Brightonian three piece Esben and the Witch have stripped away any preconceptions, packed away the drum machine (for now at least), thrown off the shackles and the studio trickery and re-emerged with a muscular, live, human sounding, rather marvellous, fan-funded third album A New Nature which has been produced by Steve Albini.
It distils their core as a band; each song has a raw, live feel quite apart from their previous works – the nightmarish myth and melancholia of the atmospheric 2011 début Violet Cries that forged a midway between the sighing minimal textures of The xx and the goth-pop of the likes of Zola Jesus. While the bridge to their new work, 2013’s Wash The Sins Not Only The Face, whose winter landscapes and undulating gothic electronic textures was characterised by songs like the Black Swan inspired ‘Death Waltz’ which oozed with a pulsing enveloping darkness and was laced with Rachel Davies’s haunted, hollow tone.
Emerging in 2008 and quickly signing to respected imprint Matador to release their début Violet Cries – written mainly in the bedroom of drummer and electronic knob twiddler Daniel Copeman – Esben and The Witch swiftly achieved critical success, even gaining a place on the BBC’s prodigious Sound of list.
Fast forward to 2014 and with a new found confidence and maturity, Esben and the Witch are now presenting themselves bare: an abrasive collision between the crushing shifting loud-quiet-loud post-rock dynamics of Slint and Mogwai and the lacerating, urgency of those early P J Harvey albums. Visceral, caustic and almost animalistic songs like the furiously pummelling assaults of ‘No Dog’; the shifting schizophrenic textures of ‘Blood Teachings’; and the trembling menace of ‘Dig Your Fingers In’ that in particular depicts Rachel’s growth as a singer, you can now hear the experience, the attitude, the bite in every note. These songs reflect a new sound, a new mood, a new voice, a new side to Esben and the Witch, at times brutal but always with the heart and frankly it’s fucking unstoppable. We caught up with singer and bassist Rachel Davies to peel back some the layers of A New Nature
I get the impression that you are stripping everything back aesthetically and soundwise about Esben and the Witch; would that be fair to say?
It was definitely a conscious decision to strip back the layers that we had previously applied to see what lay beneath and see what kind of sound just so as to create that real primal raw feel, with just the three of us…a human feel to it really… just using our bare hands and our instruments and taking away the electronics a bit. They are still there but Daniel, who has always been at the helm of that side of things, moved from the electronics to a full kit. So we just found it really cathartic to play some instruments really hard in a room together. The live shows have always been really important. I think minimising the machines particularly was quite interesting for us to see what it sounds like between the three of us without the synthetics as much, although they are still there. But it was quite a challenge for us really.
Legendary producer Steve Albini is known for his back to basics live approach to recording; was this the reason you sought him out?
That’s why we approached Steve; we’re all big admirers of his work. We wanted to create this heavier primal sounding record, because recently that’s the kind of music we had been appreciating. We took quite a big punt and thought, fuck it let’s go for it, lets see if we can record with Albini and we did it!
How was it working with Albini and what do you feel he brought to the recordings?
It was real joy to work with Albini, genuinely. I found his whole approach and attitude to both recording and music in general incredibly refreshing. We wrote this record wanting it to convey our live sound more successfully, something I don’t think we’ve fully achieved with the records prior. We wanted A New Nature to feel raw, primal, to sound human. Albini seemed the perfect engineer to work with to realise this. He’s no-nonsense, no bullshit. I really like that. Plus, he’s really fucking great at his job.
Were the tracks on the split 12″ with Thought Forms from earlier this year like a stepping-stone towards this new approach?
We recorded those in two different places in Brighton. We loved doing that because Thought Forms are a really awesome band and we love the guys at Invada. It was a really good bridge for us to see how it would work, as it was similar to how we worked with Albini. Things like starting to take some of the reverb off the vocals for instance. So we stripped back to some of the vocals and instruments and just play it and go in the studio and record it with all its flaws and mistakes and stuff. We are all control freaks, but we just went in there and played it and that is just how it is. When you do it again eight times it can sound quite cold, but we wanted that warmth, that humanity.
When I saw the video for ‘No Dog’ it struck me as an introduction to a new side to Esben and the Witch?
You know what, for sure, I think that side has always been there. Its something that we have always appreciated and it’s always been part of us, but it’s only now we feel a bit more confident. We’re a bit older; again we wanted to explore that side of us. Where we filmed the No Dog video, it’s in this little practise space where we used to practise when we were cutting our teeth; it was quite nostalgic going back – it was like we had come full circle with a bit more touring and records behind us. A lot of it, with stripping it down to it’s pure essence, is a confidence thing and I guess I give a shit less these days.
It’s a real shift from the almost ethereal soundscapes of one of your more well known songs ‘Death Waltz’ to the stark noise of something like ‘No Dog’?
Yeah, I haven’t listened to ‘Death Waltz’ in such a long time it feels like so long ago. It’s funny, someone came up to us at a show and said they had been trying to learn the drum pattern to that song but they can’t because we used a drum machine to create that rhythm, I think. Daniel learning to play drums and adding all sorts of other sounds on top and Thomas playing guitar and myself on bass on every song, really fed into the way the sound evolved.
Was it when you came back together off the back of the critical success of Wash The Sins… when you decided to take things down a different route in the future?
The same with most of our decisions they are between the three of us. We are very close and can read each other quite well. We were all on the same page, really on what we were appreciating more and enjoying certain live shows and getting almost frustrated with other things whilst touring. After Wash the Sins… we had a break. We were touring a lot and Thomas started the bed of A New Nature. He went away with his guitar and got quite obsessive over it, then would play all these guitar sketches that he would play me and Daniel through his shitty recording device. He was creating a bed and the spine for the new songs for A New Nature.
We wanted to create something quite muscular and meaty. I was getting a little disenchanted with boring wet music. I wanted something with some kind of punch to it, that’s personally what I wanted to create. We still have those moments that are still dynamic. That’s something we have always been drawn to by our appreciation of post-rock but we wanted to have that kind of grit and heart to it which came with a new confidence really.
With any of our steps to creating music it was quite a natural development. We’re big fans of musicians and artists that develop and change because why would you want to create the same record again and again? Really my attention span is far too short. The people that get it really get it and appreciate us trying to explore this side to us for this record at least. Who knows what kind of record we will produce next?
Does that new nature extend to the lyrics because they seem quite abrasive and in keeping with the music? ‘Dig Your Fingers’ strikes me as starker sounding soundwise and much barer lyrically?
Definitely, I think again it’s a natural process. We’ve been afforded the luxury of being able to grow in our own time naturally so you are going to alter the way you do things. I have been rewriting some of the lyrics from back in the day and it’s interesting to see how I have developed. It’s interesting to see the teen angst of ‘Violet Cries’ to ‘Wash the Sins…’ that feels more of a bridge or a crossroads to A New Nature. All the things I was writing or reading at the time and the feeling that I got from certain things was my small attempt to emulate that feeling.
What actually inspires your lyrics now compared to the Violet Cries era?
I don’t think the sources of inspiration have changed that greatly. Film and literature seem to always be the catalyst that gets things going, that sets the spark. With Violet Cries, I was younger, a little more emo. There was definitely some teen angst overspill going on! The things that inspired the lyrics to that record were a little more disparate then the records that have come since too. With Wash The Sins and A New Nature, I’ve written all the lyrics at the same point in time. To try and capture a concentrated moment. Wash The Sins, in retrospect, feels like a bridge, lyrically, between the 22 year old me in Violet Cries and the 28 year old me in A New Nature.
I guess people have a certain fixed perception of you as you emerge as a band and shifting that is intriguing, and keeps a band evolving and living?
We were very new to it; never expecting it to happen. Daniel recorded the whole first album in his bedroom, it just so happened that people responded to it, which was amazing. I had never sung before and Thomas had never played guitar; we were very new to it. We had never performed before or anything. We’d obviously been big music fans but we were new to it. That was almost five years ago now, which is crazy. We are just even more focussed on what we want and what we like about music and we are hoping to create something that hopefully others will respond to it.
Is a song like ‘Blood Teachings’ a good representation of the album’s different moods?
I think so, yes. That’s why we chose it to be the first track people hear from the record. From the woozy , stoned first half into the quieter bridge into the frenzied, wig out jam at the end. We’ve always be drawn to strong dynamics in songs. I think that’s why we’re all big fans of post-rock. ‘Blood Teachings’ is such a pleasure to play live. The beginning build up just makes the release at the end even more potent. I hope that’s translated on record. Conceptually and lyrically I think it sums up the album themes pretty well. It was inspired by Hermann Hesse‘s ‘Demian’ a book that draws heavily on themes of self-actualisation. The idea of discovering your true nature, digging deep to fulfil your potential and flying straight into the sun, wings intact.
Do you think being on a respected label like Matador gave you a platform early on to develop as a band and eventually fund your own record?
Matador totally respected what kind of band we wanted to be. They are old punk rockers really. They gave us the time to develop and make decisions that we felt comfortable with. We wouldn’t have been able to do half the things that we have done if it wasn’t for them. They’re just old school music fans. It was definitely a positive for us. The time we had with them came to a very natural conclusion. We wanted to do things ourselves and it was quite a nice amicable departure, no we didn’t have a bust up.
Are there any records that inspired you during the period of recording the new album?
Music that I started being more connected to more was the heavier side of things. All three of us in different ways used to listen to music like that. At The Drive-In for instance, it’s a classic. Just going back to listening to their old albums like Relationship of Command is such a great record.
I didn’t really find anything that was cutting through, I mean bands like Swans and Godspeed You! Black Emperor definitely pushed the boundaries and set the bar high. I like bands that try and do new stuff. The new Nick Cave record Push The Sky Away is a fantastic record. We listened to that mainly. I finally got round to listening to the Jesus Lizard. It’s just great to walk around the city streets listening to the snotty punk. It’s a really fine line to tread between being obnoxious and inspiring. It’s hard to do. I have utter respect for bands who can straddle both the spheres whilst maintaining their integrity.
I saw The National documentary Mistaken for Strangers the other night. To be perfectly honest I am not a huge fan of that band musically but I think it’s awesome that they have become giants in that world – like third in the Billboard chart to Lady GaGa and they have been touring for ten years and stuff and that’s really inspiring.
When you decided to fan fund the album how did it work; did you offer incentives or was it more a case of we want to record this album and asking your fans to back you?
It’s been a really interesting process. Actually before we went into the process we thought really long and hard about it so we weren’t exploiting anyone and doing stuff we felt comfortable with. Now from the feedback from fans, I can feel an amazing community feel to it because essentially we are offering a pre-order service. I hope it feels really empowering to them because they are helping us to make the record in advance and it feels like a really nice appreciative mutual relationship.
So I presume you have a UK tour lined up to support the new album?
We should have some shows in the UK at the end of the year. We played a show in Sheffield last week; we played Latitude, and we are playing Supernormal on the weekend, which we are really psyched about. So we are playing pretty sporadically dotted around the place. We have our album launch show on the 4th of September at the Hackney Oslo; it’s like a new venue, a theatre. I had never been there before. Weirdly enough I am in Hackney at the moment actually seeing a couple of friends…
Who would be your dream support slot?
Something like Nick Cave and Grinderman or Swans would be amazing!
If you could chose anyone who would you like to support you?
Maybe Cold Pumas from Brighton who we have played with before or Dan who works under the name Soft Walls, solo and releases stuff on Faux Discs. It’s a really good community in Brighton. There’s lots of good punk shows going on and you have Dan at Faux disc and lots of people doing different things.
What song gets the best reaction when you play it live?
Probably ‘No Dog’ now. I mean we have muscles in places we didn’t know we had from playing that song! (laughs) We are like hunched over playing that, I have bass hand! (laughs). It used to be something like ‘Marching Song’.
Esben and the Witch release their new album A New Nature on the 8th of September through their own new imprint, Nostromo Records
They launch the album with a show at Hackney’s Oslo in London on the 4th of September.