INTERVIEW: The Sisters Of Mercy
, September 6th, 2016 15:01
Catching up with the current incarnation of the much-loved group almost four decades after their formation
The Sisters of Mercy, in their 36th year of playing live, are currently on a late-summer breather before heading out for dates in Spain, Portugal and Latin America. Guitarists Chris Catalyst and Ben Christo joined tQ by email, one from his spare room in Leeds, surrounded “by bits of guitars and bits of bathroom”, the other with “a Nihil album, a coaster from The Big Bang Theory and a glass full of fresh mint leaves” for company. Andrew Eldritch was on the phone from his home, cleaning lady in the background, location unknown, other than, “I’m indoors and it’s 32 degrees.”
Of the 2016 shows so far, which have been the highlights?
Chris Catalyst: I love playing halls, but I think the Sisters are built for festivals. Andrew enjoys himself more, and if that's the case, the audience enjoy themselves more. Particular highlights were Demo Fest in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bands don't bother to travel there very often, so the audience were particularly gung-ho. M'era Luna Festival [in Germany] is always a highlight and this year was no exception.
Andrew Eldritch: Even now, I never remember concerts. I remember circumstances surrounding some of them. I remember the finer moments of hanging out with band and crew. The actual concerts themselves? No, my head’s in a different place when I’m up there doing that.
Ben Christo: The show in Latvia was also strong, because, even though it was a sizeable show, we were quite close to the crowd and the atmosphere was tangible.
CC: The two nights at the Ancienne Belgique (in Brussels in March) were also two of my favourites - it's truly one of the best venues in the world - but the second gig was the day before the terrorist attacks in Brussels. There was a strange atmosphere that weekend. Everyone was on edge. Two of our fans who were travelling between gigs had a very lucky escape.
Who are you looking forward to seeing at Reverence Festival in Portugal?
CC: I will be sad to miss Ozric Tentacles the day before us but I can't wait for Killing Joke. The Damned are, of course, legends.
BC: I'm hoping to catch Killing Joke too, as I'm a fan. Their last two albums have been especially good.
You will play in Rio on the day the Paralympics end. Are The Sisters using any banned substances?
CC: The only performance-enhancing substances that make it onto our bus these days tend to be Berocca and coffee. Endless, endless coffee.
Andrew, in the past you’ve described The Sisters as your “Saturday job”. I imagine your not inconsiderable free time being very un-rock’n’roll.
AE: It involves a lot of drinking, a lot of smoking, a lot of playing with cats and I’ve got a swimming pool. So that is pretty rock’n’roll.
What are the Rules on the Road for The Sisters as a touring unit to make sure tempers don't fray and the band are in the best shape to play?
CC: Andrew - somewhere to smoke. Ben - full-length mirror. Give me a rider full of premium lager and exotic crisps and I'll see you on stage left. The secret of longevity with any band worth their salt nowadays is that the whole operation is a family, where everyone - band and crew - is equal... although some are more equal than others.
BC: A key element that everyone in the touring entourage has mastered is simple: silence.
What are the logistics for long haul shows like the ones coming up in Mexico, Peru, Brazil and Chile?
CC: On a bus tour, we can take the full shebang. However, for the Central/South America we’ll hire in lights and guitar speakers and bring our amps and guitars and effects. One of the things I wanted to engineer when I joined the band was the ability to easily travel light, for flyer gigs in faraway hot places. I just bought an amazing piece of kit called a Kemper Profiling amp, which basically contains all of my amps and effects in a unit the size of a carry-on bag. I'm trying to get Ben to buy one as well. Andrew said he might buy a spare.
Might The Sisters, as a UK-based band which works at lot in Europe, be affected by Brexit?
AE: I remember how difficult international travel used to be, especially when you were carrying equipment, whether personal or professional - customs men didn’t see the difference. We’ve done it before and if necessary we’ll do it again, but the result of the vote is very disappointing to every man jack of the band and crew.
In the run up to the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU, the front page of The Sisters’ website, which rarely updates, declared for Remain.
AE: I’m asking myself in the weeks following the vote, whether I should have been more direct, more obvious, shouted more about my pan-Europeanism. Or whether that would have put more people off the idea of staying in. One never knows.
Chris and Ben, how did your job interviews for The Sisters go in 2005 and 2006 respectively?
CC: I was doing a gig in Leeds as my alter-ego Robochrist - a really stupid techno-metal thing - and Andrew had come to see me. We went into a neighbouring room at the gig, in which happened to be the weekly Bingo Night. He offered me the job, we had a drink, and then got kicked out for being too loud.
BC: Even when I was in there, I didn’t know who the band I was auditioning for was. As a gamble, I casually played a few bars of ‘Doctor Jeep’ to see if anyone would say anything. Someone did. “That’s one of our songs.” At that point, all my confidence dissipated. I vividly remember that my hands were shaking.
The Sisters have always used a synthesized drum device and whatever the incarnation, it’s always been called Doktor Avalanche. After 30-plus years of service, does The Doktor make The Sisters futurist or retro?
AE: I’ve always liked the ambiguity of The Doktor. Even when drum machines went “Pip–pip-pop” we tried to make them sound more like drum kits. And now they all sound like drum kits, sometimes we try to make them sound a little bit more “Pip–pip-pop.” You might call that a bit of retro-tech attitude but I could never be accused on being a retro-tech-head. I can write PEARL code. I’m not entirely dim. A lot people have accused me of being flippant with the technology but they don’t understand how deeply ensconced in it I am.
CC: Recently The Doktor – actually a cornucopia of samplers, synths and effects boxes that does the drums and bass at the live shows - underwent an overhaul. We said goodbye to the dead DOS 3.3 computers. We now run the live MIDI info from a bunch of Macs into the various samplers.
This line-up is by far the longest lasting of all the iterations of The Sisters - 11 years and counting. How do you explain that?
CC: I tour with a lot of what I would respectfully call 'older' bands and I have this theory that they all used to fall out in the 70s, 80s and 90s due to the fact there was nothing else to do in the dressing room. I started touring properly just as wireless internet and smartphones were on the rise. Previously, you had 15 'adults' who weren't eating or sleeping properly, not looking after themselves and missing their significant others. People just wound each other up for the sport.
Sisters songs, apparently, are quite simple to play.
BC: When I joined the band, I thought the same. So, I used to overplay nearly everything, adding extraneous bits of shred, playing divebombs everywhere. The band began to rein this in. Part of the training was to play along to 3 or 4 note riffs by Sam and Dave, Booker T, Al Green etc. and really focus on making each note count. It was some of the most difficult guitar playing I’ve ever attempted, especially as another condition was to completely roll back the distortion and gain, so there was less to hide behind.
Over their 36 years, The Sisters output has been absolutely littered with intertextual references.
AE: It’s absolutely full of it and that’s why it increasingly takes me longer and longer to write a song because the material is actually very, very dense. It’s one of the reasons I don’t mind playing the same songs 30 years running because they are so dense. Every time I sing them on stage, I can follow up one particular link in my head and embrace and enjoy where it’s leading me.
You seem to regard the very old songs more highly than I imagined.
AE: I think there are some good elements to even the worst ones. Some of those early songs we still play in rotation and I try to concentrate on the bits of them that I like and idly sing my way through the bits I like less. I’m very lucky in that not being a musician, I’ve always written riffs which are distinctively mine. Some of them are damn fine. There’s a lot of trying to be Motörhead in what we did and what we do. In my very first interview ever, when I was asked to place us in the grand scheme of things I said we were better than The Birthday Party but not as good as Motörhead.
I wonder if The Birthday Party heard about that because Mick Harvey described you as the worst band ever to support them.
AE: They hated us! A lot of people have been extremely rude about The Sisters. I don’t remember exactly what Black Flag said about us but it was pretty much that we were the worst band ever.
What's the Sisters' most Tap moment you can share?
BC: Brazil, 2006. A few minutes before the stage-time, I headed to the bathroom for a customary pre-show piss. On my attempt to exit the bathroom, as I turned the handle on the inside of the door, it broke off in my hand. I heard the sound of the handle on the other side hit the floor. No phone to call anyone. Luckily, the guitar tech came looking for me and got the door open just in time.
CC: Too many. From lighting guys setting off every smoke alarm in a 500-yard radius in America, to guitarists having their room robbed by amorous thieves in Brussels, to blowing up no fewer than seven amps on the last tour, to setting the tour buses on fire (twice), to jaywalking arrests in Poland, via broken wrists, broken ribs, twisted ankles, motorcycle accidents, appendicitis, white-knuckle rides around Eastern Europe, police escorts in Athens, and stand-up arguments over sandwiches, all in the company of some of the most brilliant and bizarre people you will ever meet.
The Sisters of Mercy will tour the UK in November and you can find the full list of dates below
The Sisters Of Mercy UK Tour Dates
19th - UEA, Norwich 22nd - O2 Institute, Birmingham 23rd - O2 Academy, Bristol 25th - Olympia, Liverpool 26th - Foundry, Sheffield