The day by day and night by night of a band’s rise to success.
To rise again, a phoenix has to burn to ashes first. When we are young we discover a passion or to be more precise we find those things which kindle passion within us. For a lot of people (myself included) that was the music of the ’80s. It’s no small wonder that many newcomers on the rock scene boast that they are the successors to legends like Guns N’ Roses and Van Halen. Rebirth. The thing about the rebirth of anything is that it comes with change. Rebirth isn’t the process of bringing back the old, it’s remaking old, transforming and changing it.
That is what first came to mind when I listened to British rock band Night by Night. Melodic guitars, earth-shattering drums, inspiring vocal harmony, a rare and honest lyrical depth. The same amorphous, almost magical energy of the 80’s but new, re-envisioned and unique. Not the same product polished and put back on the shelf but something new and something rousing.
Night by Night were formed in 2008 and in February of 2014 this quintet of superb musicians was signed with Swedish Sun Hill Records. The same year they were the sole supporting band for rock titans Europe. Their newly released debut album titled NxN, produced by Romesh Dodangoda and mixed by John Mitchell, has received outstanding reviews. Their music is powerful, charged to the tip of every note with energy that gets you soaring. Pick up their album, you won’t regret it. I had the great pleasure of sitting down with the band’s charming and intelligent guitarist, Ben Christo. Here’s what he had to say about the life of a musician and getting to live one’s dreams.
Andy (HMA): I’m here with Ben Christo, lead guitarist of Night by Night. Thank you for taking the time to speak to Heavy Music Artwork. Congratulations on the release of your debut album NxN. NxN of course stands for Night by Night correct?
Ben Christo: That’s the confusing thing. The album name is NxN. We wanted it to be a self-titled album but the issue that some of the guys had was we wanted to make sure it was as easy for people to find us. So it all became a bit interchangeable. On the one hand it seemed like a good idea to simplify everything, to have our album name and the thing people know us by be the same thing, but on the other hand people were going ‘Well hold on, what’s the name of the album then?’ Also some people refer to us as NxN so it’s only when you look on the spine of the CD that it really makes sense.
Andy (HMA): Let’s start off simple: how do you feel? Was it a difficult road getting to this moment?
Ben Christo: Yes. [Laughs] I first came to London about seven years ago and I had this band name, Night by Night, and that’s all I had. I also had a demo of the kind of music I wanted to do. If I had to quickly describe what it sounded like, I would say it was a mixture between AFI, Avenged Sevenfold and Def Leppard all in one. So it had very metal undertones with the drumming and the guitar, lots of lead playing on everything, lots of double kick on everything but also keyboards on it and lots of vocal harmonies. So it was bit like everything but the kitchen sink. I think there were some pretty good ideas on that first demo. The problem was: to find the musicians who could do all that and wanted to do all that was a bit difficult. It just didn’t translate very well into a live band, it was too complicated. That was the very beginning. Then I put together a sort of early incarnation of the band together, we played a few gigs but it was a real mismatch of people. People who just wanted to play not necessarily people who wanted to make this kind of music.
So that didn’t work out and it sort of started again in 2007 which was the real beginning of the band, which was when I met Johnny, the bassist, and he and I had quite a clear vision from the start. We wanted a band that was like an 80’s rock band but it was now and it was now, all live, no backing tracks or anything. I think the reason why Johnny and I bonded was because on an online advert on a musician’s noticeboard he had posted about Firehouse, TNT and Danger Danger, he wasn’t just talking about Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe, it seemed like he knew a bit more about the genre.
Then over time we realized we needed to be a five piece band because at the time I was the singer and the guitarist but I don’t feel comfortable being the front man, I don’t have a large vocal range. Whenever I did it I couldn’t do it convincingly, I felt fake and I felt too English. We wanted to play this exciting rock music and it was just uncomfortable. So we developed into a five piece and that gave us the resources to write this album.
Andy (HMA): Tell me about how you learned to play the guitar and to sing?
Ben Christo: I remember being nine years old and agonizing about what I wanted to do with my life. Do I want to be a guitar player or do I want to be a football player? I was completely torn between the two. I agonized between the two for a while but ultimately music won through. Music was such a big part of my life; I knew I had to be a guitar player. The first rock gigs I saw when I was nine years old within the space of about two weeks were Judas Priest and AC/DC. Going to big shows at that age, I just immediately locked into ‘I want to be a guitar player.’
My parents got me my first guitar. It was an electric guitar, not an acoustic, which I thank them for because it meant I could start working towards what I wanted to do straight away. I wanted to play rock. I got a few lessons off an uncle, he showed me some basic chords and I took it from there. It was the only thing I could think about. I remember being at school and just feeling sick because I was craving getting home and practicing. What I really wanted to get into was songwriting and writing lyrics. I started doing it on my own with two tape recorders, just basic stuff but I really learned a lot about arranging guitars that way. I used to sit for hours making the booklets, drawing the cover art and writing the lyrics neatly with a pen. It was that level of obsession, wanting to create something.
Andy (HMA): You eventually got to play in the Sisters of Mercy.
Ben Christo: Yeah we just finished a tour!
Andy (HMA): How did you get that job?
Ben Christo: I still don’t know. I just got a call one day about an audition by a mysterious band who wouldn’t tell me who they were. I think they got my phone number from my MySpace page. I had some songs up on there, a list of influences and one of those was Sisters of Mercy. So they called me, didn’t tell me who they were, I went to the audition, they still wouldn’t tell me who they were, didn’t know what I was auditioning for. Someone at the time said it to me that if it’s a big band they won’t tell you who it is.
It turned out they were purposefully keeping it low key because they had a tour lined up and if the word got out that the guitarist had left and they were in need of someone new people might not buy tickets. So I went to the audition, walked into this room, couple of guys sitting around, one of them on the sofa drinking a can of beer with a hat on and shades. One guy with a guitar, one guy with a drum machine. The guy with the guitar just said ‘Here’s a riff, can you play this?’ I’m not a shredder, I’m not a virtuoso guitarist but I’m quite good at listening to stuff and then playing it back. So we did a bit of this, a bit of that and then as the audition went on I started to get a feeling that the riffs they played me were their own material. Had a feel to it that was like The Sisters of Mercy. They use a lot of the Minor sixth in their riffs and these riffs these guys were playing me were very prevalent with the Minor sixth riff. So I thought ‘Maybe, maybe it’s The Sisters of Mercy but that’s not possible because that would be amazing and nothing good ever happens to me.’ So I played one of their already famous riffs just to see if anyone would say anything and the guy on the sofa was like ‘Ah that’s one of our songs!’ So from that point on I was so nervous my hands were shaking, I couldn’t play anymore but it was okay because they’d already had an hour of hearing me play stuff and that was it, a few days later they phoned me up and told me they wanted me to do it. Next thing I knew I was getting off a plane in LAX in Los Angeles. That really reaffirmed my faith that if you keep trying and you work really hard you can do anything. I’d been trying for years to get somewhere with music, I’d had some success but nothing like this.
Andy (HMA): Night by Night. I honestly love the name you’ve chosen. What’s the story behind it?
Ben Christo: Thank you. A technique I have for finding band names is I look at other bands’ song titles or lyrics. Lots of bands do this. Firehouse is the name of a band but it’s also a song by KISS. So I was looking through all my records and trying to find something that sounded cool. One that came up twice was the phrase ‘night by night’. It’s a song by Dokken and it’s a song by Steely Dan. I thought it was cool because it has that visual symmetry and also the meaning of it is kind of a play on words. There’s the phrase ‘day by day’ which could mean any of the experiences you have during the day whereas ‘night by night’ is everything that happens when you’re out with your friends, or at a club or drinking, or you’re alone, just the more emotionally charged times.
There’s so much mythology about the night and all the excitement of it. A lot of the music I wanted to write was about that emotionally charged time. It worked visually, it worked thematically and possibly the only thing I regret about it is that in a world of search engines when you type in ‘night by night’ the first thing that you get is either the Chromeo song or something by Dokken or something by the Kings of Leon but when I was thinking of the band name I wasn’t thinking ‘What’s going to be good in the search engine?’ Lately I’ve noticed that we’ve moved up and it’s easier to find us though.
Andy (HMA): How did it come to pass that you were signed by a Swedish label?
Ben Christo: Well we didn’t go in for a couple of years. We had the album we just weren’t sure how we were going to release it. We’d been talking to so many labels that just seemed unwilling to put money and time into promoting it. We’d already made and paid for it, here was this product, this ace sounding album, all we wanted was for someone to put it out, pay for promoting it, pay for a couple of videos and make sure it gets the right distribution. So we did struggle for a while. With the Swedish label, we’d already but a video up for this song called The Moment. These Swedish guys have monthly meetings to share new music they’d found and somehow someone had seen the music video. They contacted us; we were on tour with Y&T at the time. They sent a record representative from Sweden to see us live, he really liked it and then they said they wanted to put us on tour with Europe and release the album.
Andy (HMA): Tell me a bit about what went into composing the tracks on this album.
Ben Christo: On this record I’d say that it mostly came from song ideas and demos that the bassist and I had but there’s a certain process to writing in this band. We’ve tried going into a room together to write a song and it doesn’t work. You end up coming up with just anything because you feel you have to walk out of there with something. The way that works best for us is, we want things that have emotional power to them whether it’s a drum beat or a guitar melody, so everyone brings ideas to the table and if they’re exciting that inspires everyone. For us to write a song it has to have that initial sense of excitement.
Andy (HMA): Tell me about writing the lyrics to some of the songs. I’ve read them and I think they’re exemplary, very evocative and beautiful.
Ben Christo: Aw thank you for noticing. I really appreciate that. In rock music lyrics often get overlooked. The lyrics are one of the things I probably work the hardest on in this band. Like you I like poetry and things in poetry are just so…. I mean the links between the verses, the theme and the image the words create. Lyrically for me everything has to come from a personal place, it has to come from something that I’ve experienced.
From there the process is to feel something authentic in yourself and to then express it in a way that when you look at those words on the page, you feel they really convey what you’re feeling. Maybe even more than before because now you’re put words to those feelings, you’ve articulated those emotions with metaphors and rhymes. I truly believe that if you write something that is true and real people will sense the authenticity, they may not know what your experience was or what happened to you but I think it will make them feel something.
Andy (HMA): What’s the story behind A Thousand Lies?
Ben Christo: That was based around a relationship. I find that with my lyrics sometimes they fluctuate in time but sometimes they focus on a very specific moment in time. So that was, well, I had to go break up with a girl and I had to take a bit of a journey to do it. She lived in another town three hours away. It was that awful situation where I was going to break up with her but she didn’t know. She thought I was coming to hang out and I knew I had to meet up with her, have the talk and then leave again. So it was that awful feeling of someone thinking that you’re there to have a great weekend and you just go in, have the chat and leave. A lot of it is to do with the feelings around that journey, the frustration and the conflicting feelings. There’s a line in the song ‘Just wishing that I could…There’s one shade of grey in this heartless day’ and that was because when I left there was sense that everything was gray because of this kind of misery I had put her through and I had put myself through.
Andy (HMA): Making three-part vocal harmonies isn’t an easy task. The backup vocals need to be in tune with the pitch of the lead vocalist. How much practice goes into achieving that?
Ben Christo: We worked really hard. When Johnny first came to the band (he sings a lot of the higher harmonies) he hadn’t sung ever before. He had the resources to do it; he’d just never done it. When we started the band we used to practice maybe three times a week. We’d do one rehearsal where we would just do the vocals. With the three voices it’s like having a string quartet; you can do so much rather than just following the main melody. Ian, who was the original guitar player, he really helped with that because he had a classical background and a grunge background, and he was always focused on trying to make the harmony interesting which was something that we then adopted as part of what we do.
Andy (HMA): What would you say is the intrinsic appeal of the three-part vocal harmonies to the listener?
Ben Christo: I think that the average listener doesn’t understand what goes on musically in a song. It’s a very melodic sound, these three voices together. It goes back to much older genres, probably to medieval times. Choirs during Christmas use three or four part harmonies in a really effective way. People are used to hearing them and they relate these positive things to them. There’s also something real about it. It’s people singing not backing tracks.
Andy (HMA): How did you decide on the cover art for the album?
Ben Christo: We knew that because a lot of people think of us as an AOR band or an 80’s band we didn’t want cover art that was dated. We wanted something cutting edge, new and intriguing. Even if people don’t buy physical CDs, when you download the album from iTunes for instance, you still get the cover art. So we were recommended Paul Jackson, who has worked with a lot of contemporary metal and hard rock bands. So he and I were trying to figure out what was actually going to be on the cover. With a self-titled album you don’t have a title track so there’s nothing to base the art on. How do you sum up a band’s debut album in an image? So I started to look through all the lyrics and the song that jumped out at me the most, the song that had the most visual imagery in the lyrics was the song Siren. We started working on something that reflected that idea but not in an obvious way. Not like some prog metal band with an actual mermaid on the cover luring sailors in. [Laughs] Just that idea in a bleak and obscure way. I wanted the listener to have a more sophisticated relationship with the product. To only realize that ‘Hey this is about that song’ only after really listening to the lyrics.
Andy (HMA): What’s next for Night by Night?
Ben Christo: The release show first and foremost. We got some more shows penciled in for September and for October. I just want to get out and play as much as I can. Just keep the momentum going. I want us to release another album next year if possible.
Andy (HMA): When you aren’t part of Night by Night who are you in life?
Ben Christo: Well this band has taken over my life so much in the last few years that there really isn’t another me. [Laughs] I can’t stop thinking about it. I think I really need to switch off for a week and do something non-band related. Otherwise I guess I like hanging out with people who make me laugh like my brother.
Andy (HMA): What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about life from your career as a musician?
Ben Christo: I think I know what it is. Always do the thing that you’re really passionate about, that makes you feel alive. If you follow that and pursue it, you can eventually make it your job but only if you’re willing to go through the sacrifices.
It comes back to three things: if you’re committed, if you’re good at what you do and if you persevere and you put yourself out there you can do anything. Even the people who have what you want, they didn’t always have it, they tried. You should always follows the things you want to do, not the things people tell you that you should do. I know a lot of people who’ve tried to be actors, or models, or musicians because they want what comes with that. They want the respect or the kudos. They don’t do it because they love it, they do it because they want to be cool and I just don’t think those things ever work out.
The thing that motivates me isn’t getting famous or people thinking I’m cool, it’s that moment of excitement when a musical idea comes together. Then even if you fail, the excitement of the thing you love keeps you going.
Andy (HMA): Thank you, Ben. You’re truly a force to be reckoned with and I’m cheering you on. Best of luck!
Ben Christo: Thank you, sir!
Interview by Andy Starz – Copyright 2014 © Heavy Music Artwork. All Rights Reserved.