Ben Christo first encountered The Sisters Of Mercy as a teenager in Bristol, where he dedicated hours to listening to them on a cassette player in his bedroom and dancing to them in rock clubs. Cut to a few decades later and now he's the second longest-serving member in the group’s history, with 15 years and counting as lead guitarist and backing vocalist.
After a decade of playing in various bands, Christo ended up in London after his most successful group – AKO – folded. As he was about to head out of his Kentish Town flat for his Tuesday evening shift at an off licence, he received a phone call with a Leeds area code from a man who wouldn’t give his name. “We’re looking for somebody,” he told Christo. “Someone who can put their foot on the wedge and stare at the audience, not their fretboard. Ever.”
Three months later, Christo and Andrew Eldritch were on stage together in Las Vegas. “Now I’m heavily involved in the writing for a band that was a huge inspiration to me as a child,” Christo observes. “Sometimes you are so entrenched in something you don’t stand back and think about how marvellous it is.”
Here, he picks the records and unreleased tracks that define his relationship with The Sisters Of Mercy.
When You Don’t See Me (Vision Thing, 1990)
This was my starting point. It’s actually the first song on side two, so the cassette must have initially been wound that way. This would have been in my teenage bedroom I shared with my brother. My uncle, who is only eight years older than me, lent me Vision Thing when I was fourteen. He’d introduced me to many of the bands l liked, going right back to the hard rock hair metal bands that I first got into, like Def Leppard, Europe and Bon Jovi.
The first time I heard When You Don’t See Me, it was a revolutionary moment. It had taken the powerful production and the hard rock sensibilities of bands I had been listening to and loved, but married them to a coolness and credibility that I’d not experienced before in the genre, which had generally favoured very histrionic vocals and shallow lyrical content. This was quite the opposite: you had this low, suave voice and these ambiguous and enigmatic lyrics. My second love at that time – and it still is now – was literature. Suddenly I’d found a band that combined both these things.
It’s the Sisters' most ‘80s hair metal song: that chord sequence A-to-F-to-G (or if you are in B, B/G/A) is synonymous with that era. That sequence is very Dio-esque, so it made sense I was drawn to the Sisters. It was a particularly challenging time for me, musically, because a lot of the bands I still liked in 1994 – these well-produced, hard rock bands – had suddenly become hopelessly uncool. Yet When You Don’t See Me did have high production values and was really fucking cool. It suddenly gave me a sense of identity.
I Was Wrong (Vision Thing, 1990)
I have a vivid snapshot memory of being on the school bus home to Stapleton, a northeastern suburb of Bristol, in the rain whilst listening to that song. The lyrics are great. Von [as Christo tends to refer to Eldritch] and I have talked about this: if you can be specific in the finite details of an image, yet the general meaning is open, then that’s the perfect combination. This technique can make a profound connection with the listener and Von has cited this as one of his favourite Sisters songs, too.
Alice (B-side of Under The Gun, 1993)
The only way to get this song was to buy the Under The Gun single. I got it on vinyl from my favourite local shop in Bristol, suitably called The Rock Shop. The bloke behind the counter at the time – and you have this same character a hundred times in a hundred independent record shops – could never let you buy anything without his commenting on it. When I put the record on the counter, he goes (Christo adopts a strong Bristolian accent): “Sisters Of Percy: ‘Under The Thumb’.”
I loved this song when I first heard it: a driving, unassailable riff with compelling lyrics. The production on it is one of the greatest that the Sisters have had. The bass sound – aggressive! The guitar riff is a masterclass in the power of simplicity. So relentless.
Lucretia My Reflection (12” single, 1988)
I associate this with my late teens, and it seems to meld with More and Temple Of Love 1992, as I feel they all have a homogenous quality. They’re industrial, dance songs based around one riff or sequence, which grows and grows. In this, it’s almost like the Sisters created their own genre.
When I think of those songs, I’m taken back to my first experiences of rock clubs as a teenager: being underage, not sure if you are going to get in or not, having a tenner between the lot of you to buy drinks. There was this feeling of breaking away from the mundane life of home and school, the euphoria of: ‘This is the underworld we’ve dreamt about! We’re going to the Rock Night at the Bierkeller!” This was another rite of passage for me, to which the Sisters were the soundtrack.
These songs always remind me of my mates and I, aged 16, sitting on the wooden benches around the dance floor, hopelessly gazing at the very attractive women who’d always be up dancing to these songs. The Sisters’ music: you’re going to get attractive women dancing to it!
Marian (Version) (First And Last And Always, 1985)
After Vision Thing, I hadn’t thought: “Right, got to complete the Sisters’ back catalogue.” This was until I was invited to the house of a woman a few years older than me and she introduced me to First And Last And Always on vinyl. On vinyl! This was the early 2000s and, at that point, vinyl hadn’t become the retro, collectable medium it is now. I remember us sitting around drinking and listening to this mesmerising record and getting completely drawn into the atmosphere of it. It’s such an atmospheric record, sublime in that sense. It was scratchily produced, but still powerful-sounding enough for me to get on board with, whereas some of the stuff on Some Girls Wander By Mistake (the compilation of the 1980-1983 Sisters material), I struggle to engage with, because the production value is too low. Maybe I should hear past that, but I can’t.
So I associate First And Last And Always with another rite of passage, being seduced by this older woman – when you’re that age, just a five-year age difference seems like a lot! – which was thrilling. Whenever I hear that record, I think of that event, and the sense of transgression and decadence; the songs on that album feel really in tune with my experience with her. The songs that stand out for me are A Rock And A Hard Place, Marian (Version) and Logic. I really like the opening of Black Planet too.
It sounded so different to Vision Thing, but I just accepted that; Andrew’s voice ties all the records together. Some Kind Of Stranger [the final track on First And Last And Always] is almost uncomfortable to listen to because of the visceral nature of it, the final agonised strains when he goes up the octave; compare that to the almost blasé qualities of When You Don’t See Me and the differences are stark. Yet, it always felt like the band.
I’d actually missed out on Floodland [the Sisters’ second album], other than some of the singles. I eventually got to know it once I became a band member, which is odd because, for many, it’s the definitive record. I bought A Slight Case Of Overbombing [the compilation of the Sisters WEA singles 1984-93] and that was the first time I ever heard This Corrosion. I couldn’t really get on board with its silliness! I later discovered that was the point – Andrew wrote it to lampoon pop music and then, ironically, it became hugely successful as a pop record!
Will I Dream? (unreleased track, 1998)
On a Tuesday in 2005, I was scouring my kitchen cupboard for ingredients to make a sandwich to take to work. As I was lamenting that the only things I had left were bread, carrots and tuna, the phone rang. It was the Leeds area code. I identified it from the time I’d worked in a call centre: 0113.
Upon answering, I was instantly drawn into this bizarre, clipped conversation. There was no: “Hello, how are you doing? My name’s...” It was simply: “We might want you to be in our band.” Essentially, the guy was saying they’d booked a US tour and they needed a new lead guitarist. But he wouldn’t tell me who the band was. His only description of the sound was ‘a combination of U2 and Motorhead’. I was asked to come along to an audition without knowing what I was auditioning for! I also didn’t know this was Andrew on the phone.
He said, “I’ll call you back tomorrow at two o’ clock” but I missed the call by about thirty seconds. You’d think I’d be waiting by the phone, but I wasn’t, which may reflect the fact that I didn’t have much faith in the mystery caller’s claim. I immediately phoned back but it went to a fax machine. I went up to an Internet café and sent the only fax I’ve sent in my life to that number. Instantly after it was sent, he called me back and we talked about the audition. When I asked, “What shall I prepare?”, he said, “Play some Hendrix.” I remember being sat on the top deck of a Megabus to Leeds with my guitar, noodling Hendrix riffs.
I was met by a bloke in a leather jacket with a large Mohawk, who pulled up in his 1980s Rover. Upon opening the door, I saw the car was overflowing with old crisp packets and Coke bottles, which I literally had to shove off the seat to get in. This was Chris Catalyst [Sisters guitarist 2005-19]. We went to his basement flat, where the audition was him, a bloke with a laptop and a bloke sat on the sofa with a pair of shades on, a can of Tennent’s and a woolly hat.
Chris started playing me some riffs: “Can you play this?” I can’t read music but I am good at picking things up by ear. “Could you do some soloing over these chord sequences?” Yes. I remember thinking at the time when they were showing me the riffs that there was a certain tonal quality (which I now realise is the use of a minor sixth) that has a very Sisters feel to it.
At that point, I began to think: Is this… the Sisters of Mercy? I didn’t know how the band looked at that point, so it was the strength of that musical interval alone that led me to figure it out. One of those riffs was Will I Dream?, a song they played live but hadn’t recorded.
Dr Jeep (Vision Thing, 1990)
In the audition, when I suspected it might be the Sisters, I thought: “I’ll play the opening riff to Dr Jeep and see if anyone reacts.” And sure enough, the man on the sofa, with the hat, the shades and the Tennent’s casually remarked: “That’s one of our songs.” My hands began shaking. This was a song from an album I’d listened to on repeat when I was 14. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t know what I was auditioning for, because it meant I went in with total confidence.
The next day, I got a call from Andrew while I was working in the off licence. He said he wanted me to be in the band. This was mid-December 2005 and my first gig was on 16 February 2006. From Thresher in Tufnell Park to driving through the Nevada desert on a black tour bus to play Las Vegas: a quick, and bizarre transformation!
When I joined, the band told me I had to learn a lot of songs that weren’t on records. “Can I get copies of them or the backing tracks?” I asked.
I had to go trawling around Camden looking for bootlegs of live Sisters stuff. When I went into one record shop, the guy goes: “What do you want that for, in a tribute band are you?”
Dominion (Floodland, 1987)
I only discovered how good Dominion was after I was in the band, actually playing it. Whenever that iconic drumbeat started, the crowd would erupt. Andrew’s always deployed the off-beat skilfully. All the way through that song there’s an off-beat tambourine that just makes the whole thing move. I think Andrew’s understanding of percussion and the role it plays in pop music is fantastic. The more I’ve worked with the band, the more I’ve listened to the nuances in the percussion. Those are some of the elements that really make the Sisters more than just a straight-ahead, gung-ho rock band.
Dominion is also one where I have a guitar solo, which doesn’t happen very often. That solo has developed over the years from the first incarnation, which was, let’s say, a bit enthusiastic and over-zealous; I was just trying to throw every possible technique I could at it. Over the years I’ve developed and pared it down and down and now there’s about nine notes in the whole thing. I wanted to emulate vibes from the original saxophone solo.
When I joined the band, I came in as a metal guitarist: dive-bombs and shredding. Andrew said, “That’s not what this is about” and he made me listen to a load of Motown and play along to Sam and Dave and Booker T. He told me: “One of the reasons this music is so great, is every instrument has its place and it won’t step ‘outside the machine’, unless it is its time to do so.” In ‘Instrumental 86’, one of the new songs, I only play about four notes. Andrew had said, “Try to think of it as a brass part, as if it was a James Bond theme. What would be happening with the lead-line? It wouldn’t be going all over the shop, it would be stating its purpose.”
Show Me (unreleased track, 2019)
Playing live from 2006 to 2019, it was a case of circulating the back catalogue. There were only two new songs in that time: Still and Arms, which were Chris and Von’s songs.
In 2007, Chris Catalyst and I wrote and recorded ten instrumental tracks – but high quality control meant that Von hadn’t gone with any of it, except Arms. To some degree that did demoralise me because we’d put a lot of work in and we’d felt quite confident. When it didn’t work we thought, “Maybe we just don’t get this.” Or maybe the particular dynamic of those three people at that particular time just didn’t have the right synergy. There could be a thousand reasons why not many songs got written in that period. So I focussed my writing on the things that I knew I could record and get released with my own bands.
Show Me came from a bass riff I’d written for the band in 2007 that made a shortlist but never got developed beyond that, so I changed the bass line into an actual guitar line. When we [Christo and Dylan Smith, who replaced Catalyst on guitar] first played Show Me to Andrew in its barebones form, he instantly liked it and was very complimentary. It was a huge moment for me. I had never received that affirmation before; that I had written something good enough to be a Sisters song.
Show Me wasn’t a demo track, it came from the three of us together in a rehearsal space in Belgium. Perhaps the environment made a difference, or it could have been the nature of the presentation. We [Christo and Smith] got in there early and set it up like it was a gig and we actually played the songs to Von, it wasn’t just: ‘press Space bar on the computer and listen’. We got all the sounds sorted, got the levels right and presented these three song ideas, which later became Show Me, Kickline and Instrumental 86.
It was really memorable: there was a synergy there that we’d not had before. We came away from that with a euphoric sense of achievement and purpose. The relocation of the rehearsal sessions from Yorkshire to Belgium felt like a new era. It made sense. We’re a European band.
Better Reptile (unreleased track, 2019)
Better Reptile came about spontaneously. Von said, “Look, we’ve got these mid-tempo ethereal songs. What we need is a fucking banger. Put the drum machine to a really fast tempo and we’ll see what happens.” I just started playing and that riff came out. I think it’s the fastest song we’ve ever done, about 176 BPM – Temple Of Love is 160-something – and then it completely opens out into the chorus. I started to play this clean riff over it, something sinister, like a horror film score. So musically Better Reptile takes you to two quite different places.
But Genevieve (unreleased track, 2020)
This was developed for the 2020 tour, also in Belgium. When we worked on But Genevieve there was magic in the room; things just coalesced in a way that felt as if the song appeared from the ether. The best inspiration occurs when you almost can’t remember how you wrote the part: ‘it just happened’.
For a while, Dylan and I had a working title of Parisian Nights because, when we’d been messing around with the riff, Dylan had said, “This reminds me of the club we went to in Paris after the Bataclan. It’s got that atmosphere.” Dylan and I tend to do that when we’re writing, to give it a vivid setting. “Imagine we’re headlining the M’era Luna festival and the lights are down and that we start with this riff.” The sense of creating a soundtrack to something can hugely fuel the creativity.
So when we took But Genevieve to Von, we already had the vibe we were going for. He then influenced the riff’s voicing and changed some of the notes around and then came up with this brilliant chorus lyric and chorus melody, that none of us could have predicted.
I Will Call You, (unreleased track, 2020)
This is another of those ‘from-the-ether songs’. I’d become so engaged in the process of composing Sisters music that it was almost as if I could simply “press the ‘Write Sisters Riff’ button.” Dylan instantly jumped on the lead line with an industrial, relentless rhythm that I wouldn’t have come up with. Von came back in the room and we played it to him: “This is one of the best Sisters things I’ve ever heard,” he enthused. We then developed it as a song together. The whole thing happened in such a short space of time. After years of dearth, suddenly we were being really productive.
Also from that same period is Black Sail. The acoustic riff for that is pure Dylan Smith. That was another special moment, as it was the first time he had brought something to the table from scratch. We were all blown away, in awe of his acoustic phrasing. The stuff that he’s brought to the band since the last tour has been amazing.
And we will be playing more new songs at the Roundhouse. Sisters songs generally fit into into three categories – moody, atmospheric, expansive numbers like Neverland or Something Fast; mid-paced rock numbers like Lucretia; and then the gung-ho punk numbers like Vision Thing. The new tracks fall into each of those categories.
The Sisters of Mercy play The Roundhouse in London, UK, this weekend (10-12 September). Tickets are available now.