Mull Historical Society are back in 2012
Interview from 2003
by Alexander Laurence
The idea that all Scottish people are depressed is a myth
Mull Historical Society is a one man show starring Colin MacIntyre. He has a very fresh and interesting approach to music, which recalls the rich instrumentation of The Flaming Lips. He even designs his own record sleeves. Colin has played gigs with The Strokes and Travis. His first album, Loss (2001), contained a balance of songs ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. Colin hails from the Island of Mull (population: 2,000) off Scotland's west coast. He went from playing small clubs to big venues within a a year.
Last summer the stage was set to create the new album. Colin went back to the studio with almost 35 songs to work on. Three months later he emerged with Us (2003). Not surprisingly, Colin is incredibly pleased with the results. The album immediately shot up to the top 20 in the UK. He has been creating a stir of interest in the United States and has played two small tours so far. Colin was in Los Angeles at the end of April 2003, playing to his cult audience. I chatted with him in the lobby of the Knitting Factory right before the show. I struggled to decipher his thick Scottish accent which is always a challenge. He seemed excited about bringing his music to a new audience. Colin MacIntyre is one of today's great songwriters.I did this interview in 2003. After an eight year break Mull Historical Society
is back with a new album City Awakening (2012).
AL: Have you played here in America before?
Colin: This is the first proper tour. I have done some dates in New York. This is the first time I have gone east to west. I am playing the songs acoustic and with a stripped down sound. It's a challenge to play them that way. But often the songs are written on an acoustic guitar. This tour of America is just me and a piano player. Hopefully we will come back with a bigger lineup. Some of the shows in the UK I have had thirteen people on-stage. I prefer touring with a five-piece.
AL: How do the songs start out for you?
Colin: Piano or guitar. Or with nothing. It's random. Sometimes you hear something on piano or guitar, then you want to bottle it. You hear something that sounds interesting. I get the dictaphone out and try to record it. More often than not the melodies are just in your head. It has nothing to do with having an instrument in your hand. I'll see some words and maybe a title appeals to me.
AL: Were you in other bands before?
Colin: Not really. Growing up in Mull I was always in cover bands since I was a kid. I was in The Lovesick Zombies. We played anything from The Clash to Van Morrison, to The Beatles to Bowie. But I was always writing stuff on the side. Then I left Mull. I was learning how to write better songs and how to arrange songs. I wanted to make my own music.
AL: Why did you call yourself Mull Historical Society?
Colin: Mull is where I am from. There is an actual place called the Historical Society. It's an organization on the island. I saw one of their ads in the local press. I tried to imagine what they were like and what they did. I wrote a song about them. I just decided that I would call myself that.
AL: Did you have a lot of songs written before these two albums?
Colin: Yeah. I had hundreds of songs. They were all 4-track demos. Since I was fifteen, I had been writing songs on a 4-track. I just kept developing songs. I was working and doing other things. I had moved to Glasgow. Loss was me writing new stuff at that time. Sometimes I go back to the early demos and find a line that I can use or a melody. It's good to have that catalogue to use. It's like a library. Most of it is stuff that needs developing that will never see the light of day. But it is good to have there. Both Loss and Us is me writing at that time. I am starting to think about the next record. I don't need to record it for a while. But I am always thinking of songs.
AL: Had you done a lot of shows before you recorded Loss?
Colin: No. I probably did six shows before I signed to Warner Bros. I met my manager, Tony, and things just came together. I had played a lot previously about five years before that. I didn't play much in those years. I was writing, recording, and working jobs. Everything came together about three or four years ago. I felt like the songs started to sound like me as opposed to sounding like someone else. I met the right people. I held off for a long time. I was struggling for ten years sending demos off. It worked.
AL: The new album sounds more stripped down. The first few songs like "The Final Arrears" sounds like a continuation of Loss, but a few songs in, it goes into a different place.
Colin: That was definitely intended. Producing myself, as I have done with both records, I have to control that. Sometimes as a songwriter you want to keep adding. And as a musician you want to keep adding. As a producer, it's important sometimes to take away. It's a constant battle with myself in the studio. I think that I have got the balance right on this record. Loss was everything including the kitchen sink. The whole house really. I wouldn't change anything. It was just me making my first record. I wanted as much melody and as much sound on it as possible. Us I think is just more balanced. You want to evolve as a songwriter and as a producer.
AL: Did you want to do everything on the first record, because you thought that maybe you wouldn't have a chance to do another record?
Colin: I don't think that I was that pessimistic. At the time it was important to me to include the sounds of steel drums and tubular bells. There is a lot of that still going on with the new record. But it is important for those things to work together. I have done all my recordings at Gravity Studios in Glasgow. Even some of the first demos, some of which, became Loss. I recorded it on an Apple Performer. I worked with digital tapes too. I mastered it all at Abbey Road back through analog. I recorded both albums in much the same way.
AL: Were there any live takes with a band?
Colin: The only live takes I do are with the drummer. I use that as a skeleton, then I add all the other parts. I do a layered approach. It's like adding meat on the bones. Some songs I play the drums, so I do it differently. For me, sometimes the song can write itself. Songs like "Us" and "Minister For Genetics and Insurance" seem quite abstract. Recording the song actually became the song, if you can see what I mean. While recording the song, sometimes I wasn't sure exactly where it was going. Most of the rest were all written. When I did these albums, I worked on thirty or thirty-five songs all at the same time. You start to see the songs as a collective. You think: this one has too much strings.... Each song can help the others. I don't like too much of one thing. It helps me to decide what should stay in there. Like the sound of sheep at the end. Everything is there for a reason.
AL: You have quite a number of songs about animals?
Colin: I don't know why. All the videos have animals in them as well. There's one song "Animal Cannabus" that says that animals don't really have clothes. Animals still have a chain of conduct obviously. But the song was about why don't we be just like animals and get rid of fashion and style. You don't have to think about what to wear. You can just be yourself. There's a lot of that on the first record: in terms of people being an individual. Whether you want to be like an animal is your own preference. The feelings are the same on both records.
AL: Then you have a song like "Barcode Bypass" which is like a short story.
Colin: Yeah. I like ideas about how the whole culture is: fast food, fast food TV. It's all just crap. It's not really bad. I am not making any big comment on it. I am just observing it. "Barcode Bypass" is a song about a small shop owner. He talking about how the 24-hour supermarket is taking all the business away, and he's going to have to close down. He's too proud to admit so he just stops taking his medication. He walks off with his dogs. On Us I have a song called "The Supermarket Strikes Back." It's about the supermarket owner having his say about the situation. I do like the clash between the corporate, capitalist society and the community of small cottage industry. I like to pick characters who are living in that.
AL: What was it like playing with The Strokes in the UK when they broke out?
Colin: That was great. I spent six weeks with them. We played with Moldy Peaches as well. They are interesting guys. I enjoyed playing with them. It was the very start of it all for them at the time. It was two years ago. It was great fun. We spent six weeks together. It was their first UK tour. It was exciting. They will never forget it. I will never forget it either. I think that most people who came to see the Strokes also liked my band. By the end of the tour I had two of the Strokes singing "I Tried." The Moldy Peaches were there too. I remember that it was a very good feeling. It was like a traveling road show with three very different bands.
AL: Do you have any hobbies?
Colin: I play a little soccer. I write a lot. I like the Glasgow Celtic. I write short stories. I have written tow novel and about twenty short stories. I would love to publish them someday. They are similar subject matter to my songs. I have been reading a lot of American authors like Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, and Richard Brautigan. I like the rawness of it all. They don't put in a word that doesn't need to be there. I like that direct style. I would like to get published at some point, but at the moment I am just concentrating on music.
AL: Have you liked any recent records?
Colin: I don't listen to a lot of new music. I have about stack this high. I don't have a real record collection. I like the new Johnny Cash record. The Flaming Lips. I spent most of my time listening to my own music.
AL: What about the video for "Watching Xanadu?" How did you get permission to run on the dog track?
Colin: All my videos are done by friends. One is from Mull. We had to get permission. That dog track is in East London. It's famous. I had to run across the track in between races with all these people watching me. Thousands of people were shouting at me. We filmed for three days around the streets of London and the Underground. I was running the whole time. It was really hard to do. I just did the video for the new single "Am I Wrong?" It's good fun.
AL: What is your favorite part about doing music?
Colin: I think that the initial spark of coming up with a new song is why I do it. It gives me a lot of fulfillment. I love working in the studio. I love playing live.
AL: What should young people do if they want to do music?
Colin: Don't give up. Keep on writing. Keep doing songs. Don't send your songs away till you know that they are right. Try and find your own sound. Unless you sound original or are trying to be unique, you are nothing. There are all these sources and influences. You regurgitate these things. You soak them up and spit them out. All I can say is that I never stopped trying.