“The whole of the last three and a half years has been kind of, just stumbling, blindly into the dark.” Guitarist Daniel Copeman muses, “Every time someone says you’re going to do something, you’re just like, ‘ok, we’ll figure out how to do that then’”. Indeed, none of the numerous successes Esben And The Witch have experienced over their brief career to present seem to have come about through an agenda. Rather, their music is presented as that which is written purely for the sake of the music itself. By their own admission, a lot of it stems from being “much more interested in just trying to make weird, odd noises” than any sort of overwhelming desire to be a rock star.
Pioneers of modern Witch House, a genre that encompasses elements of all that is gothic and beguiling, along with notable electronic influences, Esben And The Witch have established a reputation as one of the most exciting up and coming bands on the scene. We meet tonight at The Jericho Tavern, before they play the second night of a U.K. headline tour, having recently returned from a trip round America, culminating in their playing “two shows a day” at South by South West. “We played far more intensely than we’ve ever played before, in terms of just the volume of shows, in a short time” says guitarist Thomas Fisher, “but it kind of feels natural to do that really, in that environment”. Vocalist Rachel Davies, who is remarkably soft spoken considering the almost formidably powerful singing voice she possesses, concurs; “It’s especially a challenge if you’re playing in a tent at three o’clock in the afternoon, in the daylight, with really bad amps, that just sound terrible, and a really shonky floor tom, and you have like a 5 minute changeover with you and the other band, so you have to go there, and just try and smash it, as much as you can. But it was a really amazing experience.”
I ask them if they have any strange stories from the tour, and they respond with an account of walking through, what Rachel describes as, “this crazy area where they just put all, erm, the prostitutes and drug users, this whole kind of, open air drugs market ” trying to get rid of an amp, “close to like a mile stretch, a fifteen minute walk through, every single person we walked past was just, totally fucked, on meth, spinning round, covered in sores, it was mad”, “shouting at nothing – dandelions and caps on the ground”, Thomas continues “everyone was shouting, like, oh you’ve got my speaker, take good care of it! We were like, don’t make eye contact…”
Though they formed in Brighton, Esben And The Witch don’t really identify themselves with their local music scene, “we barely play with any other bands in Brighton” Daniel states, “it’s great though, there’s loads of very interesting stuff happening, loads of great promoters, and, putting on loads of intriguing nights and stuff but, it seems quite… it’s something we’ve never felt, certainly haven’t felt any particular allegiance with any bands from Brighton”. They formed when Daniel and Thomas moved to Brighton, “we both weren’t doing anything musical, we both kinda wanted to, so we started knocking around some ideas”, on deciding that they needed vocals, they asked Rachel, who Thomas knew through a friend, to join, “and three years later we’re still trying to kick her out” he laughs. Rachel describes the song writing process as “a very collaborative effort really, it differs quite a lot from track to track so it can be anything from, a guitar riff or, just a guitar tone, or a sound, or a lyric, or anything really, and that’ll be the start, the bare bones of it”. Through the process of writing the album they got much more into the idea of “starting things with the idea of just noises, just kind of like textures” suggesting that their writing process, along with the resulting songs, was less than conventional.
Violet Cries, their recent debut, was released at the end of last year and self recorded, mostly in Daniel’s bedroom, by the band in the preceding months. “It’s something that we wanted to make sure we retained complete control of, cause it’s something that we’d always done that way and we didn’t see a reason to change it just because somebody was saying ‘you can go into a studio’”. This organic approach to recording, however, was not without setbacks, “I was having to stop my flatmates, when they were running up like ‘I need to go to the toilet’” Daniel says, of recording in the bathroom, “I was like, there’s literally two minutes left on the track, like we just have to get through this vocal take and it’ll be done, so they kinda stand there at the top of the stairs, patiently waiting”.
We have a really animated conversation about the bands Esben And The Witch are currently listening to, Health are a recurring name, as are Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Daniel cites “the John Hopkins and King Creosote record” and “Nicholas Jaar, I’ve heard that’s amazing” as two he’s really anticipating. And Rachel? “The Tim Hecker Ravedeath, album, I’m really looking forward to that”. All three agree on Grouper and EMA, the latter of whom they caught at South By South West. They give me names of bands they like, rather than bands they’re influenced by, preferring to name poets and authors as significant to their music. “It’s difficult to state your musical influences, because it feels like you take something from everything you hear, it could be anything, like, I don’t know, Health, or Rhianna, or anything, like it naturally forms how you approach playing music yourself, so it kind of seems pointless just to name four bands and say ‘this is what I was influenced by’”. This rings true as a listener, the sound they’ve cultivated doesn’t display evident allusions to any particular musician I can bring to mind.
When they take to the stage later that evening, the atmosphere is suitably eerie, the lights are dim and the stage is adorned with a glass skull (which, incidentally, was stolen that night – if you know who has it, get in touch, it’s needed!) They open with a prolonged build up that swells into the strange metallic voices of ‘Argyria’, and flows seamlessly into a hauntingly powerful rendition of ‘Marching Song’. Where, as an album, Violet Cries could come across as dense and somewhat impenetrable in places, live, the overriding air is broodingly intense and entirely surrounding. Esben And The Witch shun the conventional band set up, preferring instead to line the front of the stage with drums, which Rachel and Daniel beat in perfect focused synchronisation.
‘Chorea’, which the band are releasing for Record Store Day (and which Mogwai have remixed, “it’s like a dream come true situation that, jaw on the floor type moment”), is a particular live highlight, through which the full strength of Rachel’s voice is demonstrated. As though possessed, she effortlessly switches between bouts of insidious wailing, and hushed murmurs, fading out into an echoing close. The set finishes with ‘Eumenides’, whose refrain of “Silver bullets, for sinner’s hearts” transforms into an avant-garde Witch House breakdown of sorts. More than anything it’s the sound of a band that takes its own advice, for as Rachel says, “you shouldn’t really matter what anyone else thinks, if you really love what you’re doing, carry on, don’t change it for anybody”.