Esben and the Witch : Interview

A two-year run-up paved with lots of advance praise is now finished in 2001 by next British ace, Esben and the Witch, with the release of their debut album Violet Cries. But the Brighton three-piece of Daniel Copeman, Thomas Fisher and singer Rachel Davies – named after a Danish fairytale and here portrayed by Jonathan Hyde lost in the snow – looks daintier than its music actually is. So the style is shaped by a darkness constituted by an again bizarre complexity.

Not seldom the music squeezes our chests and throats. But again and again the individual erupts from the tight corner and revolts. However, it’s not direct agitation, with which the band’s binding the zeitgeist recently bringing the UK’s student on the streets in protest, but reference to author James Joyce and ancient Greek myths. And then again the album is also offering in a modern dichotomy lovely, well auguring passages.

We reflect all of this and more with them. Please, also find their new tour dates at the end:

People were labelling you as ‘goth pop’ in 2009 and stealthily lumped you together with all the arising ‘witch house’ acts in 2010. Also there was the self-created’nightmare pop’. How important is it for a band like yours to sail under a certain, vivid flag and what conclusion do you draw from that?
We don’t feel any particular affinity with any musical sub-genres or labels. Nightmare Pop was a term that we once felt described our music quite effectively but it was never intended to be anything more than that and it’s something that feels a little outdated to us now.

The fairy tale you are named by is a story with a happy end and hence a bit ambivalent to your music, isn’t it? Because your music sounds so dark, dramatic and magical. It seems not to implicate a denouement.
It would be a thankless task to mirror the story and its sentiments in their entirety. Instead we chose to name the band after the tale because we were drawn to the more general imagery and themes it contains and felt the words themselves were a good fit for our musical endeavours. Having said that we also certainly don’t think that all of the songs are exclusively fixated upon the darkness. We feel that there are strong illusions to love, hope and happiness in the album also.

A song of yours (which didn’t make it on the final record) is “Lucia, at the Precipice”. Lucia was writer James Joyce’ daughter and got diagnosed with schizophrenia. She also struggled for the love of her mother and the attention of her father and during her whole life – as, I think, many of us do, more or less. Do these aspects somehow mirror the band itself or yourselves in your personal lives?
Absolutely not. As with many of the themes and ideas in the album, the inspiration behind “Lucia” was a story that captured our imagination and felt compelled to explore. Inevitably people will read into the inspirations for our songs and the references we make in a personal way.  There are emotional elements involved but they are not directly signified by the context.

And Joyce leads us further: You are well-known for your devotion to reading and books. What could in your eyes be the ideal story of the ultimate book that still needs be written? No worries, I don’t want the copyrights.
We couldn’t possibly say… that is the beautiful nature of literature we suppose.

Thanks for that, it brings us to the album again. What’s story behind the album title Violet Cries?
The album title was conceived during the same period as the artwork and as the album was coming together. It actually connotes less towards the meaning than the song titles do. The real relevance towards the album was the imagery it evokes and the colours involved in the creation of violet. This coupled with the word ‘Cries’ we felt would set the appropriate mood for the listener.

The album comes in many songs with an overwhelming wall of sound and since you are also referring to war and battles in the corresponding lyrics, what’s your opinion on music as a force in general?
Music is definitely an incredible force and its importance and influence on people is unquestionable. It’s something that people tie to memories and moments and is intrisically linked to the way people lives.

(directed by Peter King & David Procter)

Whilst listening to “Marching Song” I read “Le Horla” by Guy de Maupassant. It’s about a man who’s possessed and dominated by some sort of hallucination (the Horla), who seems to take the man’s life. And then again, you sing, “lost in the blackness/they’re losing their sights,” to this background of blurry and dread sounds. So, would you identify your music with this kind of story referring to insanity, darkness (and the fear of losing existence)?
That sounds fascinating and is in keeping with the sort of literature we are drawn to. Having not read the mentioned work we could not identify our music to this individual piece. Insanity, darkness and the fear of losing existence do enamour and fascinate us though and it would be fair to say they are explored throughout the album.

You also sing about diseases as “Argyria” or “Chorea”, and the original myth of the “Eumenides” might have a happy ending, but it’s a long way until then, while you seem to make no effort to change the picture. Is Violet Cries as a whole ergo one of Cassandra’s calls, a prophecy of doom?
Well as we stated earlier we feel there are moments of hope and happiness within the album and this may be that our idea of hope and happiness is skewed compared to the general populace. We find beauty in subject matters that many may find terrible and grotesque. It would be rather grandiose of us to call our album a prophecy of doom.

This takes up the previous question: Recently, London saw its students revolting in protest, the economy is in a pretty bad shape, the European Union is full of squabblers. In these times, what agenda do you have apart from the purely musically one?
It’s impossible not to be aware and concerned by the various ills surrounding the world of late. It’s an interesting and dangerous time as many of the elements of modern life the majority of our generation have grown up with are being undermined. Further to this there are very real and pressing concerns relating to the entire condition of the environment we live in.  How these issues will be accepted first and tackled second are of paramount importance to us.

You are from Brighton. Some journalist once wrote about this town: Brighton is full of people from London, who wanna escape from the metropole and noise. How do you feel about this proposition?
We certainly appreciate the fact that we live relatively close to London, whilst still being able to enjoy a slightly slower pace of life in Brighton. London is a fantastic city, however can be quite overwhelming!

In my younger years days I’ve been to Brighton a lot of times and I adore this city with the pepple beach and markets. I also loved the pier which had sadly burned down. Well, the point is, it’s quite unusual to listen to dark and dramatic-experimental sounds like you do. We all know Blood Red Shoes, The Go! Team and The Kooks – who are all from Brighton and who are all influenced by Pop and Rock. They sound happier and more adapted to the young culture of Brighton – as I remember them. Did we got the wrong impression (and Brighton has just become like every other place mentioned above) or do you just experience things differently and more critically in general?
Brighton is a very young and vibrant city still and your impression of it is fine. It’s not a conscious decision to be at odds with this view and hopefully the residents of the city do not feel we are misrepresenting them. We can only make the music that comes naturally to us and currently it appears to be of a reasonably dark nature.

And finally, besides all the darkness and sorrow – what was the funniest situation in 2010?
There was an incident where Daniel left the stage during the set and had some severe difficulties getting back on to finish the set.

Esben and the Witch Violet Cries will be released on January 28 in Germany / 31 in the UK via Matador / Beggars. Subsequently the trio will go on a tour through Great Britain, the Benelux, France and Germany:

31.01. The Louisiana, Bristol
01.02. Pavillion Theatre, Brighton
03.02. Other Rooms, Newcastle
04.02. Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh
05.02. Rescue Rooms, Nottingham
07.02. The Harley, Sheffield
08.02. Hare and Hounds, Birmingham
09.02. XOYO, London
11.02. Botanique Rotunde, Brussels
12.02. Paradiso, Amsterdam
13.02. Gebäude 9, Cologne
14.02. Molotow, Hamburg
16.02. Loppen, Copenhagen
17.02. Comet Club, Berlin
19.02. La Route Du Rock, Saint-Père
21.02. Point Emphemere, Paris

TEXT: Franziska Finkenstein / Thomas Vorreyer


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