The Hebridean Island of Mull (pop. 2,500), off Scotland's west coast, has long been known for dramatic mountains, secluded beaches, peaty whisky and ubiquitous sheep. Not the likeliest launching pad for a rock star, especially one who goes by the improbable name of the Mull Historical Society. Yet with one acclaimed album under his belt that sold 60,000 copies in the U.K., and a second just released to gushing reviews, 31-year-old Colin MacIntyre has a swelling fan base and seems to be on his way. Over 700 km from the stiff Hebridean breeze, in a café in Chelsea, MacIntyre is telling his story and the more he talks about his days in Glasgow as a stockbroker and telephone-directory operator, the less likely a rock character he seems.
"I left work and went to uni, but I then got stuck having to support myself so I worked five nights a week at directory enquiries," says MacIntyre. "There was no time to put bands together, but the whole time I was writing and recording at home on my four-track." With 300 songs in the bank if little else he finally got to quit the night job, and after a couple of inspired singles he released his debut album, Loss, in 2001. From his bedroom came the Mull Historical Society: sweeping, melodic, often experimental pop with layers of horns or steel drums; and MacIntyre's high-pitched voice soaring over McCartney-like piano lines into harmonies with himself quite a big sound for one bloke.
MacIntyre writes the songs, sings, plays the instruments, records and produces himself; he even makes the artwork for the sleeve. "I can't really separate writing the songs, the bass line, the piano part from the production of it: how I want it to actually sound. I've seen the point where I've been agonizing about how much reverb to put on a bicycle bell." He has continued the one-man-band approach for Us, a more mature and focused, yet still exhilarating and occasionally eccentric, follow-up.
Scotland has had a thriving rock scene for more than a decade, spawning such acts as Teenage Fanclub and Primal Scream. MacIntyre isn't part of it; the only scene he saw growing up involved sheep. There aren't even any record shops on Mull. Critics have compared his sound to the Beatles, the Flaming Lips and the Super Furry Animals, but most frequently to the sound sculptures of reclusive Beach Boys auteur Brian Wilson. Here, too, MacIntyre seems destined to confound. "I can honestly say that I bought Pet Sounds about six to eight months ago; I'd never heard it before. I'd never heard any Beach Boys records," he says. His inspiration came from watching his uncle's rock-cover band (the Wave Band) as a kid, rehearsing and gigging round Mull. But MacIntyre doesn't see his Hebridean upbringing as a big factor in his music: "I'd sound like a folk band if it did." Which doesn't explain the love story between a shepherd and a sheep in one video.
MaCINTYRE's songs TAKE an outsider's view of a vaguely alienating society, told through personal vignettes. "I'm drawn to write about people on the edge of things, people on the outside, up against it. That doesn't mean you have to be on an island, that can happen in London or anywhere. But I think I found those themes attractive, coming from somewhere more isolated."
The track Barcode Bypass on Loss tells of a local grocer driven to an early grave, struggling to compete with a new 24-hour supermarket; on Us the story is revived as The Supermarket Strikes Back. "I wanted the 24-hour supermarket owner to know what he'd caused," says MacIntyre. "He starts off oblivious all he is worried about is new blades for his lawn mower or if there are enough carrots in the carrot department. Through the song he develops a conscience and will do anything he can to help the situation he has created."
Even taking the name of the island's historical society has the outsider's slightly Orwellian bite. "I remember there was a sign on the street saying 'No Dumping' and on the golf course there was 'No Practice Swings.' I was thinking, this is f_____g Mull! Next there will be 'No Sheep Shagging,' what's the world coming to?" he laughs. "I imagined this Big Brother figure controlling the island, and I imagined that figure to be the Mull Historical Society." The "real" mhs don't seem to mind. "They got a copy of Barcode Bypass, which they played at their annual dinner, so I'm really pleased; at least I'm not offending them."
MacIntyre is addicted to songwriting. "I remember doing these support tours with Elbow and the Strokes and I was scribbling all the time," he says. "I've phoned my mum before and asked her to try and remember a melody. I've called myself countless times on a tour and when I come home I've got all these messages from myself; each one gets less and less coherent as the tour develops."
But even the loner needs some support; MacIntyre is drafting a band and hitting the road again at the end of March, touring the U.K., Europe and the U.S. He will no doubt steal the odd moment to pen more distinctive melodies and tales from the edge. A songwriting junkie, oblivious to passing trends, he has become more than just Mull's local hero. His not-so-secret Society is getting bigger all the time.