Star Scene: Ben Christo ~ The SISTERS OF MERCY

Photo by Thomas Vanderstappen
Photo by Thomas Vanderstappen

Ben Christo’s scene is ‘alternative’. The guitarist and backing vocalist of gothic rock band, The Sisters Of Mercy, states: “Principally I suppose my scene is in London where I live. It’s a very passionate rock scene. It’s really awesome actually, I’m really excited about it. It’s a really great rock scene that encapsulates all the different sub-genres of alternative music. So you’ve got a really strong glam rock 80’s scene, you’ve got a really strong industrial scene, you’ve got a great goth scene, you’ve got a really good sort of lo-fi indie scene. You often find people of these different sub-genres hanging out in the same bars because everyone’s got a kind of mutual respect for each other’s sub-genres. I’d say it’s a very very strong alternative rock scene and all the different sub-strata of rock in London, particularly in North London. If you ever go there there’s a really great venue called The Lounge which a good friend of my runs. It’s really the epicentre. There’s so much happening all the time and you get so many great bands and artists and stuff coming through. So yeah, that’s my scene. My scene is an awesome alternative scene that is vibrant and very collaborative.”

Christo joined The Sisters of Mercy in 2006 after a mysterious phone call. He explains: “It was a bit of a strange situation and very unlike anything else I’d ever experienced or heard of. I got a phone call on a Tuesday afternoon. This mysterious guy said “We might want you to be in our band.” I was like, what? No introductions, no name, no idea who the band was. He then explained they were a significant band and they were about to do an American tour. They needed a new guitar player, would I come and audition? I was like, well how’d you even get my phone number? There was no explanation. There was no back-story. I ended up asking a few music friends about it and they said, ‘what have you got to lose? Go along, it might be something good’. So I went along with it. I’ve got a real kind of, not trepidation, but scepticism about whatever this is going to be.”

“I went along to this audition. It was just some guys sitting around in a room. A guy with a guitar, guy with a laptop with a drum machine on it, and a guy with a woolly hat on, a pair of shades and a can of beer. I thought, okay, what’s this? Now retrospectively, I am a fan of Sisters of Mercy. I wasn’t a super fan but I had all the albums and really liked them and referred to them as an influence. However, I wasn’t the guy who was on the internet looking up every single YouTube video or finding every B-side that they’d ever done or looking on the website every day to see if there’s any changes. I can’t even remember if YouTube was a thing in 2006. It probably wasn’t or at least it was very sort of fledgling. So when I walked into the room, I had no idea who these guys were.”

“Also,” Christo continues, “you see people out of context and you don’t make the connection. So yeah, I didn’t have the material to be consistently looking up the band. Funnily enough, I’d been doing an essay at Uni not long before that and I remember I was kind of basically procrastinating and I thought, oh I wonder what the Sisters of Mercy are up to. I went to their website and it’s like no information about anything other than like what their favourite theatre performances were. It was this really kind of weird list of stuff that was really nothing to do with the music. I was like, okay, that’s interesting.”

Christo had been studying “Drama, Film and Television Studies” a course he considered “very theoretical”. He states: “It was a course about how to apply psychology and philosophy to film and TV. I loved it because I’m not academically trained in music but I wanted to do some kind of studying. I also have a big passion for drama and film.” Christo’s passion found success in theatre and movies, even winning a national award for a movie. In 2004, he co-wrote and directed a comedy short, Sold Out, with fellow University of Bristol graduate D. R. Watson and won the Dazed National Film Award. But Christo “wanted to focus more on music” and “during the Sisters sort of lost touch with that side of things.”  He reminisces about another “out of context” meeting: “I was in a band last year or the year before. I’m in the dressing room, in America, and into the dressing room walks this bloke. He’s got some gingerish hair and he’s wearing black and he just walks straight in. We’re like, who’s this? Then five seconds later, I go, it’s James Hetfield of Metallica, okay. But because I had no idea he was going to be there, it’s the context. He was a fan of the band I was playing in at the time. He’d come in to say they were in town too and really great show and thanks guys. It’s like, this is insane.”

“Similarly,” Christo continues, “when I walk into this audition, I have no idea who I’m … How do I possibly contextualise this? When you meet people in real life they look so different than on the record sleeve or in the music video because of the way things are presented. I walk into this room, I still don’t know what this is. Still don’t know if it’s any good. But the guitarist, who was there, said, ‘Okay, look, can you play this riff? Can you play this thing?’ I’m not great at reading music but I can listen and pick things up very well, very quickly. I’ve got a good ear for that. So I play it back. In hindsight it was all riffs and music they’d never recorded so, again, I couldn’t identify it. But what I did know was there was a certain style and feel to the music that made me think of the Sisters of Mercy. I was like, could this be the Sisters? Could this be? I thought, okay, I’ll do a little test. I’m going to play a famous Sisters of Mercy song on the guitar right now and see if anybody says anything. So I play a riff which was a song called Doctor Jeep. The guy with the woolly hat and the shades and the can of beer goes, ‘Well that’s one of our songs’.”

“From that point on,” Christo continues, “I was so nervous. I remember my hands were shaking, I felt sick. I was like, oh my god. This is insane. I was actually glad that they hadn’t told me because I’d gone in there without any expectations without any sense of real nerves. Almost like, this is stupid, this is a laugh, what’s this. Whereas had I known then maybe my nerves would have got too much or I would have been too scared or whatever. Because I went in there with this sort of almost carefree attitude it allowed me to reflect my actual playing in a way that was more laid back. In hindsight I realised at that point they were just about to embark on a big US tour and they didn’t want the news getting out that they’d lost a guitar player. So they probably weren’t going to phone me up and go ‘This is the Sisters of Mercy. We just lost a guitar player. Do you want to join?’ They knew I was a fan; what if I instantly go online and tell everyone. So that’s sort of how I joined it. I went home and I didn’t hear anything for a couple of days. I was just working in a wine shop, which was just like where people came in and bought beer and cigarettes and wine. It was quite different situation. I got the phone call and they’re saying ‘Yeah, we want you to do it’. Maybe two or three weeks later I was in Las Vegas doing the first show.”

Christo hailed from a time where commercialism and conformity were the norm. As such he always stood out in the crowd. Christo’s introduction to music was similar to most. He states: “When you start off and you are listening something that maybe your parents listen to or relatives listen to or you saw on TV, and then gradually find your way into heavier and more sensitive material through the things with which you eventually hear. So, I was like any young kid, I was like, ‘I love Michael Jackson’. But then I found myself liking the songs more that had the guitars in it. And then it was a natural progression for me to then listen to Bon Jovi and Def Leppard, ACDC, Bruce Springsteen. And then I became more and more influenced by heavier bands in the 90s. Like Therapy and Nine Inch Nails. Even Sisters of Mercy I picked up on a bit later on.”

Christo continues: “I grew up in the 90s but I loved 80s music so I always felt very marginalised because everyone around me was listening to British pop, Blur and stuff. I was like, this is rubbish. I want to listen to The Cult and The Cure and Siouxie and the Banshees. When you grow up you often find your identity as a kid and a teenager in the music that you listen to. So I was listening to this music that no one else liked. As a consequence, it made me feel, on the one hand, very marginalised, like I didn’t belong as a part of any group, but at the same time it made me feel stronger because it gave me a sense of identity and it made me feel like I had something I really believed in. What was fortunate was that as time moved on, as you’ll recognise today, so many musical elements are present in all music. Whereas I think in the earlier decades, it was a lot more difficult to like lots of different kinds of music because it’s either you like this or you like this. When I was a teenager I was still listening to all these 80s bands and 80s albums and I couldn’t really understand or adapt to why people like this kind of really limp indie music or the soulless dance music and stuff that was proliferate in the 90s. It wasn’t really until maybe the late 90s, early 2000’s where I managed to find my musical identity with my own band when I was quite young where we were combining elements, metal and hardcore with 80s rock, with vocal harmonies and all the things I liked. It was like the darker side, Cure-ish side that appealed to me. So I was in a bit of a limbo stage in the teenage years because I liked music that no one else really liked and people made fun of me because I liked it.”

Forging his own identity took courage and bravery. “It was a very disorienting and alienating time because I just thought well I can’t force myself to like these really limp indie bands or this really soulless dance music so does that mean I’m never going to be part of a musical movement and never be part of a musical friendship group unless I go back in time? I used to have these dreams like if only I’d been born at this point then I could do this. I remember once my mom saying to me something completely off the topic of music, something like, ‘Well you know, over in Eastern Europe it’s kind of been like it’s still the 1980’s’ and I went, ‘I want to go there!’ So yeah, I don’t think she was making musical reference points but yeah. That just immediately made me think, ‘yes’.”

Christo has been in various bands since high school, and even now during The Sister of Mercy, he has a new band, Diamond Black. He states: “Well the new band is going great. I’ve always had a huge passion for writing and particularity writing lyrics. Up until now, until recently, the Sisters just hasn’t really had any space for me to be bringing in new ideas. As a natural causality of that is if I can’t write any new music in Sisters I’m going to do something. When I started as a guitar player when I was a kid, it very quickly became apparent to me that I wasn’t interested in being a guitar hero as such, I was interested in being a songwriter. So rather than sitting at home and learning how to play fast, I would sit home and write an album and create the whole artwork for it, and track listing. I’d be sat at the back of the maths room secretly drawing the front cover for the album when I should have been listening to trigonometry exercises. I think my principal passion in life is writing songs and lyrics and then playing those songs. So with the band that I’ve got, Diamond Black, we’ve only released three songs but it is going really well in a sort of small scale sort of way, it’s a perfect marriage of the 80s music I love, the Gothic music I love, the dark music I love, the metal music, the hardcore music. We’ve been getting a really great response from these three songs. If you get a chance after this and you’re interested, check it out. There’s three songs out. [Diamond Black] really encapsulates a lot of the things I like about music all in one band. I’m excited about that and where that can go. We’re just finishing up the record now and I’d like to get it out next year. It would be great if next year could be spent touring that and then also doing Sisters stuff.” Christo hopes that he may even tour to Australian shores with Diamond Black.

Christo loves touring, though he finds the scheduling of day-to-day tasks is taxing. He states: “I like the element of being in a new place every day. I love that. I love meeting different people every day and that element of it I really really enjoy. What I find more difficult is the inability to consistently schedule my life in terms of ‘I’m going to do this then, I’m going to do that, I’m going to get this, go to the store…’ Even stupid stuff like getting your hair cut because it’s a massive mission when you’re in Dusseldorf and you don’t know anyone. Stuff like that, the inconvenience of that I find quite straining. I’m sometimes a bit anxious because I want to do something but I can’t. Ultimately, when I see there is a tour coming up I’m generally like ‘Awesome, can’t wait’”.
With this latest tour, Christo states: “This Australian tour is followed immediately be a South America tour. Honestly, I feel a bit of trepidation simply because of long flights, jet lag, insane schedule of flying to shows, do the next one, do the next one. If it was like, okay guys, come to Australia for two weeks. You’re going to do five shows then. You’re going to hang out for a couple of days in each town it’d be like amazing. Unfortunately it’s not that. It’s not that. It does feel a lot more like work and also just endless flights and jet lag. But the shows will be good because the adrenaline always kicks in and we love being on stage so much and I love being on stage so much that it doesn’t matter at that point.”

Still Christo has fond memories of Australia. He states: “I just remember it being a series of very positive experiences. I had a great time and met some amazing people. We played the Soundwave Festival so I got to meet a lot of bands that actually I’m a fan of and who conversely were also Sisters fans, or Eldritch fans. It was an interesting experience that I could go and talk to these bands that I really like and they’d be like ‘Dude, you play with Sisters? Oh my god I love Sisters’. It would be like cool. Some of these bands I’ve stayed in contact with ever since. So that was great. That was a great experience. Apart from that, we managed to spend a week in Melbourne which was cool because of the way the festivals were structured that they were only on the weekends. That’s why we did those side shows in the Corner Hotel in Melbourne. It was great because we had a whole week of hanging around and what a great town. What a really cool town. It reminded me sort of of Toronto in some ways. It’s super multicultural, super cool but also had this non-English feel to it. I loved it there – I have some great memories of the Cherry Bar.”

This time around, Australian fans can expect a few surprises. Christo explains: “It’s going to be a really good mix of songs from the main sort of three albums of the band’s history. A few sort of surprises and a few new songs as well. Stuff that people maybe wouldn’t expect from an album. Not an obvious single track like an album track that you might not be expecting. That sort of thing. And also a couple of new songs that we’ve written quite literally in the last six weeks. That will be very exclusive. With three particular songs, there tended to be what we called a factory line, the way we were doing it. We’d initially come up with the main riff, some of the main ideas, some of the main musical ideas first with myself, Andrew and Dylan in a room. I’d come up with an idea and say ‘Hey guys, what do you think about this?’ Yeah we could change this or try this. Then myself and Dylan would sit down and we’d make it into a song, like a musical map. Then we’d give it to Dave Creffield – he’s the Nurse to Doktor Avalanche. He’s a great producer, he’s worked with Kaiser Chiefs, Embrace, and everything. He’s a really important member of this band too and he’ll be there. He would then make a produced version, like a demo. Then we would take that back to Andrew. We’d sit down and talk about vocal melodies. I would record some ideas and Dylan would put down some ideas and Andrew would put in some ideas. It was quite a collaborative thing. Even lyrically, Andrew was very open minded. He said ‘Look, here’s what I want this song to be about’. But he’d still be very enigmatic about it. He wouldn’t go, ‘Right, here’s a song that is about this thing that happened to me’. I quite like that kept this mystery. He’d give me kind of key words and ideas and he’d say ‘Look, go away and write some words, bring them back and maybe there’ll be something in there I like or there’ll be something there that influences me or inspires me in some way’. From that, he would then write the lyrics. I love the fact that he wanted to really take advantage of everybody’s creative powers to get the best results.  It wasn’t like, you lot go away I’m going to do the lyrics. It was like, “Write down some lyrical ideas and maybe they’ll make a contribution to what I finally write’.”

Catch Christo and The Sisters of Mercy on their upcoming tour.

TICKETS ON SALE NOW

Friday 25th October – The Astor Theatre, Perth 

Sunday 27th October – The Gov, Adelaide 

Wednesday 30th October – Forum, Melbourne *SOLD OUT!

Thursday 31st October – Enmore Theatre, Sydney

Saturday 2nd November – The Tivoli, Brisbane *SOLD OUT!

Sunday 3rd November – Powerstation, Auckland 

For more information, visit SBM Presents

About Mary Boukouvalas 1146 Articles
Mary is a photographer and a writer, specialising in music. She runs Rocklust.com where she endeavours to capture the passion of music in her photos whether it's live music photography, promotional band photos or portraits. She has photographed The Rolling Stones, KISS, Iggy Pop, AC/DC, Patti Smith, Joe Strummer, PULP, The Cult, The Damned, The Cure, Ian Brown, Interpol, MUDHONEY, The MELVINS, The Living End, Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against The Machine, The Stone Roses –just to name a few - in Australia, USA, Europe and the Middle East. Her work has been published in Beat magazine, Rolling Stone magazine, Triple J magazine, The Age Newspaper, The Herald Sun, The Australian, Neos Kosmos, blistering.com, theaureview.com, noise11.com, music-news.com. She has a permanent photographic exhibition at The Corner Hotel in Richmond, Victoria Australia.

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