Esben and the Witch works in rich musical tapestries that range from gothic-tinged, atmospheric melodies, to chugging rhythms, to enormous, ambient post-rock and metal that taken together, create the sort of magical, transportive vibe of the Danish fairytale that inspired its name.
Comprised of bassist/vocalist Rachel Davies, guitarist Thomas Fisher, and drummer Daniel Copeman, the band formed in Brighton, UK in 2008. Based on the strength of their self-recorded debut EP, 33, they were offered a recording contract with indie powerhouse Matador Records in 2010, where they released their critically-acclaimed full-length debut, Violet Cries, the following year.
Following their 2013 LP, Wash the Sins Not Only The Face, Esben and the Witch decided to release their third album, A New Nature, on their own label, Nostromo Records. As the title would suggest, the album found the band changing directions with their sound, peeling back some of the layers of electronics and pedals for a more straightforward approach—a decision that naturally impacted their choice of gear as well. “Now I have a pretty basic setup that works for me; no frills, just battered old stomp boxes that pack a punch,” Davies says. “With the third album in particular, we wanted to strip things way back, create a record that was primal, raw and ultimately human, to take away the machines. We recorded A New Nature with Steve Albini so it all made sense—the process and philosophy complementing the themes of the record. I’m not a tech-head by any means, so this is my favored approach. The punk rock way. Play hard, do it your own way, and capture an energy.”
On Esben and the Witch’s latest album, Older Terrors (Season of Mist, 2016), Davies notes they stuck by their “punk” approach to the studio, but added back some of the effects and synthesizers associated with their earlier releases for atmosphere. “I feel it’s the best balance yet of what Esben and the Witch is about. Punk’s scrappy fervor mixed with black metal atmospherics and gothic melancholy, and vocal melodies more akin to folk or balladry….I often feel we’re a weird band to place. Essentially we’re trying to write hypnotic, emotive, transportive music that people can lose themselves in, even for a moment.
The moods and ever-changing textures of Older Terrors was partially shaped by the band’s relocation from Brighton to Berlin. “I think it’s impossible for your surroundings not to have an effect on the creative process,” she says. When they first arrived in the city, they shared a living space on the outer edges of the city in an area Davies describes as “a strange compound of pre-fabricated family dwellings.” Although they had access to the basement as a practice area, noise concerns and a neighbor with a baby meant they couldn’t play at full volume, which meant Davies found herself sketching out bass and vocal parts without the company of her bandmates. “It’s certain logistics and practicalities like this that undeniably affect the way we write, not to mention the emotional turbulence of moving to a new country and city. It absolutely had a part to play with the lyrics, despite how esoteric and fantastical they at first seem, it’s a medium for me to work some things out,” she says.
The trio eventually found a practice room in an industrial area of East Berlin, and Davies hints that it’s claustrophobia-inducing tiny size has also had an impact on the band’s current sound. “We’re cramped in together, all facing each other with no room to swing a cat. It’s hot, intense, and means we’re locked in as a coven. I hope that translates when we play live,” Davies says.
Davies recently shared some of the gear she considers essential to her sound. Check them out below and get the latest on Esben and the Witch here.
My trusty steed. I’ve played basses that are slightly smaller (I’m 5ft 4) and just don’t like it. It feels strange to me now to play with a shorter neck. It feels almost silly—they seem too dinky and light and I feel less powerful. I like its weight, its curves, I want to be able to swing it around and feel like I could do some damage.
It’s certainly not the most glamorous of amps but it’s a lovable rogue and tough. It’s not fancy, it’s kind of falling apart but it’s loud and aggro and it looks like it should belong on the ship in Alien. I bought this on eBay a few years ago and was delivered it from the back of a car by its beloved owner and his wife who used to cart it around pubs in his prog-rock band days. A spider has also now nestled its way in and made a home/grave in the lower speaker; EATW bringing goth to a whole new level.
I don’t know why but I love this pedal. Daniel bought this off a friend for £25 quid back in the day. It’s battered as hell now but I’ve come to really rely on its sound. It’s solid, crunchy and has body and sounds more analogue to me than other more ‘professional’ distortion pedals. It also just has three dials, Out-Level, Tone and Distortion so is easy to grasp. I like my pedals simple, I resist a lot of technology on stage. Together with the Peavey they’re quite the gnarly duo, an 80’s force to be reckoned with.
This is a new member to my set-up and one I’m really looking forward to playing around with. It can handle volume whilst maintaining a fierce attack. It seems to have a cleaner distortion with more cut than my trusty yet ragged Yamaha and when they’re both on, an almighty racket ensues. Brothers in arms.
I really love the sound of a slide on distorted bass. It sounds so ugly and abrasive. The clanking of hammers. There’s nothing delicate about it but I don’t think distorted bass should be. I like how human it sounds, no digital effects, just a physical clanging of metal on metal. And when you slide it down the fretboard it sounds like the drone of a hundred angry wasps.