Why the rest is history

This time last year Mull Historical Society, aka former island boy Colin MacIntyre, was on the cusp of great success with a highly acclaimed debut album under his belt, a hit single in Watching Xanadu, and a growing fan base for his happy/sad pop songs.

As the rest of his year unfolded, he gave up his flat in Glasgow (he was never there), moved to London and then toured like a demon, taking in along the way the summer diet of festivals and a trip to New York as part of a celebration of tartan talent. By the end of 2002 he had been formally recognised, winning the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award for Creative Talent, which he modestly shrugs off as "a nice night out for my mum". Just as well he hadn’t obeyed his initial instincts as 2001 drew to a close.

"I remember playing Edinburgh last Hogmanay and thinking, ‘I need to take a break’," he says, "and then I was just bored after about a week. I knew I had to start thinking about the next record. Because I produce it myself, I almost have to manage myself in terms of when to start making the record. So on 14 January, as it happened, I went into the studio."

Not only does MacIntyre write, record (with the assistance of a drummer and an engineer) and produce all Mull Historical Society’s music, he is also responsible for all the visual ideas, from the sleeve design and videos to the inflatable sheep and feather boas of the live incarnation.

In the early days, bassist Alan Malloy joined in on the photo shoots; now MacIntyre is the sole public face of the Society. If he weren’t such an affable chap, it would be tempting to compare him to Fields of the Nephilim’s goth rock tyrant Carl McCoy, who once notoriously stated "I am the Nephilim."

That’s not exactly MacIntyre’s style. "I feel like the head of a small business," he says, more reasonably. "It’s not that I want to control everything, but I wouldn’t want to upset whatever equilibrium is in here. I bounce ideas off myself. It’s the only way I know how to do it. It would be different if it wasn’t working, but I feel I’m writing the best songs I’ve ever written."

For a contemporary comparison, try a Caledonian Badly Drawn Boy - although you won’t catch MacIntyre swilling half a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on stage and forgetting how to start the next song. Rather, he thrives on juggling the numerous responsibilities of a musical auteur.

"Looking at my family, there is a work ethic there," he says. "I’ve waited a long time for this chance, so I just feel I’m going to push myself as hard as I can because I remember thinking when I was in jobs I hated that nothing could be worse than sitting in a call centre wearing a suit that I hated, living this double life of trying to be an artist at night. So, no matter how stressful it gets, I just can’t complain."

Of course, he would say that now, but the promotional whirlwind for the forthcoming second album, Us, is only just beginning and he will have to shoulder the interview workload himself.

"It’s a bit weird sometimes sitting talking about yourself, ’cause I don’t really analyse what I do," he says. "I probably analyse myself inside out in other ways but ... [a pause, while he attempts to analyse] I suppose I’m most confident when I’m in the studio creating."

Since taking on the Mull mantle, MacIntyre has chosen to record at Gravity Studios in Glasgow. "I feel at home there," he says, "and actually it became my home because when I left my flat I had all my bags in there." He even took his fruitbowl into the studio because he "liked the way it clanged".

The album was recorded in spurts last year, when the band were between tours, and will be released at the beginning of March. Us is neither as upbeat nor immediate as its poppy predecessor, Loss - ironically, given that Loss was, indeed, about loss. But it is not a ponderous album. One of the more instantly appealing tracks, Live Like the Automatics, was inspired by a novel MacIntyre wrote a number of years ago called The Automatics, an Orwellian tale about the control of a social underclass, which was influenced by Iain Banks’s warped debut novel The Wasp Factory. When pushed on his creative writing exploits, it transpires that MacIntyre is quite the budding bedsit scribe.

"Whenever I do have time off, I don’t seem to have the capacity to watch TV," he says. "I’ll get on the laptop and start writing an idea and before I know it, I’ve got a 3,000-word short story."

Since penning The Automatics, he has produced another novel, The World Is Dust, about a struggling songwriter stuck in an office job. So, not at all inspired by ex-BT employee Colin MacIntyre’s pre-MHS life. Still, he’s not the first Scottish musician to write a semi-autobiographical tale. Long Fin Killie/Bows frontman Luke Sutherland’s Jelly Roll concerned a touring jazz group and their black frontman. It went on to win the Whitbread prize for a first novel. MacIntyre, meanwhile, hasn’t so much as approached a publisher.

"Whether it was just something I did at the time as a release, or whether it’s ever destined to see the light of day, I don’t know," he says. "I could sit here and say they’re just for me but I suppose I’d like to think it’s something I could do in the future if this all stops."

Anyone who has heard a Mull Historical Society song already knows how adept MacIntyre is as a storyteller. It comes as no surprise when he mentions he is a fan of Raymond Carver. "I really like his little snapshots of people’s lives, the mundane details - it’s really powerful. I think I’ve probably ripped it off," he says.

MacIntyre joins Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble and Suede’s Brett Anderson in the latest pantheon of don’t-call-me-sensitive literary rockers. Woomble’s love of Scottish literature, in particular, led him to approach Edwin Morgan to contribute a verse to Idlewild’s current album, The Remote Part, while Anderson turned to literature for the first time to derive inspiration for the recent A New Morning album.

"Reading influences me more than listening to music," says MacIntyre. "I think it helps my songwriting. People around me would say I’m starting to sound like me as opposed to trying to sound like somebody. That all started because I wrote this book and hundreds of poems in the space of three months. Then I wrote Barcode Bypass, which was the first time I’d produced a song the way I wanted it to sound."

Barcode Bypass was the track that first got Mull Historical Society noticed just over two years ago. Its tender, wistful evocation of smalltown life never fails to strike a chord, no matter how many times you hear it. It is also possibly the only song ever written about a local shopkeeper’s concerns that the fancy new supermarket up the road will put him out of business. MacIntyre has now written a follow-up, The Supermarket Strikes Back, which appears on Us and is probably the only pop sequel ever written about local shop wars.

"Barcode Bypass was about the shopkeeper; Supermarket Strikes Back is much more about the ’80s guy done good who runs the supermarket," he explains. "Gradually, instead of just worrying about products and bottom line all the time, he develops this social conscience and starts to internalise. The song starts off with him waiting for head office alerts and then it’s about how his world starts to fall apart."

And how would MacIntyre describe his world right now? "Organised chaos."

Mull Historical Society play King Tut’s, Glasgow, on 28 January and Barrowland, Glasgow, 5 April. Us is released by Blanco Y Negro on 3 March.