ILLINOIS ENTERTAINER (cover): The Sisters of Mercy

The Proud Villains


By Tom Lanham

Like many of us over the past three COVID-constricted years, I — as both a journalist and a human being, in general — spent a great deal of time looking back, reflecting on past decisions, discoveries, and early drug-related derailments, and not always comfortably. I’ve made a few mistakes over my crazy, always-colorful 46-year career, and I see it all quite clearly now, in 20/20 retrospect. But suppose there’s one thing I’ve always staunchly stood for. In that case, it’s this: The sheer aesthetic joy of discovering an incredible, inimitable rock and roll band like Leeds, England’s Sisters of Mercy, which revolved around the cryptic, sepulchral crooning of its key founding member, Andrew Eldritch — usually on the ground floor, just as they were starting out (one of the few perks of doing this job for so long — and doggedly championing them to readers from that point forward. Has anyone followed me on my selfless, art-loving journey” I hope so. But ultimately, I have no idea since I detest Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and never took the time to build any kind of social media following. I just didn’t care — I always believed that a single Sisters article, like the first one I penned for a daily paper back in the mid-‘80s, celebrating the band’s definitive official debut disc First and Last and Always — would be enough.

And now, with mortality always on my mind after having nearly died a couple, three times since 2017 (don’t ask; knock wood, I’m still here), I am truly, truly grateful to have had such life-changing epiphanies as that transcendent Goth-rocking album, along with the rest of their finite but formidable catalog (its quantum-leap 1987 followup Floodland, a Tony-James-backed 1990 Goth/metal mashup, Vision Thing, plus an early-singles-and EPs anthology, Some Girls Wander By Mistake”). Toss in other equally-inventive outfits from that halcyon post-punk era, such as The Psychedelic Furs, Echo and the Bunnymen, and, of course, Joy Division and its later incarnation of New Order, and I’ve always had a gale-force wind behind me, billowing my

Reasons-I-Still-Do-This sails. With all that often dark lockdown musing, naturally, came uplifting Sisters of Mercy, like its visceral concert at San Francisco’s Kabuki Theater, when guitarist/frequent-composer Wayne Hussey was still in the group before he and bassist Craig Adams left in 1986 to form The Sisterhood, then The Mission. It was a stunning, you-really-had-to-be there affair, as the black-garbed, bolero-hatted, Rayban-masked musicians took the stage behind monolithic drum machine Doktor Avalanche, barely visible in a chilly miasma of dry-ice vapors. And similarly, it’s hard to describe how any Goth-Club dance floor can immediately spark to life the minute the first few notes take hold from anthemic singles like “Marian,” “Lucretia My Reflection,” and an eleven-minute crescendo called “This Corrosion.” Punks, New Wavers, Metalheads, it didn’t matter — if you were in the house when Eldritch’s voice rattled the rafters with that operatic “Hey, now/ Hey, now, now/ Sing this corrosion to me,” you fucking had to move. Your body had no choice.

And the best part of all this wistful reminiscing? It’s another life lesson hammered home during the lockdown: The Sisters of Mercy, remarkably, still sound equally relevant — and pulse-pounding powerful — today, which is no mean feat. In fact, there were depressing days — or maybe nights — I woke up, and nothing, absolutely fucking nothing could rally my flagging spirit like punching up, say, the band’s classic indictment of Hollywood decadence, “Black Planet,” or it’s grim, rippling “Ribbons.” Two negatives, you might say, always made an existence-affirming positive, and I found the same timeless comfort in the Bunnymen’s classic “Ocean Rain” and the Furs’ “Mirror Moves.” It didn’t matter that Eldritch — for a variety of reasons, including a lengthy contractual dispute with his old UK label, EastWest Records — hasn’t bothered to release another album after Vision Thing (he’s still writing new material, which is then only performed live)— his canon is gold-embossed and eternal, and just waiting to be discovered by each successive generation. I personally do my perpetual-champion part; Over lockdown, throughout the roughly 500 artists I’ve spoken to since March of 2020, I can’t even recall how many young musicians I’ve hipped to Eldritch and company. Many had only heard about their bass-heavy power, but all were intensely curious about their unique sound and swore they were going to unearth the Sisters catalog. And who knows/ Maybe it will help shape their various songwriting approaches, or maybe not. All I know is I once again played my simple synaptic role. As I tell every artist I personally pick to support at the interview’s end: “You made a great album. Now I’ll do my part and spread the word!” And I fucking damn sure mean it.

It makes perfect sense, then, that Eldritch — who turns a Beatles-celebrated 64 exactly four days after I do this May — would reconnect with me in an appropriately curious fashion. When my home phone incessantly rang one recent Saturday morning, I angrily picked up the receiver to hear a telemarketing-polite voice address me by name and inquire if it was actually me. To which I snarled, “Yeah. So who the fuck are you?” There was a pause, a polite throat-clearing cough, then an unfazed, gentlemanly, “This is Mr. Andrew Eldritch. And I heard you wanted to talk to me?” And I did. For the current North American Sisters of Mercy tour. But I had zero expectation of an interview ever happening with this notoriously reclusive rock star.

Yet this is the spontaneous way the man works. He has no email account, so he was basically phoning up to schedule the chat himself for the next morning. “And set a couple of hours aside because I intend to ramble,” he vowed. A promise he delivered on — our talk lasted for nearly two hours and pin-balled from our mutual friendship with the late, great Mark Lanegan (turns out the Sisters were occupying a rehearsal studio next to Lanegan and his touring ensemble right before he passed, he recalled, “And the more we pressed our ears to the wall, listening, the more we thought, ‘Hey! He kind of sounds like us now!’”) to the reasons why Floodland has no discernible date stamp. “I think that’s because, immediately after punk, there was a lot of iconoclasm going on,” he swears. “And we didn’t agree with that. We were all for bringing back some of the elements of what is now called Classic Rock, so we reintroduced a few of those elements, and I think The Bunnymen did the same thing, and The furs most certainly did, and all those other bands from that era that are still with us.”

Eldritch quickly, delightfully proved to be just what I’d expected him to be — a devout disciple of culture who takes his cinema, literature, photography, and fine art every bit as seriously as he does his music, a Taurean trait and the same way I’ve always lived my life.

And again, I hope you readers are pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down.

IE: We were born four days apart back in 1959, so we’re both Tauruses. And you even wrote a song about it called “1959.” What is the significance of that year to you now?

ANDREW ELDRITCH: Firstly, it has no particular significance to me. And secondly, I wouldn’t even know what my star sign was unless everyone else kept pointing it out to me. What if I worked with a different zodiac? What if I were another nationality that — unlike Americans — isn’t addicted to astrology? What if I was Chinese? I’d be a different animal altogether.

IE: 1959 is the Year of the Pig.

AE: I didn’t know that! And that’s because I don’t care.

IE: Soooo…what do you care about right now?

AE: Uhhh….(pause) Lots of things. As you know, I watch a lot of films, but recently I’ve been reading a lot of books, and I follow politics avidly. So I care most of all about civil rights because I think if you don’t get civil rights, nothing else falls into place. But I haven’t downloaded anything new recently, apart from books.

IE: Well, going back to “1959,” when did you first notice art in your life as a kid? I was reading H.P. Lovecraft at age seven.

AE: I was reading Lord of the Rings when I was four. Where I grew up, nobody really much talked to each other, so I just locked myself in a roomful of books that nobody ever read and worked my way through them — English translations of DeBalzac, Maupassant, and rubbish like Agatha Christie and rubbish like Lord of the Rings. I would read the back of a cornflakes packet. And I always had a library card because of the roomful of books that nobody ever read. These were all posh editions, the kind of books that aspiring parents buy by the yard because they look good when you rack ‘em all up, with those faux-leather covers with horrible colored lettering on them. So I had a library card, as well, and the first thing that blew me away — that I picked out by myself — was Ringworld by Larry Niven. It’s seminal science fiction, and I’ve been addicted to science fiction ever since. I’m not so much of a Heinlein fan, though — I don’t like his ideas, and I don’t think he can write. So I ended up where anybody sensible ends up, which is Philp K. Dick for the ideas, and Kurt Vonnegut for the writing.

IE: Once I moved to San Francisco, I drifted into French surrealists, like Huysmans, Lautreamont, and Octave Mirbeau. And, of course, decadent poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and Verlaine.

AE: Ah. Well, unfortunately, I was forced to read Baudelaire and Verlaine as a child at school. And this was before high school, even, so I got fed up with them because I had to read them. So I don’t read any French literature now. Or rather, I haven’t, by choice, read any French literature much since I stopped having to learn French, and I learned French for thirteen years of my life, and that’s a very long time. So that’s a lot of books — and whole genres, really — that got poisoned for me. But one person I came across after university was Alain Robbe-Grillet, and I like him very much.

IE: Are you into all the pulp authors, like I am? Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is just definitive.

AE: I should read more of it, but I tend to gravitate to movies for that or certain TV shows. Like Hap and Leonard, I thought, was brilliant.

IE: Joe R. Lansdale! Who wrote possibly the creepiest short story ever, “The Night They Missed the Horror Show.” Equaled only by Ray Bradbury’s “The October Game,” with its stunning final line, “And then some idiot turned on the lights.”

AE: Oh, I do like Ray Bradbury. And that should be the opening line of something, shouldn’t it?

IE: A larger question: Why haven’t you written your own novel or screenplay?

AE: I’ve read a lot of books in my life, and I know what a good book is. And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t match up, so I’m intimidated, basically. Whereas in my field of lyric writing, nobody else does what I do. You might not like it, but it’s what I do.

IE: Viscerally, the quantum leap forward you took on Floodland is still almost inexplicable. You took the reins from Wayne Hussey and just blasted off into the stratosphere.

AE: Well, that was very much a ship of my own construction, a ship of my own steering. The business side of it was quite difficult at the time. There was a lot of shenanigans going on, and the record company couldn’t decide who they wanted to back. But on the other hand, I didn’t have a lot of band shenanigans to deal with, so that was nice. And the band — or the name, shall we say — was successful enough to command a budget, so I just put myself in the studio and got on with it.

IE: Looking back on “Vision Thing,” too, it’s weird to note that the song was about the senior George Bush long before Junior came along. Were there songs you wrote about Junior?

AE: I was hard-pressed to think of a more stupid administration than that of Bush, the elder. I thought, ‘Surely America’s going to wake up to this stupidity!” But it’s only gotten worse, and now it’s beyond satire. And it’s mostly beyond lyric writing because you couldn’t make it up. There’s no adequate way to describe the recent orange shit show.

IE: How do you get your news? I subscribe to the New York Times or local Chronicle and even read USA Today and watch Good Morning America for their capsule but potent-sized infotainment slant.

AE: I read three or four British newspapers every day. Not cover to cover, but I read the Guardian, the Telegraph, and I read the Mail ‘cause I like to see what the other side’s up to. But it’s always the same stuff. I watch MSNBC, I watch a little bit of Fox — again, just to see what the other side’s up to — and for light entertainment, politically, I’ll watch “The Young Turks,” which is a YouTube thing. It’s very good, and for an independent outlet, they’re very slick. And it is entertaining. And I’m a big John Oliver (“Last Week Tonight”) fan, and I’m a big fan of Seth Myer’s “Closer Looks” slot, and I read Salon. I used to read Slate until they said something bad about me. And not because it was bad but because it was ignorant. I can’t even remember what it was, but it was something that, within the context of the article, they should have gotten right, but they didn’t. But I imbibe a lot of stuff, right across the spectrum, because you always have to know what’s going on, on both sides. And I read the German papers, sometimes French, but not every day, and sometimes occasionally an Italian one, a Spanish one, or a Dutch one, just to keep up, and also because I don’t need to atrophy in all these languages. I can hold a conversation in about seven or eight languages, and I’m pretty good at reading twelve to fifteen, I would say. And it impresses the hell out of people at European press conferences when I don’t need a translator. And sometimes, it impresses the local record company if they’re halfway decent. It was noticeable that the minute I moved to Germany, in the same town as the record company — whose personnel I interacted with a lot — our sales rose markedly.

IE: But you’re back in Leeds now, right?

AE: Yeah, but not by design. I just had some stuff here to take care of before I’m somewhere else. I have no family, and that’s fine by me. I’ve never had a wife, I’ve never had children, I’ve never had a mortgage — I don’t rent, I just buy for cash. But I do have pets, usually three cats, but because my main residence is semi-rustic, there’s quite a lot of natural danger lurking for cats. So whereas I would normally have three, one goes through phases of attrition, and I’ve got the one now, at the moment. I don’t know exactly how old he is — he was a stray, so he’s probably about twelve, and he’s called Organ Morgan, and it’s a character in a radio play by a gentleman called Dylan Thomas.

IE: Not to make light of it, but when the pandemic hit, and we were instructed to stay inside our houses, away from other people, and avoid any close interaction, I thought, “Fine. Done.” I was already headed in that misanthropic direction anyway. How about you?

AE: Same. Except I was for a while banged up in one room with a crazy woman. I’m not good at picking girlfriends. They’re very good at picking me. She was with me during the pandemic or part of it. But it was her flat, so she was allowed to be extra-crazy.

IE: You’ve shaven your head now, too. But does anybody even recognize you walking down the street?

AE: No, because I haven’t got my shades on when I’m just walking down the street.

IE: What are some of your craziest shows that you were amazed you survived?

AE: There was one secret warmup gig that we did in a pub in Leeds. And we have a tendency to do that, and our secret gigs really are secret — we only announce them on the day of the gig, and we don’t tell the press. So it’s not like the secret gigs that everyone else does, and we always play for free, and we do them wherever’s practical, and we play as Neo Meth experience. Anyway, this particular pub wasn’t exactly suited — I mean, it was designed for bands, but not a band that packs people in twice as many as there should be. So this was the hottest gig I’ve ever done, and I wasn’t the only one onstage who thought this — I really thought I was gonna die. It was unbelievably hot, so that was one where I thought, “I’m not getting out of here!”

IE: Coming through the last few years and nearly dying a couple of times along the way, I have a whole sense of — and respect for — mortality now. You?

AE: Well, I’m writing the best stuff I’ve ever written. So I guess there’s hope. And for everybody, really.

IE: When will it be recorded? We need it!

AE: Hmmm. Maybe I don’t.

IE: Are you just going to continue performing it live?

AE: Well, it’s what we started off doing, and it served us well. But you know, people have been asking me this question for a long time now. But I’ve never been asked this question by anybody in a band or a record company. They know. And I think you’d better ask someone who has to put out a record and ask them whether they enjoyed the process. And I’ve got other stuff to do, man. I’ve been watching a lot of anime. Again. And I’ve got a list of 5,000 books on my short list of stuff to read, and I’ve got 10,000 films on my short list of films to watch. I thought the other day about starting to watch the whole of “Gundam,” but I don’t think I’ve got that many years left in me.

IE: Book-wise, what have you been into?

AE: I really like the Ibis trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. I liked the first one a lot, the others not so much. And during lockdown, I read all the Michael Chabon books, and I loved it; I loved it all, and I read all the ones that I hadn’t got around to reading. And that was nice.

IE: I really enjoyed Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica. It felt very pandemic-appropriate, as it imagines a Dystopian world where disease has killed all livestock everywhere, so there is no more meat. But then, suddenly, there’s meat.

AE: Ah. I sense where this is going. It’s almost a Never Let Me Go –Ishiguro scenario.

IE: Or, Charlton Heston screaming, “It’s people! Soylent Green is people!

AE: Oh yeah! And I’ve watched Soylent Green again recently, and it really does hold up. And pretty much every year, if not more often, I make sure to watch the Holy Trifecta of ‘70s science fiction films, which are Soylent Green, Silent Running, and Rollerball. Rollerball is one of my favorite films ever. I don’t think it’s the best film ever — my best film ever is a film called Bunraku, which nobody’s ever heard of. But it’s got Woody Harrelson, Josh Hartnett, Demi Moore, and Ron Perlman, and it’s like a very updated Batman, but the 1966 version.

IE: Who do you actually socialize with on that level in Leeds? Just hang out with and talk?

AE: When he’s not busy, and he does keep himself busy, I talk to Chris May, who doesn’t live far from where I am in Leeds at the moment — he used to be our guitar player, and we’re still friends. Otherwise, a lot of my friends from Leeds, somewhere between five and ten years ago, died. I haven’t been to a funeral for a while, but there was a period where I seemed to be flying in a lot for funerals. And we lost two tour managers in the space of a year, and that wasn’t good because you know how the tour manager is like the father figure of any outfit on the road.

IE: And Jim Steinman died, too, the Meat Loaf producer who built your majestic “This Corrosion.”

AE: Yeah, but he was trying to sue me because he was obviously completely broke. So, uh, I don’t miss the idea of that. But that’s not really my world anymore. Although a couple of years ago, I did the music for Paris Fashion Week, and the fella I was doing it for said, “So — where do you want to sit?” And I said, “I’m not coming! That’s not my world!”

IE: Talk to me like I’m five. How did you put the music together? Did you write it, curate it, what?

AE: Well, the crazy woman (mentioned above) used to work in the fashion industry, and this particular fella — who is still, I believe, the chief designer at Balenciaga — is a friend of hers, and we just met over coffee one day, and he wanted me to do a range of clothes for him, which I may or may not get around to. Because, like I say, the fashion industry is really not my world. So how did I approach the music? Well, I know what they want — they want something that’s constantly loud and in this case, uptempo. Another designer recently approached me, off the back of the Balenciaga thing, and wanted something morosely slow. But the Balenciaga people wanted something uptempo and constantly loud, so I gave them some constantly loud, uptempo electronica. And I never have to worry about the quality of my guitar playing if I stick to electronica. Because although I played all the guitars on Floodland, apart from one solo, that’s the last time I played guitar in anger. I’ve left that up to other people because, after Floodland, the duration of the band has been a touring band, so I’ve always had guitar players around, so I’ve gotta give them something to do, or they get deviant.

IE: There’s a moment after the “heel to haunch” spoken-word bridge on “This Corrosion” where the huge chorus kicks in, and it’s probably one of the greatest moments in rock and roll.

AE: Well, you should hear the demo version! In fact, not only you but I should hear the demo version, but I’ve got no idea where it is. In Yorkshire, before we went to New York to do the actual version that you’ve heard, I did a demo version at a small eight-track place which had a completely different vibe to it. I mean, it was still monstrous, but the underpinnings of the track — particularly the acoustic guitar — had a lot of swing to it, and it really slid back and forth in a really swingy fashion. And I was disappointed when that got ignored when we came to make the actual record in New York. Because Steinman didn’t care about underpinnings — he only cared about the stuff on top, like the choirs and the pianos, and that’s it.

IE: And be careful what you wish for. In “Dominion/Mother Russia,” you intone, “Mother Russia rain down.” And sure enough, Mother Russia is raining down as we speak.

AE: Didn’t Trump say this week that 1) He could end the Russo-Ukrainian War in a day, and 2) He’d do it by surrendering? He’d give away land to the Russians because a lot of those people in Ukraine already speak Russian! Now, by this token, given that he can barely speak English, I think he should give America back, and the bits that England doesn’t get obviously belong to the Spanish.

IE: Or maybe the Native Americans, who cared for the land before anybody?

AE: Yeah. We might have to then pass it back to the Native Americans. But it would take us a while because we’re still arguing with the Greeks about their statues.

IE: How do you get your books? I imagine you’re all tactile, page-turning hard copy guy, not reliant on the e-reader.

AE: No, I love my e-readers! I’ve got a few, and I do download the books. My eyesight is getting constantly worse, and I find it hard to read the printed page because I can’t adjust the font size. So I read a lot in bed, and when everything is one-sided paper — which it effectively is with an e-reader — you don’t have to keep manipulating the book in order to keep reading it. If you’ve ever tried to read while lying on your side, it’s very difficult to hold a book up properly. And to stop the book from closing. It’s not as easy as just propping up an e-reader and pressing to Turn the Page. And it’s backlit!

IE: What are some of your favorite newer Sisters songs?

AE: I like them all for different reasons. And funnily enough, one of the most powerful ones — or powerful to me, at least — is one called “Eyes of Caligula,” which is like my final word on Thatcher. And I say ‘unusually’ because it doesn’t have the monster riff that one would associate with our most powerful songs. And there’s a bunch of stuff on our Live News Page on our website, so you can peruse that at your leisure. We put all the newer song lyrics up there, so people don’t get vacant on us.

IE: Just playing devil’s advocate here, but how do you put food on the table when you’re not recorded for so many years? And do you regularly accept challenging offers like the Fashion Week gig?

AE: Well, I didn’t get paid for that, and I didn’t take payment for that because I didn’t want the responsibility that goes along with being paid for shit. But I’ve sold a lot of records, and I still sell a lot of records, so the royalties keep coming in. And my main residence has a lot of fruit trees, which are harvested on a commercial basis — mostly avocados, but all kinds of citrus, as well, including kinds you’ve never heard of. And we don’t think in acres, but I’m hooked up to the local farmers; co-op, so twice a year, a bunch of people come ‘round and pick fruit. And the co-op belongs to a bigger organization with an even bigger warehouse, so then my fruit all gets packed up and distributed.

IE: How is your house appointed? Spartan or dusty and cluttered, like 1313 Mockingbird Lane?

AE: The first thing I did was take all the sculptures off the walls, and then I took all the curtains down, took the curtain rails down, and I repainted everything completely white, with no pictures on the walls. It’s got a bit of a Japanese vibe to it, or maybe Mediterranean. But there is one picture I bought locally that I have up, but it’s a picture with bits of string and wood glued onto it, and it’s pretty fragile. But anyway, I took it down because it’s too fragile, and I don’t want the cleaning person to even try dusting it, basically.

IE: I don’t trust anyone who won’t drive five U.S. states over to purchase the last remaining rarity that will complete their particular set. What do you collect?

AE: Well, I’ve got a small collection of Afghan war rugs from the Soviet invasion times. I don’t know whether you can find pictures online, but it is definitely a thing because the Afghans tend to weave history into their carpets, as it happens. They don’t just do the ornamental, decorative stuff — they weave tanks, helicopters, and rocket-propelled grenades onto their stuff, and some of the rugs are long and thin, what we call runners. And some of them are normal carpet shapes, about the footprint of a compact car.

IE: I always wondered about the huge power behind your drum machine, Doktor Avalanche. But you started in music as a drummer, so percussion is very important to you, right?

AE: Yeah. I care about it. And actually, we haven’t changed the programming, but we’ve changed the sound a bit, in as much as we’ve got a new sound man these days, and the Doktor sounds meatier, which I think is an improvement. And I do care about percussion, and I like to adjust the hi-hats and the shakers, all the little metalwork things, by little ticks, backward and forwards. And you don’t hear the difference, but you feel the difference. People think if you’ve got a drum machine — or you’re playing samples as if they were a drum machine — that everything is quantified, and it’s not. And what I’m saying is it is possible to program feel.

IE: Well, we’ve had quite the discussion. It could probably go on forever.

AE: When I talk to people, increasingly these days, they are people without general knowledge. So I talk to my cat. He likes being talked to, and for him, it’s as good as being stroked or cuddled. And he knows that it comes from a loving place. But when I talk to most people, they don’t perceive my voice in the same way at all. But hey — everybody likes a villain, right?

And I think our recent songs are making it clearer that — never mind the author — even the narrator doesn’t want to be perceived as some cowering villain. Because sometimes he’s a proud villain!

Appearing June 6 at The Salt Shed, Chicago.