Off the beaten track

When Colin MacIntyre was growing up he owned three albums - With The Beatles, Bridge Over Troubled Water and Queen’s Greatest Hits. On reflection this is probably all you need for a grounding in pop music.

He blithely played along to his records, not entirely sure if he’d got the gist of this guitar thing, before writing and recording his first song, My Baby’s Gone Away, on a portable tape recorder. He was six years old and already singing the blues. "I gradually figured out what I was doing," he says. "Just when I finished the album."

That album, Loss, was only completed and released - to widespread acclaim - this autumn. MacIntyre is now 30 and on the cusp of success with his group Mull Historical Society, Scotland’s latest exponents of fizzy pop and widescreen melancholy, named after a real but elusive organisation on the island which was his home for 18 years. He will see the year out as one of the main attractions at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay street party.

MacIntyre comes from one of the biggest families on Mull. Recently he has been doing a lot of reminiscing about his childhood, returning to the island many times over the past year, playing a couple of homecoming gigs and obliging a succession of journalists who have hopped over on the ferry to write their Musician Grows Up On A Cultural Outpost features.

"The truth of it is, I couldn’t have hoped for a better musical upbringing," he recalls. "Bands used to come over from Oban, called things like Freezeframe, and I always remember I’d never heard anything so loud."

So his formative musical experiences were not huddling in a bothy listening to John Peel on a ropey old wireless, but getting off on competent cover bands playing real live electric rhythm’n’blues. The greatest of these, according to a clearly prejudiced MacIntyre, was his uncle’s group The Wave Band. He and his cousin would sit in on their rehearsals. By the age of ten they had formed their own covers group Trax (don’t worry - they later renamed themselves Love Sick Zombies, which is obviously much better). By the age of 12 they were playing school discos and support slots at the town hall.

"I’d forgotten what a grounding it was," he muses, now that he can look back from a safe distance on his island upbringing. "In the winter it was quite dull. I suppose I just spent a lot of time in my bedroom playing music. But in the summer you’d be outdoors all the time.

"Yachts would come in and there would be a couple of big weekends for the yachties, as we called them. We’d go down to the seafront and see what girls were going to come off the boats. It was just this big summer chase. I remember chasing this girl for a whole night and she was no more interested in me than she was in one of the sheep in Mull." Ah, sheep. A love/hate relationship to which we shall return.

"You were aware that you couldn’t leave whenever you wanted - that was just the rules," he continues. "But I didn’t want to leave. It would have been a lot easier all round for my family if I’d agreed to move, but as a kid I guess I kept us there. It’s quite safe. You know that tomorrow is going to be the same as today but, as you get older, that becomes more of a hindrance. By that time I’d realised Mull wasn’t going to offer what I wanted."

So he and his brother moved to Glasgow at the end of the 1980s, and MacIntyre began songwriting in earnest, forming a succession of going-nowhere bands with awful names like Smells Like Marzipan and 7/11 and pursuing the coveted recording contract. Over the next ten years he survived spells at university, joyless training sessions for "plucky" Queen’s Park football club, and a job in a stockbroking firm. Working for directory enquiries was definitely the highlight, though.

"It was like working inside a George Orwell novel," says MacIntyre. "I nicked the mission statement the day I left. It’s just the language they used - people were just objects. But I wouldn’t change a thing because it gave me so much to write about."

MacIntyre has written around 300 songs to date but he first knew he was on to something when he penned the panoramic Barcode Bypass and the freewheeling Mull Historical Society. He took the latter as the name for the group he formed with fellow Mull expat Alan Malloy, and the two tracks made an immediate impression when they were released as the band’s double A-side debut at the end of last year.

More ecstatic, spangly pop songs and reflective elegies have followed on Loss, so titled because it is a theme which pervades the album and has specific resonance for MacIntyre, whose father, the respected BBC Scotland political correspondent Kenny MacIntyre, died suddenly a couple of years ago.

"I suppose I’ve always used my songs to express what I was thinking," he says, "but I was never more aware of it than then because about two days later I was already starting to write about it. I’ve never really said much about it in interviews because it sounded negative. What I’ve done in the last couple of years is try to channel it. When my dad died, I was trying to move to London, trying to get a band together, not focused at all. It’s been a saving grace that things have come together, so I didn’t want the album to sound negative about that even though it is about loss. It’s about how you can try to turn it around."

The past year has been a promising overture for MacIntyre and his group (the band is augmented for live appearances). It has brought him critical acclaim, a growing audience and a slot on one of the year’s most feverishly scrutinised tours with labelmates the Strokes. He makes no predictions for next year, but he recently got a glimpse of what lies ahead when he attended the Q Awards. Within seconds of arriving he was besieged by autograph hunters.

"It was the first time I’ve ever been asked anything like that outside of our own gigs," he says. "It was quite weird. Maybe I do have some desire to be known. I like to think I’m doing it all for the music but maybe there’s something else there."

He is certainly not shy about exploiting his roots to spice up the band’s increasingly oddball character. References to the island of Mull are scattered over the band’s website, including the demographic statistic that Tobermory has one sheep to every 2.5 humans. "Using the Mull thing has helped and it’s been good to involve people up there," says MacIntyre. "The real Mull Historical Society have apparently asked for Barcode Bypass to play at their annual dinner. When I heard that it almost felt too good to be true."

But what about the sheep? And sundry other beasts? The band’s songs, artwork and videos are saturated in animal imagery. Their logo is a dog in a wig. Their stage sets are littered with inflatable sheep (Ann Summers do a good line, according to MacIntyre). Their keyboard player is called Sheepy. And every single video is a creature feature - MacIntyre and Malloy as pantomime horse in the promo for Animal Cannabus, MacIntyre in battle of wits with a sheep for I Tried, MacIntyre as the rabbit on a greyhound track for forthcoming single and album highlight Watching Xanadu. That’s what you get when you ask a wildlife photographer to make your videos - all the band’s promos have been directed by Gordon Buchanan and his partner Wendy Rattray, both also part of the burgeoning Mull diaspora.

"I just think it’s a bit obvious to see people standing by streams or wearing parkas on hilltops," explains MacIntyre. "I like mixing ideas up and jamming things against each other. Maybe I’m becoming camp but we’ve started dressing the set with feather boas and kicking inflatable sheep into the crowd, like Rod Stewart and his footballs." Incidentally, MacIntyre hates animals. Well, it’s one way of confronting a phobia.

Mull Historical Society will finally take their tunes and their blow-up playmates overseas when they tour Europe in January. There will be further single releases from the album. But MacIntyre is more enthused by planning the next album, which he says will be called Us. He has 15 new songs ready to record.

"Bjork described creativity as having a chest of drawers in her head and every so often one drawer will open and something will fall out and that’s the way it is for me," he says. "It was great to get this album out but it was just a snapshot of what I was doing at the time. I can’t wait to get more stuff out there because nothing comes close to writing songs for me. Everything after that is just downhill."

And in the unlikely event of things going downhill for Mull Historical Society, what then? "I think I still have a place to do politics and modern history at Glasgow University. And I haven’t ruled it out. I just want to wear feather boas for a while."

Mull Historical Society play the Concert In The Gardens, Edinburgh, on Hogmanay. The band’s next single, Watching Xanadu, is out on 28 January from Rough Trade