“We’d been thinking about it for ages – for a couple of years, really,” says Rachel Davies of Brighton based experimental rock trio, Esben and the Witch, speaking of the band’s recent move to Berlin. Settling in for an interview that will take us to the heights of the act’s career thus far in their 2016 album Older Terrors; Rachel calls from her adopted home in Germany, which she shares with band mates Thomas Fisher and Daniel Copeman.
She continues: “We’d toured quite extensively around Europe and played a lot of shows in Germany, and felt very welcomed here […] initially we were thinking about moving to Leipzig, but we ended up in Berlin. We really wanted to have a rehearsal space, where we could have all of our gear set up, and all of our vinyl and records on the wall. We just wanted a change of scenery, to be honest. I’d been living in Brighton for 10 years, and as much as I love it, I was a bit bored! I was ready to explore somewhere else.”
While finances also influenced the move – “We have a rehearsal space now in the East of the city. What we pay monthly there, we paid for one session in Brighton!” – it’s unsurprising Esben and the Witch craved new scenery: their music constantly pushes boundaries and demands progression of one form or another. Just as likely is the kinship they’ve found in Berlin, a city whose music scene is infamously supportive of art.
“Exactly, that’s exactly the word – it’s supportive,” Davies agrees. “I find that really reassuring. Sometimes I find [the music industry] so cutthroat, or negative. It’s really nice to be in a space and to meet people who are encouraging, even when there’s a discrepancy in musical style.”
Their feet firmly set on German ground, our talk turns to Older Terrors, the band’s epic new record, and how their travels have influenced it: “I think especially when we first moved over here... We were all living together in this compound on the outskirts of the city. It was this prefab house for families and we managed to [move] in there. We’d just settled in, and we were the only ones without children, and it was weird,” she laughs, recalling the band’s first steps. “But they had a basement, so we had a space where we could rehearse while we were settling [in]. Even though we were obviously in Berlin and getting to grips with a new city and language and country, it very much felt like normal. But it’s so hard to say. Your surroundings are just always going to affect what you’re doing.”
An album of quarters, Older Terrors has four tracks that span over 10 minutes each, truly embracing Esben and the Witch’s tendency to expand into the space they’re given. This lengthy but very welcomed attack on the ears means the songwriting better compares to a composition than a standard song.
“We’re definitely not courting radio time,” Davies admits. “When we started out, it soon became apparent that the songs were going to be long, and quite grandiose. We’ve never been shy of doing that, I don’t think, but now four albums deep we were like, let’s do this properly,” she recalls. ““The Jungle” [from previous album A New Nature] was when we started to explore more fully that kind of a song, and that length. But even the demos we did 8 years ago were long. One of the first songs we ever wrote was 9 minutes long, so we’ve always had that kind of leaning. With this one it [quickly] became apparent that rather than try to cut them down, we should embrace [the process] and let the songs breath.”
And then the understatement: “They’re pretty mammoth.”
Mammoth they may be, but Older Terrors is an utter triumph to the point of being alarming. And actually it’s not wholly underground: in a strange way, although the tracks belong in the timeframe they’ve been given, they quite often jump in tempo and style, and there are nougats that maybe would be radio friendly if they were recorded alone. Rachel agrees, and says the band’s loud/quiet, slow/fast dynamic is deliberate: “Especially with “Heart of the Serpent”, where there’s a big tempo shift in that and the vocals change too – there’s a short break and then it changes tempo. And again especially with this record, we were playing with idea of chord progressions and melodies, but altering the rhythm slightly so that it made it more interesting. I really like that dynamic.”
“I remember Daniel at one point being like, no! This is too weird! It should be shorter! [But] we’ve tried to do very loosely the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and we’ve been awful at it! I think this is definitely how we enjoy writing music.”
Esben and the Witch’s fans seem to enjoy it, too. Older Terrors is already doing well on the scene and has summonded critical acclaim across the board: with many going so far as to say it’s the band’s best full length yet, and a contender for album of the year. DrunkenWerewolf count themselves proudly part of that crowd, and with news of Esben and the Witch taking to the road in the UK soon, we’re unlikely to stop calling their charms any time soon.