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Escape Velocity

Esben & The Witch Interview: From Aeschylus To The South Downs
Luke Turner , August 6th, 2009 06:30

New Brightonian trio Esben & The Witch on history, mythology, and the joy of gothic pop

Free download: Esben & The Witch - 'Marching Song'

It was a warm spring evening when Esben & The Witch first cast their spell over the Quietus office. Working late with a few bottles of nut brown ale and the Stool Pigeon demo reviewing team for company, the Quietus' ears were offended by one joyless, lifeless, imagination-bypass guitar group after another; vile wasters of postage and plastic all.

But suddenly, one group stemmed a rising anger . . . Out of the stereo poured a balm made from sumptuous, dark atmospheres; a haunting sense of the pastoral and historical created from heavy drones, stabbing electronics, squeals of guitars; an intense female vocal singing about Greek myth, a peninsula, lost love explored through the metaphor of a doomed battalion ("your veins are my trenches"), and elsewhere, confessional werewolf pop: "silver bullets / through my heart". It was instantly captivating. This was Esben & The Witch, and listening to them felt like walking into a hidden attic full of ancient maps, portraits, furniture and ephemera . . . romantic and gothic, a shadow of something intangible and otherworldly, a broken and lost love trapped between this life and the next.

With these songs now released on an excellent EP called '33', and gigs with Deerhunter and the Sian Alice Group (including a show tonight in London's Hoxton Bar & Kitchen), the Quietus got in touch to find out more.

So, Esben & The Witch, from what dark places do you come?

Our formation was actually quite a drawn out process. It began with Daniel making music and being intentionally obstinate about anyone actually hearing it. He eventually met Thomas who somehow wove his way into the mix. A lengthy, arduous and at times plain demoralising search for a singer began. Rachel then emerged stating that she had never sung in front of anyone before but that she quite fancied the idea. We then began to bring the whole thing together. That was about a year ago now and so far it appears to be working out remarkably well.

On your MySpace you're referred to as 'nightmare pop', which is as good a way to put it as any, but how else would you describe your music?

We would describe it as visceral, romantic and at times claustrophobic.

How did the name come about? It sounds like a fairy story about a posh girl getting caught up with a crone during a residential gymkhana. Where does the fairy tale on your MySpace come from?

It's a Danish fairytale popularised by Andrew Lang. The vivid imagery and ideas it contains have become intrinsically linked with our ethos.

Were you not worried that the fairytale implications were a little twee?

Not particularly. In our eyes Fairytales are far more melancholic and enigmatic than they first appear. We perceive tales such as this one as vehicles for interesting and sinister thoughts disguised as something palatable for children.

To me, your music sounds like spending the night in a lonely graveyard somewhere on the Sussex Downs. How much does landscape and your surroundings impact on what you do?

Very much so, the Sussex Downs most certainly do. We are definitely inspired by the places we inhabit and those we visit but equally we draw upon landscapes we've never seen. Places on ancient maps, lost cities and the people who lived in them, desolate plains, glaciers, mountain tarns. All these things and many others influence what we do.

Looking at your MySpace, you seem to have a very defined visual aesthetic, is that something you spend time on?

Yes. It's an attempt to make the whole experience more immersive and enveloping, to try and place the music into the landscapes we've just discussed. We want to set a scene which we feel is most appropriate to enhance the sonic experience and certainly all feel that a carefully considered aesthetic is key in doing this.

Do you write at night?

We all write differently and at different times. Do we write at night? Certainly! Sleepless nights perhaps even more so, also in empty carriages and in bedrooms with bottles. We can often be found in a small, dimly-lit room by the sea scribbling ramblings and playing with noises.

I find it interesting that your music seems to shift between gentle and really heavy, folk and electronica, and so on. Was that juxtaposition deliberate?

One aim of the music we make is to challenge and create something new. In order to do this we certainly attempt to embrace a number of influences that span various genres. You previously mentioned landscapes and we are of a mindset that any great piece of music should be like any great landscape: multi faceted, subtle in places, extraordinary and ultimately exhilarating.

Please name three non-musical influences:

Literature, Geography and History.

What's your motivation for the musical entity that is Esben & The Witch?

The motivation comes quite simply from the fact that we enjoy what we are doing. We are attempting to forge on ahead and make music we wish existed, to try and find the places where beauty is inspired by terror, perhaps...

YouTube reveals you have an owl onstage. Did you nick it off British Sea Power?

Certainly not! It just so happens that we share a penchant for wildlife.

Why 'Eumenides'?

'Eumenides' was inspired by Aeschylus' Oresteia which was brought to our attention by the Francis Bacon piece 'Triptych 1976' when the exhibition was on late last year at the Tate Britain. The song was written in three parts; lament, visceral and insanity. We were attempting to recreate the progression from sorrow to madness and capture the idea of justifying acts of violence for the greater good or for retribution which are the key themes of the furies themselves. Lyrically the song is certainly indebted heavily to Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse which we all read around the time and seemed to tie in to a lot of the intentions we had for the song. Further to this explanation, the song abstract from the E.P is intended as an imitation of the Choral Role the Eumenides supply within the play.

We did not realise quite how pretentious that sounded until we wrote it down...

And you've done a glorious cover of Kylie Minogue's 'Confide In Me'. Can we take it you do not fear the pop?

No far from it, we embrace the pop! Kanye West, Kelly Clarkson, Girls Aloud and Mr Timberlake are all artists we enjoy. Like many people (we think) we long for pop stars of old: Kate Bush, Adam Ant, Blondie, Bowie; real characters who were aspirational and inspiring. Although pop music still has some wonderful moments, pop stars do seem to be becoming increasingly sanitised.

Goth is a much-abused word. Discuss:

We feel that Gothic should be revered in its greatest forms. Gothic Architecture is incredibly dramatic and imposing and in literary history some incredible works have been inspired by or used Gothic ideas or imagery. Aesthetically and conceptually as an idea it lends itself to a sense of the dramatic and the ostentatious and although it has, as you correctly stated been much derided, that is more a result of a watered down marketable idea of 'Goth' than the true sense of the word.

Where would Esben & The Witch like to be interred?

Esben and the Witch as Triumvirate or concept... a number of locations spring to mind. Perhaps the catacombs beneath Paris surrounded by the bones of plague victims. There or at the bottom of "Lunkers" pond, they would be equally fitting we think.

Esben & The Witch play The Hoxton Bar & Kitchen in support of the Sian Alice Group tonight (Thursday, August 6th) For further tour dates, music and details of festival appearances, visit the Esben & The Witch MySpace