"Bring Some Hendrix Riffs": An Interview With Ben Christo of The Sisters Of Mercy
Interview and live photography by Adam De Ville
As gloomy rock icons The Sisters Of Mercy set to embark upon their first run of Australian shows since 2019, we caught up with lead guitarist and co-song writer Ben Christo to chat about his first meeting with the band, his biggest Spinal Tap moment and the unique songwriting relationship he shares with frontman Andrew Eldritch. Ok, I wanted to go back to the start of your tenure with The Sisters Of Mercy. When did you and Andrew first meet and how did you come to join the band? How it happened was really quite bizarre. I was packing on a Tuesday afternoon to go to work at an off licence (bottle shop) when I got a phone call from an unrecognised number. This guy just goes, “We might want you to be in our band.”
I'm like, “What? Hello? Who are you? What band? What?”.
He was very mysterious, very cagey and gave me very, very little detail. It was basically “Come to an audition. We're about to go on a tour of America. We need a guitar player now.” That was quite exciting for me, but I was also very cynical about it. I thought, 'this sounds a bit too good to be true'. I remember kind of thinking that maybe it was a tribute band or something.
So I go along for this audition having no idea what I'm auditioning for - the only instruction he's given me is "it's like a mixture of Motorhead and U2… bring some Hendrix riffs." I walk into this room and see three guys - one on a guitar, one with a laptop, and one sat on the sofa with a can of Tennent's, wearing a woolly and a pair of shades.
The guy with the guitar was like “Can you play this riff?”
“Could you play this?”
“Can you do some soloing over this?”
It was stuff I hadn't heard at the time, but in retrospect I know it was newer Sisters songs that they’d only played live. I was already a fan in quite a casual way. I had two of their albums and some of their songs were very highly rated in my favourite songs list, but I wasn't like an average follower. I didn't know who was in the band at that time, and I hadn’t seen them live. But the music had a Sisters kind of feel to it,o I thought, 'I know, I'll play a famous Sisters song right here, right now, and see if anybody reacts.'
Which song was it?
I played 'Doctor Jeep' and right away sofa man goes “That’s one of our songs”. At that moment, I vividly recall looking down and my hands were just shaking. I was so nervous because I realised I was on the cusp of something that could be life changing. And in retrospect, I'm actually quite grateful that I didn't know because I went into the audition just like, 'Who are these guys? I'm just going to be me and play what I want, I don't care'.
So a couple of days later I just got the call saying “Yeah, we want you to do it." A couple of months after that it was the first show in Las Vegas.
Wait, so did he end up taking off the woolly hat and sunglasses?
No. he never took them off. There wasn’t a big reveal... “IT’S ME!” (laughs) What is Andrew like to work with? He's a great filter. If you're going to write something that's going to be a top line, like a riff or a melody, it's got to be really good and unique, yet very simple. Presenting ideas to him can be quite nerve wracking. It's easy to second guess yourself in that situation, but usually he'll let you know pretty quickly if he likes something or not.
I think there's a lot to be said for someone who's been in the industry for that long and had as many hits as he has. I remember quite a few of the songs that we presented to him where within about 10 seconds he was nodding and smiling and like, "Yes, this works, this is something meaningful." It's a really good feeling.
How does he work lyric-wise? Does he have notebooks that he comes to sessions with? From what I've seen, he has lyrics written separately that he's always working on, and they become connected thematically with pieces of music. Also there are certain songs in the new set now that he's like, "I've been sitting on this song for twenty years, I've just never had a band around me that could actually manifest it until now."
Is there a particular Spinal Tap moment that you've had over the years? Excellent question. So many, they're just endless. The observations in that film are incredible.
The one that immediately comes to mind is when I was playing in Brazil for the first time. Just before just before the show starts, I quickly go for piss. As I'm leaving the bathroom, I go to open the door and it just falls off in my hand. The handle fell off, and on the other side of the door I can hear like 6000 people chanting "Sisters! Sisters!".
I was like looking at this door handle... and I didn't have a phone on me.
I knocked on the door but no one could hear me because of the sound of the crowd. Fortunately, my guitar tech at the time knew what I was like - I was always getting into stupid scrapes and getting lost. So he came looking for me and managed to actually open the door for me inside. But just that wonderful moment of looking at the handle, hearing the chanting and being like, "Oh, amazing."
What's your favourite new song and old song to play live? New song... I really love to play 'Eyes of Caligula'. It's just got a really great, kind of effortless, understated feel to it that somehow also seems to be really cinematic. I just really enjoy that one. And of course, it's one that we've written together, so it's really emotional for me. Getting to play that song at the Mere Luna festival in Germany in front of 20,000 people and then there's me on stage thinking, 'This is amazing. I'm doing this guitar solo. Where did this start? Oh, yeah, I remember. I was sat in a little room in Bristol, my hometown, in lockdown, trying to come up with a riff.' And suddenly you flash forward and that's where what you've created can go, I love that.
In terms of the established songs, I love to play 'More'. Maybe because it was one of the first things I heard of the band when I was a kid and it's a journey in a way. I used to listen to this on my on my walk to school in the rain, dreading science class, and now I'm getting to play it with the band.
And my last question. Something I have pondered for many, many years. Are we ever going to see an updated Sisters of Mercy website?
Well, one thing I want to say about that website is that it loads very quickly compared to any other website (laughs)
The aforementioned band website is HERE The Sisters of Mercy will perform the following dates in Australia: FRI 28 OCT: FORTITUDE MUSIC HALL, BRISBANE SUN 30 OCT: ENMORE, SYDNEY TUE 01 NOV: THE GOV, ADELAIDE THU 03 NOV: ASTOR, PERTH SAT 05 NOV: FORUM, MELBOURNE
Tickets are available HERE