The 405 meets Esben and the Witch
The term 'Goth-Alt' has cropped up when trying to define exactly what it is that Esben and the Witch deliver, 'Atmospheric Noisepop' being another phrase coined by the message board obsessives. Whilst we're not entirely sure that either of those descriptions are even bordering on the correct genre, it is certain that Esben and the Witch are back, and they're not going to disappoint. All of the best elements from debut album Violet Cries remain, yet everything has been nipped, tucked and injected with new life. The new album, intriguingly titled Wash the Sins Not Only the Face gets it's release today, with tour dates coming up thick and fast in the following months. We caught up with lead singer Rachel Davies prior to the album's release to discuss what the new year has in store for the Brighton trio.
So, there aren't any major changes of direction with this record, but everything seems much more whole and cohesive. Was this always the aim for the new album?
Yeah, Definitely. It's naturally the fact that we've been playing together for a few years now and, you know when we did the first record, it was really naively done because we just dived straight in. With this record, we had time to sit down and think what we wanted to create, and what sort of record we wanted to make. With the first album, we had a collection of songs which we put together, but this time, we approached the songs to write a whole body of work. Its a whole different process, this time we felt more confident and more focused to achieve what we set out to.
Do you think that this change in approach has really impacted the final outcome?
Well the whole thing as really different. We recorded in Daniel's bedroom for the first one, and just did my vocals and the drums afterwards in a studio. This time round, the three of us went away to a little cottage in East Sussex, and kind of locked ourselves away. We were holed up, all the gear was laid out, and we could just work on the tracks with no one else around which was awesome. There was no signal, no internet, just a space where we could work on the songs. When we had the bones of these songs, we went to a little basement studio in London for about a month. It was pretty claustrophobic but we recorded everything there, and mixed it together with Tom Morris who was co-producing it. We had certain themes and concepts in mind for a long time, for example we had the title for about a year before we even started embarking on this process. We needed to challenge ourselves and do something different to see how we work in that environment, so yeah it was really interesting.
So have you enjoyed it more this time round then?
Yes, I think so. Especially us going away and letting ourselves go through it all, that was my favourite part of the process. We kind of put self imposed bans on ourselves working on it - we had all these ideas, going on tour and getting excited, but we needed to wait until we had the time so that all three of us could sit down together and discuss ideas. We just sort of jammed out the tracks which is something we hadn't done before. It was much more organic, and certainly warmer, I think.
There's a huge variety of influences posted around your various social networking sites - from Luis Bunuel to Natalie Portman. Where does your inspiration come from?
I think it's hard to pinpoint it to one thing, it's impossible for me not to be inspired by everything. We were so lucky getting to travel so much through the last record, which inevitably was going to inspire us. Seeing new places, and the landscapes we've been through were just incredible. Films too - we're really big movie fans, and books, and music… it's a bit of a cliched answer really! Just everything! You can read a line from a paper, or one line from a song, or a really beautiful image - anything that can just take you away for a minute. It's that level of escapism which I think I'm drawn to.
Opening track 'Iceland Spar' is rather bold, yet the beginning of the record seems to start off quite light, with the overall atmosphere & lyrical content becoming darker throughout. It comes to a crashing climax in the final track, making the record have an almost chronological feel. Was this intentional?
Yes! It definitely was and it's great that that comes across. We kind of wanted to have a transition from the first half of the record to the second half, which represented the transition day to night. We wanted exactly that, almost a journey. We did this with Violet Cries a bit, we wanted to create records that you listen to in one sitting. This chronology is really important to us. If people feel that when they listen to it, they're embarking on some sort of journey with us, then that's amazing.
With 'Iceland Spar', we wanted it to be a bold statement of intent really. We wanted it to be strong and focused, and that was always going to be the first track. With smashed to pieces, we knew that this could go nowhere but the end. We always had these sort of bookends.
I have a few personal favourites on the record, is there one track which would serve as a sole advert for the album?
I think… I think I'd say 'Yellow Wood'. It sits right in the middle of the two halves. That is quite a good summary of the lyrics and sounds that we're using throughout. I'd say that'd be a pretty good advert for the record.
It's a brilliant album title - Wash the Sins Not Only the Face. I think it stems from a Greek palindrome… What's the story behind that?
We came up with that in Washington DC. The three of us were waiting at a motel for a ride and were stumbling on these little stories. We were thinking about ideas for the record, and we started talking about palindromes and came across the ancient greek 'Wash the Sins Not Only the Face'. We instantly thought it'd be an awesome song title - we couldn't stop thinking about it and that was the starting point. When we were travelling, we had a lot of time to spend staring out of the window, letting or imaginations run away.
We had this talk about what would happen if you were in the desert and you saw a doppelgänger at the side of the road, and it led to this talk about doppelgängers and the whole theme of double - we were just entertaining ourselves really. We started doing a lot of research and this whole world opened up infront of us. There were all the sources of literature, and people who were fascinated with this theme of double. That's the thing with palindromes, that they read the same backwards as they do forwards, and we kind of just got totally embroiled within it all. We just thought, that is the title, and we all agreed which is quite a rare thing to happen!
You're playing Hare & Hounds in Birmingham, The FuhrerBunker in Salford, Bi Nuu in Berlin… there's a real variety of venues on the upcoming tour. Is this done intentionally to keep things exciting?
Well, I cant imagine there'd be enough people who'd want to see us at an Academy! Take Munster for example. We're playing there in February, and when we played last time it was one our favourite shows. It's such a great little venue, it has a great music scene and community spirit. It's a really nice personal vibe. We sit and eat dinner with the in house sound engineer, our driver, the promoter, the bar staff. Theres no segregation, no cold day at the office feel. A lot of that comes with the more bespoke, smaller venues. We love to play as many different venues as possible, but our favourites are where the people involved really love music and live music. It's that kind of passion which is really contagious and it just makes the whole experience far more enjoyable for everybody.
We played in Malta a few months ago, which is quite a rogue place to play, but you have these guys putting on shows with day jobs, and they're pretty much losing money straight away. It's a bit like playing Faliraki. There's this one little rock club in the midst of all these clubs playing David Guetta and stuff. Theres a little community of people that just love putting on gigs, and they picked us up in a little car, took us on a tour of the island, and we're still in contact with them now. It's these little relationships that really restore your faith in humanity.
Is there a certain venue or city which you're most looking forward to playing on the tour?
I'm really looking forward to Manchester. We're playing The Fuhrerbunker, which I think is in Salford actually. I've heard quite a lot of intriguing things about that place so I can't wait to see what it's like.
The last album tour took you pretty much everywhere, but where have Esben and the Witch been best received in the past?
Germany really seems to get it, it's pretty interesting. For some reason they really connect with it. They pay a lot to attention to the lyrics, obviously as it's not their first language they translate them, and then spend a lot of time going through them. It's strange, but it's really amazing for people to do their research and really enjoy it. It'll be really nice to go over there and play the second record.
So, do you enjoy the touring aspect or does it start to grate after a while?
I really enjoy touring, all three of us can't wait. There's obviously parts where it's really tiring; you haven't eaten properly, you haven't slept in your bed and it all gets a bit mad. It's quite a rare feeling though and I love it. I feel quite relaxed on tour, 'cause I kind of feel like I'm working. It's a real experience, and just to be able to see different places. We love it.
Aside from the record and the tour then, what does 2013 have in store for Esben and the Witch?
Our main goal, aside from making the record that we wanted to create, is just to keep doing this. Hopefully more people will hear and like it, and appreciate it… but it's just to keep on doing what we're doing really. If we pick up some more followers along the way then that's awesome. It's dangerous when I think about it too much. I just think I really have to ride it and enjoy it, and we just have to keep writing things that we'd like to hear.
Wash the Sins Not Only the Face is released today (21st January).
Purchase and listen
Esben and the Witch have just announced a seven-date UK tour for October, which will also feature Teeth of the Sea and Thought Forms. [read more]
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Feeling like you missed out on SXSW? Well check out these videos from the Fader Fort by Fiat and feel either a) a bit better about the situation (you'll go next year) or b) even worse. You can see the quiet brilliance of James Blake breaking peoples hearts, the rather tense Odd Future ripping through 'Sandwitches', Toro Y Moi blasting out 'Elise' towards the sun, and a few more. [read more]
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