Mull Historical Society: Northern exposure

As Mull Historical Society, Colin MacIntyre is one of pop's more eccentric acts. Sam Ingleby meets a level-headed schizophrenic
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The Independent Culture

Colin MacIntyre knew he had made it when Mull Historical Society, the venerable institution after which his one-man band is named, had to change its name. "Aye," Macintyre remarks ruefully, scratching his salt-and-pepper-coloured hair. "They've changed to Mull Historical and Archeological Society because people were phoning and asking where the next gig was."

Macintyre is a delicate, handsome figure, and he speaks earnestly about his version of the Society, which is known for breezy, eccentric pop songs that evoke comparisons with The Beach Boys and the Super Furry Animals. Asked about the lilting songs on his third album, This is Hope, Macintyre describes the music as "schizophrenic". "I like to sing from different characters' perspectives, which is probably why the songs sound so different.

"I've always been able to write a lot of songs, As a kid of seven or eight, even before I could play the guitar, I was writing songs. I sent my first demo off when I was 16. I moved to Glasgow when I was 18, and then to London and played some showcase gigs for industry people. But it took about 10 years for me to find a sound I was happy with. It's just part of learning."

After recording an album he has about two months when he has no inclination to write and then: "It starts again. I'm on the tour bus and I need to grab the dictaphone because I've got a tune in my head. I like it but sometimes you can do without it at half past four in the morning."

MacIntyre tried university and dropped out ("I was writing songs about the stuff I should have been writing essays about") and worked for directory enquiries, an experience he still draws on. "It is such a tough environment. It's good to be satisfied now, I remember when I was at uni or at the call centre thinking - is anybody ever going to hear this music? Now they have."

The easy transitions that his music makes, from melancholic to euphoric, and what Andy Gill calls "an inquisitive enthusiasm for all manner of musical modes", have led MacIntyre to think about writing a musical. "I'd like to do it, though I'd probably need some help. I definitely think I could do a soundtrack and I've nearly finished writing a novel. I should have just one ball in the air but I want to go on being as creative as possible."

This is Hope's title came to MacIntyre on a trip through America's Deep South. "I stopped at Hope Island, Hope Street, Hopesville, so this idea of hope was a constant presence and I wanted to use it on the album. I was also struck by how faith is expressed out there. Driving though the Bible Belt in America it's almost like God is for sale."

He sees parallels between life on Mull and life in the Deep South. "I was quite taken with the symmetry between the Deep South and the Western Isles. I could see the small-town weirdness - the Twin Peaks element But there is also the religious side. The Western Isles are quite a devout place. I would say that Mull is less affected, which tells you where I stand, but both share a religious conviction and both have a real sense of community."

The community in Mull is clearly important to MacIntyre. Although he is now based in Glasgow, he goes back regularly, and his records abound with nods and winks to his upbringing. His first album has a recording of a ferry captain talking passengers through the 40-minute journey from Oban, and this album has a song inspired by the islands' slightly outdated take on fashion, "Tobermory Zoo". MacIntyre is keen for the influence of his island upbringing to be acknowledged, but not overstated. "It's got a lot to do with me and therefore the music, but I do sometimes wonder whether I give the impression that Mull is on a completely different planet. It's relevant, but no more so than the time I've lived in London or Glasgow. People should concentrate more on the music."

MacIntyre admires the Scottish novelist and painter Alasdair Gray and the playwright Arthur Miller, and cites both as influencing the album's centrepiece, the seven-minute "Death of a Scientist", a poignant eulogy to Dr David Kelly. "I was reading a lot about it and I resear-ched it on the internet. I went to see the play Justifying War (dramatised excerpts from the Kelly enquiry staged at the Tricycle Theatre, London, in 2003) with my dictaphone, and the story of that man really touched me. I know he made mistakes - the first line of the song is "And you will know me by my mistakes" - but he seemed to be trapped by something much bigger than him, and then he gave up."

MacIntyre asserts that it's "the radio, papers, Newsnight, the books I'm reading " that influence his songwriting more than a particular band or sound. "I listen to classic records occasionally, After the Gold Rush or Marquee Moon, but there's nothing in particular." Of recent releases he says he enjoyed the Franz Ferdinand album, but he has a caveat - "I haven't actually listened to it". He wants more people to listen to his band "You want as many people as can to hear your music. The masses usually focus in on something quite accessible - I want them to focus in on something that challenges them and maybe takes a little longer to get into".

'This Is Hope' is out now on B Unique