Same As It Ever Was: Bell Witch Interviewed

Kez Whelan talks to the Pacific Northwestern doom duo about existence as a loop and really taking their time with things, such as a new triptych of albums, the first part of which is released this week

Bell Witch by Bobby Cochran

“What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness, and say to you, ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence’… Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’”
Friedrich Nietzsche – The Gay Science, 1882

In philosophy, the eternal return is the idea that both time and the universe itself play out on an infinite loop, with each recurrent cycle unfolding in exactly the same manner as the last. There are traces of the concept throughout history, from the Stoics of ancient Greece’s belief that the universe was constantly being destroyed and reborn, to the Hindu idea of the eternal wheel of time, and even the ancient symbol of ouroboros found etched into Egyptian tombs. Eventually, the eternal return fell out of favour with Christian academics, who saw it as incompatible with their concept of free will. In the 19th century, however, the eternal return made a comeback as Friedrich Nietzsche thrust the idea back into the public consciousness, with his writings on the subject in The Gay Science (and later, Thus Spoke Zarathustra) continuing to introduce the concept to many to this day – including Bell Witch bassist and vocalist, Dylan Desmond.

“With Bell Witch, the idea has always been to write from this idea of purgatory or a prison, being trapped in something that one cannot escape from,” Desmond begins. “I was reading The Gay Science by Nietzsche, [and] when I read that paragraph I was like, ‘Oh, that’s dead on, that’s exactly what we’ve been trying to do!’ I wasn’t really familiar with the eternal return concept before reading that – and then obviously, that’s a much talked about thing in Western philosophy and Eastern philosophy. Jesse [Shreibman, Bell Witch drummer] has a philosophy degree, so he was like, ‘Oh yeah, eternal return’. We started discussing that and it just totally fit right in with everything we’ve been conceptually trying to do from day one.”

There’s still debate as to whether Nietzsche was referencing the eternal return in a more figurative sense, or if he actually believed it was a real possibility – some scholars point to attempts to logically prove the eternal return in his posthumously published notebooks as an indication that he did, whilst others remain adamant his hesitance to make these notes public in his own lifetime suggests he didn’t – but Dylan remains agnostic on the topic.

“I think that ultimately, I would view it as a thought experiment – but also, I think that it is a really good lens, in my personal life, to look at things and to understand personal growth,” Dylan muses. “I don’t necessarily think that I’m going to be born again the exact same way, I don’t think that I take it literally – but I think that as a thought experiment, it is great to think ‘Right now, am I doing something that I’d be proud of doing again, if I am going to repeat this exact same thing?’ But then there’s also the question in a determinate fashion, am I able to do something different, if it’s always going to be repeating? Am I already on a trajectory or loop that I can’t escape from? Is everything already determined, and I’m just enacting, like a puppet more or less? I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, but I think it’s interesting to look back on.”

This of course is perhaps the most horrifying aspect to the eternal return – even if you were living a happy, fulfilled and productive life that you’d be proud to experience again, would living it over and over again eternally rob it of any meaning or purpose you may have found in it? There’s a recurring theme of ghosts in Bell Witch’s work – even down to the band name itself – and in this light, it’s easy to see how the eternal return fits into this theme: being stuck in an endless loop with no definitive end in sight would surely make ghosts of us all.

“Yeah, I think it’s a concept we have of ghosts maybe all over the world, I guess I’m not really familiar with the concept outside of a Western perspective, but it seems very much like the eternal return,” Dylan agrees. “There’s this spirit, they get stuck in this sort of cycle, and they can’t escape, and it’s almost like it’s a projection of someone’s thoughts or someone’s experiences or someone’s intent – like a doppelganger, almost. A person, maybe they’re dead, maybe they’re not, but if they’re stuck in a loop, and they can’t escape, it’s just eternally doing the same thing over and over and over. Maybe it’s not a pleasant thing to think about, but I think there’s a lot of things that happen through everyone’s daily lives – we wake up, brush our teeth, put our clothes on, go to work, just a daily grind of sorts – and that fits right into that narrative.”

He continues: “I wouldn’t say that [the eternal return] influenced the record in that it gave it a twist or a turn that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, but I think it definitely involved what we were trying to do. There’s this other really well developed thought process or conceptual process around the same thing that we’re talking about, and it got involved in what we were trying to do already.”

The record in question is Bell Witch’s fourth full-length album The Clandestine Gate, the follow-up to 2017’s acclaimed 83 minute epic Mirror Reaper and the beginning of the most ambitious project the duo have embarked on yet. Not only does The Clandestine Gate equal Mirror Reaper in length, outdoing it by just a single second (“when we were cutting off the silence at the beginning and the end of The Clandestine Gate, we looked up Mirror Reaper, [to see] how long exactly it was. We were just right on the nose, and we’re like, ‘Well, let’s leave it one second longer, just so we can say we outdid ourselves,” Dylan laughs), but it’s also the first part of a forthcoming triptych entitled Future’s Shadow, consisting of two more lengthy pieces with the third looping back to the first, creating a musical representation of the eternal return.

“We spent a lot of time on it, and I’m really happy with the way it turned out. We were originally scheduled to record it in March of 2020 – we had a studio reserved, and the week after, everything shut down. Our rehearsal space contacted everyone and said, ‘Hey, we’re locking the doors, get your stuff out tonight’, so that got pushed back, and I’m really glad that it did, because it developed a lot during the lockdown. We ended up getting material for the full three album triptych, which wasn’t the original plan,” Dylan explains. “There’s a pretty good outline for both of [the following albums], and a lot of that is made up from material we were going to record back in March. I’m really glad that we did it that way, our original approach was to improv each one – we were going to tour the first one, release it, and then just sort of build off of it – and now, we have a full outline for all three of these, we know where things are going to be repeated. On album three, there’s a lot of stuff that’s going to have reference to album one and so on, so forth. I’m really glad we did that, because I think it develops the overall piece a lot more than what it would have been otherwise.”

The pair began jamming out the seeds of what would become The Clandestine Gate whilst touring with Neurosis and Mono, (“we were trying to let the parts develop in a live scenario, and I think a lot of them did flesh out more because of that”), before the piece really took on a life of its own over lockdown. With some very prominent organ and synth sections, it could be Bell Witch’s most dynamic and texturally diverse release yet.

“I think with Mirror Reaper it was definitely going in that direction,” agrees Dylan. “Jesse started doing the organ with MIDI foot controllers through organ modules, and as he started doing that, I think he just kept expanding the idea – and then synthesisers got to enter into the setup with the Stygian Bough record, and we were trying to just keep expanding on that idea. There’s a lot of synthesiser on The Clandestine Gate, but I think it’s all the better for it.”

Speaking of the Stygian Bough album, there’s one notable embellishment that’s conspicuously absent this time round; the voice of Erik Moggridge, making this the first Bell Witch release since their 2011 demo not to feature the Aerial Ruin vocalist’s ethereal tones in some capacity.

“When the band was first starting, [original drummer] Adrian Guerra and I were like ‘we need a vocalist, neither of us are really vocalists, we should get Erik Moggridge, he’s a great vocalist!’ He was, at the time, just moving to Portland, Oregon, from San Francisco, and we were in Seattle. None of us knew each other very well, and he was like, ‘I’m trying with you guys, but I don’t want to move to Seattle, I don’t know who you guys are really,’” Dylan smiles. “He was like, ‘What if I just did a guest spot?’ So we did ‘Rows (Of Endless Waves)’ on the first album Longing and it was awesome. We just were like, ‘Let’s do another one on the next record’ and then he just kind of became this third auxiliary member. I remember saying ‘what if we made a collaboration record?’ [This] was originally just going to be a Bell Witch and Aerial Ruin full collaboration. What if we just make that its own band? And we imagine it as this is what the band would have turned into had he been the lead singer, way back in 2009 when we were working on that song with him. If he had moved to Seattle when we started the band, I think the Stygian Bough record is a pretty good representation of what would have happened with that. So our idea now is, let’s just let the Stygian Bough go in that direction and Bell Witch will go off in its own direction.”

Dylan reveals that Stygian Bough: Volume Two is already in the works, but for now, the Future Shadow triptych really does feel like the logical conclusion of the sound Bell Witch have been steadily evolving over the past decade.

“I think when Adrian and I were approving the masters for Longing, we were listening, and were thinking these almost feel like we were rushing the songs, they feel a little faster than we practice them, and I think we were probably just a little nervous recording, as anyone can be.

“We were trying to give attention when we were recording Four Phantoms to let things breathe a little bit more, as they do when we’re playing it live or when we’re rehearsing it. I think we just both developed musically, and as performers in a way that we could do that more, and the tempo started to get a little more loose, and it just developed in that direction. Then when Jesse and I started writing Mirror Reaper, it was like, let’s keep trying to do this, let’s try to expand on this loose, wavering tempo thing. I mean, ironically, he has a background of playing in really fast grindcore, death metal, punk rock bands, so it was a polar opposite from what he was used to doing. But he grabbed it so quick…he was just a natural. I think that’s been the trajectory all along, and I think that we probably would have been doing something like this even if no one ever listened to Mirror Reaper.”

“We put a lot of work into trying to make sure that there were plenty of dynamic shifts throughout it,” he continues. “A challenge in that was that we’re trying to make this one feel like the beginning of a cycle, like a dawn of sorts, or a spring – so we’re trying to make the whole thing just pick up and keep climbing, constantly moving upward and just constantly crescendoing. We’ve put a lot of attention into that, and I’m proud of how it came out – and I think that’s going to set up the next two, to do what they’re going to do all the better.”

Whilst the COVID lockdown afforded the band more time to prepare the next two parts of the trilogy, one wonders if the surreal way it distorted our collective perception of time also played a role in helping the Future Shadow triptych attain its lengthy running time, not to mention its more cathartic atmosphere.

“Especially in the middle, that’s where we were trying to really capture a more angry feel and stray away from things that were more mournful or more pretty,” Dylan agrees. “I think that that was very much from the general indefinite future that was happening with everyone during the pandemic. I can remember just sitting there for days on end poking at parts, demoing stuff on the bass or recording it and listening back, just spending weeks poking at it. That’s interesting…” he pauses for thought. “I hadn’t looked at it in that particular way, but I think that that’s a very fair assessment. Maybe even like right on the money, that’s really interesting.”

If the following pieces of the triptych come in at the same length of The Clandestine Gate, that’ll leave the whole thing running at around four hours – or indeed, infinitely, if you were content to be consumed by the loop. Having successfully made the leap from 20 minute songs to 80 minute songs, this feels like the next logical step, but it’s difficult to see where the band could go from here.

“That’s a really good question, I haven’t thought about that. We might say, ‘let’s write a couple of ten minute songs’,” Dylan laughs, before swiftly adding, “I seriously doubt it, I think that would feel weird. I don’t know. When we were working on Longing, ‘I Wait’ and the outro were like a one movement sort of feel, then when we were doing Four Phantoms, we wanted to expand on that idea with two separate songs that were split into two separate movements. I think two of the tracks on Four Phantoms, track two and track four, fit together very well, whereas I don’t think that we achieved that goal as well with track one and track three, which are both great standalone songs, but I don’t think that they were connected in the way that I wanted them to be ultimately. I think that Mirror Reaper did connect together, and I think this is probably just trying to expand on that. Again, I don’t know what the next thing would be. In that regard, we’ve done twos, this one will be threes, maybe the next one will have to be fours. I don’t really know.”

Maybe something along the lines of John Cage’s epoch spanning As Slow As Possible? There’s still an ongoing performance of the piece on a pipe organ in Halberstadt’s St. Burchardi church that began in 2001, and is scheduled to end in 2640.

“Oh wow, I remember a couple of years ago, there was a news article about how people were gathered around because the note changed, where it’s been playing for years. That’s so wild. Yeah, I don’t think we’ll go that direction,” Dylan laughs, before considering it. “But who knows? You’ve planted the idea… so there’s always a possibility!”

Of all extreme metal’s various offshoots, doom and drone metal would be best suited to this kind of long-form, durational music, as even in smaller doses it can have a drastic effect on how we perceive time – which can present some unique challenges when it comes to both performing and recording it.

“We’ve listened to [The Clandestine Gate] so many times now, in doing mixes and mastering and whatnot. I think that physically, I’ll start to get a little stiff after 50, 60 minutes, but it does keep my attention, which I think is great we did that,” says Dylan of the recording process. “We did it in bits and pieces [but] we did all the pieces live. Any part where there’s distorted bass and drums, we were standing in the same room together – partially because the tempos waver so much and so much of it is just kind of just looking at each other, knowing when the next hit is going to happen. There’s no metre to anything, it’s so wavering that really it’s kind of hard to do without looking at each other.”

Given that the duo have already performed the piece together so much whilst recording it, Dylan doesn’t seem phased about the prospect of playing the entirety of The Clandestine Gate live, as they’ll be doing for the first time in public at Tilburg’s Roadburn Festival this weekend – although the thought of eventually performing the full trilogy is perhaps a bit more daunting.

“That could be a really cool thing,” Dylan smiles, before adding “it would be a long, long set. We could almost get a lunch break in the middle of it.”

The band are now gearing up for their performance. At this stage in their career, does the cycle of writing, recording, rehearsing and touring ever feel like an eternal return in itself?

“No, I don’t think that it does,” he answers brightly. “If we’ve been on tour for months on end, maybe it would start to feel that way – but I think just by the nature of it, it’s usually kind of in big, quick, hot and heavy bursts. If anything, I love the necessary creative spirit that comes along with being in bands and the way that one thing working out almost inspires other ideas, and the little web of ideas that can spring off of that, and in every direction. I love that. I think that’s what makes the world go round in my eyes.”

Clandestine Gate is released digitally on Friday and physically on 9 June. Bell Witch will perform Future’s Shadow Part One in full at Roadburn this weekend

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