About to embark on his first US tour since 2008, Andrew Eldritch joins Louder from a car en route to London's Heathrow Airport. Although ‘seriously over-tired’, in this long and wide-ranging interview he talks about America, lost albums, geopolitics, getting shot at, how The Sisters almost never happened and his current burst of songwriting.
Since entering their fifth decade – and Eldritch his sixties – The Sisters have become unusually fecund (well, as fecund as you can be for a band that hasn't actually released a studio recording in 30 years): The Sisters have played thirteen new songs live between 2019 and 2022, most debuting only last year. For context, they performed just ten new songs in the 25 years between 1993 and 2018.
As they prepare to kick off an American tour with an appearance at Sick New World festival in Las Vegas, alongside System of A Down, Deftones and Korn, we caught up with the man himself to hear him cock an eyebrow at Iron Maiden, recall his pre-Sisters days in a skinhead band, and much more.
All these new songs. What the hell has happened, Andrew?
Andrew Eldritch: I’m tempted to say – in a jocular fashion – that the floodgates have been opened because I’ve lowered my standards. But I don’t think I have.
I’m not in the best position to judge, being so in the middle of it and hoping it doesn’t go away. If it’s a gift horse, it would seem daft to look it in the mouth.
Then the flow of new songs could easily dry up and things revert?
I don’t think anybody was miserable before. We might find something else to do. Like record the damn things! I kid you.
So America will be getting the set that evolved post-Covid on tour, ie predominantly very new material interspersed with the hits?
Yes. It seemed to work well on those constituencies.
Any temptation to flip that ratio around for the Americans who have not seen you for a while?
No. You have to give people what they need and not what they want.
What does songwriting look like now, more specifically lyric-writing: once upon a time it was on napkins in bars in Hamburg…
I’ve generally got an audio book burbling in the background, or a movie. Whether I’m handwriting or not depends if I’m in front of a screen or not.
Bruce Robinson, the writer and director of Withnail & I once recalled being at his typewriter with red wine and ending the night typing with his nose…
The next day can indeed be cruel!
It seems fair to say that the band was in an extended holding pattern for a number of years, recycling the back catalogue, dropping in the odd cover version.
I think we were still good at it, offering good times.
But you admit that the current version of the band is better?
We think it’s better but it’s up to you to judge and you seem to think it’s better. And I’m happy to accept that verdict right now because it suits me.
Fundamentally, you don’t care what I think, do you? Any more than you care about people asking, “Where’s the bass player?” “Why don’t they sound like 1985 or 1990?” or similar schools of thought?
Only in so far as unfavourable criticism hinders ticket sales which hinders one’s financial independence, which hinders one’s creative independence. Other than that, I don’t care at all. I have a very solid sense of my worth. Or lack of it. I don’t rely on other people for that.
There’s reaction video of a US-based vocal coach giving her views on the 1992 version of Temple of Love with Ofra Haza.
Did she say one of those people can really sing and is amazing and the other is a waste of space?
Not quite, but she loved Ofra Haza and compared your singing to Devo.
Tell me about the evolution of one of these new Christo/Eldritch/Smith songs. How are your lyrics interacting with the music Ben (Christo) and Dylan (Smith) are writing?
Firstly, the music is not all Ben and Dylan. Obviously, they like the music they write better, which is perfectly natural.
They have access to my lyrical sketchbooks, just as I have access to their guitar doodling, or keyboard doodling. We think to ourselves, “This goes well with that and that goes well with this.” It’s not like I have a finished lyric and say, “Score this!”
Dylan plays the harmonium. Any circumstances when you think a Sisters track could really do with some of that?
Maybe when I’m feeling very Ivor Cutler. Or a bit Nico.
The routine of touring can be both monotonous and irritating …
It has its benefits. It’s nice for a while to have a regulated lifestyle: get fed, be told where to go, have your shopping done for you.
Don’t you miss the extreme privacy of your non-touring life? You once described yourself as a “hermit”?
If we were still touring in a van, that would most definitely be the case. But on a big Nightliner bus, there’s always somewhere to hide, if you need to. And there’s less interaction with everybody these days too. Everybody has their own entertainment devices on their person. In the old days, everybody would have to gather round one of the two televisions and have to watch the same films, which is a lovely bonding experience. It makes Twin Town an even better film than it already is.
I know someone who does merchandise who went out with a heavy metal band that watched nothing but shitting teenagers on the video for the whole tour. Apparently there is a film called that: Shitting Teenagers.
Do you get out of the sealed world of touring into the real world much? You’ve referred to the bus as being like a submarine.
It’s not often but I like to go high and low. When in Madrid, I do like to go to the Prado, which is a bit rococo for my taste – I’m more a fan of your Soviet sculpture park, to be honest but I also like to hang out in bars or a café pavement. I just like to listen to people. I’m quite good with languages, so I can act natural and blend in. I don’t walk around places like the peacock I might have seemed to have been in the past when I was permanently dressed up on tour, when basically all I had was stage-wear and wasn’t acting natural or blending in.
A quick word association. If I say “US Tour”, you say…
Nebraska. A whole heap of nothing.
The Sisters haven’t played Nebraska.
No, but we’ve had to drive through it for what seemed like weeks on end.
It’s been 15 years since your last US tour. Which US cities are you looking forward to being back in?
Given that we are a forward-looking entity, we’re looking forward to the places we’ve never been to: St Louis, Kansas City, for example. We might have a dreadful time, but we don’t know that yet. I’m ever the optimist.
You loved the old Robocop-style Detroit…
The urban wasteland of Detroit is actually on the cover of Vision Thing. Behind that TV eye of Horus, that is not just a kind of mottling of black on the cover, that is a picture of the 40-square miles of inner-city urban wasteland which is what Detroit had become.
Your first time in the US was New York City in 1983. A baptism of fire?
I had a brilliant time. I came over privately before the Sisters ever played. It was high summer, so New York was a bit smelly but fantastic. I got to go to places like the Paradise Garage – had a good time there. Got to go down Bleeker Street – had a good time there. Hung out in the Village quite a lot – had a good time there.
I got the Long Island Rail Road into the city every day. Long Island was lovely. I was staying in a place quite near the beach.
Perhaps the early days of nipping over from the UK and playing a handful of shows at places like the I-Beam in San Franciso, the Alexandria Hotel in L.A. or Danceteria in New York were more fun than when the band got big.
We were playing short sets in small venues with no sense of responsibility whatsoever. Had a great time. We weren’t spending weeks on the road in a van, so it was certainly a lot less like work.
Lucretia, My Reflection described The Sisters as a “hard reign held up by rage”. Isn’t that a young man’s game?
Ah, I’ve still got the rage. When I come to America more so. I was a pretty happy camper when Obama was in office. The orange shitshow we’ve had since displeased me.
There’s a pair of very good political new songs – Eyes Of Caligula and On The Beach –tightly packed lyrics, yet continually melodic. On The Beach resembles a State of the Nation address …
I think it’s about three different kinds of ex-patriation.
You’re an ex-patriot, so it’s also a personal song.
I’m all kinds of ex-patriation.
Eyes of Caligula is your “last word” on Margaret Thatcher. She’s been dead for 10 years. What took you so long?
I wasn’t looking to either do it or avoid it. It just happened and I thought, “Yep, that pretty sums it up now.”
Both songs are underpinned by a dose of old-school left-wing rage. The Sisters first logo – the legendary Head and Star – always reminded me of the emblem of the Red Army Faction.
Left-wing people do like to put a star behind things, whether it’s the RAF or Che Guevera
I once compared you Che – and to Andreas Baader. Did you take that badly?
I think this is a dangerous, suspicious line of questioning.
Could There Is A Door be considered part of a trio of socio-political songs?
When I was writing that, I was picturing to myself an American who is so patriotic, he’d rather live in his car than talk to his immigrant neighbour about how she was making something of her life.
Dominion, although a Cold War-era song, disappeared for most of 2022 due, I assume, to a reluctance to sing “Mother Russia, rain down” during the invasion of Ukraine.
It was due for rotation. We did play it recently in Australia, just to prove we’re not embarrassed about what it’s saying, or what it was saying at the time it was written. There certainly was a discussion about playing it in this day and age, but the upshot was that we played it.
There are some schisms in the world of rock over the invasion of Ukraine, some more sympathetic to Russia (Roger Waters and Brian Eno) than others (Dave Gilmour and U2).
I think it’s entirely Russia’s fault but I have not encountered let alone examined those views [of Eno and Waters]. I do read a lot about Ukraine and I do read a lot about Russia. My worldview is informed by having read all the Anne Applebaum books but this isn’t a topic for ten-minute conversation and I wouldn’t want to be misrepresented by a one-minute comment I might make. But Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukraine didn’t invade Russia, that much is clear.
Also among on the very good new songs is Show Me (On The Doll). I don’t read it at all as being a song about the circumstances in which someone might use a doll to communicate something unspeakable.
I thought I’d write something sensible and tasteful under that title to see if I could get away with it.
It’s actually the same song as This Corrosion: “Hey now, sing a stupid song for me.” It’s about Barbie rock‘n’roll. It’s about retail rock‘n’roll, plastic rock‘n’roll, rock‘n’roll you can buy by the yard from Hot Topic, which is the American version of Primark for Goths.
The lyrical ideas about artifice, I thought might be more about hyper-reality, simulacrum, that sort of Jean Baudrillard thing…
I prefer to go to Philip K. Dick for that…
… and the line ‘show me’ is used very tenderly at one point in The Outlaw Josey Wales.
That’s not where I’ve drawn it from. I prefer The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Let’s assume my reading of the song is entirely different to your intended meaning. Is that OK – for someone to utterly misunderstand what you’re driving at?
It must be. What I write is oblique – I wouldn’t say obscure – and that of course allows room for people to come up with interpretations that I disagree with.
You're quite at ease with the idea of Author-God, the hander down of meaning as being powerless, dead even?
That’s difficult when you are also the performer of it but I’m sympathetic to that theory. Biographical stuff has got nothing to do with whether the song is any good or what the song means.
And I’m aware of the different layers in authorial voice: the author, the protagonist, the antagonist, the chorus and as a performer you are dealing with all of these things at once. It’s a fine art to do these things one at a time or all together or keeping them separate. That’s one of the things that makes performance intriguing, if you are doing it right. Or at least trying.
Right now, there’s an album written that won’t get recorded, one of many Sisters ‘lost’ albums: ‘lost’ in the sense they never happened.
There’s loads of stuff that’s never happened!
In 1985, you were planning Left On Mission And Revenge as the follow-up to First and Last and Always. Some of that ended up on Floodland, what happened to the rest?
Some of that Left On Mission And Revenge material has been recycled, some is still in the back of my head. I’ve given Dylan a couple of those musical bits. One day he’ll come back having done something with them, which will impress me and I will be happy. Quite what happens to them after that, God only knows.
Excuse me, you’re still tinkering with material from 1985?
Oh, yeah. I’m still working on the title track which is now called Left On Venom And Revenge. The riff’s not changed and what it’s about hasn’t changed. I’ve got all the guitar parts worked out. And the drums, to be honest. It wouldn’t have belonged on Floodland because it’s got a cowboy bassline – it’s like a demented country song.
There’s a rumour that a track in the same musical vein as Some Kind Of Stranger – but even more epic – was excluded from Floodland and would have been one of the best songs on it.
There’s a guitar thing I wrote that would fit that description – the demo version was a rough 10-minute slapstick version I did with a fellow in Croydon, a guitar player with an 8-track that I tootled along to one day, just to put it on tape. I thought his playing was so mechanical and not as good as mine that nothing came of it. And anyway I haven’t finished the words to it.
The material closest to becoming a record was the Adam Pearson/Mike Varjak/Eldritch songs from 1997/98?
Well, I wouldn’t say close! You’re talking degrees of obsidian here.
Adam (Pearson, guitar 1993-2005) was always in two minds about whether he wanted that stuff published or not – he had certain stipulations on the legal front, and then he didn’t and then he did again – and I thought, “Well, this is getting complicated, I’m going to stop discussing that with him.” He was within his rights to do that, by the way. Songwriters can do that – I’m not having a go at him. The songs were put to one side accordingly.
The ‘Heartland’ forum for Sisters fans has a thread called “Eldritch Was Wrong”.
You know when I wrote that song (I Was Wrong), it was about not being wrong.
Is there anything you think Eldritch has been wrong about? I’ll go first: your spectacularly rude views on France and French-speaking Belgium expressed in the 1980s. They were very, very wrong.
It’s a national sport that I occasionally indulged in but in these dark times post-Brexit, I agree that it does not seem so funny. People mustn’t overlook the fact that I spent thirteen years of my life learning French professionally. I can be allowed – on occasion – to be a bit grumpy about them. I can afford to be sardonic about the French because, with a little bit of a brush-up, I’m perfectly fluent and very well-versed in French literature.
Most cover versions of Sisters songs are awful. Have you ever heard any you liked?
There’s Fear Of The Dark by Iron Maiden. [Maiden's Fear Of The Dark – released May 1992 – has a very similar riff to Temple Of Love, first released in 1983 and re-recorded with Ofra Haza in 1992.]
There’s a 30-minute version of This Corrosion by Andrew Liles, which is a remix/sound collage rather than a cover; most of it is just the choir.
Damn. I should have done that.
You once described the young Eldritch, the denizen of the F Club, Leeds’ punk dive as ‘the representative of camp.”
I was not afraid to indulge in a bit of androgeny but not the Dick Emery camp end of things.
In relation to the punk thing, I was happy to be the person who wasn’t wearing studded wrist bands all the time and gobbing on everything and I didn’t need to have GBH painted on the back of my leather jacket. I was happy to wear Claire’s [Shearsby, F Club DJ and Eldritch’s then girlfriend] red leather jacket, with my red trousers, with Claire’s red boots with my long red hair, if that’s what I felt like doing.
There’s no photographic evidence of this. This was like Bowie’s hair...
More like if Deep Purple had gone to town with some henna. I must have had it for about a year.
This campness of the Sisters seems to have devolved to Ben and Dylan: hair, shades, matching white Firebird guitars…
I haven’t managed to get them to do synchronised dancing, but I do run it by them.
Dylan joined in 2019. What are the entry requirements to join The Sisters? There’s a threshold of musical competence obviously, but once that’s been reached…
It never used to matter! We figured you could learn it. All the stuff I wrote was pretty simple. It’s a bit more complicated now, certainly to play it the way I want to hear it, you’ve got to be pretty good, but in the early days [early 1980s] it didn’t matter, it was more about a bunch of mates being a bunch of mates and having a shared taste in stuff they listened to, even if they couldn’t play it.
But why pick Dylan? He’s a proper musician but there must be other factors relating to demeanour, whether you can exist with someone on the submarine is key?
Yes it is. Once you’re at the level we’re at, you can pick and choose between people who can play, so you do want somebody in the submarine who’s going to behave – or misbehave – in the right way.
Looking like a Viking Lita Ford was an asset?
Funnily enough, I thought it wouldn’t be but we got together with him anyway.
There are many possible counter-factual scenarios in which The Sisters never even started. In Leeds in the late 70s and very early 80s, The Sisters were just one of several bits and bobs you were dabbling in…
Yes, there are a lot of moments in the band’s early – I hate to say career – where a butterfly could have fluttered its wings and things been different.
In those days everybody was sleeping with everybody else, playing with everybody else, nobody was trying to build anything solid; we were just amusing ourselves really.
It corrects any false impression that I planned to build a thing – and this is it. Because I really didn’t.
For example, you were the drummer in a kind of skinhead group before The Sisters.
This fella lived down the road, he was a fashion designer and completely in love with the skinhead look and he was quite astonishingly gay. He wanted to put a band together. I don’t know why because it wasn’t a skinhead band, if anything it sounded like a proto-Public Image Limited. Obviously, no skinheads wanted to work with someone who was so astonishingly gay, but I was quite happy to, so I did – with a couple of kids from Wakefield, one of them played bass, one of them played guitar.
We rehearsed in his attic. Never got as far as recording or playing live.
Around the same time you played guitar in a little-known group called Children on Stun – not to be confused with the 90s Goth band of the same name?
Yes, I did.
My understanding is that music was recorded for a hair-dressing show/extravanganza called ‘Far Beyond The Fringe’ in the Leeds Warehouse, at which Kevin Lycett of the Mekons mixed the tapes.
That’s possible. I was mates with Kevin at the time. I only remember one song we did, but we must have had three or four. We rehearsed in the cellar of, I think, the singer in Headingley.
And there was a bit of graphic design for the cover of a Leeds fanzine called Box of Rain.
It was Rotring pen on yellow paper with a lot of indented diamonds in the background.
For most young people finding their way like that, nothing sticks and becomes a lasting thing of note. Something like The Sisters is a freak occurance.
It very much is.
As with your last interview for Louder in 2021, we will finish with a True or False round. This features snippets I came across while researching my book on early Sisters. You once built an Fireball X15 – the spacecraft in the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson series of the same name – in Minecraft?
You were once offered $1,000,000 (or €1,000,000) for a new album, but turned it down because you were looking for £1,000,000?
You offered Rockstar Games a new Sisters of Mercy album for free, to be embedded in a Grand Theft Auto game?
True. They didn’t even say, “Can we hear it first?” They just said, ‘No. Can’t be bothered.”
Rising by Rainbow was a favourite record of yours as a teenager?
But you did very much like the Bon Scott-era AC/DC?
The “96 below the wave” lyric in Temple of Love is a reference to the submarine U-96 in Das Boot.
No, it’s a reference to Question Mark and the Mysterians’ 96 Tears.
You became so blasé and uninterested in Top of the Pops, that you had to be woken up from a nap in the BBC carpark to perform Under The Gun in 1993, your final appearance on the show?
I might have been asleep in the dressing room or smoking in the car park but not a mix of the two. But blasé and disinterested? I don’t think so, but I do take a nap whenever I can. It’s a handy skill to have in my line of work. I can do it anywhere. I can even sleep in discos.
Before The Sisters, you DJ’ed a Psychedelic Night in Leeds and played loads of Doors?
That’s possible. I used to take over from Claire [Shearsby] once in a while [in the F Club]. Some nights it was Gary Glitter, some nights it would have been The Doors. And quite often it would have been the Stooges.
When you met Werner Herzog in 1986, it became clear you shared an interest in the Malvern Hills: you because of your love of Elgar. Herzog because of ley lines. Herzog suggested you and he go camping there?
No, he didn’t and I happen to know you can’t camp on the Malvern Hills because I used to live on them.
The closest you’ve come to being shot was by an East German border guard while crossing from West Berlin on the Trans-Europe Excess tour of 1983.
No. One time I was in a public square in Berlin with the tour manager, a very large man and I was standing behind him because I’m not stupid – but I was being shot at. Well, somebody was shooting in the vague direction of where I was – I don’t think they were shooting at me.
My story was from an entirely different tour manager. Apparently, there was a complete mismatch between you and your passport photo and you refused to take your shades off, so the East German shouldered his rifle and pointed it at you.
That might be true but that’s not actually being shot at.
It’s the only story I’ve got with someone pulling a gun on you.
Ah, well… [laughs and doesn’t continue]
Backstage at Wembley Arena shows in 1990, it all got a bit Whitehall Farce: due to a scheduling mishap, two of your girlfriends were backstage, neither of them aware of the other’s existence?
My record is six.
The Sisters of Mercy are now on tour in the USA. For dates check The Sisters of Mercy website.