Esben and the Witch have been going for nearly ten years now and continue to release one great record after the other. Not for the faint of heart or someone with easily triggered ears; their pulsating, complex and deeply emotional music routinely dazzles. James Turrell caught up with the Rachel and Thomas before their recent show in Utrecht, discussing Berlin, books and being the loudest band James has ever seen live.
How’s the tour going so far?
Rachel: All good so far actually.
Is this a new tour or a continuation of the dates you did before Christmas?
R: It’s a continuation I would say.
Thomas: It’s a different set-up, but we’re drawing from the same pool of songs basically.
And do the German shows feel like the home dates now, like a home tour?
R: It does to me, actually. It’s a strange one, but even before we moved there it was quite familiar and we always had quite good shows here – in Germany sorry! (laughs) Where am I today?
It’s kind of interesting, because I think that when a lot of bands get to the third or fourth record they tend to move apart, due to relationships or whatever. The three of you moved to Berlin in 2015 right?
How did you come to that decision?
R: We’d been thinking about it for a while. We originally thought about moving to Leipzig, and we carried on playing around with the idea.
T: We wanted our own space basically. In Brighton we were finding it increasingly difficult to find reasonable rehearsal rooms at a rate we felt was – I mean, there were nice places but it was very expensive. And there’s so little room in the city that it felt like there was no opportunity to get a space of our own. We couldn’t find a way to do it, at least.
Are you three originally from Brighton?
R: No, none of us are originally. We are all from the south.
T: Yeah, I’m from Kent and these guys are from –
Did you go to University there?
R: I did actually, and then after I graduated I met Thomas and Daniel, who had just moved or had been living in the city for a few years. I had been living in Brighton for 10 years and as much as I love it, I was a little bit bored and wanted to explore somewhere new.
So the cost of living in Berlin is cheaper than it is in Brighton?
Really? Everything, not just the music stuff?
T: It’s strange, the only thing I find more expensive is certain medium sized gigs actually. That’s pretty much the only thing I find is more expensive, the gigs that would I would pay a tenner to see are more like 20 to 25 euros sometimes. But apart from that, everything is cheaper. I mean we pay for one month a room that we have to ourselves or –
R: That’s 24/7 –
T: It’s very small I should say.
R: Yeah very small.
T: But it costs the same to have it for a whole month as it costs us to do a day’s rehearsal in Brighton.
R: And we can leave all our gear there.
T: It’s nice to have a little base.
This is a slightly personal question, which seems appropriate as I’ve known you for all of five minutes, but is this your full-time job or do you have something on the side?
R: No, we all work elsewhere as well.
So has living in Berlin and having that 24-hour space changed the dynamics of how you write the songs or come to record?
T: It has definitely changed the way we approach writing the songs. There is no time pressure and it’s not restricted to a certain number of hours.
R: Or financial concerns.
T: It makes for a more relaxing process and maybe means that we have more opportunity to explore ideas. Though saying that, I don’t think we were ever shy of doing that before.
R: It certainly helps not having to lug our gear every time and set up, which I remember doing every time. It’d take like an hour to set up before we could even rehearse. Whereas now it’s a space where we have all our gear set up.
T: I think practically speaking it has had a bearing, but in terms of affecting how things sound I’m not so sure.
Did you do the actual recording in Berlin? Do you have your own recording space or is it just a rehearsal space?
T: Just a rehearsal space, as we use a studio in the city. I think the fourth and fifth records are the first times we’ve exactly repeated the way we recorded from the previous album.
T: We had done everything else differently.
R: It was, yeah.
T: Same producer, same studio. I think that’s actually an experience –
R: We won’t do again.
T: Not that the first session –
T: (laughs) We haven’t told him yet.
R: He’s a friend of ours too! No, I think you’re right, every time it’s been so different.
T: It sets expectations of how it will be, and it was actually much less about the producer and more about the studio itself. It changed a lot in the time we had been there and not necessarily for the worst, but for a lot of bands it would have become a better studio. For us it was quite a strange experience, though.
R: Yeah definitely.
T: And try recording somewhere else next time.
How do you find living in the EU? I find that whenever I meet someone for the first time and they realise that I’m English, there’s a look of resigned embarrassment they give you.
T: Yeah I think I feel that as well.
R: Yeah, where do you live?
I live in Amsterdam.
R: Okay, nice.
I actually moved here after the vote –
R: Oh really?
But not because of that. Just because my girlfriend is from the Netherlands.
R: Yeah I love living in Europe. I’ve always felt very European, more than I would British. I really enjoy living here and with everything going on at the moment I definitely feel that kind of resigned, “Oh god” feeling from friends.
T: It’s especially aggravating touring around Europe because it’s a constant reminder that this is something that is going to become increasingly difficult in the future and that’s a real shame.
Is it going to have an effect on touring?
R: Yet to see I guess, but we’ve obviously spoken about it and that was a real concern. But as Thomas said, it’s been wonderful to have that freedom of moving without visas or anything like that.
T: I think customs would potentially be the worst thing.
R: Yeah loads of boring bureaucratic red-tape that will make things a lot more difficult, especially for a small touring band like us.
Yeah definitely. And have the German government said what is going to happen to British citizens in Germany?
R: It’ll be okay.
It’ll just carry on as before, after the 29th of March.
T: In Berlin they’ve been pretty…
R: They’re obviously so many expats there as well.
Yeah there’s loads of English people who live in Amsterdam too.
T: It’s hard to say at the moment because they obviously don’t know exactly what –
R: No one knows.
T: What the deal will end up being. It feels like they’ve gone – they’ve said beyond what they needed to say at this point, to offer some assurance. So I feel kind of reasonably reassured about that.
Yeah, well that’s good.
T: I mean we’ve been living there for a while now and we’re working there.
R: And paying taxes.
What where the themes that informed Nowhere?
R: Lots of what we were thinking about and reading and researching in terms of writing for it were a lot of old ideas of utopian visions. I think it’s kind of impossible for these not to enter your mind in the current climate. It’s an enduring kind of fantasy in a way, where artists in the past, whether it was Bosch or Brave New World and so many other artists and writers in the past, have had this fascination with this idea of this kind utopian or idyllic world. That was something really interesting to me, and then kind of exploring that to see what the reality of it was. Fantasy has always been something I have been really drawn to, and then with all of our stuff there’s always been this idea of escapism, landscape, literature and art. That was a very rich source to draw from.
Do you structure your reading, film and TV watching around that in the lead up to writing?
R: Yeah definitely we all do actually. I really like that part of it a lot. It sounds really boring, but I approach writing like it’s a dissertation, you know? Like it’s something you’re really interested in, and you want to learn about it to see how other artists have explored certain things, and then how you can put your own emotional, personal stamp on it. It’s not like it’s a clinical study, but more just exploring.
What was the last great book you read?
R: I’m reading a collection of essays by Zadie Smith at the moment.
Is that the one that’s just come out?
R: Yeah, it’s called Feel Free and I’m really enjoying that. I think she’s fantastic.
T: The last great one was probably The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, it’s a kind of weird vision of a man encountering dream-like problems. It was very interesting.
You write the lyrics on your own, don’t you, Rachel?
R: Yeah that’s right.
They’re very good.
R: Thank you.
One of the interesting things about them is that, if you listen on the record, they sound quite free-form, and the vocal melodies are normally quite stretched over long guitar lines. But when you see them written down, they’re quite dense and they seem quite metrical.
R: Yeah definitely.
I think there’s Romanticism in there, and Gothic too. I get the feeling from reading or listening to them that you are really into poetry.
R: Yeah that’s fair, I definitely am. Especially when I was younger, although I read less of it now than I used to. It’s something I really enjoy, and more so actually now than other lyricists. I really enjoy poetry and always have done, as well as literature in general. I love the challenge of writing lyrics, and then having the music and trying to work out a way –
T: How the two complement each other.
R: Exactly, in terms of delivery or intonation, or if there is a certain word that I want to say which would look great on paper but sounds wrong when you’re singing it. It’s a bit like a puzzle, and I really enjoy that part of it. You can’t just write something and then sing it. You really have to think about how they relate to one another and the rhythm, and I really enjoy that.
Do you have a general rule about what comes first: lyrics or music?
R: Most of the time it’s the music I would say.
T: It tends to be music and then we decide on what the overarching –
R: Theme or vibe is –
T: Together, and what a certain song is about. Once we have decided on that and what we want to explore, it’s really up to Rachel. We used to do things a bit more collaboratively, and Dan and I used to write. It was exactly this, and we weren’t considering how it would be sung. An example of that would be Light Streams, a song from the first album which I wrote the lyrics to. I like it, but it sounds very strange and there are some lines which are just impossible and more like spoken-word.
R: Yeah, the lines are great but really hard to fit in.
T: I also think that although the three of us have similar tastes in things like this, it’s better to just have a clear, coherent voice that it’s coming from. If Daniel and I are chipping in too much and doing it by committee, it makes it harder for the end product to connect with and for those words to resonate with someone. When it’s been picked over like that and if it’s coming from one mind –
T: (laughs) Yeah, the monster.
Do you tend to write multiple drafts or complete drafts of lyrics?
R: Yeah, quite a few drafts. I’ll write the melody first, and then when I have the first rough draft, I’ll edit it again in terms of how it’s going to be to sung.
On this record there’s a song called Dull Gret. I asked my Dutch girlfriend if she’d heard of it and she hadn’t, but it’s by Bruegel. That’s my awful English attempt at her saying it properly.
R: It’s a lot better than my Bruegel, which is horribly –
Yeah I said it’s by Bruegel, but she went, “No Brrr-uegel”. How did that song come about and why did you try and focus on that? I don’t think the song is about that painting but how did that inspire it?
R: Funnily enough, today we drove past on our way from Brussels last night and we were passing Antwerp, so we went to see it today.
Was that the first time you’d seen the painting live?
R: Yeah, and it was really nice to do a little pilgrimage to it. I came across the painting by accident really, one of my nerdy things; I like looking at old paintings.
It’s a painting of female Flemish warrior right?
R: Yeah. It’s similar to the Bosch style of a woman pillaging hell.
T: The mouth of hell and the demons coming out of it are very Bosch and kind off egg-like figures.
R: Yeah, they’re kind of surreal nightmarish figures and I read that ‘Gret’ is a term to refer to a woman in a derogatory way. An angry, sort of cantankerous woman.
T: A shrew.
R: A shrew, yeah.
R: And that’s kind of what ‘Gret’ means, this idea of it being negative. I was reading this article about the painting and they weren’t sure if Bruegel was a feminist painting back then, or quite the opposite. Or if it was mocking her, and I really liked that. Well, not the mocking part, but the idea of celebrating the figure in this painting; this angry, hysterical woman and celebrating that rather than showing disdain.
Do you find that that kind of art, whether it be paintings or installations or whatever, are as much an inspiration to lyrics as books are?
R: Definitely. With every album we’ve written there has been quite a direct link to a painting or something visual like that.
T: I think every album me and Dan we end up associating the songs quite heavily with an original source, and then that becomes a way for Rachel to weave in her messages, experience or expression. That tends to mean that we all end up with a different interpretation of what our songs are about.
R: I really like that, and it is exactly that. We all take something different from it, and it becomes slightly warped in a way that I hope adds some depth to it.
Do you stay in the room until ideas are worked through, or does someone come in with a guitar riff, piano line or?
R: A bit of both, but more the latter I would say. Thomas will often come with lots of guitar sketches and lines and things like that. We’ll work from that, and I think it’s probably the best way for us, if someone brings something to the table first.
T: I find it important not to develop any of those ideas beyond a certain point by myself. I find that it can become frustrating when someone has an idea clearly in their head and then you try and add something to it.
It becomes theirs rather than –
T: No, but rather than they would have a certain other idea of, “well I thought you might do this” and I can find that quite difficult. I tend to write lots of little parts and then maybe even slightly improvise within certain stages and then work on them all together and play them in the room and see –
R: See which one we take too.
T: Yeah exactly.
I found that after 2014 or 2015 you started getting reviewed in less, not exactly mainstream, websites or magazines. Not that The Quietus is mainstream, but now you seem to only get covered by specialist websites.
R: Yeah, definitely. Quite niche ones.
Why do you think that is?
T: I think a lot of what happened was because we blundered onto this BBC Sounds list ages ago.
R: Right at the very start yeah. I didn’t even know what it was.
The thing that comes out every January?
R: Jessie J won, which shows what kind of level it’s at.
T: I think for a few years after that, there was a certain obligation for more mainstream publications to cover us. And I also think that’s a kind of natural trajectory anyway, even without that. Everyone always gets so excited about new things.
R: And that fact we don’t live in the UK, and haven’t for four years.
T: And the records aren’t coming out on Matador anymore. They now come out on Seasons of Mist, which is a different kind of label.
So you crowdfunded the…?
T: The third one.
And the last two have just been the standard advance and then pay it back. Which model do you prefer?
T: Probably the advance and then pay it back but it’s always a very small advance. We don’t need that much so we kind of just fund the records with money we’ve earned.
R: Yeah, mostly from money we have earned touring.
The last time I saw you was in Bristol, at The Exchange in 2016 I think.
R: Oh yeah, that’s a great venue.
It was without question the loudest gig I’ve ever witnessed.
R: I remember my Auntie and Uncle were insisting they come, and I remember looking out and seeing my Uncle’s hands over my Auntie’s ears. It’s like two worlds colliding.
Much louder than My Bloody Valentine.
Definitely. When I saw them they gave out earbuds, but when you see them in a big venue it’s sort of not loud anyway, I think it’s just what they do. But that’s the only gig I’ve been at where I’ve thought “Oh god this is actually quite painful”.
R: (laughs) Oh really?
Yeah, I mean it was really good, but it was pretty brutal. Are you still as loud now?
R: A lot of it is dependent on the venue, I think. We are definitely a loud band.
T: The amps are turned up to a certain volume on stage for what feel we need to perform at and mainly for Rachel to be able to sing it right. Especially in the new songs there needs to be a wall for her to push against, and so it’s rather that than being ear splitting loud.
R: Which we don’t especially want to be.
T: It’s just to kind of –
R: To feel it.
Esben and the Witch are currently touring, and their latest album Nowhere is available now.