Chris Catalyst is the living definition of a musical chameleon.
His CV as a session player is so expansive it almost sounds made-up, from his long stint in Swedish arena rockers Ghost to handling guitars/bass for Sisters of Mercy, Ugly Kid Joe, The Wildhearts, Mariachi El Bronx and more.
Then there’s his work fronting his own band Eureka Machines and three solo albums, including the newly released Mad in England – all of which demonstrate his ability to not only exist, but thrive, in contrasting musical situations. When Guitar World connects with him, he’s back on the road with Sisters of Mercy, this time working in a completely new capacity compared with his 14-year stint with them as a guitarist from 2005 to 2019.
“I’m back out with Sisters – right now we’re in Münster, Germany!” he grins from the other end of our Zoom call. “I got a call from [founding frontman] Andrew Eldritch and he needed someone to run the drum machines. It wasn’t like I was doing anything so I was like, ‘Yeah, okay!’ Then one of the guitar players got fired on the first day, so who knows how that will end up. I might end up getting my old job back, I might not.
“I’m just happy to be out working. Like all bands, it’s a curious and dysfunctional family. A lot of the crew guys have been working with Sisters for 30-odd years. It’s very close-knit.”
Earlier in June, it was reported that Catalyst was no longer part of Ghost’s touring entourage, but that doesn’t mean he’s been sat on his sofa twiddling his thumbs. Far from it, in fact, from two tours with Ugly Kid Joe – once on bass, once on guitar – to piecing together the aforementioned latest solo release.
Which, perhaps unsurprisingly, casts its sonic net impossibly wide in order to draw from an abstract and eclectic, yet somehow cohesive, pool of influences. Tracks like Butterfly or Bull and I’d Rather Be Anywhere owe as much to late ’90s Britpop as they do vintage Beatles, thanks to the quirky sense of ‘anything goes’. From prog to punk, his ears are clearly wide open…
“Most people’s record collection isn’t just one thing,” reasons Catalyst. “I love Tears For Fears and I love Oasis, as well as Strapping Young Lad, Killing Joke and Sex Pistols. A lot of my favorite records seem to take you on a journey. They’re not just one color; there are lots of different things going on. At the end of the day, we’re all just collages, you know?”
Which perhaps helps explain how one musician has been able to seamlessly hop from genre to the next and adapt himself to a whole range of different environments. Instead of focusing on the contradictory elements of the bands he’s played in, he prefers to join the dots and identify patterns of kinship…
“It’s the life of a working musician, I think,” continues Catalyst. “Especially nowadays. Before, it was frowned upon to be in two bands and now the only way to make things work is to be in more than one band and have your own creative outlets on top.
“On paper, the worlds of Sisters Of Mercy and Ugly Kid Joe shouldn’t go together. But, it’s funny, I think some of the parts are quite similar! I think Andrew Eldritch from Sisters and Dave Fortman/Klaus Eichstadt from Ugly Kid Joe have a lot of crossover in terms of tastes. If they all got in a room together, it would be quite interesting… but I doubt that would ever happen!”
Your new solo album occasionally nods to late ’90s/early noughties bands like Mansun, The Coral and The Cooper Temple Clause – who were on the more psychedelic and pastoral side of Britpop…
“I fucking love Mansun! The first album was great but I particularly love the second album Six… that’s in my top 10 for sure. It’s such an interesting record with so many out-there ideas and sounds, with a lot of pedals involved and probably a lot of cocaine involved, too! That’s something I’m not into myself, but you can tell they were definitely coming from that kind of headspace a lot of the time.”
The track How introduces some really interesting shimmers and ambiences. What were you using?
“All of the album was done with a Kemper. I got one when I toured with Sisters in 2016. I’ve always been a bit of a slave to valve amps. I love all that stuff and still do. For that run I had six amps with me, including the spares, and every single one of them went down. Simply because they were riding in the back of a truck through the roads in Estonia. They were getting banged about!
“Our monitor guy had a contact at Kemper. A lot of us are quite old-school so we weren’t too sure, wondering if it was a case of emperor’s new clothes or whatever. We fired them up and within 30 seconds I knew I had to buy one.”
For a touring guitarist like yourself, especially switching between different projects, they must be a bit of a godsend…
“They sounded amazing and obviously had all the amps, and more, already in them. Then we profiled all of my amps and none of us could tell the difference. They were super-reliable and the effects kept getting better and better with the updates. I was using a Strymon BlueSky pedal at one point and didn’t end up buying it, because I didn’t really have a use for it. On the track How, I was trying to emulate that Strymon reverb and do something a bit different, almost a bit Radioheady.”
Some might say Kempers are more user-friendly in design than something like an Axe-Fx, though clearly each have their merits…
“It’s funny, because in Ghost we were using the Axe-Fx. I remember having a conversation with Tobias Forge when I came in, saying I’d quite like to use my Kemper. And they said, ‘You can, but this is all set up and ready to run!’ The other guitarist in Ghost, Per Eriksson, preferred Axe-Fx and felt they sounded better. I think they’re both amazing, it just comes to what you prefer. I think the Kemper sounds that little bit better, but it might just be whatever you’re most used to.
“It’s like PC versus Mac, to be honest; people will just have a preference. The user interface on the Kemper is easier – I knew my way around in no time. And as you said, for a jobbing musician like me, I’ve got all my tones stored in. I can do a gig with The Professionals, then go on tour with Ugly Kid Joe or whoever… it’s all set up and ready to go. If Sisters of Mercy end up needing me on guitar again, I’ve got it all on a USB stick. It’s magic!”
One of the most interesting entries in your CV as a “jobbing musician” is a stint with The Bronx spin-off Mariachi El Bronx. How did that happen?
“It was a strange one! They had a guitarrón player, which is like a giant acoustic. For whatever reason, he dropped out right before the tour. A mate got in touch and asked if I could do it but I couldn’t because of other commitments. About two weeks later I went to see Gogol Bordello and Mariachi were supporting. The tour manager was a friend of mine and I said, ‘It’s funny, I got asked about doing this tour but couldn’t because I had a gig last week!’ and he said, ‘Fucking hell, the guy we got in has got to go home tomorrow, can you still do it?’
“That was on the Saturday, on Sunday I learned the parts and then on Monday I was on stage with them. I loved the songs and they’re such talented guys. I had to get inside it all and learn a completely different style of playing. A lot of it was counterintuitive to what I knew – they would do things that felt backwards, like play the high octave and then the lower one after. Little things like that. They taught me a lot about playing, actually, and also a lot about drinking!”
Your most recent stint on guitar with Ugly Kid Joe was similar. We heard you flew across the Atlantic and went straight from the airport to the stage!
“Yeah, it was another crazy story! When Sisters started doing less and less, all I knew was touring, so it seemed inevitable I’d remain on the road as a tech or tour manager.
“I ended up teching for Sonny Mayo from Ugly Kid Joe, who also played in Snot – a band I loved – but a few years later, I found out Sonny couldn’t do the next UK and European tour a few years later. So I ended up playing guitar for them in 2016 and it was brilliant. Then I got the gig in Ghost!
“But last year, their bass player couldn’t do a tour, so I got a call asking if I could come do that. And the answer was, ‘Absolutely!’ And then for their first US tour in 20 years Dave Fortman ended up having a family emergency. They asked how fast I could be in America, and I flew out the next day. I landed at 3pm, went straight to the venue and got given my guitar for soundcheck. And off we went for three weeks.”
So how exactly did you end up playing guitar as Nameless Ghoul in Ghost?
“Again, it came through a friend. It was their producer Tom Dalgety who knew they needed a player. My life is so chock-full of serendipity… I wouldn’t say good luck, but good fortune. I had just finished that tour with Ugly Kid Joe. I’d just bought a house with my girlfriend at the time, came back home and she said it was over. I didn’t really have anywhere to go. I was living on the sofa in the Sisters rehearsal room, wondering what I would do next.
“Just a few days later, I got the call saying there was a band looking for a player. I said yes before even asking which band it was. Then I got told it was Ghost – I’d heard the name and seen the pictures, so I knew it was going to be quite heavy. But after giving them another listen I knew they also had big tunes, hooks and choruses. I did a video of me playing, sent it over to the boss and he said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got the gig if you want it!’ And then he said there were two things I needed to be aware of…”
And those were?
“First of all, it would be a lot of touring… which was brilliant for me! The other thing was ‘You’re not going to have many guitar solos,’ and I said ‘Even better!’ Because I love rhythm. It’s always been about chords and riffs for me.
“I love solos as much as the next fret wanker but the kind of ones I like aren’t really widdly; they’re more atmospheric or melodic. I like leads that take the listener to a different place rather than full-out shredding… which I can’t do anyway! Then it was a lot of touring. We did the Maiden tour in the States – it was incredible and so much fun.”
Though your identity was concealed at the time, you clearly had fun playing British soap opera theme tunes like Emmerdale and Eastenders to unsuspecting crowds in Leeds and London…
“I couldn’t possibly comment on that… but I don’t think most Swedish people know what Emmerdale is [laughs]! I think my favorite was I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by The Proclaimers in Glasgow. I was talking to the drummer about it and he didn’t have a clue what this song was. I was like, ‘Trust me, it’ll work!’ and he was still a bit unsure. But as soon as I started that riff, the fuckin’ roof went off. Everyone knew that song – of course they would, it’s Glasgow!
“That was always a real highlight of the shows, because everything in Ghost is very… choreographed is the wrong word, but let’s say planned. Those bits gave us a chance to get a bit loose and do something fun for every audience, something that applied to them locally.
“I actually got that from [Ugly Kid Joe frontman] Whitfield Crane, who would say ‘We’re in Manchester, so why not do a quick verse or chorus from here?’ In Manchester, it would be The Smiths or Oasis. In London, it would be Waterloo Sunset. We’d be fine in Berlin but then we’d end up in Wiesbaden and I wouldn’t have any suggestions [laughs]!”
While Per went on to wield a heavily modded Strat for the Impera live dates, you stuck with the Ghost signature Hagstrom Fantomen…
“It was Tobias and the guitarist before me who came up with Fantomen. They’re great guitars, really solid and they look awesome, as well as sound awesome thanks to the Lundgren pickups. Hagstrom have been nice to me for a long time, from even before Ghost, so I find them to be a very supportive guitar brand. They’re doing great stuff that challenges the ‘big boys’ in terms of build quality, sound and looks.
“I like to keep things relatively simple. I’ve seen some people have different heads for each channel and giant rackmounts, switchers and EQs or whatever. It was Dave Nutbrown, who is the sound guy for Ghost and a brilliant fellow from Wakefield – a real no-nonsense Yorkshireman – who said, ‘At the end of the day, all you need is a Les Paul, a curly lead and a Plexi!’ And that’s me in a nutshell. Maybe if I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll have a tuner [laughs]!”
Many might say it depends on the end goal – analog rigs can be pure though occasionally unpredictable, while digital gear can offer convenience and precision…
“Exactly. In Ghost, a lot of it was chosen for us. With digital gear, if you want to really get into it, you can. I think there’s something to be said for having your delay settings dialed in perfectly for each song. And I also like it when they’re not.
“One of the best guitar sounds I ever heard was Oasis in 1995. Noel Gallagher’s setup was a Marshall, an Orange and a couple of washy delay pedals in front. It just took your head off and sounded fantastic. Some people think Noel isn’t a great guitar player, but he just doesn’t fuck up. He can create a brilliant wall of sound that’s played exactly as it should.”
So what were the most challenging songs in the set? It definitely feels like the last album was a big step up in terms of technicality…
“I’ve always been confident with my picking hand, so the riffs were usually pretty straightforward. I’m not saying I’m as good as Hetfield, because no-one is. He’s got that hammer right hand. Sonny Mayo has that, too. Ginger is another one. I like that stuff so it wasn’t too hard for me. But some of the recent Impera stuff was definitely more challenging because Fredrik Åkesson from Opeth had played on the record, and he’s obviously one of the best guitarists in the world.
“The stuff he played on that album just blows my mind – it’s all over the neck and full of soul as opposed to pure widdly stuff at the very top. You can tell he has a great ear for hooks from those solos, and the same goes for Tobias, obviously. They came up with some excellent stuff on that album – it’s melodic when it needs to be melodic but it also takes your head off at other points.
“So, yeah, things like Watcher in the Sky took a bit longer. Spirit is one that had dual solos. I don’t think I ever fucked it up badly, but it was a tough part. It was hard for Per, too… and he’s a world-class shredder.”
Finally, what was your favorite song to play and why?
“I really loved Kaisarion. It’s such a journey of a song – it’s riffy but also has prog bits. I’m a big fan of Cardiacs, who would do proggish stuff but without the cloaks! Some of it reminded me of that, other parts felt more Iron Maiden.
“I think it’s the first song Tobias wrote in a major key. People seem to default to writing in certain ways, and I tend to lean towards major keys myself, so that’s probably why I enjoyed that song a lot. It’s more of an effort for me to play sad songs because I’m not much of a sad person!”
- Mad in England is out now.