recorder, played him the tracks and explained the scenario. Andrew has a permanent visa to Planet Vega, because the two of them get on very well. Nobody else talks to Vega like Eldritch talks to Vega.
What does the line 'two-five-zero-zero-zero' actually refer to?
With the Mark II Sisters, you became a bona fide subversive pop star, infiltrating the mainstream by making great records by their terms as well as your own, and by having a strong visual presence in videos, photo shoots and TV appearances, particularly with Patricia Morrison by your side. Did you make a conscious decision to make the sound more commercial and accessible? And how comfortable did you feel, once you made it into the mainstream pop world?
AE: Comfortable with the music, and not so comfortable with the corporations.
Was the single 'Under the Gun' a deliberate final statement on that phase of your career? Looking back, it seems like after your astonishing monologue in the second half of that song, there's little left to be said and nowhere else to go.
AE: Pop Will Eat Itself? You may be right. Andrew recently wrote 'Far Parade', which is even more absolutely Milan. We think his problem is that he no longer finds it fun to rail against American politics, because American politics are no longer important, what with America about to be the Chinese slaveland and all. Watch this space. Mr Eldritch was studying Mandarin Chinese before he started singing for this band.
In 1993, I saw you onstage in Leeds with Utah Saints, singing on their version of 'New Gold Dream.' Were you tempted to attempt further collaborations along these lines? Do you get many requests to be a guest vocalist on other peoples' songs?
AE: Yes to everything that makes us hard.
In the mid-nineties, you apparently approached Gary Marx to renew your old songwriting partnership; he wrote some music, but you supposedly then backed out of the project without explanation. What happened there?
AE: That is not how it happened.
Mr J Hossain, manager of Mr G Marx: you used our gifted guestlist place to physically abuse the cupcake givers at our anniversary show. Before you even got inside. Because you're a dick. You got thrown out. Stop posting.
You are one of the few rock songwriters whose lyrics stand up as poetry, and in terms of rhythm, metre and phrasing you seem more influenced by poetry - Shakespeare, Eliot - than by other songwriters. To what extent do you approach songwriting as a poet?
AE: It would be nice to think so. One thing Andrew has noticed (as a person who doesn't speak Anglo-Saxon) is that he has inadvertently adopted the rhyming schemes of Anglo-Saxon.
You've continued to write and perform new material in the 18 years since you last released a record. Do you like the idea that people have to make the effort to come to the shows to hear the new songs?
AE: And they know them better than we do.
Would you like to make more records?
AE: Yes, even though nobody in this tech climate can make their money back. Will we? Maybe.
The Sisters Of Mercy play London's Roundhouse on Sunday November 13. More information from thesistersofmercy.com