Esben & The Witch’s Guide To Violet Cries PLUS Stream Album Here

Esben & The Witch tell us about the making of their debut album, which you can listen to as you read PLUS win tickets to all their forthcoming UK shows

Some time early in 2009, the Quietus was sat doing a late shift as Kev Kharas and Al Denney of the Stool Pigeon set about reviewing the demos that had been submitted to the paper. Amidst the inevitable stream of hackneyed indie, micro-cocked singer songwriter and wetly farting garage rock bluster was a self-produced EP that stood out a country mile. That was 33 by Brightonians Esben & The Witch who now, two years later, have finally released their debut album on Matador Records. Here, Esben & The Witch give an in depth run through of Violet Cries, it’s heavy musicality, and obsessions with death, war and disease. "We don’t help ourselves with the whole macabre goth tag do we?" says Dan Copeman, a bearded cove who looks like an Arts & Crafts disciple of Crowley. The competition to win tickets can be found at the end of this piece.


It’s a difficult track with which to begin an album. Why did you choose to do that?

To us it was not a choice. As soon as this song was written it was destined to be the opening track on the album as it sets the tone for what is to come. We particularly enjoy the slow building progression of it, a train gathering pace. Beginning with delicate, intricate guitars which are gradually swallowed by a wall of noise. The idea was to get the song to a point where it felt it had peaked then push it to a point where it becomes slightly uncomfortable. The noise, the waiting, the chaos. When the song relents the second half is intended to be deliberately opposed to what has come before. It’s a concept we use quite often, that of accentuating differing aspects of the sonic spectrum by placing them directly against each other. The quiet, almost acoustic latter part of the song is designed to be enjoyed more intensely due to the experience of unrelenting noise that precedes it.

So! Argyria. When did you first come across this disturbing condition?

It was something Rachel stumbled across whilst reading about silver and minerals. We find it to be a fascinating condition with distressing, surreal and almost beautiful symptoms.

The production is really dense. Was this sense of something heavy a deliberate tactic?

Yes it certainly was but once again only to accentuate the dynamic shifts. You shouldn’t be afraid to leave a guitar dry and abrasive if it helps achieves the effect you desire. Similarly we felt we shouldn’t be afraid to manipulate or distort a beautiful vocal if deemed appropriate. When the production is dense on the album, as is the case with the first half of ‘Argyria’ it’s because it is designed to intensify the listening experience and inevitably to accentuate the forthcoming shift. We like pulling people around during songs, it remains to be seen if they like being pulled around.

Marching Song

This sounds way more doomy than the original version. How and why did you tweak it?

It is not consciously more doomy but it certainly carries more weight. We decided to tweak it as we felt it deserved it and that it had an appropriate place on the album. One of the main aspects we drew upon was the way we played the song live, the abrupt ending and the starker middle part in particular.

Did you have any touchstones for the way you wanted the album to sound?

There are definitely albums we all love individually but as a group, touchstones were not really discussed. We approached it more as one might approach a soundtrack. That way you don’t feel tied to certain structures and traditions. We wanted the album to flow to the extent that if a song was heard alone it might feel odd without the context of the album. The main touchstones were really trying to create moods, atmospheres and capturing a vitality and aggression. Albums we would say have done that particularly well are The Drift by Scott Walker, Get Colour by HEALTH and Closer by Joy Division.

We have to ask, what did you make to the whole Jack Black thing?

It’s too surreal to make much of it really, the internet never fails to surprise with its ability to surface the bizarre. The strangest aspect is that only a week prior Thomas was claiming that Jack Black was following him around due to the proliferation of Gulliver’s Travels posters around London while we were there, then this… make what you will of that.

Marine Fields Glow

I really like this one. It reminds me of the cruelly battered Enya. Is she an influence/do you like her or should I shut up now?

Unfortunately we don’t think any of us can claim to be overly familiar with her work other than ‘Orinoco Flow’ which Daniel remembers being the butt of playground jokes. Should we revisit it?

Indeed. ‘Orinoco Flow’ is the one duff track on the otherwise magnificent Watermark LP. What’s the story of this track?

As the first two tracks are relatively heavy we wanted to take some of the weight out of the experience at this point. The key with this was trying to keep the beggining and end of the track as simple, clean and dry as possible. We wanted this to be the most human moment on the album and to be quite directly emotional, it is harder to achieve this with guitars and vocals that are drenched in reverb. The body of the track does use reverb quite liberally but this is to illustrate the hazy transition between the two movements of the song lyrically. We don’t like to discuss meanings behind songs too explicitly as we feel it can diminish the enjoyment for someone who wants to ascribe their own particular feelings to a song.

Light Streams

To what Light Streams are you referring?

The Light Streams are references to the Rays that Tesla invented. By writing a song about him we are certainly not claiming to be afficionados on the subject of Tesla and his work. However we found a story relating to his relationship with a certain pigeon and his surreal inventions and monikering of these (Deathray/Peaceray for example.) We found it interesting so decided to explore it.

Is this a more recent track? What’s the biggest way that Esben & The Witch’s songwriting has evolved since you first sent in that demo?

Well we are slightly more competent and developed musicians (we still don’t fully believe we deserve that distinction) than before. This is indeed the newest track on the album, it was the last to be finished but its conception was almost a year prior, an honour shared with ‘Eumenides’. There are certain songs which are much harder to write than others, more of a struggle, a tussle. It inevitably seems that the reason for this is that we have an idea in our heads of how we want a song to sound prior to any instrumentation being in place. The struggle is then trying to find music to evoke the ideas and emotions you have in mind.

What did you want to develop?

We just want to keep challenging ourselves and do something new. The last thing we want to do is fall into a comfort zone where we continue to knock out the same structures, sounds and lyrics. If that means that one day we want to write an album of three and a half minute pop ditties about unrequited love then so be it but that’s not at the forefront of our minds right now.

Hexagons IV

Why IV?

You are the first person to ask this question surprisingly. Without wanting to give too much away it is called ‘Hexagons IV’ in order to allow scope for something further we may have vaguely plotted around the concept, don’t hold your breath though.

Things moved quickly for you last year, and then this you were part of that BBC tipping thing. Were you ever worried about that? Did it cause any trouble?

Things moving quickly has not been a problem so far as we’ve been lucky enough to be strongly involved and given the freedom to write and develop in our own time. We were quite thankful to receive a deadline for the album in the end to put a stop to endless tinkering and production. The BBC thing was different, it’s odd because it’s something we had no particular desire to be a part of. We fear it may have given people a somewhat distorted pre-conception of us as a band. Having said that, we try and see it as a compliment as it appears to have exposed our music to fresh ears.

The shifting dynamics of this track are superb, almost tidal. You’ve said that your decision not to follow conventional verse chorus verse song is inspired by post rock. But come on, this is a lot more interesting than those beardy bores. What bits did you want to take and what did you want to lose from post rock?

Beardy Bores? Ha. Post Rock was in fact the first genre of music we all bonded over. Things like ‘Beeching Report’ era iLikeTrains, Redjetson, Mogwai and GY!BE are all bands we felt infused their music with an incredible sense of dynamic and emotional weight. What we wanted to do was take the intensity and feeling of momentum that post rock bands had but condense it at times and manipulate the structure somewhat. Listening to F Sharp A Sharp in the van driving across New Mexico at dusk felt pretty powerful.


To us this feels like the centrepiece to the album. Is this fair comment/deliberate?

This was another late addition to the album. It’s not deliberately a centrepiece, the album was written very much as two sides, A and B, and ‘Chorea’ is the beginning of Side B. There is technically not a moment of silence from this point until the album reaches its conclusion and side B is deliberately darker and bassier. This is the transition song in that respect.

It’s another song about disease and illness. Why is this such a focus for Esben & The Witch?

We didn’t really consider this until we had the songs in place, we don’t help ourselves with the whole macabre goth tag do we? It really is a genuine coincidence centred again around a subject matter we all find fascinating. There is something, again as with ‘Argyria’, otherworldly about the disease itself, but the song is more directly influenced by a particular instance of such a plague spreading through Europe in the 14th Century.

The line "and we watched them dance themselves to death” along with that crescendo is great. What does it refer to?

It refers to a particular outbreak of the mania in Strasbourg during the 16th Century, the grim ending is explicit in the lyric. I think this is indicative of our morbid curiosity with the wonder and allure of stories such as these. The drum machine beat to this song is deliberately paced to tie into the idea of feet pounding uncontrollably, we also tried to achieve a slightly industrial rolling machine like sound to the drum machine to create a nauseating sense of motion.


Our John reckons this is reminiscent of Siouxie & The Banshees. Are they an influence at all?

Unfortunately not. Due to being compared to them we have listened more to their music and the comparison is certainly a complimentary one but not an influence. This song was written with a desire in mind to build a track around a simple deep rolling bass line, trying not to over complicate things.

Despite all the talk of density, this song does have a great hook. Do you just have to dig that bit deeper for the easy worm when it comes to Esben & The Witch?

A lovely turn of phrase, Sir. We love a good hook as much as the next person, just when and where appropriate. This song felt like it would benefit from a verse chorus verse chorus structure and a strong vocal and guitar melody so thats what we wrote. We never mean to be deliberatly obtuse or obnoxious when writing songs we just do what comes naturally, it just seems rarer that we feel the songs will benefit from a more ‘traditional’ structure.


Rachel, there are a lot of moments where your voice is used as an instrument, where you seem to really let go and go off somewhere strange. That’s especially true in this track. How do you get to that space?

It was a real luxury to go into a studio to record Rachel’s vocals. It was the first time any of us had spent any amount of time in such an environment and what at first appeared daunting and almost unnessasary eventually became liberating. It was an amazing opportunity to experiment with voices and vocal effects without any inhibitions which was something we couldn’t quite obtain in our last ‘recording studio’ that was Daniel’s bathroom.

War and battle are, like illness and mental disease, common themes in Esben & The Witch’s music. Why is that?

These are things that we as human beings are surrounded by. We are aware that these can be provocative but are inspired, amongst other things of course, by the resilience and strength of human emotion. It may be this that draws us to these subject matters…

What do you say to those who might accuse you of being dour? (don’t worry, we get that all the time too)

When you look through the subject matter of our songs and the production and atmosphere of our recordings it’s hard to argue with that perception. For us though it’s all about finding the beauty in the horror and the allure of the dour. We try and investigate that and enjoy it rather than becoming fixated on the mainstream connotations of these things.


We’re glad you’ve included this, was it ever in doubt?

As with ‘Marching Song’ we felt we had unfinished business with this song and as such its inclusion was never in doubt. In particular we were keen to exploit the higher standard of recording equipment we had at our disposal to do the song justice. Listening to the 33 version of this song now we are glad that we did.

How and why did you want to tinker with it?

It was just not especially well recorded, the backing vocals on the 33 version were done in Daniel’s bedroom and you can hear in one of the loops a cup falling to the ground and thudding over and over. The vocals generally were sold short in the original recording and the noise section and outro did not have the power we wanted.

What has been your finest memory of the past year or so?

There have been many. Possibly opening for Foals at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. The opulence and scale of the Theatre was thrilling. We opened with ‘Argyria’, the curtains drawn, slowly opening to reveal the red velvet lined auditorium as we began to play. The curtain unfortunately took Thomas’ pedals with it, which was less of a delight.

The drums at the end sound superb, like you’ve got a steam train in for a rhythm section. Drummers are overrated right? Have you proven this?

We really enjoyed using more live drums on this record than we had before. We are also incorporating more live percussion into the stage show. Rather than drummers being overrated it’s a case of using things to their best disposal. There are certain sounds a live drummer cannot achieve and the same goes for a drum machine. The greatest moments are when these two differing style are combined, ‘Idioteque’ by Radiohead live is a tremendous example of this.


Another bold and odd track, sounds like a maddened person who hasn’t slept for three days finding solace in an endless walk. Were you conscious not to end the record with the banger? Interestingly like Sea Power tend to do.

Definitely, the album is designed to build up to the outro of ‘Eumenides’. ‘Swans’ is the summary or the conclusion. It’s supposed to be stripped down but still heavy. The vocals are the only real melody to hold on to. Its the only song on the album that fades out and that’s because it’s not supposed to finish as such. To quote one of our favourite lyricists "The procession moves on, the shouting is over."

To win a pair of tickets to any of the dates below (or all of them if you’re some kind of stalking mentalist) listen well to Violet Cries and answer the following question: ‘Which song features the lyrics "Violet Cries"?’ and email with E&TW in the subject, making sure you give contact details and the date you’d like to go to.

January 31st – The Louisiana, Bristol

February 1st – Pavilion Theatre, Brighton

February 3rd – Other Rooms, Newcastle

February 4th – Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh

February 5th – Rescue Rooms, Nottingham

February 7th – The Harley, Sheffield

February 8th – Hare & Hounds, Birmingham

February 9th – XOYO, London

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today