Wednesday 29 December 2021

Discussion with Trevor Ristow and Mark Andrews, recent biographers of The Sisters of Mercy


Ten years ago, after a few years of interested but furtive lurking, I finally joined Heartland Forum, the venerable online chatroom for those obsessed with The Sisters of Mercy, and began to post half-remembered details of gigs by the band which I had attended in the early 1980’s. From comments made by fellow fans who hadn’t had the good fortune to see the earlier iterations of the band, there seemed to be quite an appetite for examining the band’s history in greater detail than had been provided in Andrew Pinnell’s excellent Heartland journals, so I tentatively began to write this blog, I Was A Teenage Sisters of Mercy Fan. Early posts garnered only forty or so views each (nowadays a new post will clock up a couple of thousand views within days), but I was hugely encouraged by being contacted by fellow fans, historians and collectors from around the world who were only too happy to share their own reminiscences, artefacts and audio rarities via the blog, a process which accelerated significantly once Phil Verne began the wonderful The Sisters of Mercy 1980-1985 Facebook fan group, and some of the cloudier episodes of the band’s past began to become clearer.

Since that time, historical interest in the Leeds scene in general and The Sisters in particular has snowballed, with documentaries, fanzine compilations, and some fantastically researched and well-written articles by Mark Andrews for The Quietus giving rise for calls for a full biography of the band.

This stirred Trevor Ristow, the compiler of the legendary Romance and Assassination cuttings compilations, into revamping his long-abandoned biography of the band’s early years, culminating in the publication of the superb Waiting For Another War last year, neatly halfway between the original crowdfunding launch and the recent publication of Mark Andrews’ own meticulously-researched book about the band’s first five years, Paint My Name In Black And Gold.

This month sees the tenth anniversary of the launch of this blog, so when Trevor suggested a three-way chat with himself and Mark to discuss their books, the band and its legacy, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss! My grateful thanks are due to Mark and Trevor for their fascinating replies during our Transatlantic conversation.


Nikolas Vitus Lagartija (NVL): Congratulations, guys, on your books which have been, rightly, fantastically well-received by Sisters fans. Our forty-year wait for a full biography of the band has ended in spectacular style, with the books coming out within a year of each other. When you first learned about each other’s project, did you feel any fear that your own book might be devalued by the near simultaneous publication of the other? 

Trevor Ristow (TR): On the contrary, I always knew that these two books would complement rather than compete with one another. I have tons of books on the same or overlapping subjects. I’ve read probably seven or eight books on the Manson Family. I own – and have read – three books on post-reunification architecture in Berlin alone, to choose a more obscure subject. And on and on. Every history book has its own perspective, its own facts, its own takeaways. So I’m used to reading widely on things that interest me, and I know that multiple books by different authors offer a fuller picture than a single book by itself.

Mark Andrews (MA): There are 820 books about Bob Dylan – that’s just the ones in English – so by that measure there aren’t nearly enough about The Sisters. When Trev told me about his, I was sure the two books would be very different, even though we were writing about an almost identical time period. I was intending to have original interviews do most of the heavy lifting, and to include more material on Leeds. Both of those approaches were set at the very beginning in that first article I wrote for The Quietus in 2016.

TR: Also, I think if you can honestly say that one book on this band is sufficient, then you don’t really know what it means to be a Sisters fan. We need every detail.

NVL: Amen to that! You have both made very positive comments about each other’s book. What did you like most about the “other” book? 

MA: That it's a book created with absolute care and respect for the source material. I specifically enjoyed the material from obscure fanzines and reviews, and the American interviewees - basically, the things I didn't know about even though I was deep into writing my own book. In fact, you can probably tell which bits of Waiting For Another War I really liked because I put them in Paint My Name In Black and Gold! The Sisters crashing Joe Jackson's party in San Francisco in 1983 was an obvious keeper...

TR: Thanks, Mark. I love Paint My Name’s on-the-ground, in-the-van perspective. It’s so rich with anecdotes from people who were there that you can almost choke on the fog. And, as I’ve said before, I love all the Gary Marx. I think his thoughtful perspective has long been absent from the story of the band’s first five years and your book is a perfect corrective. I also really enjoyed the focus on the Leeds music scene – the overlapping bands, the social connections, the clubs and bars. You painted a detailed portrait of the place that nurtured The Sisters which really adds a layer for diehard Sisters fans, many of whom have made the ‘Haj’ to Leeds, and a lot of those specific addresses, in years past.

NVL: You both became 'older dads' while trying to write and publish your books. Are you crazy or what!? Or can Sisters fans thank some synchronous trans-Atlantic mid-life crisis for these two books?

TR: Ha! It sure has been a weird time. Since I sent this book to the printers I’ve moved three times, packed and unpacked my belongings, and welcomed my second son. Yes, it’s been difficult. But occasionally you get an email or read a comment online from someone who says how the book made lockdown bearable for a week, or even just took them out of themselves for a few hours, and you realise that everyone has had a tough couple of years. Then the whole project feels worth it.

MA: I just checked the timings: crowd-funding for Paint My Name began two weeks before my youngest daughter was born. Therefore, pregnancy, birth and her early years run virtually concurrent with writing and publishing my book. Both have brought me great delight and have considerably reduced the risk of some mid-life or pandemic-induced meltdown.

TR: I’m curious, does your family also love The Sisters?

MA: To be quite clear, my wife could not give two shits about The Sisters of Mercy! Therefore she is quite rightly acknowledged at the end of Paint My Name for her support during the researching and writing of the book. Our tastes for chain-smoking singers intersect at Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel rather than Andrew Eldritch. Out of all my family, the one with any interest in the band is my 82-year old mother. She has actually heard them live. She caught the end of Sister Ray one time while collecting me from a gig as a teenager. The band were so loud that the car she was in outside the venue was vibrating, like the bit in Jurassic Park when the T Rex appears, but over and over again, in 4/4 time.

TR: I am fortunate that my wife loves the band, and my kids are learning to love them too. My son once asked for Flood in the car. I put it on and he said, “no, Flood Two.” No joke. He was three. Nik, what about you?

NVL: Mrs L is probably the most “un-goth” person you could meet, and my kids never wanted to listen to the “guy who can’t sing” so it was headphones for me all the way! Instead, they would ask to listen to “Angela” – the growling then-singer of Arch Enemy! I have failed as a father …

MA: Trev, we're both - in different ways - connected to film. Tell me about the film version of your book.

TR: Man, I’d love to do a feature film on The Sisters. I’ve thought about it. All I need is someone to underwrite it. Maybe a William Gibson/Simon Pegg co-production.

MA: Stunt casting: get Kristin Stewart to play Eldritch. She was a terrific Joan Jett, so she’s halfway there.

NVL: Back to the books - you both interviewed many people from the band’s entourage at the time. Who was your best interviewee? 

TR: Everyone I spoke with was extremely helpful. Some of my “interviews” were conducted very casually. Like, shouting over music in a venue with someone I’d just met. Some were done more formally. Among the most helpful were the New York contingent – friends of the band who really opened the door for me on the band’s time in the US. Saadia Tiare, Jenny Foster, Lisa Levine, David Arnoff, and a handful of other intimates from those fun, early trips stateside. It was a real pleasure to speak with everyone for this book.

MA: The obvious answer is Gary Marx but the most memorable was Dave Beer. His interview took place at his house in Headingley. I ended up with nearly four hours on tape – not including the numerous breaks: one was to get firelighters and more wine from the nearest petrol station, another was to eat leftover take-way and another was to locate a record player so we could hear the tracks that he’d recorded as The God Squad in the 90s based on Sisters samples; whether the record was supposed to play at 45rpm or 33rpm took a while to work out by that point in the evening. While I was talking to him I was under the impression that he was highly intelligent, screamingly funny and was providing me with countless quotable anecdotes and great insights into The Sisters and the West Yorkshire music scene. However, regrettably, I had a noticeable hangover the next day and couldn’t face transcribing the tape for months afterwards for fear of whatever drunken crap I might find on it. When I did listen back, I was shocked to discover that not only was I entirely lucid throughout, but he was an even better interviewee than I thought he was at the time.

NVL: Did you find most people you contacted were proud of their connection to TSOM and were willing to talk freely? 

MA: People were very willing to talk. The only people who turned me down for an interview, both through intermediaries, were Tony James and Si Denbigh. For several interviewees, particularly some of The God Squad, pride would be too weak a word to describe their feelings about the band, the music and that part of their lives they gave over to The Sisters of Mercy. Of course, many interviewees had complicated and not always entirely pleasant relationships with the band, particularly with Andrew Eldritch …

TR: I also had a few people turn me down despite multiple overtures. But, for the people I did speak with, their time spent in The Sisters’ orbit was really meaningful and memorable to them. That’s one of the defining characteristics of this band and it partly explains their rabid fanbase.

NVL: Was there anyone whom you’d have liked to have spoken to but weren’t able to? 

MA: Other than Denbigh and James, Ben Gunn. I'm not sure I even successfully got a request through for him to say no to. He seems to have been well and truly done with The Sisters for close to 40 years now, so I'm not sure it would have been a good interview even had I winkled him out. To make up for that omission, I think it's him I follow him on Twitter - and if it's not him, I still like reading about this other guy's commitment to urban cycling. And I'm fairly sure I saw Gunn on YouTube in a recording of a Zoom meeting of his local council. I didn't interview Eldritch but I was always convinced a book without a new Eldritch interview would work very well regardless, so I was never that concerned whether he talked on the record or not: a large number of people "talking about (him) like they know" would create interesting ways of filling in that Eldritch-shaped hole. Readers of Paint My Name, I think, can see the Eldritch they want to among the smoke and coloured lights of those various testimonies ... I've spoken to Eldritch more since the manuscript was submitted to Unbound than I did before: he does indeed seem to be a charming, intelligent, funny and highly likeable fellow. Therefore he did me the great favour of not talking to me before I wrote the book: I did not have that wholly favourable impression of him hanging over me when I had to write about the Eldritch of 1984-85.

TR: Ben Gunn would have been a great interview. For me, I’d have liked to connect with Bryan Christian, with whom I share many mutual friends but who rather persistently declined to speak with me. And, of course, Andrew Eldritch. Mark, I think I remember you telling me that you visited 7 Village Place – the inside of it – during your research. What was that like?

MA: I was checking out some Leeds landmarks and drove out to Burley. Rather than just look at the exterior of this mythical location, I thought I’d ring the bell and see if anyone was in. The door was opened by a young woman in her dressing gown. This was about midday. I explained why I was there and, realizing how odd this sounded, took two steps back and offered to show her some ID. I then noticed her boyfriend in bed behind her – in what was once the infamous blacked-out sitting room. So I then explained to him the significance of the room he was lying in. And they still let me in, bless them!

It turned out 7 Village Place was being rented by three young women from Leeds University and was quite clearly better decorated and cleaner than in its heyday. I had a wander around and stuck my head into what had once been ‘Mark’s Room’, ‘Claire’s Room’ and ‘Andy’s Room’. I asked about the cellar where so much musical history was made. I was informed that no-one went down there, as it was the final resting place of the landlord’s mouldy fridge and freezer. As I was leaving, the couple asked me to tell them the name again of the famous Leeds band from the 80s that used to live there. “The Sisters of Mercy,” I proudly announced. “I’ll ask my Gran, she might have heard of them,” said the young woman in the dressing gown.

NVL: Both books included some amazing, never previously seen photos of the band from the 1980’s. How difficult were these to track down? 

MA: Some were really easy; some took aeons to arrange. I remember first phoning Tony Mottram from a hotel room in Manchester in February 2019; we closed the deal for five of his excellent photos over two years later! At the opposite end of the spectrum was Jon Langford. I commissioned an original piece of Sisters-themed art from him and he suggested using one of his own photos. This is the one he let Unbound have for the book without charge. I had excellent tip-offs from Phil Verne and Bruno Bossier who showed me images in their collections. Thank you, Phil and Bruno!

NVL: Seconded! And I’d add the collector LG to that list by the way, he’s also been incredibly helpful with the blog. Tell us how you sourced the photos in WFAW, Trevor.

TR: I wanted to find some completely unseen photos of the band. Not just unpublished – by which I mean, maybe they’ve never been printed in a magazine but everyone’s seen them online anyway – but really, genuinely unseen. Also offstage photos. Live photos of the band are pretty common and can feel slightly samey to someone who’s spent a lifetime as a Sisters fan. So yes, this was a big challenge. And I can confirm Mark’s comment that it takes time and, above all, persistence, to unearth these kinds of photos. In some cases it took me years to chase them down. I was thrilled not only to find, but license, never-before-seen photos by outstanding photographers like Ulf Berglund, Daryl-Ann Saunders, Fred Berger, Larry Rodriguez and David Arnoff.

And then there are the photos that aren’t necessarily of the band but add context to the story. I am also proud of these, like Saadia Tiare’s photo of Jenny Foster with her friends in Washington Square Park. It’s such a great artefact of the times; I look at that photo and think, this picture says more than my two or three pages of description of the New York scene that The Sisters stepped into in 1983, 1984. These young, hopeful, kind of gothy girls sitting in the very heart of New York’s Greenwich Village. Jenny Foster with her thousands of bangles that would soon be immortalised in A Rock And A Hard Place. That’s one of my favourite photos in the book.

NVL: What was the most difficult aspect of getting your book to publication? 

TR: Apart from the photos, it was my own busy schedule. I had planned a huge volume, basically 1980 to the present. I was going to write it all, then reach out to the band, do interviews with everyone I could from every period, integrate all that material, track down photos, etc. Let’s be honest: this book would have been 2000 pages and I may never have finished it at all. So here I have to say a big thanks (again) to Mark because my book likely wouldn’t have seen the light of day without his encouragement to push past my natural inclination to sit on an incomplete manuscript, maybe forever.

MA: The crowd-funding phase. It seemed at one point in 2019 that it wouldn’t fund and that there would be no book.

NVL: The response to both books indicates the enduring appeal of TSOM compared to many of their contemporaries. Why is it that the band seems to exert such a hold over its followers, in your opinion? 

MA: They were much, much better than their contemporaries is the short answer. Beyond that you have to wade into the complex emotions and psychology of why some people have long-lasting and deep relationships with songs and bands: the ancient Greeks needed an eighth word for that kind of love. I mean, what is the correct word for what I feel when I hear the Funhouse album by the Stooges and am close to tears by the time TV Eye comes on? I could tell you why have maintained a relationship with The Sisters all this time: I wrote a book about it - and that only really goes up to 1986-ish. There's another 35 years after that which needs explaining. That I'm a committed and unapologetic Eldritchophile explains a lot. Has it been plain sailing over those decades for those of our ilk? Good God no! But "with Swann, you forgive a lot, you know."

TR: I’ll co-sign Mark’s answer that The Sisters enduring appeal rests on the quality of the work. The music connects to you, the heart or the knees, usually both. Not every band can do that.

NVL: You both chose a lyrical fragment as title to your book that only firm fans of the band would recognise, rather than a more obvious “Tales From The Temple of Love” type title. Did you consider any other titles, and why did you eventually plump for your final choice? 

(pic credit: Trevor Ristow)

TR: My book has had three titles. First it was Mission And Revenge, but that title is really only suitable for the version of the book that goes to the present day. When I decided to print 1980-1985 as Volume I, I renamed it Heaven And A Hope Eternal, a Body And Soul lyric. But I scrapped that at the last moment, after designing the cover and everything. Waiting For Another War recommended itself to me for a few reasons. Fix and Valentine have always been two of my favourite songs. My old Sisters ‘zines from the 80s were called Romance And Assassination, a highly evocative lyric from Fix, so I thought, why not try to find a title from Valentine for this one? “Waiting for another war” is a great line, very Sisters. It’s a little violent: a subtle, anticipatory violence that’s more threatening because it’s controlled, restrained, like the band. It’s a bit pessimistic, a bit hostile, a bit droll.

MA: At one point it was Shot With A Diamond Bullet – that ended up in one of the opening quotes. Then it was Heartland when it was going to be even more a Leeds-y book than it is now but I was really looking for something like Meet Me In The Bathroom, the title of Lizzy Goodman’s book on the New York music scene. That’s how I ended up at Paint My Name in Black and Gold, which I couldn’t top. I still really like it.

NVL: Both books have also received great praise for the writing style. How important was it to you to get the prose style right? 

MA: My style is based on the assumption that readers are more interested in The Sisters of Mercy (or any other band I choose to write about) than they are in me and any literary flourishes I might choose to foist upon them. It's a safe assumption. I like the process of editing my own writing. I don't have a problem cutting my own crap or 'killing my darlings': if it's got to go, it's got to go, whether that's thousands of words or a comma. I don't find re-reading and re-writing over and over again remotely tedious. And I was very happy to get into it all over again with the editors - and the lawyer! - Unbound provided.

TR: The writing in both books is pretty straightforward, so a reader can kind of get lost in the narrative without thinking about the style.

MA: Trev - we both have some background in academic History as students. Do you think we wrote -- accidentally or on purpose -- history books rather than music bios?

TR: Maybe, yeah. A lot of music bios are hagiographies masquerading as history. I didn’t want to write that kind of book, and clearly you didn’t either. Two of my favourite historians – at least when I was younger – were AJP Taylor and Michael Howard. These were towering figures in British academia for good reason. Both wrote wonderfully simple prose, not ornamented or prolix, but the substance of their work was always challenging. After reading pretty much everything these guys wrote I must have copied their approach to some extent, even subconsciously. I think my love of the band comes through in the book even if I didn’t use a lot of superlatives and exclamation points.

MA: I certainly didn’t want to pretend I’m a music journalist, that’s for sure. I most definitely am not; I have no interest in reviewing bands or live shows for a start. But I do like research and I was quite happy to go down various rabbit holes when I was working on Paint My Name, just for the hell of it. Case in point: I spent a Saturday morning in the Brotherton Library of Leeds University reading their special collection of documents on the foundation and development of the Chinese Studies course. After dragging myself through a BA (Hons) Modern History degree between 1986 and 1989, I do actually feel like I have redeemed my history credentials with Paint My Name In Black and Gold!

NVL: The look and feel of both books have also garnered praise. How much say did you have in the appearance of the final artefact?

TR: I did everything entirely myself.

MA: Other than writing it and going through the sundry editorial processes – and sourcing photos – I did none of it. I had no reason to insert myself into the working practices of professional publishers. The exception was early on when I suggested that the cover should be a Sisters-as-the-Stooges pastiche of the Funhouse gatefold cover. That was never seriously considered, especially once the Head of Publishing at Unbound got in contact with Ruth Polsky’s brother and obtained the rights for the ‘Detroit’s Finest’ photo. I haven’t actually seen or touched my own book yet. My copies are in the UK and I live in Belgium. And no way am I risking the post-Brexit charges BPost might stick on a box of books coming into the country. And I’m not complaining about the Belgian postal service, I’m complaining about the lunacy of Brexit.

TR: I think Eldritch paid homage to that Funhouse collage style on the back cover of Vision Thing.

MA: I reckon Tim Bricheno got Photoshopped in (or whatever the equivalent was in 1990) at the last minute.

NVL: Neither of you saw the band in its very early days, although you did both see them for the first time just before the 1985 split. If you could jump in a time machine and go back to witness one of the concerts from the 80’s, which would you choose? 

MA: I saw The Sisters at the Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry on 14 March 1985. It was my first ever gig. I remember nothing about it. So for old time's sake I'd like to see that one again. I remember the minutes before the band came on: the smoke being pumped out  - especially the fruity smell - and the Head and Star logos lit up at the back of the stage but when the Doktor started up, all hell broke loose: a significant portion of the audience seemed to be trying to kill each other and take me with them. I remember forcing my way to the back of the sports hall the gig was in to get away from them ... and then: nothing. This I now realise was God Squad-induced shock. I had no idea what ferocious chicken dancing was at that time (For context: my second gig was Tina Turner supported by Bryan Adams at the NEC; I was there for Bryan Adams.) I guarantee that me and my mate Clark were the squarest people at that Sisters gig at the Lanch: I was there in my grey school trousers and he was almost certainly there in some stone-washed blue jeans. He's still a Sisters fan too.

TR: This is definitely the hardest question so far. I remember almost everything about the Kabuki gig in 1985, so I’d leave that one off my list. Naturally I’d prefer to choose one gig from every period or line-up. For example, I’d be thrilled to transport to the Paradiso in Amsterdam on 28 August 1983. But you asked about one, so I’d narrow it down to the line-up I really wish I’d seen: Eldritch, Hussey, Marx and Adams. I could be predictable and say Tiffany’s Newcastle 1985 but actually I miss Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door in that gig. So if pressed I’d probably visit Leeds University on 16 March 1985. It’s maybe not the best quality bootleg recording but I think it’s got to be one of the best performances and setlists. If I had a bit more gas left in the time machine I’d hit Münster Odeon on 17 November 1984. These are the gigs I have often dreamed of being at. There are also some later Sisters gigs I was at that I barely remember, so I wouldn’t mind going back and reliving those without having to crawl out of them.

MA: If we looked at your tastes and interests pre-Sisters, Trev, what clues would we find this would be a band that would really get their hooks into you?

TR: Great question. I grew up in a kind of hippie, dreamcatcher, Grateful Dead San Francisco. I found that whole scene irritating. I discovered The Sisters at a time of enormous change in my life, in my very early teens, a period of intense exploration. I guess most people would simply call this adolescence. My big touchstone albums at the time were Adam Ant’s Friend Or Foe and Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell. OK, not exactly transgressive music, but I was a kid. From there I went backwards into Adam And The Ants and Generation X, and I wanted to keep exploring. I was ready for something deeper than pop-punk.

Punk – real punk – was a middle finger raised to the establishment and mainstream culture, which was stultifying for kids in the late ‘70s. The appeal of punk is no mystery. But I missed it, or it missed me. I really wasn’t interested in the simple fuck-you of punk, in the same way I wasn’t interested in the flowerchild jam-band bullshit of The Grateful Dead. The Sisters spoke to me in a completely different way. They had some of the energy of punk, but an intellectual side entirely absent from The Sex Pistols. Everything about them just seemed cooler, more intelligent, more original and a shade darker than other bands.

My parents were definitely not hippies. My dad used to take me to gun shows around San Francisco, which I loved. Hard to believe San Francisco ever permitted gun shows, but in the ‘80s it did. So I inherited from my dad an interest in weapons, and military history. Anyway, at these gun shows I’d see these military medals I could afford to collect, old World War I medals, $5 each or something. I thought, what a cool idea. I still collect old medals and militaria. My dad also always said that if Russia nuked us, he’d climb up on our roof and just admire the mushroom cloud. He still has a huge coffee-table book of nuclear explosion photos. Our home was filled with books. I was always a big reader. Not that my parents ever liked The Sisters, or could name a single song, but when I discovered the band, they fell on very fertile ground. Eldritch talked in interviews, or wrote in lyrics, about a lot of the things I was already interested in: sex and drugs – perennial preoccupations of city boys – weapons, propaganda, even shopping for militaria in Hamburg with Lemmy. Half the girls I grew up with were Alice. The band reminded me a little of San Francisco hometown legends Chrome, who I loved. And Eldritch was very witty. I had a lot of identification with this band from the beginning. I think about that Craig Adams quote in Paint My Name, that Eldritch “talked all kinds of shit all the time,” that all his high-concept theorising was “twaddle.” But all that stuff he said in interviews was fascinating to me. I was a Cold War kid, 13 or 14 years old, and here was a guy who made great music and had some theory about how to enjoy life under the threat of nuclear annihilation, among many other things. Was he trying to find something shocking for a pull-quote? Probably. But it was better than reading a Robert Smith interview. And then there was a community around the band that I opted into. Fanzines, collectors, traders, tapers. I still have four or five big files with old correspondence and trade lists from them. It was a whole world that was simultaneously comfortable and stimulating to me. It made sense.

MA: Same question to you too, Nik!

NVL: Me? I suppose the biggest clue is that I tended to be a fairly obsessive fan of all the bands I’d really got into up to the point – The Jam and The Stranglers in ‘78, The Banshees in ‘79, Killing Joke in ‘80, then Bauhaus and UK Decay in 1981, before The Sisters – but catching The Sisters before they’d even made the indie charts definitely made them more special, “our” band. Musically, I’d love to say I’d been a huge fan of The Doors, the Velvets and The Stooges, but I had Jym at The Phono in Leeds to thank for that essential pre-punk part of my musical education, which had been strictly post Year Zero (of punk) up until then. How about you, Mark?

MA: Pre-1984, you would have found nothing like The Sisters amongst my records. Even post-1984, they are still a bit of an outlier. The Sisters ensnared me at 16, at a major transitional moment in my music taste – the next big one was when I was 30 and got heavily into funk and disco thanks to Barry White – it’s a beautiful story, trust me! In 1984 I was coming out of a Heavy Metal phase: Iron Maiden’s fourth album had finished me off, but I was still looking for something with fuzzy guitars and heavy drums and theatrical – and what I would now describe as camp – so I was ripe for the plucking when someone put Floorshow on the record player in the Sixth Form Common Room at my school. Before that, I think there are some pointers, albeit quite tangential ones, that I would fall prey to The Sisters: I had the Morricone Dollars soundtracks; Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town – and his sideburns; Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation – two Glitter covers on it and she was leather-jacketed Ramones fan; and it was obvious Motorhead were the best thing on Axe Attack Volume 2 by miles. I was also obsessed with the Giorgio Moroder soundtrack to Cat People.

Talking of songs: which songs really grew in status for you during the process of producing your book - and Nik, researching your blog posts? And which remain lesser works. I could commit multiple acts of heresy when I answer this!

NVL: Whisper it quietly, but like a lot of the ‘82/’83 Sisters fans, I was never a fan of the Hussey era at the time, with a particular loathing for Body And Soul and No Time To Cry. However, I’ve really learned to appreciate the subtlety of the latter in recent years, but the former is still almost unlistenable for me in its studio version. Of the earlier songs, I have rehabilitated Watch, which again I never had much time for, and studying it in detail for a blog post, I really got into Driver.

TR: I’m not sure how much my personal feelings about the songs were shaped by writing the book; for the most part I’d been thinking about and living with my ideas about the lyrics for years by the time I wrote about them. But I do understand how the songs can rise and fall in a listener’s estimation over the years. Because of the complexity of the language, the songs are living things.

MA: Those that already had a seat at the top table and which just blew my mind some more were Fix and Nine While Nine. And Heartland really rocketed up my charts. I think for decades I’d undervalued it because in my mind it was sandwiched between Temple of Love and Gimme Shelter on the 12”. One track which I had never been overly keen on which asserted itself when I was writing the book – lyrically and musically – was Black Planet. I’m convinced it’s about numerous kinds of obliteration: Armageddon, the Decline of Fall of the American Empire and personal altered states best achieved in the hours of darkness!

NVL: Time for the “multiple acts of heresy”, Mark!

MA: Is that firewood and a stake I see before me? My nerve has failed me, but I will say that I’ve never much liked A Rock and a Hard Place and Burn has always seemed to me the least interesting track on The Reptile House by some distance and writing the book did not change that. These surely can’t be anyone’s favourite Sisters tracks, can they? Answer: bloody right they could. The Sisters are a broad church.

I have another question for you both. Beyond the period of your book – and blog – what are your feelings about the band?

TR: I love them.

NVL: Like Trev, I’ve enjoyed all the phases of the band, but I particularly enjoyed 90-92 when The Sisters became a real band again. What about you, Mark?

MA: There was a period about ten years ago where I deliberately abandoned the band – I caught them on a bad night two gigs running. It was your blog Nik that was my route back, to where I find myself now – not just as the author of Paint My Name - but as a full-on Sisters fan again. I’m very grateful for that. I absolutely loved the Floodland singles and seeing Eldritch and Morrison on TV. Plenty of Sisters concerts over the last 30 years have been sensational – and I include the three Belgian ones in 2019 in that.

NVL: A lot of the band’s initial growth from just another post-punk band to cult icons seems to have been due in part to the cloak of mystery that seemed to surround the band, partially as a result of their stage presence. Did you worry that telling the history of the band “warts’n’all” might reduce their appeal? 

TR: Not really.

MA: Their appeal is unassailable and Eldritch, by and large, remains a mystery – to me at least. And of course, on the Richter Scale of rock band atrocities, there’s nothing that awful in Paint My Name, nor on the cutting room floor that the lawyers hoicked out. No-one arrives at Victoria Station and gives a Nazi salute, or kills the drummer of a Swedish hair metal band in a car crash; or shacks up with a underage girls; or chokes on their own vomit in a Mini.

Now the dust has settled, what would you change about your book or blog – this could be cuts, additions or simply corrections? Or by making all copyright and libel laws disappear?

TR: In some future edition I will correct a couple errors. But there are some events that are simply presented differently in the three books we now have about The Sisters. You know, the major protagonists in this saga will have different memories, and I don’t consider any one account necessarily canonical. So, to me, having three or four slightly different takes on the same event is another strength of having three or four accounts in print. I’m sure the truth of any one specific story lies somewhere between these versions.

The only material I sometimes wonder about having excised is lyric analysis. The book used to have more of that – a theory about a cryptic crossword clue in Possession, another about “Baby buy the number three” from Anaconda, a bit about Crash And Burn in the introduction, and so on. But I decided that most of these ideas were better suited to comments on a forum. In the end I left in only what I thought was defensible.

In terms of personal details, I don’t regret anything I cut, or never wrote. One insider related a shocking story to me about Doktor Avalanche rolling into Hamburg Hauptbahnhof in ‘83 and giving a Nazi salute. But I’m not one to trash an otherwise spotless reputation for sport.

MA: Damn right, I had to pull loads because Unbound were fully aware of the Doktor (and his solicitor's) savage reputation. Beyond that, I would note that Eldritch insists he’s never met Nick Cave or Brian James, contrary to what is written in Paint My Name. And beyond that kind of thing, I’m aware of three outright errors.

NVL: I suppose that the good thing about a blog is that you can go back and make edits, although there are still plenty of errors to correct. When I retire from my “normal” job, I plan to revamp the blog a bit and update some of the earlier posts.

MA: The Sisters are still alive and well, but who do you think are the inheritors of their crown? Who’s carrying that particular baton?

TR: This is a tricky, personal question because I’ve found that Sisters fans react to all different aspects of the band. One guy’s favourite track might be Vision Thing and his other favourite band is Taake, and another might be a huge Sisters/Celine Dion fan, and there’s no real contradiction there. They cover a lot of territory. The only two remotely recent artists who have moved me in a similar way are Zola Jesus and the Pink Mountaintops’ album Outside Love.

NVL: I agree, this is a really tough question, as The Sisters were so unique. I’m not ashamed to admit that I like some of the more obviously TSOM influenced artists, such as Miazma or The Cascades, and I’m still very much into the contemporary goth scene, and run a second blog where I review and interview current bands. There are so many great bands around, from Then Comes Silence to Whispering Sons, She Past Away to Ground Nero, Kentucky Vampires to Black Angel.

MA: For me, in terms of peak Eldritchian camp, artifice and persona, it has to Lana Del Rey!

NVL: Since publication of your books, have you had any feedback (direct or indirect?) from band members? 

MA: Marx and Adams read full drafts before Paint My Name went to press. Hussey read the bits with him in. I didn't hear any complaints. Marx and Adams have had hardback copies sent to them. The West Yorkshire-bound one has arrived; Marx read it during a power cut and I'm more than delighted with his review. Eldritch declined to be sent a copy.

TR: I’ve had feedback from here and there, direct by email as well as indirect, and it has been very positive.

NVL: What is your next writing project? Do you intend to write any further books about TSOM? 

TR: I have enough fuel in the tank for one more. I also have another non-Sisters project planned for way down the road. I’ve found that I enjoy the process of writing.

MA: In my very early notes – which I just had a look at - I seem to have jotted down the titles of a five-book series on The Sisters! This was when I was originally going to stop at 1984 and call the first one Heartland, so these other titles are: White Line Fever 1984-90; Jet Black Leather Machine 1990-1996; Empire Down (or Ozymandias) 1996-2005; and Distance Over Time 2005-. I will not be writing any of these.

However, I will write White Rose Babylon, a history of punk and postpunk Leeds – the city and its music. For years I’ve toyed with writing something about the music scene in the East Village in NYC in the 80s and 90s. I’m a huge fan of Pussy Galore, Boss Hog and the Blues Explosion, pretty much anything Jon Spencer does. I’m also considering pitching a book to the publishers of the 33 1/3 series called The Sisters of Mercy’s Long-Awaited Fourth Studio Album.

Paint My Name in Black and Gold was published by Unbound (from whom the ebook version may be purchased) and the hardback is still available from some online booksellers.

Waiting For Another War was published by GKW and a special limited edition paperback version is currently available from Rough Trade.


  1. Awesome meeting of minds with the 3 foremost Sisters journalists on this Black Planet of ours. Respect.

  2. Burn can't be anyone's favourite? Whaaat? The fact that it was a staple in the live set from '83 to '85 would suggest that at least one band member liked it. In my top three definitely, but that would have to be a live version (the Reptile House version is perhaps a little anaemic and the backwards vocals are a bit naff, even for the time). For me, the best live versions would be with Ben Gunn who (unusually, given the limited contribution that he was allowed to make) played the lead guitar for most of the song live (see the Nightmoves performance on Youtube), although Eldritch's vocal rendition was much improved by '85. Hussey actually detracted from the song live with the inconsequential jangly guitar, imho; Marx and Adams, naturally, were impeccable through all live performances that I've heard!