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INTERVIEW: Esben & The Witch
Ben Hewitt , January 22nd, 2013 17:03

Exploring their new LP in a Quietus news interview by Ben Hewitt, plus! a great new remix

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This week, Esben & The Witch release their top second LP, Was The Sins Not Only The Face, which could pass as a sensible moral for our times. The follow-up to their debut Violet Cries, it sees the Brighton trio expanding on their imaginative and intelligent exploration of gothic aesthetics with a more electronic, focussed sound. As ever, we'd heartily advise you go and see them play live at one of their forthcoming dates, including a stop at Rough Trade East tonight, and the rest of their tour dates, culminating at a gig at the Scala on February 26th, on Songkick here. We've also got a remix of album track 'Despair' by Klad Hest - otherwise known as Matt From All The Ace Bands In Bristol e.g. Beak>, Team Brick, Fairhorns - via an embed below.

When did you start writing the album?

Rachel Davies: We started about a year ago. We went to a cottage – which sounds quite quaint, but there were all these spaces rather than a thatched cottage – so it was like a bungalow in the countryside. We wanted to isolate ourselves from everything and wrote the songs while we were in this space.

And did you have an aim for what you wanted to do?

RD: We felt more confident and focused compared to the first record, when we were naively stumbling around. I think with Violet Cries, we wanted to create a record that was quite claustrophobic, and dense, and challenging; with this record, this is the first time we waited. We'd had all these ideas we were desperate to realise, so we waited until we had the time to jam them out, which is a real luxury. We wanted to create a body of work that was written in one concentrated period of time, with our roles that were more distinct. And we wanted to create something that was warmer, and slightly more uplifting, without sounding twee.

With Violet Cries, there was something wilfully challenging about it: it would have been easy to put ‘Lucia, On The Precipice' or ‘Skeleton Swoon' on there, the songs people knew. And now, it feels more immediate; it grabs the attention more quickly, and there's maybe not as much scrambling around in the dark as there was with Violet Cries.

RD: Yeah, that's something we did want to do a little clearer, and I think that comes with confidence. I think that comes with confidence; we've always gone into this wanting to create something that for us is new, and this was a challenge we didn't want to re-tread old ground. And hopefully we're slightly more accomplished musicians from having played a lot.

What was the thought process behind the title? And what was inspiring you thematically?

RD: It was very focused this time round. We came up with the title a year ago – over a year ago – when we were touring America, and you spend a lot of time in each other's company and talking about shit, and stumbling upon interesting tales. So we were talking about what it would be like to find your doppelganger on the side of the road, and it led to a discussion about duality, and we were reading up about it and we stumbled upon the palindrome of the title. We thought it was great, and it had a certain level of humour – which I think might have been missed. Any level of humour we try, unfortunately, seems to be lost. But we thought it was loaded and quite intriguing, and it got us thinking about branches of duality and doubles, so it's such a broad topic that it gave us a lot of freedom. So that's essentially the concept – without sounding too prog.

I find it impossible to write things that are so candid; I don't know how people do it when it's just laid bare. So I have to try and strip back the metaphors and similes to me that are so obviously transparent, but probably aren't, but I think there are certain moments when I'm being far more open than I have been in the past.

You mentioned the album being more uplifting. But to me, there's still a melancholy edge to it, too…

RD: Yeah. I can totally understand that, and it's impossible for us not to go down that path where there's melancholia. But the music I've always loved has always touched upon that. We've been asked quite a lot about what it is about the dark that pre-occupies us, but I think there's more of a truth to that side of things. It's cathartic to explore that. And we try to balance it out with moments of light, but there's certainly elements of doubt and fear that are intriguing.

There's always been a fierce intelligence with Esben – all of these interesting references, some of which people will know, others which they won't – but I'd say with this album, there's nothing there for the sake of it; it's not shiny baubles included purely to waggle your intellect.

RD: Yeah, I think it's a real risk when you start discussing influences. I'm not lying, I do like those things, but I think maybe I shouldn't say that because people are instantly going to think it's being pretentious. I'm not claiming to be incredibly intelligent at all– I just like these things, and I find beauty and intrigue in them. We just genuinely find them interesting and inspiring, and we'd like to know more about them.

I guess it's a shame, in terms of attitudes: good pop music should be able to allow you to escape, or experience something else, or take on strange concepts and boil them down to a three-minute song. So someone like Kate Bush…

RD: I was just thinking of Kate Bush while you were speaking? I was listening to ‘Breathing', and that amazing line "Breathing her in, breathing her nicotine", and I didn't know this, but Daniel said it was about her unborn child, having this existential crisis about ‘should I bring her into this polluted world'. Which is a crazy kind of concept, but it's in the guise of a pop song, which is just awesome. There's a certain cynicism, I think, which is a shame.