On a warm, late summer evening, I sat down in a green room upstairs at the Aladdin Theater with Wayne Hussey preceding his Portland show while the opening act (deathrock masters Death Charge from Portland, OR) did their sound check. We chatted about the return of most of the original members, what has changed in 25 years of playing music, the power and life of a song, the freedom it affords a band when they never have a radio hit and what David Allen brought to the production of the Mission’s newest LP release, The Brightest Light.
How long it’s been since you’ve last toured?
I came over with the band in 2002, actually. It was a different lineup at the time.
Who is with you this time?
Right now it’s Craig Adams on bass, the original bass player, Simon Hinkler on guitar, the original guitar player, and Mike Kelly on drums, he’s a young kid.
Where did you find Kelly?
He’s actually been playing with Craig in Spirit of Destiny and Theatre of Hate, so Craig knew him from there. When we decided to get together again in 2011 for the 25th anniversary shows, we contacted our original drummer, but he hadn’t played with us in 15 years and was quite happy and content doing what he does now.
Right, because being on the road is a bit of a grind, right?
Well, this isn’t really. There are only 10 shows, you know? Ten shows in two weeks is easy compared to some of our past tours that were months long. But it takes its toll, that’s for sure, and this (gesturing to honey sitting next to a cup of hot water) is a tool of the trade now.
Yeah, instead of the white powders, it’s honey.
So that’s the difference between then and now…
Well, that’s one of them (laughs).
Well, that brings me to aging. As I’ve aged, I’ve noticed that music has taken more of a backseat in my life. Does anyone in the band have a day job or do you have a day job?
No, no, no… none of us do. We all do different things in music outside of the band. As I mentioned before, Craig and Mike are in other bands together, and Simon plays with others when he’s asked to do it. I do solo stuff; I do other projects… I mean, I’ve toured. I was here five years ago, actually, playing a solo show.
So that makes it a little easier to balance the family life?
Yeah, I mean, when we were young and starting out, the band took precedence over everything, as it does at that age. But, as you get older, you realize there are more important things than being on the road and being in a band. Music’s great, making music is great, but it’s not the end-all be-all.
Especially with older material or music that was written with different members, I’m wondering if you ever feel like you’re covering your own music?
No, you know what’s quite interesting? When we got the lineup back together again, we started rehearsing. I’ve had various lineups over the years, and each and every one of them listened to the records and assimilated what they would hear and lend their own particular style to it. When we started playing some of the old songs together—with Simon, Craig and Mike—it was immediately evident that this is how the songs should sound. It was one of those things that—over the years, you don’t listen to your own records—so it was quite amazing how different some of the versions became as members moved in and out.
I notice that about music. Songs are incredibly fluid…
Well, it has to be, yeah.
So, you’ll create a song and over time, it changes… it takes on a life of its own.
I have a theory [about writing music]. The moment a song is most potent is when it is first being written. The first couple of times you sing it, you’re still thinking about the words and you’re still feeling the words. Whereas, after a while, you lose that potency, but there are other qualities that come in. You may sing it better, but you don’t really think so much about what you’re singing or playing. It becomes almost second nature. It goes from the brain to the heart.
With the new album, all the songs I wrote for this album, with the exception of a couple, were demoed using just an acoustic guitar and voice, primarily because we sat down and talked about it beforehand and decided that rather than me impose a bass line on Craig, a guitar line for Simon, or a rhythm for Mike, it would be a more…
Yeah, they had a bigger color palette to draw from. And what that afforded me was more of a luxury of time to write more songs. That resulted in 25 or 30 songs in a very short space because I didn’t have to worry about all the other stuff!
Will you be playing a lot of your new material tonight?
We’ve been playing five songs from the new album.
Do some of the [older] songs seem mysterious or oddly challenging once you revisit them?
Well, not in this set, but there is one song in particular. [Carved in Sand’s opening track] “Amelia” always puts me in a bad mood. And I’m not sure if it is because the subject matter [of child molestation] or because it is very difficult to play and sing at the same time.
How about that “moneymaker” song: you know, the one that you don’t really like to play, but can’t really leave it out of the set?
We’re in a position that is double-edged really. We’re a band that’s never really had that one big hit that you hear on the radio. In that sense, it’s unfortunate because we don’t get played on the radio. But on the other hand, we have the freedom to play from our back catalog because no one is really there to hear that one particular song. Fans are coming for their own [connection to the songs], for their own thing. There are songs we play every night, and we do try to temper what we want with what we think the audience would want with what we think the audience should have. So there are three degrees there. You have to entertain yourselves firstly, so you don’t get bored with what you’re doing.
I think we’re in a fortunate position—I’m trying to look at the positive from never having that really big hit.
That’s a really good point that I think other people would miss. So you’ve avoided the obligatory nature because of that.
Yeah, it’s like when I was in the Sisters [of Mercy] we would never play “Temple of Love” (because we were supposed to).
I’m curious about how you’ve seen the music industry change throughout your career.
When we first started, we released our first two singles on an independent label in the UK which did very, very well and immediately there were the major labels sniffing around us. We signed a major deal with Polygram, which allowed us to get [worldwide distribution] and that enabled us to tour.
When that started to go the way of the downward spiral, they quickly dropped us and then we signed with another independent label. Basically, the way I look at it is: If there’s somebody there that is willing to put the money up for us to make a record, then we make a record. I certainly wouldn’t want to pay for it out of my own pocket.
That saying, I now have my own studio, so I can keep recording costs very, very low.
And that’s because of digital technology?
Well, it’s partly that and partly that I live in the country and I have the space to have it. The modern day musician has had to learn to multitask, really. When I started, there were tape ops and engineers and I would have no idea what all those buttons on the mixing desk meant. Now, you can, if you want, do it all on a laptop. I, again, think that is a double-edged thing. I think a lot of music I hear, particularly a lot of modern rock, sounds quite generic. I think that’s got a lot to do with the technology that’s available—ProTools, you know. It sounds, well, like ProTools. Whereas older records tended to sound like the studio itself—the room where it was recorded.
So, going to a certain studio meant you were going to have a different sound, right?
Yes, exactly. Whereas now, I think it’s become a bit more homogenized and more generic. I miss that. I miss the character of rooms and the band playing together in a room. I think a lot of records now are just layered. Again, there are some great records that are made that way. But it all comes down to the song in the end for me. If it’s a good song, if it’s a song that touches me in some way, then it really doesn’t matter if it is recorded on a four-track cassette recorder with an acoustic guitar and voice or the most expensive studio in the world, as long as it’s a good song.
So, your new record, The Brightest Light was produced by Dave Allen. Tell me about working with him. What magic does he bring?
Well the first time I worked with Dave was 30 years ago. He was a young engineer and I was in a band called Dead or Alive. He produced a single for us. He and I got on great and then I left Dead or Alive as they were getting too dancey and I joined the Sisters [of Mercy]. And then we were talking about producers for the first Sisters album and Dave’s name came up. I said “Yeah, I’ve worked with Dave. He’s great. I recommend him.”
So Dave came in [during the recording of the Sisters of Mercy’s first album First and Last and Always]… and then we worked with Dave on and off on little things over the years. In 2000 we did Aura, which Dave mixed half of it for us. And when we started talking about record producers for this record, Dave’s name came up and everyone immediately went “Yeah!” He’s a couple of years older than us, so he gets all our reference points and I knew he would totally get what we wanted to do with the record. He is somebody who brings a little strangeness to things when they could easily become too conventional.
But what he’s absolutely brilliant at is actually band management. Because you’re working with four egos that need to be catered to and satisfied and he is the best at coaxing out the best performances from all of us. The bottom line is that he got it: we wanted to make a record that sounded as close to us live as we could get. Almost the entire record was recorded with four of us all in one room, playing together, without [a click track], so it has its own ebb and flow that’s all down to feel. So, there’s basically two guitar parts in each song, and if Simon’s not playing guitar, he’s playing piano or keyboard. That’s what the record is: It’s as close to our live sound as we’ve ever managed to get on record!
We’ve always tended to be quite symphonic with our guitar parts, overdubbing twenty-million parts, which worked at the time. But this time, it was a bit rawer and it was fun. Obviously, one consideration was that we don’t have the same budgets we used to have, so we had time constraints… But that, actually, was a big help rather than a hindrance because it made us get on with the job. He’s actually a very lovely man, Mr. Dave Allen…
I would love to meet him…
He’s slightly eccentric, unlike me.
You’re not eccentric?
We’re both wearing black nail polish.
Aww (we laugh loudly together) … you got me there!