- MELODY MAKER, November 14th, 1987

(Having amazed the populace with the overwhelming choral glory of 'This Corrosion', The Sisters of Mercy are back with a vengeance with a new album, Floodland. Andrew Eldritch visits Ted Mico for tea and explains the whos, the whys and wherefores of their return from a watery grave.
Pictures by Tom Sheehan.)

"A penny for the guy"

It's halfway between Hallowe'en and Bonfire Night, midway between the trick and the treat, the fire and the works, the perfect time for The Sisters Of Mercy to spread their wings and eclipse the sun with a new album. Only 10 weeks since his face appeared on the Maker cover?. Yes, but so much has happened to Von Eldritch between then and now. Ever since he traded in his battered crow hat for a bottle of baby oil, The Sisters have collided with success, their Steinman-produced first single "This Corrosion" beginning the process of rebirth. The Prodigal Son had not only returned, he was going to stick around.

"It's all very strange," he says, removing a cat from his head."Like some sort of Norman Wisdom film where the hero leaves the village and, after a while, all the villagers think he's dead. So they hold a funeral service despite the fact there is no body, no evidence. All the while he is secretly hiding in the back of the church waiting for his time to come. Muggins here just played the part of Norman. I think people's view of history is somewhat deluded by a fondness. I seem to be benefiting from it at the moment."

I've had to wait two years for Andrew Eldritch to come round to my flat bearing the fruits of his labour, Floodland, an album he feels certain will justify his place in our hearts and will be a worthy successor to his debut First And Last And Always. Thirty seconds after the needle hit the plastic I know he's right.

Eldritch has spent over half his adult life studying languages, yet still finds most conversations an insurmountable obstacle course. Given the right people to talk to (he finds conversing with my cats easier than most humans) he is the most articulate, erudite and intelligent man in ripped jeans.

"But I'm totally socially inadequate," he confesses. "I think I studied languages because I was interested to see how everyone else managed to converse so easily."

Eldritch doesn't belong to the world of the commonplace, the land of the autoteller, the plastic charge or polystyrene mind. He belongs to the fragile and fragrant world of a serpentining imagination, a spiraling chaos.

To understand Eldritch is to understand defeat, and then know how to conquer it. The struggle is all. He has stared defeat in the face and merely hiccupped. Now he has offered to take you on a journey through Floodland - a guided tour of the watery canals that tenuously link The Sisters Of Mercy to the real world. The mythical sign reads "Please extinguish all smoking material" so Eldritch lights a cigarette and reflects (literally):

"It sounds somewhat strange to me now after all this time. It's a solid album, almost subsumed by it's own weight. The first side you need an awful lot of drugs to get through it. The second is more textured, more powerful."

Is there a visual soundtrack that could accompany Floodland?

"Perhaps a slow motion shot of the Aurora Borealis exploding, or the scene on the heath in King Lear."

And who would play Lear?

"Reg Varney." A long pause. "I'd be a good fool. Knowing you're being stupid has never stopped me being stupid."

"Some day, some day, some day - Dominion. Some day prayers. I say mine."

"Dominion/Mother Russia" was a Wagnerian opera until a Bolshevik Chevvy convertible crashed into the chorus. It is the only other track Steinman produced, and therefore the only time choirs emerge from the wreckage.

"I think 'Dominion' has it within it to entice the unwary. I made the mistake of getting caught in central Europe when Chernobyl started sprinkling it's residue over the land. It's sort of a carry on (and 'Carry On') from 'Black Planet' - part of my hate/hate relationship with America. I just had this idea of all them huddled in their mobile homes while Mother Russia rained down on them. They deserve it. I suppose the song is really about the prostitution of Europe by the Americans."

Next week Eldritch flies off to New York to remix "Dominion" for the new single. It's a journey he doesn't relish.

"I hate New York because it means that sooner or later I'm forced to talk to Americans who I can't stand (with the exception of his Sisters soul-mate, Patricia Morrison). I have to shout to be heard there and you know how I hate raising my voice. I'd really like to communicate solely by eyebrow movement."

--Like Roger Moore?

"A God. Rutger Hauer does it even better."

"Push the writer to the wall. It may come but it will pass. Some say we will fall. Dream of the flood..."

This, Ladies and Gentlemen, brings us to the drowning funnel of love of "Flood I". A lugubrious passage through water with serrated edges.

"I never really knew how much I missed the water until I moved to Hamburg. I just like to be near it. I love to be next to it. Water is the most impressive thing you can almost get to grips with. The problem with 'Flood I' is that it was written in a certain state of mind, shall we say, and I haven't visited that place again. You know...altered states. I think at one point I did a rough version of it and it lasted nine minutes and 20 seconds. I thought, my God, 'Kasmir' is nine minutes and 31 seconds. Let's make this 11 minutes longer!

"There's a lot of gloating going on here. In fact, there's an awful lot of gloating throughout the album. It's wonderfully superior. Even the cover has a steely arrogance. I'm not actually sure that any of the songs on the album actually do justice to the Trevor Howard impression on the cover which is awesomely arrogant. I think that's why everyone except me hates the cover. It's so totally conceited. I don't like elitism, but I think that if you're conceited you ought to flaunt it just to show everyone where you stand, and try and not represent the usual author's position of modesty and humility because that's false."

Amid a deluge of lines about rain, oceans, seas, rivers there's a peculiar inclusion: "While strange men rent strange flowers". What the hell does this mean?

"What happens in Hamburg is that, at two in the morning, these Turks come round the bars selling roses to couples who aren't quite couples yet but might be by half past two. I rather liked the idea that these couples could rent these flowers until they became couples, then they could give them back and they would be recyclable. The Turks would make more money and the couples wouldn't get burdened with these thorny things."

He pulls his glasses down from the bridge of his nose. "Actually, I think it's a metaphor for ephemeral love," he adds in his finest Roger Moore supercilious accent.

The Eldritch attitude to love seems fatalistic: if you know it's not going to last, because nothing lasts forever, then there's no point in having it at all.

"That's partly true. I think it's a healthy qualification to what I said on the first album. I've spent awhile staying away from ephemeral love, romance, things that in the past I would have just accepted."

He doesn't drink or gamble because he's obsessive and would wind up dead and dead broke. Similarly, he is also an obsessive romantic so now stays clear in order to retain some vestige of emotional stability.

"Hmm. So you might well ask what I'm doing having a girlfriend in New York?" He buries his head between his knees and contemplates the inevitable mutual destruction. "I'm terrified of people associating with me. One reason I get on so well with Patricia is because we have exactly the same attitude and the same problems."

--Is hurt a necessity or a tragic accident?

"Unfortunately I carry it around with me regardless. It's healthy because I can remember what it was like at its worst and it stops me from ever getting into a similar situation. It's funny, but having a hole inside me actually made me more complete. I worry on other people's behalf more than I used to which makes me a more caring person."

"I hear the sons of the city and dispossessed get down, get undressed..."

The compassion in "Lucretia My Reflection" is trussed with barbed wire - a most succulent torture.

"That's my 'welcome on board Patricia' song...with a lot more gloating thrown in. I've been proclaimed dead so many times, I've created things that others have tried to take, this is my answer. I had to fight very hard to preserve what was mine. Not only with the band split but in a general sense too. I spent two years retrieving my physical health. Healthy people used to hang around for a couple of days and then return to their friends looking and acting like Freddie."

--Why choose a woman whose name is synonymous with mass murder and poisoning? Lucretia Borgia isn't exactly most people's idea of a good lover or a good cocktail waitress.

"I think she was quite benign in her own way. Patricia always strikes me as a Lucretia-type person. I still don't understand why state-ordained murder is acceptable, but in this age of free enterprise, the individual act of killing can still be punished. The sanction of the state is something I've never understood.

"Friends of mine killed just because of the way the state operates. Buildings fall on people in New York every month so obviously as a result of the enterprise culture. They're designed to fall down. I used to carry a steel bar up my sleeve but only for the purpose of defense. Myself, I feel constantly assaulted by the state but I can't take a steel bar and whack it one and I'm always at great pains not to encourage others to do the same. The youth leader whose idea of fun is leading young people into pitched battle seems immensely stupid. These are dangerous subjects to talk about..."

--And these are dangerous times we live in. So who would be your ideal woman...?

"Joanna Lumley," he says without the perfunctory 10 seconds meditative silence. "For every single reason I could think of! It must have been very difficult to live in an age before Joanna Lumley and have to figure out which goddesses combined would make your ideal person. No one else is a patch on her. Without doubt God's finest creation."

--And who would you be in the face of this ideal?

--"I always liked to consider myself a cross between Torquemada [leader of the Spanish Inquisition], the Syd Barrett of the Eighties, and a touch of Tony Hancock in 'The Punch and Judy Man'".

Eldritch has an aura of unapproachability, a moat of arrogance that stops all but the inventive and the persistent entering conversation.

"I never got propositioned by women, though I must admit I did have some bad times. There was one particularly sticky time backstage at a gig we did in Munster, where I sat around this room with these seven girls and it suddenly occurred to me that I was going out with all seven at once! There was something about hte location of Munster which had drawn them all to the one show, which wasn't very politic.

"They all took it very well, but I thought 'this has gone too far!' I'm still good friends with all of them. I am, however, one of the few people in the history of pop who went on tour for purposes other than getting laid."

The Sisters Of Mercy will not be performing live in the forseeable future, partly because they couldn't organise anything at the moment and partly because Eldritch has too many sour memories of life on the road.

"I like the idea of concerts," he says, "but tours? That's something else. Night One you haven't got your act together. Night Two, your voice is f*cked. Night Three you're already going through the motions. Night Four you're trying to stand stationary and stop slavering and by Night Five, you're resorting to the old you-know-what just to keep going. From then on it's downhill all the way. It's that hideous rollercoaster ride that turns you into a beast. There are some people that function very well in the beast mode, but sadly I'm not one of them."

"And the wind blows wild again for a little child who can never kill this clean. This way."

This leads us to the next stop on the tour, the melancholy ballad "1959", Eldritch's birthday, Eldritch's star-turn.

"Notice the total lack of guitars means it's to be taken seriously. That's something I only just realised recently. The amount of electric guitars dictates how ludicrous the song is. There's no irony in '1959' (unlike every other song on the album). This girl Isabelle wrote to me and she had the most beautiful handwriting I've ever seen, and she suggested that I do something with just my voice and a piano. It was the first time anyone had ever asked me, so I did it. I still think it's totally brilliant.

"1959 was of course a special year for the world. I guess the song is about innocence - inherited as opposed to environmental. I had a time a year and a half ago when, for the first time in my life, I was totally happy and I realised it at the time. It lasted about two weeks. There are still some strands of the song I don't even understand. I can tell I don't understand because I can still marvel at it. It's the only one here that still does that to me. It's unassailable, even transcending my own ability to superimpose myself on the song. It's out of control."

It is also the only time in his career when Eldritch has approached the word child, or children without a scratching contempt.

"But even then it's close," he hisses.

Do you like your audience?

"Yes, I'm incredibly fond and protective of them. I hate to see them abused by other people and accept second best," he says leaving a purpose-built silence.

"Our audience was always different - when they kicked the shit out of each other they used to apologize afterwards. They're very sharp as well. They always know what I'm talking about. I can't express myself coherently in anything other than songs. It might not sound coherent when I sing it, and even when it is it may be too oblique to be of any use to anyone, but it's almost all there."

Those acquainted with basic geometry will know that if enough tangents are drawn around the same axis they will eventually form a complete circle. For Eldritch, life is too confusing to be reflected by anything other than the tangential, and not surprisingly he still cites T.S. Eliot as the greatest writer of the 20th Century. Like "The Possum" [i.e., Eliot]**, Sisters' lyrics have a wonderfully abstract way of saying everything without really saying anything. Their words are riddled with meaning and puzzlingly meaningless. This creates enigmas, which creates fascination, which sometimes stumbles into adoration. Eldritch reads all his fan mail, except for the death threats, which are carefully weeded out before he gets near them.

"We get some weird ones sometimes. One time this Dutch girl wrote three letters a day and her handwriting deteriorated with such speed over a few weeks we decided to do something about it. It turned out she was writing from an asylum. Most of our letters are just nice. There's a responsibility which goes with being a performer which I'm quite prepared to accept. I tend to write back to the ones with great handwriting."

Eldritch himself has exceptional handwriting, an angular script that looks like it belongs in a 17th Century will. As he grows older it more and more resembles his father's. This is a source of great concern. The night before the interview we went to see Echo & The Bunnymen and fans queued with their requests for Eldritch to autograph their Bunnymen programs. Life can be ironic so it helps to have a well-trained right eyebrow.

"The only time I've been seriously upset by something like that was when I signed a piece of paper and the guy looked up puzzled and said 'but aren't you in Wasted Youth?' There's not a lot worse anyone could say to me now. When we played this gig in Italy, the local hardcore contingent, instead of hurling abuse, decided to paint this long banner, which they'd obviously started during our first number. It just said 'Dear Sisters - you are like U2' blah blah blah. I appreciated it immensely. The banner, not the comparison."

"Well, what d'you say? D'you have a word for Giving Away? Got a song for me?"

His face cracks with a satisfied smile every time "This Corrosion" is mentioned. His eyes look out for the fatted calf.

"It's my war cry," he says warmly. "Despite the title, it's actually a constructive song because nearly all of it should be thought of in quotation marks. It would be too confusing to print them all. Basically it's a very poor form of argument - putting words into someone else's mouth and then explaining how stupid they are. It is, of course, directed at somebody and it doesn't take a genius to work out who, although it'll probably take the person concerned some considerable time. I find it embarrassing watching people humiliate themselves for their absurd idea of rock'n'roll.

"Pleased? Yes, I was quite pleased," he offers trying to understate the obvious. "Having said that, I think the success was a general indication that nothing else is happening. It's very rare in my experience that someone has made a record which sounds like that person lives in the same universe as you - a person that feels threatened by the same things, that gains pleasure from the same things. Although it's never explicitly stated on my records, people understand that my records make demands on their own terms, and have to be judged on those terms. It's a very unresolved album, but trying to explain the logic in despair without negating it isn't easy."

"Bring on the wave, she says: nobody done no harm. Grace of God and raise your arms, she says: Face it and it's a place to stay."

"Flood II" revisits the seascape etched on Side One but seems to lurch against the tide to greater effect.

"It's certainly more focussed. 'I' is 'Are you sure we really want to do this?,' and 'II' is 'Yeah, here we go!' In normal circumstances, the raising of arms is a sign of exultation but, if you're surrounded by water, it's complete submission, 'Down we go'. This is both at once."

--Is the flood a baptism or simply annihilation?

"It's sex - at least in this context. Most people, if you think about it, only get wet under certain circumstances..." The left eyebrow arches. "It's also a little bit about what happens to me in water. Water and I do NOT mix. I can't breathe well when I'm in it. I taught myself to swim at a very late age, which took a lot. I'm always impressed by water. Frightened? No, fright implies some element of surprise and I'm never surprised by water. You know what it's there for - it's there to impress you! Water is something so mammoth, so a flood is emotionally very stimulating. To surrender to it so willingly with such enthusiasm I think would be quite exciting. It seems a brave move."

--From Noah's Ark to Joan Of Arc, religious symbols litter the album. Are you a religious person?

"I might be. I was brought up on religious symbolism so it's very difficult to escape. Until someone writes a book as good as The King James Bible I think it's the best alternative. I firmly believe in oblivion though. I can't see the point of my flood unless it leads to oblivion."

Throughout Floodland, Eldritch's main preoccupation is the struggle against futility under the sign of the mushroom and the sound of big bang. He is utterly convinced he'll never make it through his natural lifespan and seems concerned only whether Hamburg will be vaporized or meet with a tidal wave. He hopes for the latter.

"When I first moved to Germany I didn't realise that they practice nuclear alerts. When the siren went off, bloody loud, all across the state at 10 in the morning, I thought it was really happening. A friend had just met a violent death two weeks before and my first thought was, 'What a pity she's going to miss this', because I knew it was going to look brilliant. It seemed sad that something so important was going to be missed by anyone."

--And your second thought?

"I was just about to stand in the middle of the road because I thought I'd get a better view from there and thought it would be less painful, and then it occurred to me that it might be a chemical attack so I stood indoors waiting. When I knocked on my flatmate's door, she just giggled at me. I felt somewhat foolish about it afterwards."

Eldritch smiles in one direction and plots in another. His latest scheme is a Sisters Of Mercy DIY flood kit so he can submerge countries of his choice.

"I think I might have to reinvent America and put a big lake where Los Angeles stands. I was going to put a map on the back of the album, and redraw the world according to the Sisters Of Mercy. Norway? Ocean. France? Ocean. There'd be nothing but water between Calais and Iberia. France and L.A. would be drowned for the common good of mankind. Perhaps I should get rid of the French bits of Canada in the first phase as well."

The expanse of water on the cover next to Trevor Howard is the Mersey - another town [?] Eldritch would personally like to see under salt water. Slough and the London borough of Hillingdon are next on the list, closely followed by the rest of the world. France, however, is The Sisters' main target for destruction.

"Europe looks brilliant without France on it. It really enforces the identity of Britain as an island. In fact, instead of the promotional ads for the album on telly, I should put Euro-tunnel-type ads on. People could buy shares in the Flood France Conglomerate. I had thought of putting the women somewhere safe first, and then moving in. I don't mind French women. Perhaps a chemical attack on the male chromosomes. It would have to be pretty strong stuff because you know what those French chromosomes are like.

"I refuse point-blank to do business with anyone in France, ever. The band has never played there. The band will never play there. I have never exported a single record or done one interview for the French. I believe 'This Corrosion' has made some money over there and I fully intend to send the royalties back. I think it's the sort of gesture we all ought to make. They're a miserable consumptive race that revels in despair. Even their language is really great at expressing that pathetic shrug of the shoulders that English has no use for. Maybe I'll buy Morrissey a ticket there just before we go for the big one. The climate would suit him."

** The internationally successful musical "Cats" is based on a collection of poems by Eliot, the title of which is "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats".

...go on to Part Two.