Read our second interview with Mick here

Mick Mercer:
bands + fanzines = coverage
coverage + goth participation = MC2

~interview by Blu

" [Goth] is the only non-sexist type, the only classifiable, intelligent, wholly self-supporting genre that includes virtually every conceivable element of other musical forms which are acknowledged, harnessed, accomodated but never simply copied." ~ Mick Mercer, Hex Files

I have my own dog-eared, worn copy of Mick Mercer's Hex Files currently on my coffee table. Sometimes you'll find it on the table by my computer, sometimes in the bathroom, and sometimes lost among the pillows in my bed when I've fallen asleep reading something out of it. You'll also find a printed out, hand-bound, version of his out-of-print Gothic Rock Black Book (part 1 and 2, first published in 1988) in my room that I bought as a pdf file online a few years ago when he announced he was selling it electronically. I have used these books constantly, at first, as general reading material, but more and more, I use them as reference for my own writing. When the internet fails to give me details on bands, Mick's books usually do the trick. I have most recently used them while writing articles in reference to Kommunity FK, the Deep Eynde, Fading Colors and Damien Youth, just to name a few. I have constantly referred the younger generations to them (someone asked me just the other week about Rosetta Stone's aversion to mainstream media and I said, "Get a copy of Hex files  - there's quite a bit about it in there") and have lovingly chided others who didn't know the books existed. They should be required reading material before one steps foot in a goth club. Its not to say that what Mick writes is "gospel," he is admittedly opinionated - these works are *his* views and thoughts, but he does present the most complete and thorough catalog of a scene that has been, up until his books, extremly  hard to reference. There had been magazines here and there as well as  scarce regional publications; but until Mick Mercer came along, there was no internationally definitive book about the Goth subculture. 

In addition to his books, he has had a long standing career in the UK music press and has been the man behind those "Gothic Rock" compilations that nearly every good DJ I know has. You'd think after all this time he'd be ready to throw in the towel and retire -- quite the contrary, he's got more projects going on now than ever.  While I conducted this interview, he told me he was waiting for page proofs for his next book: wwwGothic. I cannot begin to thank Mick enough for his efforts in recording Goth history over the years (13 and counting since the first book came out!). In a scene that tends to burn out promoters and trend setters on average after one year, Mick has prevailed and continues to document and record the progress of an art movement he calls Goth. 

StarVox: For our readers who are unfamiliar with you, can you tell us how and when you started writing about the Goth scene? You were writing and taking photographs for some early magazines, correct?

Mick Mercer: Er…God, part the mists of time! I started off with one of the first UK Punk fanzine, in 1976, called Panache, which trundled on, covering all sorts of music until 1992. I started doing freelance music journalism in 1978 which led to me freelancing for a magazine called ZigZag, which went bust in dubious circumstances, then bounced back with me as Editor, and was popularly regarded as the Goth Bible in the UK from ‘83 to ‘86, when the publisher sold it.

Ever since seeing the first real Goth band ever, Gloria Mundi (a bit like early Christian Death) in 1977, I knew my tastes differed from those wanting basic Punk. It continues to inspire me to this day, and I have always written about it, even though it then pushes you into a corner, as a journalist, and you get regarded as The Weirdo. I worked for Melody Maker newspaper throughout the 80’s where I was the only music journalist in Britain consistently writing about all manner of Goth matters in a positive manner. I worked for British music papers and edited magazines, including Siren (1991-1992, where we were the only UK magazine pushing Goth) but then got fed up with untrustworthy publishers and wanted to concentrate on books.

SV:  What made you decide to write you own series of books? Did you intend to just do one - or the series initially? Some of these are now out of print correct? Is there a way for someone to get a copy if they want one?

MM: I was invited to do the first (‘Gothic Rock Black Book’) one when Goth was popular in the UK. After that I had wanted to do another, more detailed book, and had contacted publishers, but the man who got me working on Siren magazine, Sheldon Bayley, was a Goth and asked me to do the book. We got on really well, so I agreed. After that I wanted to do a more up to date one, which ended up in the mid-90’s as ‘Hex Files’, and I am just waiting for page proofs of ‘wwwGothic’, my latest. 

You’re right that the first two are out of print, and hard to find, but I think copies of Hex Files can be found in America. I own the rights to the first two and will be making them available on CD, next year, with extra photographic content.

"Hatred, anger and feeble death threats go with the territory on Planet Goth...Goth somehow still retains its intrinsic sense of beauty and dignity, as well as prevarication, bitchiness and mania. That's as it should be. It's a contrary child." - Mick Mercer, Hex Files
SV:  You've long been an idol of sorts for me - your persistent and dedicated recording of Goth music and cultural history is something that I don't think enough people appreciate. I use your books as a reference guide all the time. It has been a sometimes thankless job for you though -- you've dealt with a lot of criticism; and as anyone who operates within this subculture long enough finds out - there are some very unforgiving and close minded elements to it. What keeps you from giving up and saying "fuck it" to the whole thing? What motivates you to continue penning the history?

MM: Yes, it irritates others, but they irritate me more. The nerve of these people! If they don’t like what I write, fair enough, but the criticism goes much further. They seem shocked I should have the cheek to write about what they see as Their Music. As these are usually the same people who also deride newcomers joining a scene, I could point out it was therefore, logically, My Music before it was ever Their Music but even that wouldn’t get through to the idiots. Theirs is a warped mentality, where they see writing about it as popularising a hidden, precious world. I have attacked such slothful ignorance in the foreword of my next book. I try, in the simplest language possible, to point out that these books sell either to existing Goths or to people already attracted to the ideas inherent in Goth. It isn’t a form of music that a book will radically popularise, so people should shut their mouths if they haven’t anything perceptive or intelligent to say. I have been attacked, shot at, run over…you name it. It doesn’t bother me.

The basic thing is that it’s my area. That’s all I care about. All my critics care about is protecting their involvement in a music scene. To me it goes way beyond music, of which more later. 

What makes it worthwhile is when someone tells me what you just did, and I do often find people who realise that I do this for the best reasons. I certainly don’t do it to make money. I earned nothing from the last two books, barely covering costs. That isn’t the point. I know that in advance, and yet have just done my 4th book, which only took a year, but that involved 16 to 18 hours a day, week in week out, all year - okay, I did have two and a half days off. I admit it! - stuck indoors, writing like a madman. Grudging respect is finally coming my way from certain quarters. 

People like yourself make it worthwhile. You don’t regard anything I say as gospel, and nobody should, unless they are certifiable, but you understand that I care about what I do. I write the books as a result of my own interests, but I write them to be useful to others, which is a pertinent difference.

SV: How much time do you spend researching your projects?

MM: Each book usually takes between two and three years.

SV: How complicated was it to get Hex Files published and released outside of the UK? Did you have any problems with publishers not wanting to publish it because it was about Goth?

MM: I don’t know what happened. When you sign a deal in the UK it is the publisher who try to either export to foreign countries or do a deal with a publisher in that country. In the case pf the Hex Files there wasn’t any problem getting Overlook in America to publish it. Nobody had any problem with Goth as the topic, at all. No reason why they should, as there are often serious academic works on Gothic elements, be they film, literature etc. The precedent had also been set by my earlier books. A publisher just realises they can make money and they go ahead.

"Behind the melancholia there always lies more sorrow than tragedy, more truth than drama. That's why Goth is the very essence of dignity. These are the things which have enabled it to become the one movement which celebrates life by never decrying it, by never warping the basic issues." 
~ Mick Mercer, Hex Files
SV:  In your observation over the years - is Goth music changing? Re-cycling? or is it dying as everyone so likes to claim? Has the golden age of Goth come and gone? 

MM: One tragic mistake people make is assuming the time they were most actively involved must be the best, which is total crap. The best era could be five years down the line for all we know. The biggest period of UK Goth may well have passed, but only because the music media required to support it has dwindled away to virtually nothing. There could still be a big resurgence here because once enough idiots wise up to the fact Nu-metal is music for children, and that our Indie scene sucks more than ever, then Goth, providing bands work together, is the only sensible alternative. Musically the one scene doing anything is Dance, as it has since the late 80’s, but Goth could be THE live scene in this country. In America I think it just grows gently and steadily.

I also believe it always changes. The dreaded Rock element has gone. Now it just needs more energy.

SV:  What are some of the bands you most respect?

MM: Old school: Ataraxia, Christian Death (any period), Bauhaus, Rosetta, March Violets, Alien Sex Fiend, Damien Youth, Inkubus Sukkubus, The Shroud, London After Midnight.

SV:  New bands you've got your eye on?

MM: I know Mothburner aren’t new but I like the way this duo are developing, and I really think Ghoultown are funny and cool, plus Michaela’s murder ballads are going to impress. Michael J Sheehy overlaps, and is a devious delight.

SV:  Most under-appreciated band?

MM: Faithful Dawn – dead now, but they were so damn accessible I don’t know why so many labels in this country missed them. Machine In The Garden are seriously cool, and getting better all the time, and The Horatii were probably the most intriguing British band of 90’s Goth.

SV: You've worked a bit in mainstream media and you've photographed and covered a lot of bands that aren't Goth... and yet, you keep coming back to Goth music. What is it about it that keeps you intrigued after all these years?

MM: That’s easy enough. It’s in me, as it is in you. Before Goth bands existed I drew sustenance from other areas such as buildings, comics (Man Thing/Werewolf by Night) and any Horror books or films. The other stuff I have written is what goes on around what I write about Goth. It’s not a case of me returning to this, it’s a case of the other stuff happens, and pays for me to be able to do Goth books. I’d do a Goth book a year if I could.

SV: I've noticed, as I've gotten older, that the Goth scene tends to be centred around the youngsters. That as people in the scene get older, get married (eek!), have a family, etc, they tend to disassociate themselves. This creates a terrible disjoint in my opinion. We have all these kids at clubs with no idea where Goth came from and no sense of its history. Have you noticed the same thing in the UK ?

MM: It will be the same the world over, but also in any music scene, not just Goth. What makes it weird with Goth is that this is the one form of music where you can stay with it throughout your life, as there are already elements in it that can be seen as classical; when you get into it. You see the livelier bands, and the deeper bands. As you get older there is no reason why you can’t still be fascinated. In fact your devotion should and could grow.

SV: In the introduction to Hex Files, you talk about playing in a churchyard by your home among tombs and about bats by the shed. Do you think then, that this attraction you have towards the Goth scene was something innate in nature? Were you always the "odd" little kid?

MM: Odd? I wasn’t a traditional loner figure, as I had good friends, but I liked to spend time up the church by myself. I still like graveyards. There’s something timelss about the atmosphere. I also used to make animal bone necklaces, chestplates and wristlets to wear when I was at school. I just figure you enjoy things which are modern, and also things of the past. Most people don’t, only noticing what is right in front of their faces. It is their loss.

"Goth is about those moments of reflection we all have - that nostalgia borne of emotion, the soundtrack of our own failings... Goth remains the only form of music at present to put the mind under the micropscope." - Mick Mercer, Hex Files

SV: Did you ever have a hard time explaining your affiliation with the Goth scene to family or friends? 

MM: I never bothered trying. They either got why I was interested or they didn’t. I didn’t see why it was any of their business.

SV: Do you go out to clubs in the UK at all? Has the club environment, in your opinion, changed over the years?

MM: No, not interested. It depends what you like. For me it isn’t just about music, but when it is and I go out I want to hear a band, not records. If I want to socialise I want to meet my friends elsewhere. People who stick with Goth will be those from either camp. No Goths are likely to go to clubs when they’re very old without feeling out of place, so maybe their interest dies away quickly. People who are into bands tend to keep going to events far longer. I just find clubs pointless. It may be an aesthetically pleasing experience, but it isn’t artistic. I want the night to have artistic input.

SV: In Hex Files, you said, "I have always felt skeptical of ostensibly sensible people I've known who clearly think you graduate from Indie music to Classical music somewhere during life...I'm assuming that through Goth, its own sub-strata of classical would appear anyway..." Any further thoughts on that? Have we began to see the development of a classical group of Goth bands -- ie, I hear the terms "Old school Goth" used a lot when referring to bands of the 80s and early 90s. 

MM: No, I meant classical as in classical music. Ambient and Ethereal bands are pretty much covering similar ground to latter day (early 20th century) classical composers. That’s what I meant in the answer above about age and Goth. Instead of leaving one form of music, and going to what is expected of you (i.e. from Indie/Punk/Goth to Classical, as though you have ‘grown up’!), you can stick with Goth as it and you develop. I can see people having ‘classic’ nights, which is a fitting tribute to certain aspects of imaginative Goth, and it could also be a form of nostalgia which is fun, but it can also be very, very sad if done wrong, because then it’s laziness and ignorance, if people are assuming that ‘their’ era was best. The fact bands were often better known in the past doesn’t mean your experiences were better than what people much younger than you are experiencing nowadays. People are arrogant if they cannot believe they are missing out on newer bands.

SV: Have you ever been to any of the Gothic conventions or gatherings -- like Whitby or Convergence? Any thoughts on those and how they impact the community?

MM: No, and never wanted to, while acknowledging that they are brilliant for the mainstays of the scene. They aren’t retro, and they give people something to look forward to. I think they have a positive element. If they only booked Old School bands then they would be a pitiful thing, but they’re quite the opposite. I just don’t like going to things which are like that. I never liked festivals of any kind, and it’s a similar thing there. Whitby cannot be faulted (apart from people moaning about the sound at the gigs), but Convergence is a stranger beast, moving from town to town. That is at once more interesting a notion, but also leads to the chance of some years being atrocious.

"The reason I wanted to do a book like this was because the more people realise about what is available in the world, the more open-minded they become and the more they sense the possibilities, the excitement builds and the more successful everything becomes as a result." ~ Mick Mercer, Hex Files

SV: You've said, "The reason I wanted to do a book like this was because the more people realise about what is available in the world, the more open-minded they become and the more they sense the possibilities, the excitement builds and the more successful everything becomes as a result."   What would success be for a Goth band? Does it cease to be about the "underground" if it becomes successful? 

MM: I disagree, although the above comment was me at my most stupidly optimistic.  Nu-Metal filled a void, which Goth in the UK (but not in the USA) could have filled. Bands can be successful. Placebo and Garbage are two bands whose sound takes largely from the Goth era, as did Portishead, so it can be done. Not by anyone with a groaning male vocalist, because if your singer doesn’t have a clear voice you will never get any mainstream radio play, but for anyone with a singer who isn’t chewing bricks, there is always a chance if the songs are there, but these days the bands need to get organised. They do after all have sound and image, all they then need is a plan to get noticed and in the UK this is a hundred times easier than the states because of how the radio works. Here, you can get a good review in a national music paper one week, be signed the next, and within a couple of months be in the Top 10.

SV: I know that you've mentioned writing a new Goth book called ‘wwwGothic’ about the Goth scene and the Net. Care to share any brief observations on the subject? Has the Net hurt or helped? What about the mp3/nabster ordeal?

MM: The book is a guide to good, interesting sites on the Net as well as many Goth/Industrial-Goth bands out there, plus shops, clubs, people, resources, zines etc. The amount of Net activity helps sustain the scene but also stops it developing because there are so many places to find opinions. Very few bands will come to prominence, through one or two central areas of focus. During the 80’s the music papers shapes opinion here, for and against, and helped propel certain bands forward. Now we only have one national paper, which is rubbish, and so with dozens of similar sized main Goth sites/zines there is no way for such a thing to happen again, unless bands get organised and start working together. If they do then the best can get major deals because labels are so, SO desperate. If they don’t then Goth stays small, but lively. The Net at least ensures a lot of activity and info is around, which in the past didn’t happen. The MP3/Napster thing is pretty irrelevant. It’s just sharing/stealing on a wider scale than before.

SV: Any thoughts on mainstream labels versus the independent Goth labels? 

MM: Major labels crave ideas from outside because the people that work in them are a clueless bunch. Music papers made it easy for them. Now they mainly resort to trying to push pop at a very young audience, and have found success with Nu-Metal. It’s music for thick kids basically, but those kids may develop ears, just as a lot of young Manson fans will. Goth bands could easily benefit. They have style, they are rebellious in part, and there is a big scene out there, which only appears incohesive. Labels would look keenly at Goth if bands start working more closely together. And Goth in this decade could be far more successful than it was in the 80’s.

SV: What makes you most happy?

MM: Finding new things, and working out new ways to confound people. I know it pisses me off when people only give an ignorant response to what I do, but I also work as hard as I can not to make it easy for people, otherwise what’s the point?

SV:  What do you do when you're not writing or researching?

MM: I plan. We all come to Goth, or find it makes sense to us, for certain basic reasons. With me, the music is only part of it. When I was six or seven I started hanging around our local churchyard, which is one of the oldest in England; a place of mystery, beauty and Satanists getting in the way. These images still haunt me. My current plan includes photographing all the spookiest looking churches, with graveyards, in West Sussex and Surrey, the two biggest counties nearest to me.

SV: Any advice for new up and coming bands?

MM: Keep nights at ‘Goth’ venues as special celebrations, or occasions to try out new material so that the regulars there always have something to look forward to. Otherwise, do everything you can to get gigs at more typically Indie/Alternative venues and fight to be seen and appreciated. Make people realise that what you have is better than retro fodder, and you will do well. If you can’t be bothered to show people why you should be taken seriously then maybe you shouldn’t be taken seriously, at all.

SV:  What are your current and upcoming projects and how can people purchase it? I know you've got some photo CDs now available that catalogue an unbelievable amount of music projects - lots of rare photos...

MM: Well, the new book is hopefully out at the end of November, and I currently have my ‘Noir’ CD of photos covering Goth and Dark-Indie. (3,000 jpegs done at 300dpi, for £20/$30 including postage!  - see our NEWS section for specific ordering info). I am also finalising a 20-strong photo CD series of Goth material, as well as a 10 CD series of Punk and 15 CD series on Indie. I will be reissuing my first two books, as well as a three-CD series ‘PoseurNostra’ of older material most people have never seen. A website will be up and running before the year is out, on which I will be reviewing material on a weekly basis, and I have a series of book CDs to finish next year, on Punk, Best Of Panache, Melody Maker writing, Zigzag material, a club called Defiance, my time as a music journalist, a 6  CD series devoted to my favourite venue (The Bull & Gate in Kentish Town) and everything that happened there, the continuation of the graveyard photos, a quarterly CD magazine called ‘Justice’, my first novel ( horror, humour and disgusting matters),  plus a couple of modern Goth books are planned, and will be started.


onward to our second interview


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