Esben And The Witch: ‘It Never Felt Too Daunting’

Difficult second album? Apparently not…

The last couple of years have been pretty eventful for Brighton’s foremost Gothic band, Esben And The Witch. Having found themselves with a spot on the 2011 ‘BBC Sound Of…’ list, they released their debut that year to critical acclaim, and set about making their fairytale name amongst their peers.

So when it came to recording their follow up, ‘Wash The Sins Not Only The Face’, you might imagine that the pressure to build on their efforts would lead to some undue pressure. But with a remix by TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek (of the album’s ‘Deathwaltz’), as well as really strong ideas about what they want, they appear to have ignored the ‘difficult’ signposts and headed straight towards ‘epic’ instead. We grabbed the band’s Thomas Fisher, to find out all about recording in cottages, dealing with the pressure, and how that remix came about.

The new album is brilliantly expansive. It doesn’t sound like it’s a difficult second album…
It was really pleasant to write actually. Because of the way the first record came about, we did our best to make sure it worked in a coherent body, but it basically involved the grouping of songs that were written over the course of a few years. Whereas, this time we were more prepared to go away after we’d finished touring the first record and write all of the songs together. So they all kind of linked in to the sonic palette that we were using.

Did you record it in Brighton?
We went to a couple of different places actually, cottages in the Sussex countryside. Just to get out of Brighton really, and away from our usual surroundings to write the songs. And that was a really great process, actually.
We didn’t want to write the songs in our rehearsal space, we spend enough time there as it is. The idea that a cottage conjures up is really quaint, but we were basically using the spaces to shut ourselves away. We had some projections set up on the computer, and just used the opportunity to have all of our equipment set up really, in one place. And writing in that isn’t something we’ve ever done before, it’s always tended to be each song written as more of a studio thing; with parts gradually pieced together. We wrote these songs playing them live, albeit naturally in a slightly limited capacity. It was basically to just get away from everything, to write the songs where we could be totally focussed on doing that.

The first album was critically acclaimed, and you found yourself on the BBC Sound Of… list. Did that create any unwelcome pressure, when it came to the follow up?
I think it created pressure for touring the first record, if anything. I really think that with this record, because we had such a clear idea of what we wanted to do beforehand, there was no real thinking about it, or way of letting the pressure get to us. We knew how we wanted to approach the second record, and of course with touring we had loads of different ideas. So when we got to writing the record, we went through all our ideas, linking them up and working out which ones we thought were worth exploring. Joining it up, going from there.
We were kind of aware of things like the poll, you’re aware that it’s happening, but none of us are too bothered about that, regardless of whether or not we’re on it. So that wasn’t too much pressure in itself.

So you’ve no advice for Haim, then?
Is it something that would bother them? They seem like they know what they’re doing!

Did the move from recording in your bedroom into a studio help you out?
I think it benefitted us doing it ourselves, speaking for myself anyway. It certainly benefitted me, playing guitar anyway; I find the recording process can be quite difficult, to get that live performance across into a recording take. You want it to be tight but you still want to have that sense of feeling in there, I don’t think I could’ve done that the first time around and felt comfortable. But this time around we worked with a guy called Tom Morris at the 4AD studio, and it was really great; we were able to get the most out of the studio environment.

This is the first time that you’ve worked with a producer; how difficult was it to let someone else get involved?
Yeah, it is, we still found it difficult… I don’t think we could ever fully relinquish control over that kind of things. But yeah, you’re right, it’s the first time we’ve kind of let someone else in to that stage of the process. And it did work really well I think, it’s useful to have someone who wasn’t involved in actually writing the songs put their opinion forward; it gives you another opinion on things. We did work with Tom on the ‘Hexagon’ EP that we did a few years ago, but his role there was more recording. This time he made suggestions about possible sounds we could use, and once we’d recorded all the songs, how we could… because we mixed it and produced it with him in the studio.

You’ve always appeared to be a tight knit group though, was it difficult to let someone else in?
It’s certainly a fair thing to say. I think it was harder for Daniel maybe; for me and Rachel it’s just slightly more natural, because we aren’t able to work the recording software. The actual practical side of it is beyond what we’re able to do anyway, we’re aware that someone else has to do that. And originally, it was Daniel. But it felt quite natural. I think it’s just a real compliment to Tom’s attitude, and how closely what he wanted from the record and what we wanted from the record aligned, that it never felt too daunting a process.

Speaking of CDs, I really love the image that you’ve put on the CD itself…
It’s really cool that you mention it actually, because we thought really hard about what the last thing that people see before they play the CD. And the CD sleeve is supposed to be like the dust jacket from a vinyl record, we’ve adopted the same packaging as we’re going to have with the LP. It’s something that we thought about, what we wanted people to see, what the last thing that would be in their heads before they played the CD. The imagery is really important to us.

How did the Dave Sitek remix of ‘Deathwaltz’?
He knew some of the guys at Matador, and I think they were just playing it in their offices. And he heard it and said he wanted to do a remix, so he did. It was kind of mad, I mean, we’re all fans of TV On The Radio, so it was cool, kind of weird, but yeah, it was good.
It was all done via email, these kind of frenzied exchanges. He was emailing us in the middle of the day here, so it must have been about five or six to him, and I think he was in his studio. And he did two versions and we kind of worked together, telling him what bits we liked and didn’t. But I think it’s worked quite well, he obviously altered the instrumentation to suit his style; which is what we were quite keen to do, we want to get a few more things done that are more re-workings, rather than remixes. Where someone’s really put their own parts in properly, totally disregard what we’ve done, so it feels more than the standard remix that you might get usually.

Does that mean that there’s a ‘reboot’ CD in the works?
The idea of collecting together; we’re in the process of organising it, so I can’t really tell you too much about them. But I do like the idea of putting it together in one place.

Esben And The Witch’s new album ‘Wash The Sins Not Only The Face’ is out now via Matador.