For close to four decades now, dark-rock royalty The Sisters Of Mercy have cast an indelible shadow over the alternative music landscape. Driven by the creative vision and belligerent mindset of founding force Andrew Eldritch, the band have established their revered credentials off the back of a lean and iconic body of recorded work, supplemented by an ever-morphing array of new live numbers, eliciting cult-like devotion across generations of fans and fellow musicians alike.
Head Sister Eldritch is a true rock and roll maverick, whose singular vision and willingness to play the game completely on his own terms has further enhanced the mystique and mythology of the band. On the line from his hotel room in Munich, Germany, where the band are currently touring, he proves to be a polite yet forthright and assertively engaging subject throughout our broad ranging chat.
Eldritch has long maintained a carefully curated alignment of sound and vision in relation to the band’s public image, from the strikingly themed artwork of their recorded output through to his signature, brooding, black clad persona and distinctive baritone. Which draws from him an entertaining anecdote on how donning his trademark sunglasses keeps him firmly within the gaze of adoring fans..
“I’m always bumping into people in the strangest of places. I was once on the back of a horse in Jordan, in the Middle East, and somebody came up to me and said “how are you doing Andrew?”. It was a fan of the band who had somehow spotted me on the back of the horse! I had the full Lawrence Of Arabia kit on, so I’m not sure how he recognised me – I think it must have been the sunglasses. I’m very hard to recognise without them. I can go to the supermarket without my sunglasses and nobody bothers me. But unfortunately, in the Middle East you kinda have to wear sunglasses, so it was a bit of a giveaway then.”
This tour sees the band expand their line up with the addition of an extra guitarist, in the form of Aussie axe slinger Dylan Smith, who complements the presence of long-time guitarist Ben Christo. And no Sisters Of Mercy line up is complete without the addition of ‘the nurse’ (aka someone to attend to the band’s iconic drum machine, the ever-present ‘Doktor Avalanche’). In the words of Eldritch; “It’s me, the guitarists and the machine section – it’s quite chunky.”
This injection of new-blood has coincided with a fertile period of creativity within the bands ranks, with a stack of new songs being in a state of embryonic flux, ready for a potential live unveiling. Says Eldritch: “We’ve got a pipeline of sixteen new songs since Dylan joined the band – we’re writing more stuff than we can rehearse and play! Even last year, we were up to about two albums worth of unreleased material. We can’t really keep up with ourselves.”
But despite this creative fertility, the fact remains that no new recorded material has officially been released under the band’s moniker since 1990’s opus, ‘Vision Thing’. They’re simply not playing the regular rock and roll game, preferring to write and perform live as opposed to the industry accepted ‘write/record/release’ axiom. Eldritch offers up the following when I question him on the current state of the long-time impasse..
“We sketch the songs but it doesn’t normally get further than that. It’s hard to get all of us in the same room together at the same time when we’re not doing rehearsals immediately before a tour, or in an airport somewhere. So the new songs generally get developed onstage rather than in a recording studio. I don’t think anyone wants to be holed up with me in a recording studio for nine months just so we can record a bunch of stuff that everyone’s going to download for free anyway. It’s not like we have trouble filling venues, so the usual arguments about having to put out records to sell tickets doesn’t apply to us really. We sold 7,000 tickets in London the other week and 6,000 in Brussels..crazy. As long as enough people are holding up iphones at concerts and recording the damn stuff for YouTube then people are getting the general idea of how a song goes. And if they want to know the lyrics I can put them up on the website – job done.”
Talk also turns to politics and the state of the world, with Eldritch conveying a sense of resignation and contempt for current machinations and the figureheads overseeing the malaise of our times. I ask him if he feels this is different to the social/political turmoil of days gone by?
“There’s a different kind of despair going on, isn’t there? It’s vaguer, harder to pin down. You can’t just say ‘stop the Vietnam war’, or ‘de-nuke’ and that will solve things. Authoritarianism and nationalism are a real problem and these things are just getting us further into the shit. There’s so much wrong and our whole dialogue is fucked up. I don’t do social media. I never have..and never will. I’ve even stopped doing emails now, because it’s just too fucking annoying. Go into any public space and all you see is people staring at their smart phones. They’re sitting right next to each other but nobody talks. It’s hard to see things getting better anytime soon.”
As to whether this stokes any sort of creative fire within him, his response is forthright in the negative. “These aren’t feelings I haven’t had before, that’s the problem. I don’t want to feel permanently embittered.”
With talk turning back to the band’s upcoming Antipodean shows, I ask Eldritch if the band has settled on a set list and also how he approaches the challenge of keeping his back-catalogue classics vibrant and personally resonant from a performance perspective.
“The set list changes every night. We like to mess with it. It keeps people on their toes and it keeps us on our toes. In every set we’re doing at least three new tracks. But, of course, people like to hear more of the songs they’re familiar with. We haven’t been to Australia for awhile, so there are certain ‘fan favourites’ that we are obliged to play. But it’s important to us as a progressive entity to include 3 or 4 brand new songs every time. Some of the back-catalogue songs I could play every night and still find an aspect of them that interests me. Some of them, on the other hand, I would like to fuck with. While others just need dropping from the set list for a year, so I can reassess and find a new love for them. And some of them I just hate! And I don’t play any stuff that I hate.”
Upon asking him of how he would respond to someone calling out a detested request, he responds with typical candour; “Well that doesn’t happen very often, because people generally know that they’re gonna get what they’re gonna get. I think it’s important to lead and not follow. And that’s why I think it’s important to include new material and not just play your greatest hits.”
It’s been over seven long years since The Sisters Of Mercy were last on our shores. While one may assume that promoters in Australia are regularly banging down their door to try and bring them out here, (in light of their exalted reputation and rabid cult fan base), the truth is somewhat surprising..
”Absolutely not. It amazes me that we’re not invited to Australia more often, because we’re not terrible – well, mostly we’re not terrible. We’ve never been terrible in Australia. We have to cajole promoters in Australia, they don’t have to cajole us. Ideally, we’d play Australasia every couple of years. And getting a gig in Japan is well-nigh impossible for us. Which I think is weird – some places you just can’t arrested.”
Aussie promoters take heed! But in the here and now, they’ll be gracing us this October/November for a run of highly anticipated club shows, including a Brisbane date, at The Tivoli, on 2 November.
Full tour dates are as follows:
Friday 25 October – Astor Theatre, Perth
Sunday 27 October – The Gov, Adelaide
Wednesday 30 October – Forum Theatre, Melbourne
Thursday 31 October – Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Saturday 2 November – The Tivoli, Brisbane
For tickets, go here.