MacIntyre undercover

IT IS the morning after the night before and Colin MacIntyre, aka The Mull Historical Society, is looking relatively chipper despite a late night carousing in Glasgow.

Through fate rather than any previous friendship, he ended up gate-crashing a BT office party with Justin Currie of Del Amitri at the tail end of the night before. And though MacIntyre’s career is in the ascendant and Del Amitri’s is in something of a slough at the moment, it was, of course, Currie’s more rugged looks that attracted the women of BT’s attention more than the cleaner cut of MacIntyre’s jib.

Not that he is in the least bit miffed at the lack of recognition. He is just happy to have made it into the party.

"Before I was doing this, I spent three years working for the 192 directory enquiries service in their call centre," he notes. "I was very happy to get into that party last night. It is more than I managed in my three years with 192. We were the 192 boys. We never got a look in at the actual proper highlights of the operator services."

Unless Del Amitri do a Texas and completely reinvent themselves then that situation may well be reversed by this time next year. Then the operator services human resources management will be emulating cabbies and telling new recruits that they had that Colin MacIntyre in the back of their call centre once.

MacIntyre had a cracking 2002 following the release of his critically acclaimed debut album Loss. The album sold 60,000 and rising, he toured Europe, the States and the festival circuit, then capped it all by following in the footsteps of Sharleen Spiteri and Travis by winning the Scotland on Sunday/Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Creative Talent award.

He is now on the verge of releasing Us, the follow-up to Loss. ‘Final Arrears’, the first single off the new album, has been doing well on Radio 1 and MacIntyre has a full headlining UK tour set for the next couple of months. Even at a time when Scottish pop and rock is doing unusually well for itself, MacIntyre stands out as a new voice.

A couple of years back, this paper called him the new Badly Drawn Beach Boy and MacIntyre says that while he only purchased Pet Sounds six months ago, it’s an epithet he has no quarrel with. A world away from the all teeth and no talent of most of the current chart toppers, MacIntyre writes, records and produces all of his own material. A lush and vibrant brew, MacIntyre’s songs mix acute comment with a rush of multi-tracked melody to produce that increasingly rare beast: intelligent pop.

A prolific writer, MacIntyre composes songs with an ease that makes the likes of Massive Attack (on average one album every four years) seem like constipated plodders. He doesn’t eat, sleep and breathe songs, but it’s not far off. As well as the music, he has an unpublished novel under the bed and pens short stories in what presumably little spare time he has. The songs, though, take precedence.

"I’ve got hundreds that I’ve done since I was about 15," he says. "For the first album, I recorded about 35 songs to pretty much finished quality in the studio and then decided which ones would go on Loss.

"Some were new and some were from my back catalogue that I thought deserved to be produced in the studio the way I imagined them in my head. This record has been much the same process. There are a lot of new songs on the record but then there are a few old ones that I had hanging about."

MacIntyre doesn’t fit neatly into the box of the obsessive writer banged up in a garret, but there are trace elements of that in his make-up. Yet for all its polish and painstaking detail, Us does sound as if MacIntyre enjoyed making it. "For me, much as the gigging and so on is a massive part of it nothing could replace the creative element," he agrees. "Some of the stuff I would have written going into the studio but a lot of it would be done in the studio. I know a ballpark of what I want from a song and then I shade in the detail. I don’t know exactly where a song is going but the process of making the song becomes the song. After spending much of last year juggling touring with writing, I loved going into the studio to record it. I loved the idea that I would be in there from 11 in the morning to 11 at night. I liked the idea of locking myself away and just getting on with it. That might not be everybody’s idea of fun but it does it for me."

While the studio might feel like a second skin to MacIntyre, Us is not a pointy-headed, studio boffin’s album. It has a human warmth to it and the story-telling muscle, which MacIntyre flexes in his short stories and novel, is also strongly present in his songs. Us even has a song on it, ‘The Supermarket Strikes Back’, which is a sequel to ‘Barcode Bypass’, a song from his first album.

"Someone said that ‘Barcode Bypass’ was like putting The League of Gentlemen to music and I quite liked that," says MacIntyre.

"It is about this shopkeeper in this small community. He gets put out of business by a 24-hour convenience store and tries to hide it from his wife. Not long after I recorded that, I had the title ‘Supermarket Strikes Back’ and I just thought it sounded like a sequel. I started writing the lyrics and it became a story straight away. It’s about the 24-hour store owner who put the original shopkeeper out of business. He’s only interested in profit and has no conscience. During the song he finds out what he has done to the community and reads in the paper of the death of the first shopkeeper. Through this he starts developing a social conscience."

It may not be The Strokes singing about New York policemen, but it’s MacIntyre finding the story in an everyday situation.

"Everyone has the same problems," he says. "I think it was Ken Loach who said something along the lines that his films are just about work, love and play. I think that’s what my songs are about. Whether you are in those things or out of those things or looking for them. I want people to relate to what I do, but I don’t want to marginalise it to the point where it is too quirky. A song like ‘The Supermarket Strikes Back’ is quite dark but I want it to just sound like a pop song."

Without coming over all Billy Bragg, MacIntyre’s songs often have a political bent to them and he keeps returning to the themes of people as products and the working underclass. There is an element of autobiography to this and that’s not just MacIntyre’s previous exclusion from BT office parties. His late father, Kenny MacIntyre, was Radio Scotland’s political correspondent and before MacIntyre went to Glasgow University to study politics, he worked for five years as an office drone.

"I had this double life of bands by night and then in my suit by day. That has given me endless amounts of material. I’ve probably got about 50 albums in me. After university, it was the BT call centre. It was never me and it was quite soul-destroying at times. I thought the only way I could get out was to start writing about it."

Sticking with the autobiographical theme, much has been made of the fact that MacIntyre comes from Mull and how this must have affected his songwriting sensibilities. MacIntyre nods in the direction of this theory but, on the other hand, it is not as though Mull and Glasgow are thousands of miles apart physically or culturally. Mull may not have Glasgow’s nightlife but nor is it cut off from the 21st century.

"I’m from Mull and I’m proud of it. I don’t know if I would be doing what I do if I didn’t come from Mull and had that sort of upbringing," he muses.

"Lyrically, I suppose I’m quite drawn to things or people from the outside or the edge of things and, coming from an island, maybe that is why I am drawn to these things."

At the same time, MacIntyre points out that though now living in London, he spent 11 years living in Glasgow on and off and that he wrote most of his songs there. "Hopefully, I can write songs wherever I am," he says. "For me, it’s important now that I can finally do what I’ve always wanted to do."

The Mull Historical Society plays King Tut’s, Glasgow, on Tuesday, and Barrowland April 5. Final Arrears is released on Blanco Y Negro on February 17; Us is released on March 3