Steeling himself for a three-night residency at the London's iconic Roundhouse this weekend, Sisters Of Mercy leader Andrew Eldritch joins Louder by phone from a hotel parking lot, "…because I smoke cigarettes and they don’t let you do that in hotel rooms."
Over the course of a wide-ranging interview, here Eldritch discusses his 40 years in the Sisters, the current “energised” line-up, their “savage”, “cruel” and “political” new songs, and why they've released no new records since 1993.
Elsewhere he waxes lyrical about his love of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Takeshi Kitano’s yakuza films, and the genius of Peter O’Toole. Eldritch also reveals details of his forthcoming exercise video and the secrets of his tried and tested anti-cockroach tactics.
Mark Andrews: ‘BEACH’ is one of the two capitalised words on the landing page of the Sisters’ official website. Does it summarise your feelings about being in the Sisters for forty years, the huge amount of leisure time that it has enabled especially?
Andrew Eldritch: I’ve spent the whole of my adult life being almost responsible. I take responsibility seriously, but I know that rock‘n’roll is stupid. It’s a fine line. So, it is what that word means.
We have a new song called On The Beach. Then, it takes on a whole other dimension also. It’s about being an ex-patriot quite literally – and it’s also about being stuck between worlds, not necessarily of one’s own volition.
The other word is ‘REDEMPTION’.
I’m still waiting for that! I’m told you have to earn it.
Have you not? It’s a commonly held view that Eldritch these days is a much more agreeable fellow than Eldritch of the 1980s.
I don’t regret anything, but I’m sure other people regret stuff where I was present.
You’ve never considered the paths not followed? There’s nothing you’d have rather done than be a rock star?
A cardinal. I like the dress. In fact, it’s not far off what I’m doing now. I’ve never considered those paths not followed. The only time it would have been easier would have been in the first few years and the only reason one was in a band in the first few years was to stave off getting a proper job. And after that, I’ve not had to have one – and I like it that way. It’s not as if there aren’t travails, but they’re better than other people’s travails. I know how privileged I am.
So, to quote Lou Reed, was your life “saved by rock ‘n’ roll?
That would be too reductive.
Some observers – and even fans – think you should be doing more with the Sisters.
I thought two albums were mighty fine and I don’t think I owe anybody anything. Also, all the people who tell me how I could run my career better, well they haven’t been running a band for 40 years and aren’t playing three nights at the Roundhouse.
So, no sense whatsoever of having under-achieved? You have no truck with the “Oh, he could have been like Nick Cave or David Byrne” school of thought?
No. I could bend some of my own personal rules and do a lot of stuff I don’t want to do to be either richer or more famous. But thank you, I’m quite famous enough. Right now, I’m wandering around a hotel car park and I’m not being papped. I don’t get papped at any of the various buildings in which I live from time to time.
Unfortunately, UK Border Control know exactly who I am but they don’t make a big meal of it. I’ve got a few cars; I’m fine. Everybody says: “You invented Goth and you are the Supreme Overlord of Darkness” and I think: “Keep writing that and somebody will book me for ridiculous money and that will help maintain my swimming pool.”
The most ridiculous amounts must have been offered to reform ‘classic’ versions of the band?
Yeah, and I’ve been offered money just to play the first album (First And Last And Always). They haven’t asked me on Strictly but I’m sure it’s coming. When they see my fitness video they’ll think twice. My fitness video is going to be something quite special.
Security cam footage of you smoking in a car park for 90 minutes?
Oh you’ve ruined it now. Spoiler alert. Actually, it’s probably going to be me on the top deck of the Sunset Marquis right next to their swimming pool, in a deck chair. We already took a picture there once: me and Tony James on deck chairs and he’s holding up a newspaper, which says ‘Black Horizon’. There couldn’t be more of a juxtaposition.
I have seen a snap of you from 1983 on a white deck lounger at the Tropicana in Los Angeles in full black leather jacket and trousers regalia.
Oh, I loved that place! It smelt really strongly of that anti-cockroach stuff which covers America, but that was no deterrent to the cockroaches there.
“Hell is probably run by cockroaches,” you once commented. How did you put up with those low-rent US hotels like the Tropicana and the Iroquois?
The trick is to never unzip your suitcase or the cockroaches will have a field day and then you end up taking them home with you. Even when I went to interview David Bowie he had a cockroach crawling across the room while I was desperately trying to focus.
You’ve never been sufficiently disillusioned with the Sisters to number-crunch a Johnny Ramone-style exit ie. “this many shows + this many T shirts sold = retirement”?
No. I only do the parts of being in a band I want to do and when I want to do them. And that is never a response to public demand, or even private demand. I just do what I want. Sometimes I don’t write songs for a year; sometimes I write six songs in a month. Sometimes we play for three months; sometimes we just do three gigs. We just do what we feel like.
I don’t want to do anything else and I don’t want to retire. I think the newer songs are better – and I’ve been doing this a long time and I think I was pretty good in the mid-period and then on – so I’m pretty chuffed about it. The new line-up, drafting Dylan (Smith) in the band, for whatever reason, he’s energised us creatively in a way that nobody saw coming.
Certainly not me. Ben Christo and Dylan brought some material to you and you rehearsed it around August/September 2019.
It got the juices flowing. Then I went back to my Gothic castle in Bavaria and in about six weeks had come up with eight songs and I still think they’re good. I think my contribution is always going to be so distinctive, so if I write all the music, the songs are going to sound the same, so I’m hoping the lads are getting on with making it a bit more like them.
I saw the Sisters alter-ego band Near Meth Experience in Antwerp in September 2019 and it was instantly apparent there was something different, not just because there was giant Australian on stage.
Dylan’s just a rock monster! Musically he’s got the chops, but he joined us because he’s a fantastic rhythm guitar player – that’s all I was basically interested in at the time; I’m discovering the depth of his talent now. When we first got all together in that rehearsal space in Belgium – wow: things started happening. But I can’t tell you what he brings exactly; I’m so inside of it, I can’t see it, but the chemistry is definitely different. Even Ben is more revved up.
Is it significant that those rehearsals took place in Europe?
Now we are based the other side of the Channel, two of us feel a lot more comfortable. We made plans for Brexit the day after the vote was announced. We did a lot more preparation than the British government has ever done. But right now we’re rehearsing in a building in the North of England where we’ve rehearsed before, which I kind of own, and everything seems to be going OK.
One of the new songs is Show Me. Is it as nasty as it seems?
It’s directed at a societal problem not a person, so I prefer ‘savage’.
But Genevieve – about the end of a relationship – is that also a savage song?
The narrator thinks it’s almost mutual because there’s a casualness to the delivery, especially the timing of “it’s time.” There’s such a degree of antici………..pation, to quote Tim Curry. It’s not super silly like that, but I definitely deliver that last word behind the off-beat, so the casualness of it says: “I think we know where this wasn’t going.” We have a great song called Don’t Drive On Ice and that one I will admit is cruel.
Eyes Of Caligula is also listed on the Live page of the Sisters website. Is that finished?
We’re working on that. I have a definite chord progression in my head. Let’s see what the lads make of it.
Its bloodline seems to go back to an 80s song like Valentine.
Exactly the same sentiment. But that really is my final word on Thatcher.
You already mentioned On The Beach.
I’m clearly having a go at the Thatcherite legacy there but it’s about being… not sure about which way you want to be facing and still feeling stranded. But being on the beach is something that seems to suit me, in both senses. Not everyone can live on a beach, but I seem to have been quite good at it; I’m not sure I would fit into society. I can observe it a little bit from the outside. It’s clearly a completely political song.
In fact, there are twenty new songs listed on the Live page.
Not all of them in a fit state to play at the Roundhouse, but some of them are.
Have more things been whipped into shape since the last tour in early 2020 that haven’t been heard live yet?
Yes. But we don’t decide on a set-list till about an hour before showtime. We intend to play three new songs every night. Different ones too. I know a lot of people – I know their faces, I know their names, I know where their children live – who have bought tickets for all three nights because they know they’re going to get a different set each night and they’re going to get different new songs every night.
Some people will be getting tested and flying in from other countries.
I know and it’s bloody difficult. I had a hell of a time getting into England from the slightly more southern place where I was living when I had to fly to England.
Certain arcane words seem to have crept into recent lyrics: sinecure, rievers, chevaliers.
Chevaliers has absolutely nothing to do with Sir Philip Green, unless you think it does. And Sir Robert Maxwell. Unless you think it does.
Hence the reference to boats also. Has Sir Philip Green fallen off the back of his, like Maxwell, by any chance and I’ve missed that news?
Oh, I wish.
Anyone expecting that these songs will become singles, EPs or albums should still their beating hearts, I assume?
Here’s my stock answer, which I’ve been delivering for thirty years: We have no immediate plans to record or release. Because we don’t have to.
You must be wavering though, surely?
I’ve been wavering for thirty years but you have to remember that I had a very traumatic experience at the end of my relationship with Warner’s...
So did they!
…but we’ve been doing very well for ourselves since. It ain’t broke; we’re not looking to fix it.
You managed to get dropped as a fully recouped artist by Warner’s. And twenty years before that, you managed to get sent down from Oxford from a French and German course despite being highly gifted at languages. Both are really hard to do.
(Laughs loudly) I quit Oxford because they wouldn’t let me change to Chinese. I hated Oxford.
I had no money and it was run by posh people for posh people. It was still very much a class-ridden place. The entire first year of the German course was studying nineteenth century Viennese popular comedy, which trust me, was neither popular nor comedic. A whole year of that! That was soul-destroying.
So you are not itching to get into a recording studio. What was the best time you’ve ever had in one?
With Kenny Giles in Bridlington [at KG, where the Sisters made all their singles and EPs from Body Electric to The Reptile House,1981-83]. He knew we were doing things people weren’t supposed to do. He saw some value in it, which even I didn’t see at the time and he was happy to indulge us and he was a lovely fella. He was interested in the way I abused the equipment, deploying it for jobs it was never designed to do.
And what about Jim Steinman? Would you have rather produced This Corrosion yourself?
I would have liked to produce everything under the top deck because Steinman doesn’t really care about the rhythm section, or whether it swings or grooves or is tight as a duck’s arse – he really doesn’t care. Steinman cares about the superstructure above the top deck – choirs, pianos, bassoons.
I really liked working with Jim. He was a really intelligent, articulate fellow. I remember one evening when some Dolby recalibration or something like that was going on, we started to recast Macbeth with figures from popular entertainment. He could switch to doing that because he knows Macbeth. You can’t do that with most rock’n’roll producers.
Was he an eccentric? I’ve heard stories about his inability to order from a menu properly.
Yes. He just used to order everything and then see what he liked when it arrived. If you’ve sold thirty million albums, why not?
The choir was his idea then?
No. I always wanted a choir, but he came up with this very Busby Berkeley arrangement for this tune he’d written for an intro. And I said, “Well, I’m just not having that. Sounds silly to me.” I went over to the piano – and I can’t play keyboard – I sort of banged a few keys and hummed what I thought it should be. So I wrote the intro, including all the descant parts.
And his other main contributions to Sisters songs in your view?
He got a fantastic saxophone player in for Dominion. I adored those saxophone tracks – backward as much as forwards.
The bits of More that sound like Cat People by David Bowie are obviously you though.
Do they really? That’s a brilliant record but I’ve never made that connection.
Nevertheless, is Bowie insufficiently recognised as a musical reference point for the Sisters?
I never attempted to make a David Bowie record. When I was a kid all his records just sounded other-worldly.
Diamond Dogs, Station To Station and Low: lots of Sisters elements seem to me to derive from there.
I guess they must do but you could probably, if you want to stretch a point, say the same thing about Sweet or Mud.
If it was me, I would have stopped after Low: goodnight Vienna.
Are the Sisters still a Leeds band?
I think we’ve retained our Northern Englishness, but we have a very, very European outlook. And I don’t think those two things are in conflict and it appals me that half of Britain thinks you can’t be both.
The Sisters Of Mercy are obviously having to deal with Brexit-related shit for the Roundhouse shows. And there will be different shades of that shit later on for the band’s EU dates in 2022.
We lost two tour managers in a year (to COVID-19). We’re on Number Three now and he’s been very good. When we had to raise a carnet in Belgium to get all our equipment into England, he made that happen and it was very smooth. It’s back like the old days: you need work visas for every single damn country; you need a carnet every time you cross a border, even an internal border within the EU weirdly. And with COVID regulations also in effect, it’s a real pain in the arse and it’s really expensive. Basically, our costs have doubled.
Our audience knows we’re good Europeans and we know they like us. It’s a governmental and logistics thing. Between us the band members speak half the European languages; we’re assiduous at making friends.
There is a great deal of warmth and love from your audience towards you personally. You definitely feel that?
But you don’t interact with your audience much?
I think you’ll find that they like the fact that I acknowledge the presence of the fourth wall – and go nowhere near it. If the songs don’t say everything you have to say, you’re not writing good enough songs. Just like you don’t need to be Instagramming my breakfast to connect with you.
I tend to see the band in Belgium.
That’s just a love-fest! The more retrograde, recidivist bits of Eastern Europe, not quite so much. The problem is usually not so much with the audience but with the local crew being complete and utter Nazis.
We are now banned from Hungary apparently. That boat (A38 Ship) we used to play a lot was acoustically my favourite venue ever, but we like the gays and we think Orban’s a dick and we’ve not been afraid to say so.
You’ve mentioned that there has been military element in your family over several generations. Do you think that’s manifested in you at all? Isn’t there something of ‘going over the top’ or leading a platoon or a company about leading a rock band?
I honestly wouldn’t know. At school, one of the schools I went to was an ‘old school’ school and on a Friday afternoon you had to be in the cadet force or do conscientious objecting. I did conscientious objecting. I think the only military influence I have is my clipped manner of speech.
Are sundry Spinal Tap-isms still the inevitable by-product of touring, even now? Case in point: the smoke machine setting off the fire alarms in Copenhagen in 2019 and the venue needing to be evacuated.
I own a corporation in America, which is basically a financial vehicle for doing American tours and it’s called Hello Cleveland Inc. Of course there are Tap moments. It’s still the best a documentary about rock‘n’roll there ever was. I haven’t done every episode of it, but I’ve seen it, if I’ve not done it myself.
What do you think the Sisters on stage provide for their fans of an evening in a darkened room?
Intelligence and energy and as many nice lights as we can afford. We don’t like to be overlit, but we care about lights, we interact with them.
How much do you need to discuss and collaborate with the lighting designer about that?
For the last six or seven years we’ve had lighting designers who didn’t do any designing at all; they just shut up and operated the buttons. I told them what lights we wanted, where to put them, what colour gels we were going to be using, what root colour each song was. I was the one who said we needed some mirrors and got them fabricated. Unfortunately, not the mirrors I wanted, which were so long you can’t fit them up the back stairs of a venue.
Hence, the lighting design of Sisters shows is still very Eldritchian.
It’s taken a bit of a shift recently because we’ve decided to go for shadow instead of smoke cloud. I prefer smoke cloud, but I’m learning to adapt. Right now we’re on a mirrors and thin beams kick.
It’s still in that psychedelic and Expressionist heritage...
I force all my LDs to watch The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari.
...with a touch of Albert Speer, the use of searchlights.
Internally, we call them zeppelin-hunters. I would like five vertical columns at the back to do the root colour. Then the super super thin beams from the side to the front and then the zeppelin-hunters, which we also call back-burners because when they are actually doing their job, I can feel their heat on my back. Those fuckers are incredibly hot.
Does your knowledge of Expressionism come from German theatre as well as film?
No. Most of my training is in post-war German theatre. I know about Expressionism… because I like it, but I’m not trained it. I’m pretty sure I came across it in some Peter Lorre B movie and worked my way back to F W Murnau.
Some of the best Expressionist lighting is in American and European genre films of 30s, 40s and 50s.
And if you add colour it ties directly to my love of Mario Bava. He did lots of stuff, but I’m more of a fan of his when he was doing strange – often science fiction – colour films. At the time, his use of colour was out-fucking-rageous.
What’s the best use of a Sisters song in a film?
I have spent quite a lot of time trying to get music off films. Because they didn’t have Denis Hopper in them! The last one I saw was The Brass Teapot. They took the music for Giving Ground, sampled the riff, put a rap tune over it and put it on the film without asking me, paying me or telling me. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it was Juno Temple in a spanking scene. So I can’t be too upset about that but they should have asked me, they should have told me and they should have paid me.
I was going to suggest Head On.
I did not know about that.
In German, it’s Gegen Die Wand. It has the 1992 version of Temple Of Love over a scene of a couple getting revved up in their kitchen and then going out to a club.
Ah, hang on, I might have approved that. That rings a bell. They might have asked me and I said, “Fill your boots!”
I want to ask about Escape From New York.
Every week I have a cleaning lady come to my Bavarian castle – which is clearly not Bavarian or a castle – this is the only structure to my life, by the way, other than feeding animals, so once a week I have to set an alarm on my phone. It’s the theme to Escape From New York. I think John Carpenter, apart from Peter Hook, is the only person who writes riffs like I do.
So you answered the question before it was asked.
Feel free to say that I think John Carpenter is a fucking genius as a musician.
There’s a track on the Escape From New York soundtrack called Over The Wall.
It is very Sisters isn’t it? I swear if we did a whole set where I just wrote lyrics to John Carpenter riffs, everybody would say: “Oh, that is so Sisters.” I never deliberately derived anything from Carpenter, but – a bit like Peter Hook – we obviously come from the same place somehow. There’s something is our blood streams that comes from the same place. We are all descended from that same ape. It’s primal.
Continuing with films for a moment, you’re also fan of Peter O’Toole, I believe.
Now you’re an older gentleman do you feel more Alan Swann (from My Favourite Year) or Jeffrey Bernard?
Jeffrey Bernard, but a bit of both - obviously. I did make a pilgrimage to see Peter O’Toole in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell at The Old Vic. I flew into the country especially. It’s hilarious: when the curtain reopens and his sofa’s on fire!
You’re a smoker, that’s never happened to you?
Not yet. He’s fantastic in My Favourite Year too and it’s so unknown. He’s clearly having a blast.
In researching my book on early Sisters – for which you were not interviewed – I obviously heard many, many Eldritch stories. So let’s end with a True or False Round. Firstly, are you are a craft beer aficionado?
No. I like them and I prefer them but I’m not a fetishist.
One of your early ‘drummer for hire’ roles in Leeds was with non-Nazi skinheads?
You met the great German film-maker Werner Herzog in 1986 to discuss him producing the follow-up album to First And Last And Always?
Yes. I met him. It was to do with a film project but I did run it by him. But I never seriously considered him as a music producer. It was only ever to pique his interest.
The sleeve design of the 1983 Temple Of Love is adapted from a screen capture of an explosion from Blake’s 7?
I wish. No.
You were a decent distance runner at school?
There was a fencing duel between you and Rocco Barker from Flesh For Lulu on tour in 1984? He narrowly won.
Yes. We were just dicking around but he knew what he was doing with his weapon and I knew what I was doing with mine, but never the twain shall meet.
He told me he fought foil and you fought sabre, which is more difficult and swashbuckling.
Yes, that’s where Alan Swann comes in. And by the way, Rocco still owes me a set of ankle bells. He borrowed mine and I never got them back.
Why did you have ankle bells?
You once recorded a studio version of Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around as Stop Draggin’ My Name Around, which segues into Rhiannon?
No. I wish. But no. I love Stop Draggin My Heart Around, but I don’t like Rhiannon because it’s all that fairies in the woods; I don’t do fairies in the woods. You can quote me on that: I do not do fairies in the woods.
Brian James once approached you to be in Lords Of The New Church? You turned him down and were later horrified that he picked Stiv Bators.
I’ve never met either of those people. This possibly has been conflated with the true story that Tony James asked me to be the person that became Martin Degville (in Sigue Sigue Sputnik). It’s a shame because I would love to have sung Open Your Eyes, the only Lords of the New Church song I know.
You used to do vocal sound-checks singing something off Darkness On The Edge Of Town and Deutschland Uber Alles?
I know all the words to Darkness On The Edge Of Town. I know the words better than I know my own songs! It is clearly, by a mile, the best Springsteen album ever. I love every single song on it.
Racing In The Street is…
That’s my favourite! But that other thing: absolutely not. But I do sometimes sing the choral finale to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the Ode To Joy, which is also the European anthem.
“All men are brothers when they enter heaven” – or something like that, isn’t it?
All men shall be brothers/ Where your soft wing covers them. Alle Menschen werden Brüder / Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
One of the first things you mastered on the guitar was the riff to Patti Smith’s Ain’t It Strange?
At some point in your life you could do all the dialogue from Apocalypse Now in perfect synch with the film?
And The Blues Brothers. Those are the only two I could do.
Over the last 40 years, have you ever become too Kurtz-like and had to metaphorically get the machete out and finish him off?
As they say: “Mr Kurtz, he dead.”
I can see that path clearly delineated before me. I try not walk it, but it’s a fine line. Kurtz’s journey up-river is a metaphorical journey into isolation, ruthlessness and a weird mix of self-indulgence and self-denial and a very personal, I’m not going to say warped, sense of honour.
Takashi Kitano in all the yakuza films he featured in and directed, that’s more of a path I understand. They’re not like any other yakuza films and they’re not like any other films. You’d have to watch them all in sequence, then you’ll understand my version of Mr Kurtz.
Interview by Mark Andrews, author of the forthcoming book, Paint My Name In Black And Gold: The Rise Of The Sisters Of Mercy (opens in new tab), published by Unbound on October 28. Sisters Of Mercy play The Roundhouse in London, UK, on 10-12 September. Tickets are available now (opens in new tab).