It’s fair to say that Esben & The Witch aren’t like the majority of British guitar bands.
Second album ‘Wash The Sins Not Only The Face’ is named after a Byzantine palindrome, with album sessions occupying a cottage in East Sussex. Viva Brother, they are not.
Yet even the Brighton trio can’t avoid following the semblance of a standard career trajectory. Debut album ‘Violet Cries’ – as undoubtedly promising as it was – represented the band’s live set at the time, recording the process of the group shuffling offstage and into the studio.
With the follow up, Esben & The Witch seem to have a more defined sense of self, a more concise, confident manner of working.
It shows. ‘Wash The Sins Not Only The Face’ is grandiose without being overblown, intimate without being confessional and intelligent without being a smart arse. It is, in short, exactly the album Esben & The Witch should be making at this point in their career.
ClashMusic spoke to Rachel Davies about its gestation.
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Have you recognised a break between these albums or has it been a fluid creative process?
It definitely feels like this record is far more focussed than the first one. The whole process behind this record is so different to how we approached ‘Violet Cries’ in all aspects, really, from the writing and recording to the whole conception of it. We came up with the title and the idea over a year ago and then put a self imposed ban on the band working on anything. We would all have to wait to put forward our ideas, even though we were all kind of desperate to start writing. We waited until we’d finished touring and thought we’d go away somewhere and isolate ourselves, so it’s just the three of us. No internet, no phone signal. That was my favourite part, really! The three of us went to these cottages – which sounds pretty quaint but they were more just these spaces in the countryside in East Sussex. We holed up there, really, for a week at a time. We had all the gear out and that’s how it was born.
How was that isolation beneficial to the band?
I think, for us, for the second record it felt entirely essential for us to do that. Again it was a really enjoyable process to do that, to have that focus and to have no distractions. We’ve got a lot of equipment as well, so the practicality of having all our pedals set up all the time, just being able to be in that mindset without being distracted by other factors, I think for us – I can’t speak for everyone – it was essential that we did that.
You mentioned that the band now functions in a different way, is that a result of each member simply finding their own strengths?
Definitely. Naturally, from having a few tours behind us and spending a lot of time together, we do know each other very well and we’ve grown in confidence in lots of ways. Knowing what we want to do and want to achieve – now and in the future – trying to evolve, because that’s what it’s about. Not wanting to stand still, wanting to test ourselves. Constantly changing. I think this record is a much better reflection of that, of the three of us.
One of those changes is that you take sole control over the lyrics – what led to this?
On the first record I predominantly wrote the lyrics but it was more of a committee process. This one – I think it goes down to focus as well – we each knew our roles more and we had these ideas that we wanted to explore. I hate to say it but you get a better result in lyric writing – and writing in general – if you get one person’s input or one stream of consciousness rather than three roles vying for attention. I think it can be difficult enough making decisions in any kind of team if it’s a creative process. So yeah, the boys left me to it.
You mention stream of consciousness...
With this one it was probably the opposite! (laughs) I spent a lot of time.. It sounds pretty grandiose but I approached it more like a dissertation or any essay. When we started writing the songs we had names drafted for them and certain ideas and then I went away after the bones of the song had been written between the three of us and then researched and read up about everything that we wanted to explore. I spent a lot of time re-editing to make sure that everything – to me – made perfect sense. Where sometimes it can seem a little flowery and superfluous I know that everything I have written is for a reason - which is very important to me, to do that, so I spent a lot of time on it.
There is darkness, here, but it’s one tempered by a real sense of beauty. What draws you down those paths?
With a lot of what we’ve tried to explore in the past – and with this record – that people deem as macabre or grotesque or gloomy to us, we don’t feel that way. Or I guess that naturally I’ve always been drawn towards the darker parts of things because I find them more intriguing. I find that sometimes there can be more truth in that, and I think that finding the beauty in certain things can be quite challenging. Those are the things I find most intriguing in other lyric writing – or films or books or anything really. Not exclusively! We wanted to give this record a sense of light, much more so than ‘Violet Cries’. We wanted to be challenging by creating such a claustrophobic, tense record but with this one even though there are certainly moments of heaviness we wanted to juxtapose it with similar levels of light, I guess.
Is that a dynamic which is shared with the music? Do the two parallel one another?
Oh definitely. With everything we do we try to mirror that, so when we were writing the songs we were thinking about what feelings each sound evoked in us, and to try and marry them as best we can. It’s certainly connected in that way but again this is a different process. With that record the music came first, then the title – we had an overarching theme and then we paired the songs up, these titles and ideas, and then the lyrics came after. Asking ourselves: is this the most suitable vessel to explore this?
Who produced the album?
After we finished writing we took the demos to a studio in London, a little basement studio, and we co-produced it. The engineer was a lovely man called Tom Morris. We spent a few weeks in a little basement recording, which was a different, interesting experience.
Were you confident about which direction the recording process should go?
We knew what we wanted to do, really. Naturally, inevitably, things developed in the studio but it was really great for us. When we went into the studio we started out by playing songs live and that’s how we got the backing track tempo. We’d have this really loose, natural tempo rather than this methodical, mechanical beat – we wanted it to sound a bit warmer. Even just by starting the process, being able to play the songs live – jamming them a little bit – was great for us, really. That’s how it started.
How was Tom to work with?
It was great to have someone else in the process, actually, which is something which – again – we hadn’t done. Have another pair of ears. Which is really interesting to have that, to have a person who’s not involved in the writing process to work with us. We had a really good relationship which is great because before we were quite nervous about anyone else into our circle. I think it was beneficial for us to evolve, to have someone else to offer their tuppence.
Was the recording process a little more straight-forward this time round?
I think so. It was difficult in lots of place because we’re quite perfectionist. Obviously, if you’re working in a committee in any kind, in a small space then trying to get the best possible result. We knew what we wanted to do, we had the songs – most of them – fleshed out before we went. I think the main different between this and the first record is that we went in and wrote songs from scratch, whereas ‘Violet Cries’ we had these songs and tried to make a record from them. It’s kind of the other way around really. Starting from scratch and making a body of work which is as cohesive as possible and hopefully that rings true.
How do you go about maintaining that cohesive nature? Were there arguments about the tracklisting?
Oh we’ve got numerous lists written down! (laughs) Again, because we know each other so well we normally come to a mutual decision on things quite easily, which is good. There are certain tracks on the record that we just knew from the offset where they we go – 'Iceland Spar' and 'Smashed To Pieces In The Still Of The Night'. We had those bookends from the offset. There were a few that as they got more developed found their own position. I quite enjoy that process, actually!
Where did the title come from?
We came up with that title about a year ago. The three of us were touring America and we were in Washington, rambling about what it would be like to meet your doppelganger. One of those coffee laden chats! That led to us thinking about the broader concept of duality, and again this is when we got excited about writing for the second record so we were talking about this and when we were looking into it we stumbled across this Byzantine palindrome – wash the sins not only the face – which reads the same backwards as it does forwards when it’s written in its archaic way. It was written over the fonts in church. We thought it would make a really good song title, in terms of what it suggests – it really resonated with the three of us. We came up with the title from the very beginning and worked it up from that.
What do you have planned for the live show?
We’ve got a lighting set up that we’ve been working on. We’ve been rehearsing like crazy because the live show is really important to us, it always has been, and we want to make it as powerful as possible. It’s a different beast, the live show, to the record. Hopefully we’ve got slightly more accomplished through touring so hopefully the new live show will be stronger. We just want to keep plying our wares and see how much longer we can get away with doing this!
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'Wash The Sins Not Only The Face' is out now.