Esben and the Witch have broken out from the saturated Brighton underground scene with their almost spooky new record 'Violet Cries' and found themselves with a dream deal with Matador.
With the band fresh from touring America Pennyblackmusic caught up with Daniel Copeman (electronics and guitar) to find out what sets them apart from the current crop of the condensed Brighton pack.
PB: The name Esben and the Witch as well as sounding cool and looking nice written down has a deeper meaning when you realize it’s the title of a somewhat gothic fairytale that was first published in the late 1900’s. What compelled you to pick such an unusual name?
DC: We found the story first and then the name, we decided it sounded good on a very basic level and of course we liked the imagery involved with the story. It ended up taking on a lot more credence and gravity than you ever expected it will particularly when you end up releasing an album, because you never really consider that when you start a band and name it.
A lot of times we have discussed it and, as we get closer and closer to Denmark which is the home of the fairy tale, we are expected to know a lot about fairy tales and unfortunately we fall well short in that respect. It’s just a story that we really liked and we liked the way the name sounded much like we found the name of the songs and the inspirations for the songs, it was something we just stumbled across.
PB: Do you think that there are parallels with 'The Tale of Esben' and yourselves as a band. To me the fable has no straight ahead heroes to gun for.
DC: We weren’t so much as drawn to a particular character. I think it was that we enjoyed the fact that with the fairytale it was a lot more malignant and macabre than people generally realise. It’s really interesting with fairytales. They are normally used to teach children about morals or give them some social guideline; you know very basic things like learning manners, don’t talk to strangers and such like. I don’t think that Esben and the Witch is a great example of that. It’s a little too far fetched for that. The imagery involved in the story hinges on the tale of an underdog but I don’t think it means that we see ourselves as underdogs at all.
PB: To my ears after listening to 'Violet Cries' I am left with the feeling that it has a very ancient feel, but still comes across as quite English. So with that very European imagery and ethos I was wondering now you have returned from a tour of America how did crowds there take to you?
DC: Really surprisingly well. Well, I say surprisingly but that’s probably an issue on my part. I had that sort of mindset because we went out and supported Foals we were sort of worried, given Foals’ reputation and career trajectory and England and Europe, that people would be there simply to hear Foals' hits and we would just be the first band on.
We thought we might be a bit loud and uncompromising and a little indigestible for the people, but it’s a kind of different gig mentality in the States where people go to see the whole gig and see all the support bands. In the UK it’s a little less like that. If the main band is on at half nine then people turn up around half nine. I couldn’t say if this is a general American thing, but certainly the fans of Foals were really lovely to us and were there very early.
Saying that they were terrifying times for us going from playing in England in all these capacity venues to what we did. We played one particular show in LA and we got to go in this place called the El Ray and the curtains were drawn and when we started it was wonderfully opulent. The curtains drew up and the place was full already. Fair enough it was a sold out show but already everyone was there. There was six or seven hundred people in there and it was one of those moments where you sort of go, “I can’t really let this make me nervous now because we have already started.” It was very humbling to play out there. They are much more vocal out there as well. In quiet moments in songs if they are enjoying it they will literally just shout that at you.
We are going back in March to do some of our own shows so we can see whether we were just lucky with the Foals crowd or Americans are just a great bunch of gig goers.
PB: For me being used to your DIY releases I was a little shocked to hear that you signed with Matador, how did that come about. Did they pursue you at all?
DC: It was quite a natural process. It was a label that we had all grown up loving and respecting that has always had and still has a fantastic reputation. They made it known to us that they liked what we were doing and they had already been to shows without announcing that they would be there which we liked immediately. It was much easier to appeal to us that way and then they became quite vocal and it was the head of the UK arm of Matador that came to spoke to us, so at that point we made sure we made them aware that we liked them as well.
PB: That must have made you feel great, surely?
DC: Er, yeah. It was pretty staggering. When a guy came over from the US it was made clear to us that they really got it. It was just a case then of discussing what we wanted to do. We said that we wanted to do this our way and on our terms and they were like yep, sign here. We could not have really of asked for much more and the freedom they have given us with making the album and the artwork has been phenomenal.
PB: 'The Marching Song' video completely floored me. Who came up with this ridiculously simple but incredibly effective idea? It’s so cleverly done that once you start watching it you can’t look away.
DC: It was an idea that Rache (Davies, vocals and percussion-Ed) had quite early on. It was her song originally; it was kind of a folk song. Then me and Tom (Fisher, guitars and keyboards-Ed) got our hands on it and sorted molested it into the song it is now. She always had this idea for the video. She wanted the video to display the gaining of strength over adversity in a physical manifestation with some of the emotion torment that people go through. It was hard to get through that with a straight face. It’s odd because I think a lot of people see the song as deliberately uncomfortable in their own way which is what we like to do with all songs so people have their own emotional link and situations.
It’s evocative rather than telling a story. We use stories to be evocative; we don’t want to come across as shallow as if to say “This song is about war”. I’d rather see it as an emotional journey and remaining steadfast throughout that.
PB: Another track of yours, 'Swans', has this minimal yet epic thing going on, tell me a bit about that one. It’s my favourite track you have done thus far.
DC: As soon as that track was written it was always going to be the closer on the album. It didn’t feel like it would fit anywhere else. It had this real funereal element to it. Its based around the Victorian funeral tradition of having swans and a grandiose procession. It’s fascinating to look back at these things. Musically it was also about capturing that funereal element also and having a bit of that 'Twin Peaks' like feel to it where it lurches along. H
aving a minimalist song to close an album is something I have always enjoyed with others. In that respect I like a full stop. That's not to say in a couple of years we won't close the album with a 25 minute post rock opus. it might even be that we finish the next one with a straight up pop song.
PB: Having 'Swans' finish the new record have you had plans to continue perhaps future recordings in this sombre vein?
DC: New things are always happening, but a lot of things just get left behind because of time. We can only really motivate ourselves to put something out if we are really enjoying it. We are our own harshest critics in that respect. We are always writing, but it would be far too early to tell now what any future recordings will turn out like.
PB: The live set itself is something quite unique with a band yet to gain a lot of success. With an unlimited budget and massive success just what could your imaginations muster up with regards to props and things?
DC: Money being no object?... Someone somewhere would have to reign us in or it would get absurd. It is something that we are really interested in. We don’t feel that playing small venues and not having any money is a good enough excuse to stop you putting on a show, setting a scene and contributing to people enjoying the performance.
In fact we find it much more confusing that the majority of bands don’t. They just rock up to the venue and have the same pre set disco lights. It feels like you can’t immerse yourself in it. It’s a completely natural thing for us to set the stage this way and it seems appropriate for the music we make. We like to add a little drama with the visuals as well.
PB: Being based in Brighton you must be aware of the recent venue closures in the area, yet Brighton is one town that seems hardier than most and can survive these things. How do you feel about your local scene?
DC: Yeah, the Freebutt is one of the venues that we are particularly close with as we played a lot of our early gigs there and the guys who ran it were incredibly generous to us. It is a real nightmare that that place is shutting down. It is re-opening but not by the same people. I think it's the people that run the Joiners in Southampton. It’s good that it’s re-opening but there are also some great new places that have opened.
There is this place called the Green Door Store that has just opened which is independently run. That's a really beautiful venue that a lot of people are really, really excited about. Hopefully there is another one that is opening soon called the Haunt which will be bigger.
Brighton will never be in particular trouble. I think there are just too many people that are really passionate.
PB: Thank you.