Photo: Tina K
Ben Christo is the lead guitarist with The Sisters Of Mercy, joining the band in 2006. Ben’s other band is Night By Night – a melodic heavy rock band with a contemporary twist, look out for their debut album in April/May 2012. Ben took some time out to speak to M about working with The Sisters Of Mercy, how he began his music career and his own approach to writing songs.
Do you almost have to adopt a different personas when you’re writing your solo stuff compared to working with The Sisters of Mercy?
There’s definitely an overlap, there are reference points that you might tap into depending on which band you’re working with. It’s a little bit more regimented to a degree with The Sisters of Mercy as that’s somebody else’s vision and an understanding of that is important before you can begin to contribute to it.
When I began with The Sisters Of Mercy, I didn’t really know what the parameters were for that band. Even though the parameters were quite wide, both my playing and my songwriting were, at times, outside them. As the years went on they taught me more about their influences, which bizarrely, come from glam rock and a lot of Motown – which I wasn’t expecting. At the heart of their music is space and rhythm, pop and 70’s glam music, rather than faux ‘spookiness’ and Phantom of the Opera! I learnt quite a lot in the first years with the band, to the point where they would say ‘jam over these Motown records, that’ll help your guitar playing’. My response was: ‘Ace – I’ve never done anything like that before’ – I was used to playing to AC/DC records.
This not only gave me an insight into playing guitar but also songwriting for the band, it’s about being strategic and minimal instead of playing all the time.
My own work comes from a more emotional place. An event can occur and then I’ll go home and create something. I find with my best stuff, something will happen and there will be a need to express it by recording that idea.
Then the other guys will come in and change it, modify it and vastly improve it but at the very heart of it, the song came from something very genuine and truthful.
Did you have a musical education?
I didn’t study music academically because I’ve never been good at maths or science – remembering what different symbols mean, where notes are on the scale etc. I learnt a bit of theory while I was playing and taught myself some more, but if you took apart my academic knowledge I’d have bits from Grades one to eight but I wouldn’t be able to complete an exam for any one of them, if that makes sense.
To a certain degree you have to want to push yourself and expand your musical vocabulary but at the same time you’ve got to pursue the things that inspire you, so if that is just developing the feel and soulful elements of your playing as opposed to the theories behind what the time signature are, that’s maybe what you should pursue. Some people revel in discovering the mathematical qualities behind music, for me that was never the case.
What got you into heavy rock?
The first album I ever listened to a repeatedly was the first Steely Dan album – Can’t Buy A Thrill. I found an unmarked cassette in a cupboard and I used to listen to it all the time but didn’t know what it was. An uncle came over and said ‘That’s Supertramp.’ As a consequence I got a Best Of Supertramp compilation for Christmas when I was about seven – but it just wasn’t the same. I was trying to like it but it wasn’t until I was about eleven or twelve when someone told me the tape was Steely Dan. So the first album I liked was something that I didn’t know who it was by or what it was but I do remember playing air guitar to it, so something in the more ‘rocky’ side of it appealed to me.
That led on to classic things that your dad likes such as Dire Straits or Bryan Adams and then I was lucky enough to have an uncle who was into heavier stuff like Def Leppard and Bon Jovi. That became AC/DC, which went onto Judas Priest. The first two gigs I went to were stadium gigs with those two bands which set a tone for where I wanted to go – hard rock but always with a melody,always with big choruses and vocal harmonies.
When the mid 1990s kicked in I became a bit disillusioned as I couldn’t find anything that I could hold on to musically. I appreciated Reef and Oasis and Dodgy but there wasn’t enough of an edge for me and so I lost my way a bit musically. I remember being a teenager and everyone at school was into music I didn’t like.
I was still clinging onto my pretty outmoded 1989 cassettes of Cinderella and Rush and they were like ‘have you heard the latest Korn?’ which I thought was really heavy! Eventually, I got into the heavier downtuned side of music and by the early 2000s was really into the heavier side of music – bands like Boysetsfire, Deftones, Sevendust and Waterdown.
The first ‘real’ band I was in was called AKO – we were a melodic hardcore metal band and we did okay, we got good reviews in Kerrang! and Metalhammer, toured with Stone Sour and made some headway. We were going to do our second album but, as with many things in the industry, it just didn’t happen. Luckily, it was very soon after we split up that I got the audition for The Sisters Of Mercy.
As your bands are guitar based, does it follow that you create new songs on the guitar or do you use other methods to get a melody?
80% will be on the guitar but the conception of the song will come from walking down the road and suddenly imagining something and having to sing it into the phone. I speak it into the phone: ‘This is the key signature, this is the riff’. Also weirdly waking up at 5.47am after having a dream about a riff and at that point being delirious and deciding it’s the best riff I ever heard I try to record it on the phone. The next day I listen back to this weird hard-to-understand delirious rambling out of which sometimes good riffs come!
I suppose the inspiration comes mostly not from playing but kind of ‘thinking’ the riffs first and then working out how to play them. I had a really good guitar lesson with a guy called Jimi Savage who said something that really stayed with me: ‘When you go to write a guitar solo, don’t even pick up an instrument until you’ve listened to the sequence over and over for a good ten or fifteen minutes and imagine in your head how you want the solo to sound and sing or hum it in your head’. The reason for this is that, on the guitar, to a certain degree, you’re limited to what you can do when you just pick it up, you’re stuck in certain places and shapes and you follow the same patterns. However if you start singing what you think you should play then there really is no limitation to what you can do. Immediately this technique opened up a huge musical vocabulary. And that follows with the songwriting side of things too – think a melody and then start playing it.
Outside of rock, do you listen much to other styles of music and does that feed back into your own work?
I tend to like a lot of music that was produced between 1978 and 1993. That seems to be almost a genre in itself to me. A lot of the music that came out in that time I immediately like because I like the sensibilities behind the era. I like the sound of the production of that music so I can find myself liking Alison Moyet or Yazoo because I like the feel of what they were doing! I really like Nik Kershaw’s stuff, he’s an amazing songwriter with interesting changes in his music – a rare example of someone who is clearly a great musician and songwriter who was, for a time, very successful as a pop artist. Nik managed to write songs that went top five but if you picked them apart as a musician you’d be like ‘This is amazing! What awesome modulation, what an interesting key-change, what a rad harmony. ‘Whereas the pop music of the 1990s was a bit more simple, a bit basic and based on one repetitive hook with a beat around it.
Outside of metal or rock, the music I like would have has these defining features: interesting key changes, modulations and really well thought-out vocal harmonies that don’t detract from the songwriting, for example a lot of Michael Jackson’s stuff is full of all that.
Are you into the electronic and dance elements that have appeared in some alternative/industrial/dark band’s music?
I appreciate and enjoy those elements very much and I think The Sisters Of Mercy have had some part to play in establishing that crossover of industrial and EBM. Rammstein always cite Sisters as a big influence because of the nature of the Sister’s songs – the drum machine and one hook which goes around and around but is built on in really subtle and interesting ways.
Some of The Sisters Of Mercy’s biggest songs, such as More and Temple Of Love basically follow one chord sequence for nine minutes but build very slowly and deliberately so that it doesn’t become repetitive and that idea has been taken on by a lot of industrial and dance bands to the point of EBM where they have fused a darker edge to the beats, like Covenant and VNV Nation.
I like a lot of that kind of thing, Front Line Assembly, and Killing Joke did a lot of the more industrial stuff in the 90s, so I have an appreciation of it but my understanding of how to apply that to music isn’t that strong. I’ve never wanted to use it but always appreciated it.
How do you approach writing lyrics?
The process goes something like this:
- First something of ‘significance’ has to happen
- Go and write down everything you feel about that subject, even though a lot of it will be clichéd and shit.
- Then go back to the one or two bits where you think ‘wow, that actually expressed what I was feeling’ and start to write the music to the song.
- This bit is more coercive because you might think ‘I really like the word “vicissitude” but it sounds shit and pretentious in a song and it’s hard to sing’.
- So all these other elements come in. When you write a poem, the way it looks on the page is important, for example: the punctuation or the lack of punctuation, which isn’t important when you listen to lyrics. You have to take the words and convert them into what is easy to sing and sounds good to sing – ‘that note’s really high, can I change that vowel sound to an ‘a’ (which is easier to sing) from an ‘i’ or does that ruin the song?’
- The final part is taking what you thought were some nice ideas, expanding them into something that works, then approach it from a singing perspective – I’ll usually put the track on and sing along to work it out. One thing that I like to do is to make verses rhyme in themselves and also make the verses rhyme with each other, a repeated motif.
What have you been listening to this week?
Def Leppard – Comin’ Under Fire (from Pyromania, 1983). This is classic Steve Clark (my favourite guitarist of all time), in both riffs and solos.Darker and tenser than the usual Leppard fare, this encapsulates what I found inspirational about the band as a kid.
Thrice – Stare at the Sun (from The Artist in the Ambulance, 2003). Revisited this recently. Great lyrics and dark melodies, up-tempo and anthemic. Particularly love the guitars on the intro, the harmonies and
Foreigner – That Was Yesterday (from Agent Provocateur, 1984). Enjoy the verse vocal melodies and chords behind, very emotive… a feeling of resignation.
Sevendust – Unravelling (from Cold Day Memory, 2010). One of my favourite vocalists ever, the brilliant Lajon Witherspoon. Powerful and epic, boasting fantastic musicianship all round.
Enuff Z’nuff – These Daze (from Animals with Human Intelligence, 1993) As usual, great chords and changes, fantastic melodies and nice harmonies.