Never meet your idols, they always say, because you will invariably find yourself disappointed. And that seasoned wisdom is not lost on 27-year-old Eagulls frontman George Mitchell, who casually bumped into a living legend from his English hometown of Leeds, yet didn’t even recognize him at the time. With his bandmates, the singer was lazily smoking cigarettes outside the local studio where they recorded their inventive, more melodic sophomore album, Ullages (an anagram of their moniker), when a stranger slowly approached them and inquired if the facility’s owner was in. He was, they replied.
“But then he just stood there staring at us really strangely,” Mitchell recalls. “And I was thinking, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ He was wearing the weirdest, baggiest jeans and this dodgy old baseball cap, and I actually thought it was some homeless guy.” Still, he dutifully informed the studio that he had a visitor. Then he stopped dead in his tracks. “I suddenly realized who it was, and I was like, ‘Whoa! That’s Andrew Eldritch! This is totally weird!’ And then I didn’t even have the nerve to go talk to him.”
Yes, Mitchell had come face to face with the enigmatic, catacomb-creepy singer for Sisters of Mercy, who—along with other Leeds outfits like Red Lorry Yellow Lorry—had laid the 1980s Gothic cornerstones upon which Eagulls would built its sinister, jackhammer-insistent sound. So summit meetings with your heroes might remain a bad idea, but there’s no harm in honoring them by echoing their historic sound. And while there’s more than a little Sisters darkness to Mitchell and company’s dazzling self-titled debut from two years ago, what it mainly taps into is the sonic assault of another English outfit, Killing Joke, circa its first two definitive releases, 1980’s Killing Joke and 1981’s What’s THIS For? So Eagulls—it’s safe to say—reverently respects its elders.
Eagulls’ righteously retro approach truly came alive on stage. On its first tour of America in 2014, Mitchell was a veritable whirling dervish in concert, yelping out the guttural lyrics to propulsive pummelers like “Opaque,” “Possessed,” and “Hollow Visions” with lycanthropic ferocity, prodded along by the Joy Division-ish rhythm section of Henry Ruddel and bassist Tom Kelly, the rhythm guitar of Liam Matthews, and the chiming lead filigrees of the band’s secret weapon, Mark “Goldy” Goldsworthy, who quietly anchored the proceedings at stage left. The axeman didn’t jump about or make a windmill-flourishing fuss—he played precise, studious salvos that worked in perfect counterpoint to the Tasmanian Devil-kinetic Mitchell. That brotherly bond has grown even stronger.
It’s a mature, ever-morphing new Eagulls on Ullages. And any fans primed for pile-driver riffs will be flummoxed by its panoramic sense of space. It’s less Killing Joke, more reminiscent of Echo and the Bunnymen, and Goldsworthy is effortlessly playing Will Sergeant to the Ian McCulloch musings of Mitchell, who croons every track with lounge-lizardly panache. Some cuts tap into that classic vibe—“Lemontrees” and “Heads or Tails,” for instance. But the meat of it is experimental, almost pop-edged material, some of which brings to mind Faith-era Cure. There are even a couple of Bic-flicking power ballads included, such as “Psalms,” “My Life in Rewind,” and the closing waltz “White Lie Lullabies.” What spurred such sudden shifts?
“Well, you don’t want to just keep re-writing the same record—that’s boring,” explains Mitchell, as a general overview, before delving into specifics. “I mean, people would probably be happy, getting the very same album [as Eagulls] again. But to keep us sane, and to keep us growing, we have to do these things. We’re only human.” And he loves that acolytes readily can pick up on the band’s influences. “It’s great that people see parts of Echo and the Bunnymen and The Cure in us,” he adds. “We always get compared to these old bands, but they’re the bands that we grew up listening to, and they are very important to us. But at the same time, we are still trying to do something original ourselves.”
Hence, Mitchell finally pushing his voice onto new plateaus. Midway through Eagulls’ first major tour, it began to occur to him that he couldn’t keep up the machine-gun pace every night. “You can’t just be barking every single night—you can’t do that because you’ll lose your voice,” he says of his wake-up call, “So it was sort of a natural thing. I just naturally started singing a bit more, and I think one of the critical moments was when we were on tour, and we got asked to do that AV Club covers thing, and we were asked to play The Stone Roses’ ‘I Wanna Be Adored.’ The band had practiced playing it, but I hadn’t actually sung it at all. So that was the first time that I ever really sang, and it was quite nerve-wracking, really strange. But it made me realize that I could actually do it, so then I just implemented that into our own music. And then I started to realize that I could sing and get better melodies, and it really works. So now I’m quite happy with singing.”
Naturally, Ullages had some unwritten rules built in to its writing and recording process. “Goldy didn’t say this, but he was almost afraid of using 4/4 beats,” Mitchell remembers. “And this time, as well, he was inspired by a lot of ‘60s music, so that was pushing us in a slower direction. But we never really set down rules or regulations of what we were going to do—we never really talked to each other about what we were going to do. We just did it.” Which is also pretty much how they first formed the band.
Mitchell studied illustration in college, and still paints and sketches in his spare time. “And on tour, I always have a sketchbook—I always doodle, and I find that it keeps my mind on the straight and narrow,” he says. One of his sketches caught the attention of Goldsworthy and other future band members, and when Mitchell broke his arm in a skateboarding accident, his new pals recruited him as a hurricane-velocity vocalist for their budding group. Eagulls began catching on in, then outside of, Leeds, to the point that when the band was finally booked overseas for a Late Show With David Letterman appearance, Goldsworthy and Mitchell at last had the courage to quit the clothing shop where they had been working for three humdrum years.
Lyrically, Mitchell found inspiration in his city’s bleak surroundings. The early cut “Amber Veins” was based on heroin dealers who moved in next door to his mother’s house, and the strange household items like washing machines that they would lug in for their daily fix. “Possessed” revolved around nascent online write-ups of Eagulls gigs, wherein reviewers actually believed that the wild-eyed anchor was on drugs. It was just the power of the music, taking command of his body, he swears. His lyrics have been mutating alongside his vocals, too, he adds.
The scenery is not as desolate on Ullages, even though the album cover employs a grim hometown scarecrow, photographed by renowned Leeds shutterbug Peter Mitchell (no relation, George clarifies). “Blume” is about romantic loss, says Mitchell, who is currently single and looking. “And it’s about how when you lose someone, you still want to keep them, so it’s a longing song, really, and I’ve never really written about those sorts of feelings before,” he says. On the surface, “Lemontrees” concerns the fruits of labor, and how everyone is essentially forced to work for a living. “But it’s also about British culture,” he elaborates. “And people drinking and dancing the night away on the weekend, just to get rid of this shitty mentality of working for nothing. We all have to work, and it’s just very monotonous and annoying.”
The Eagulls main man jokingly claims that he has the memory of a goldfish, so he charts his progress in daily diaries. He’s amassed roughly a hundred busy volumes to date, which he frequently re-reads to remind himself how far he’s come. Has he acquired any wisdom worth sharing? “I don’t know,” he replies, tentatively. “With music and art, I just do it. I don’t really have any techniques—I just sort of wing it. And it’s something that I have to do. I wish I had some skills to offer others. But I barely understand all of this myself!”