Esben and the Witch
Abbas Ali 21/06/2010
There's something going bump in the night in the seaside town of Brighton. And it's not the city's thriving nightlife, but Esben And The Witch. The three piece, purveyors of moody electronica, have been likened to Portishead, the darker end of dubstep, the Cocteau Twins, and even mid-period Radiohead. Named after a Dutch fairytale, the sense of foreboding in their nightmarish dubstep has been been liked to horror film music, though this specific contention is one that they are keen to point out is just a coincidence.
“I don't think we realise quite how...the scary thing, it was always quite natural”, says Daniel Copeman, keyboardist with the band. “I don't know if that makes us particularly moribund people”, he adds, jokingly. Their unique sound is unlike anything in Britain's music scene at the moment, with its' mixture of goth elements, trip-hop and post-rock.
“I don't think we ever intended to make scary music”, singer Rachel Davies continues, on their unusual sound “It's more intended to be strange, or new.” Founder Thomas Fisher agrees. “The aim is to make something a bit refreshing. If people aren't making the music you want to hear, you may as well try and make it yourself.”
While the source of the band's musical mojo may not be horror movies, there's certainly a strong influence of literature and art, with songs like 'Lucretia, At The Precipice', about the suicide of James Joyce's daughter, and 'Eumenides' about Francis Bacon and greek mythology. It's not the usual source material of your average 80s influenced four piece indie band, that's for sure.
“It wasn't really a conscious decision to write songs that have literary references”, says Rachel. “We just wanted to write songs around ideas and stuff that we found interesting. Some of those have come from books, some of them haven't”, adds Tom. “We all love words, and that's a very broad church. It definitely comes through”, explains Dan.
The esoteric nature of their craft does make them stand out in Brighton, a city they are proud to come from. “There's a lot of great bands there. I don't think we fit in with any particular scene”, says Tom.”There's a lot of great bands”. Rachel is also enthusiastic about their home city. “There's a lot of creativity, a lot of people doing their own thing”, explaining that their lack of a clear fit with the local scene means they end up playing London more than their town, which they clearly hold in great affection.
Things began for the band when Dan was experimenting with songs and sounds in his bedroom studio, and hooked up with Tom, to explore their musical ideas. The final piece of the jigsaw came when they invited Rachel, a friend of a friend they'd known around town for years, to join the band.
“I'd never sang before”, says the shy vocalist, who confesses her biggest audience until playing with her bandmates had been a couple of friends in her front room. When she did go round to see what Dan and Tom had been working on, she instantly felt it was for her. “I completely fell in love with it, I thought, 'this is right up my street'”.
While her distinctive vocal stylings recall the work of Siouxsie Sioux, or even PJ Harvey, the trio don't feel they are a female fronted band in the same vein as the recent wave of bands like Florence And The Machine or Marina And The Diamonds.
“Obviously on paper we are”, says Dan, the most verbose member of the band. “I think you have to believe, for your own state of mind, the reason that's happened is they've been the people who've deserved it,” he goes on. “Particularly within more alternative realms, there's more people who've been making great music which happens to have girls singing that boys.”
While it's my concern that the reason Esben have been signed because the fit into a wider musical trend, and their recruitment is A & R's way of following that wider trend, it strikes me that this is neither their fault, and beyond that, it's perhaps my own preconceptions as a male music journalist that even means it's an issue.
“I think in a way, it shouldn't even matter, regardless of whether you're male or female, I think too much attention is drawn to that”, says Rachel, voicing the frustrations of many at the inherent sexism of the wider music business. “It'll be a wonderful day when that's something that is completely irrelevant”, says Dan.
In fairness to the three piece, Esben and The Witch's musical offering is far more esoteric than the kinds of mainstream female acts such as Ellie Goulding and Florence, that have garnered indie press coverage in the past two years. And while they're clearly a new band in the process of maturing their craft, the immersive, guttural sound of their outfit sets them apart from most music, whether male or female, on the sonic landscape.
Finally, we move forward to discussing what the future holds for the band. They admit they still have much to do in the way of honing both their sound, songwriting and the art of being onstage, but it's clearly something they are excited about.“We're writing and recording everything at the moment, trying to create an album, or a body of songs that we can form the album from”, says Tom. “In the meantime we're playing the festivals this summer, which is going to be quite exciting, it's not something we've had the opportunity to do before. And then hopefully we'll play some shows of our own later in the year.”