Trevor Ristow has written a book, Waiting for Another War, covering the early days of seminal 80s indie band, the Sisters of Mercy. No More Workhorse had a chat with him about it. We never mentioned the word ‘Goth’, but…
Find out more about the book here.
The music scene of the early 80s was nearly forty years ago, but in some ways it feels longer ago. Where do you think the Sisters of Mercy fit into the landscape at that time?
I think they exist sort of outside of it. I can’t tell you how many people I talk to about the book and they say, “who?” These are people who love Depeche Mode and The Cure and The Smiths, but they’ve never really heard of The Sisters. Partly I think that’s because The Sisters tried to cut their own path, perhaps a bit too sharply. They rejected any attempt by the press to categorize them or identify them as part of a scene. Of course these days they’re considered the Godfathers Of Goth but they don’t embrace that either. If they’d been wildly successful they would have been considered a singular phenomenon, like Led Zeppelin or The White Stripes, standing beyond and above any category or genre, which is where I think they belong.
Before they had an album out, they were very much an under the radar secret. I remember seeing one of their singles behind the counter in a record shop and asking what it was… over the ear-splitting music! How easy was it to hear this kind of music in the US at that time? How did you discover the Sisters yourself?
I guess I discovered them in the same way as you: a friend of mine named Jim who worked as the imports buyer at a record shop in San Francisco where I grew up turned me on to them in late 1984. Jim recommended a lot of different bands to me but The Sisters stuck with me and we went to their 1985 gig together. But The Sisters were not a big deal in the US back then. None of my friends had any idea who they were unless they heard about them from me. Of course, later they played sold out consecutive nights at one of San Francisco’s best venues, The Warfield. But in the early years, they were definitely an underground phenomenon.
There was a scene centered around Reckless Records on Haight Street where some older guys who were into The Sisters worked. These guys were in local alternative bands and dressed cool, but I only knew them from a distance, through record stores or gigs. They were the older goths or, as we called them in California, deathrockers — by older I mean they were probably 20 or 22. It was a scene I aspired to be a part of, but I was a bit too young. But I did speak to some of those guys to get their reminiscences for the book, and they are all still as cool as they ever were. One of those guys at Reckless was named Michael, and he used to pull records out of the UK shipments and hold them for me. That way I got into Salvation, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and other bands in the Sisters’ orbit. I was a Sisters fan and Michael knew it. I remember the day I walked in there and he’d held a copy of ‘Always There’ by Rose Of Avalanche for me because it was going to sell out. I’d never heard of the band before but he recommended it and I got it and loved it. That’s the way it worked before algorithms made all these kinds of suggestions for us: word of mouth, personal relationships, maybe the radio.
By the way, one other record Michael put aside for me was a white label Mayking test pressing of ‘Temple Of Love’. He said someone walked it in the door and sold it. He knew I’d like it so he had it under the counter for me: “is $20 too much?” I bought it and still have it.
It’s been 30 years since they released their last album Vision Thing. How did writing the book come about… why now, what made you do it? How did you get your hands on material for the book? Presumably, most of it was not sourced online?
It started when I made two volumes of a Sisters fanzine in the 1980s called “Romance And Assassination” which were just xeroxed press cuttings. I spent a ton of time tracking down these articles. I spent a combined total of months if not years of my life in junk shops, record stores and flea markets, sifting through piles of magazines. Not the covers, but the whole thing. I’d take out each music magazine and look at every page, and if there was one single mention of The Sisters, I’d buy it. I’d also be remiss not to mention that dozens of other Sisters fans sent me cuttings or xeroxes through the mail, and also that I just copied articles out of other fanzines.
Anyway, that continued as a hobby for me even after I did the last ‘zine. Maybe I thought I’d do another volume, I’m not sure, but for whatever reason, I never stopped collecting articles about the band. So I ended up with a huge collection of Sisters’ cuttings, from interviews to reviews and press releases and all kinds of stuff. And in 1999 I was living with the woman who would become my first wife, and we were in a one-room NY apartment, and I decided that I was going to transfer all these cuttings to binders to organize them, so I went out and bought these binders with clear plastic sleeves and went through each cutting, logged them with date and magazine and number of pages, and put them in some order in binders. I think I ended up with about 15 binders not to mention a few milk crates of complete magazines. And when I was done I thought, man, I could write the history of this band based on this information now that it’s organized.
So that’s how I wrote it initially. Then I also had a lot of help from friends and friends of friends who shared their stories and memories with me. When you live in New York, and you grew up in San Francisco, you know a lot of people who knew the band, shared a stage with them, worked at venues where they played or whatever. And for the most part, these friends of mine were enthusiastic about the project and very generous with their time and help. For example, one old friend from San Francisco gave me her photos to print, which have been completely unseen for 35 years. Another from Seattle politely replied to my endless texts and emails trying to nail down the sequence of events from the first US tour in 1983. I hope those sections all read seamlessly, but to reconstruct them takes a lot of work and effort by multiple people. A couple of people read chapters and offered suggestions. One friend from New York unearthed her old journals so I could give specific dates for particular events. In the end, it was a big team effort and I am grateful to everyone who helped me in this way.
The interview continues in Part Two later this week.
Photo Credits –
For the cover photo: © 1985 Ulf Berglund
For the back cover photo: © 1983 Daryl-Ann Saunders.