Friday, 25 February 2011
Esben & the Witch Interview "It Comes Down To Conviction."
Having recently reviewed their outstanding album, I was particularly excited to interview fellow Brightonians Esben And The Witch. I met band members Rachel Davies, Daniel Copeman and Thomas Fisher over a glass of wine to find out a bit more about them.
Tegan MB: I've been aware of you guys for just over a year now. Is it fair to say you're a new band? There was a lot of press last year but how long have you actually been around for?
Rachel: We've been together for about two and a half years, three years now.
Daniel: Rachel's been saying two and a half years for about half a year now.
Tegan MB: Has the band always had the same line-up?
Thomas: I met Daniel about three years ago when we first started out; we just spent afternoons writing songs, working on drum loops with a drum machine and then Rachel joined us about two months after that. We always knew we wanted to add a vocal element to what we were doing and we went from there really. Daniel organised a gig for us fairly soon after that at the Freebutt.
Tegan MB: How do you feel about the Freebutt closing down?
Rachel: We're really sad about it; it gave a lot of people a really good opportunity, especially for bands like us.
Thomas: We played a lot of support shows there while figuring out what songs were good, what ideas were good, and how we wanted to go forward. We couldn't have done that without the support of a venue like that. It's a real shame.
Daniel: It's sad that for bands like us, just starting up, there won't be that kind of support.
Tegan MB: Even though the atmosphere of your music is quite otherworldly in many ways, do you think that there's anything about Brighton that's influenced or rooted your aesthetic?
Thomas: Geographically maybe, especially at this time of year: the sea, the cliffs, the downs. It's quite a spectacular place at times. All of us enjoy experiencing that, so I think that kind of infuses with the music.
Rachel: We all met in Brighton. It's quite a creative place and I think inevitably it's going to affect things.
Daniel: I think it's more about the people you meet in Brighton, the pace of life and to actually live in it, more than the town itself. I mean, it's impossible not to be aware of your surroundings, and it'd be foolish to claim that it had no bearing on the music.
Tegan MB: I've never actually seen you guys live and, obviously your music is quite theatrical, so I was wondering if that was matched by your live performances? Also, if it is, do you ever worry that people might think you're taking yourself a bit too seriously? Is it, maybe, a bit tongue-in-cheek?
Daniel: Yeah, it is quite theatrical-
Thomas: It's not tongue-in-cheek though... (laughs)
Daniel: No, it's not. We do wonder whether people think we're taking ourselves too seriously.
We're not going to do it any other way. You can't hide because someone, somewhere, doesn't like what you're doing. I think it comes down to conviction. It's the same with anything; if you genuinely believe in what you're doing, and if you personally think that it's good and it's appropriate, then you don't really have to justify what you're doing to anyone else. The only time you have to justify what you're doing is when you don't believe in it, that's when you start to question it, I guess. We try to put on a show.
Rachael: We try to make it a bit more personal. The live shows we appreciate are the ones that are a bit more all-enveloping, you know, with the lighting, and with the whole atmosphere.
Tegan MB: Have there been any changes to the way you do things since you signed with Matador?
Rachel: Nothing drastic, more of a gradual progression really.
Thomas: We've gradually become better musicians, hopefully (laughs).
Daniel: We've been really lucky in that, even though we've been signed to a label like Matador, we're still able to continue with what we've always done. With every other release, we recorded the album at home. It gives us the opportunity to go to the studio to record the vocals; whereas we always recorded the vocals in my bathroom, which is not ideal. If you're trying to push an album across continents, you should probably have the vocals recorded somewhere other than a bathroom.
Tegan MB: I think part of the reason why you guys deserve the attention you've been getting is because you've been loyal to this original aesthetic. So I guess there's not much chance of you guys taking a massive new direction?
Rachel: I wouldn't rule out doing something that was a little more left-field. But I think if we did, it wouldn't be a conscious, “Right, let's change things suddenly”. I mean, if it happens, it happens.
Thomas: It will happen naturally because the moment you go about planning in advance, it becomes a really horrible, unnatural process. There's obviously a bit of short-term planning that goes into how we want things, but we don't want to think too far into the future.
Rachel: It's a much more organic process.
Daniel: Invariably with anyone, in any situation, you'll have a lot of ideas; it's usually the ones that are timed right that end up coming to fruition, rather than when you hold on to an idea for a long time hoping you'll eventually get a chance to do it.
Tegan MB: I think, in a way, your album seems quite controlled...
Daniel: I suppose they're different things, though. You control your output, always. You don't just want to let everything go; it's much better to have the quantity lower and the quality higher. I think the difference is thinking about what you're going to do and thinking about how you're going to present it; knowing which bits you think work best.
Thomas: They're two different things. The aesthetic's one thing, whereas the composition of the album is something totally different. And that is something we spend a lot of time over, because we know we want the album to work; we want the artwork to fit with the songs; we want everything to follow properly. But the aesthetic is something we don't pay much attention to. There was no great plan with that – it's just left to surround the album.
Tegan MB: I wanted to ask you about being short listed for the BBC Sound of 2011 poll. How helpful do you think those kinds of things are for a band, and also, as a kind of taste-maker for the public?
Rachel: Well, it's incredibly flattering to be on the list. We were totally surprised by that, we really, genuinely weren't expecting it. I think they're helpful for bringing attention to artists that might not necessarily get as much otherwise.
Daniel: It's been very useful for us in that an absolute shed-load of people who had no idea who we were until that happened-
Rachel: (Laughs) -who were probably thinking, “Why the hell were they on that list?”
Daniel: I worry that, in our situation anyway-
Rachel: It creates an expectation.
Daniel: It kind of makes people think, because of the company that we're in, that we're gonna be more... straight up. It feels odd sitting alongside Jessie J. That's not to say those people aren't great; it's just that I'm not sure it's a sphere that we ever thought we'd be in.
Thomas: It's better that people judge us for the records and the songs we've released, rather than just solely for our inclusion on that list.
Daniel: It's in human nature, basically, to want to make a list for everything. We like to itemise things and that's not going to stop, regardless of your views on it. I've picked up a lot of great stuff from end-of-year lists though; some of them are good (laughs).
Tegan MB: So what's next this year then?
Rachel: Well, the album comes out on the 31st of Jan, so we're going to be touring for that
Daniel: We're going to see how far afield we can play. We've got a gig coming up in Brighton too. We haven't played in Brighton for over a year, so it's going to be scary. It's different when you're playing in front of people who have no idea who you are. You can be a bit more confrontational, and really put everything into it. But it's different when there's a suspicion that you might be playing to a bunch of people you know.
Tegan MB: Do your families ever come to your gigs?
Rachel: They've been to a couple of shows in the past; not in Brighton, but they've been to a few.
Daniel: My father came to one and got very drunk off our rider, and was being very vocal during our set. But in a lovely way!
Words: Tegan Rogers