Talking with Esben and the Witch

I remember seeing you opening a Wild Beasts gig at Koko 3 years ago, and I was really impressed! Since then, your career has been boosted! Are you pleased with how it all turned out till now? How have you developed, both as a band and conceptually, since you began to record?
A lot has changed since those days. I'm pleased about the way things have gone, we have had the opportunity to travel a fair bit to perform live and this in turn has inspired us to write more. We have basically existed in this cycle for the last few years. There have been some obvious developments in this time, I don't play any keyboards or anything now, just guitar whilst Daniel is starting to play sat down with a full drum kit. He has built himself a cockpit of kaoss pads. Conceptually we are always developing, it may not be as clear for people to see but I think we are drawing inspiration from a far wider palette now, Rachel in particular as she is now at the helm of the lyrics, Daniel and I have become more of an advisory panel in that respect.
How did you originally come together and formed the band?
I met Daniel about five years ago in Brighton. We used to work together and discuss the state of Post-Rock music in England at that time. We got working on some stuff together, the drum machine was a real focus point at that time, Daniel programming it and then writing around it. I had a very rudimentary understanding of guitar which I deployed as best I could. We got Rachel in because we wanted a vocal, lyrical element. And that was that, really.
What kind of music were you raised on and what was your musical background?
I was raised on Tangerine Dream apparently. My Father told me that he used to play it to make me sleep. I was into music when I was younger but not really playing it. I failed Grade One piano which is the lowest standard of exam you can take. I remember being sat there and the examiner asking me to repeat scales that I hadn't prepared and just getting frustrated and walking out. I've never been one for official music tuition.
Your songs, in general, are incredibly emotive and dark with a gothic aesthetic and a massive inner power. You are also a band that seems to be influenced by poetry, supernatural, values of life and fairytales, like your band’s name or your most recent LP title. What was the thought process behind those titles and what is the source of your inspiration both musically and personally?
The thought process behind our titles varies greatly and they are inspired by all manor of things. The name of the band came from a story Daniel and I found. We didn't think about it too much at the time, I never imagined I'd ever be in a position where I'd have to explain it to anyone but there you go. I stand by it though, its mysterious and atmospheric and those are two qualities that I'd like to exist in our music. Inspiration comes from all over the place, books and films, just walking around and seeing things. As I alluded to before we have been touring a load over the last three years and many of the experiences we have had or the things we have seen have influenced us directly and indirectly. The song title "Smashed To Pieces In The Still Of The Night" for example, we saw those words written on a huge concrete slab of a building in Vienna and found the words so evocative that they inspired us to write the song. We looked into it afterwards and the building was called Haus Des Meeres and was an old World War II flak tower and the words came from an American artist called Lawrence Weiner.
How much do your listening habits influence the sound of new records? What have you been listening to lately?
I think they probably have some bearing on it but its difficult to know how much. I think all sorts of things have influenced my guitar playing because of my ramshackle approach to learning the instrument. Sometimes I hear something and think, how do you do that? Not so much because I want to instantly start using that technique or whatever but just so I can continue to learn and develop as a guitarist. Recently I have been listening to a lot of Godspeed, Tim Hecker and Swans amongst other treats. At the moment I'm listening to Alice Coltrane which Rachel has recommended to me, its great, sounds like it could soundtrack the old Jason and the Argonauts film, I think its the harp making me think that.

What’s the starting point for writing a song? Is there a difference between the writing process of your previous albums and your new material?
The songs begin as one idea, riff, lyric or drumbeat that one of us has and then grow out from there. For the songs we have been writing most recently we have started out with a guitar part each time, thats because I spent a few months by myself just working on stuff earlier this year. I think it'll have an interesting and hopefully positive effect if all the songs begin life in roughly the same way then there should be more continuity across them as a whole. We are now writing in a "live" way too. Before, even demo versions would take some degree of organising and arranging by Daniel but this time we are just setting up some room mics and then playing the songs through. I'm finding it a far more exciting, raucous experience.
From your debut “Violet Cries” to your recent LP “Wash The Sins Not Only The Face” you seem to expanding your imaginative and fierce exploration of sound. Do you have an aim for what you want to do from the beginning and what comes next for Esben and the Witch?
Certain aims that we had at the very beginning are still important to us now. We always want the music to be challenging, intense and atmospheric. We always want to progress and diversify rather then settle for what we have done before. Regarding the two albums, the aims have been very different. We wanted Violet Cries to be a dense and inhospitable experience at times whereas we wanted Wash The Sins… to be more accessible and lighter in mood. What comes next… As I mentioned before we are working on new songs at the moment. Going live and going big. Also we have recently written and performed a live soundtrack to an Argentinian film called La Antena for a film festival in London which we will be repeating later in the year so we are making sure that all the pieces we wrote for that stay somewhere in the forefront of our minds.
Were you ever tempted to leave the gothic melancholy behind and write in a more uplifting mood?
Ha! Well I thought that the last album was written in a more uplifting mood! I think its all relative, to us a lot of the imagery and music doesn't feel gothic or melancholy, maybe that says something about the three of us as people?

How did the remix album of “Wash The Sins Not Only The Face” came about?
It came about quite naturally, we had a few remixes done and so we thought I'd be cool to collect them together in one place.
Was it your choice to do a remix album and did you choose the remixers? Do you have a particular personal favorite remix on the release?
Yeah, it was our choice and we picked most of the remixers. The Dave Sitek remix came about through our label, apparently he heard Deathwaltz and wanted to do a mix of it. My favourite is the Teeth Of The Sea version of Smashed To Pieces… Those guys are a fine band and good friends of ours. At our show at The Scala in london earlier this year they joined us on stage to play an extended version of that song. It was amazing, we met them earlier that day at their practice space, Seven of us in this tiny room and just jammed it out then played it later that evening. It went down well so then we just drank a load of whiskey to celebrate the joyous collaboration!
You are a member of Matador. On the subject of the DIY route, a lot more bands nowadays are being forced to go it alone. Do you think that the lack of investment and risk taken by record companies is going to have a negative effect on the development of new bands? Do you think it will have an effect on the quality of recorded music, with bands struggling to afford descent studios, engineers, producers?
I don't think that it is just a lack of record label investment that is causing more bands to do it alone these days, I think its also because its easier than it ever has been to do it this way. Working with Matador is great because they are good guys and they allow us the freedom to work in our own way which I would say is totally necessary, compromising on that is not good. Even though we are on Matador we are all still involved at every level with our music, from the production of the songs themselves to the artwork and the mailouts. We will never relinquish control of any of these things because even when you're working with good people nobody knows exactly how its supposed to be except you.

What have been the highlights of 2013 for Esben and the Witch and what would you say has been the defining moment in your career so far? Any disappointing moments you would like to share?
The highlight of this year for me was probably the show we played at Gebaude 9 in Cologne earlier this year. I love that venue, its an old warehouse, just baron concrete walls, a high stage with a black curtain and big strobe. It was February and fucking freezing. Before soundcheck I remember there was just one industrial heater that seemed to be working through the whole building, you had to stand on a table to get blasted by it. The show was amazing though, unbelievable crowd. As for the worst experience we've had, I'm not sure its disappointing necessarily but I recall once being sat in Toronto on our first North American tour thinking that we were all going to have to go home because our driver didn't have a visa. That was a real low point.
How do you work to translate what’s on the record live? What’s different and what’s stays the same?
That really depends on the song. Some of them translate very swiftly and easily into their live incarnations. Then some others can be a bit of a struggle and then some just won't work at all. Light Streams from the first record, just can't be played live! Much to Rachels annoyance because she really likes the vocal melody. What we sometimes have to sacrifice when working on the live versions is some of the finesse or layered parts. So on record we'll build up noise using layers of different synths or instruments which we can't do live so I'll just push the guitar to make that same racket. It means the songs can take on a more visceral, primal quality which I think is a good thing in the live environment and allows people to connect with them better. I'd rather that than using a backing track or something, I think that can be really boring.
Give us some hints for the Greek gig. What kind of things can an attending fan expect?
An evening of loud sonic adventure. Guitar driven noise and electronic experimentation. And we might play some of those new songs for the first time. What more could anybody want?

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