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Interview with Esben and The Witch

06/04/2015 By James McLarnon

EsbenMuch to our disappointment, Esben and The Witch – the runaway winners of the Brighton Noise release of 2014 for 3rd album A New Nature – left Brighton at the beginning of this year, opting to continue their career in Berlin. A desire to do something new should come as no surprise to their admirers who would see the development as a continuation of the band’s ongoing desire to not stand still. In just over half a decade the band have released three critically acclaimed but inherently different albums, been nominated for the BBC Sound of 2011 award (eventually won by Jessie J!), signed to legendary American independent label Matador Records and recorded with Big Black and Shellac man Steve Albini. Fiercely independent, they are now releasing the strongest material of their career on their own Nostromo Records imprint. They are quite rightly considered up there with the best bands this city has ever produced.

Back in the country to play Raw Power Festival in May, they have kindly agreed to headline our show on Friday 22nd May, with support from Abi Wade and Merlin Tonto tickets here. We coaxed Daniel Copeman out from his station behind the drums to talk to us ahead of the show.

We absolutely loved A New Nature here, it picked up our staff’s Brighton release of the year in a strong year for local bands, with ease. With a bit of distance now from its release, how do you feel about it?

Still really proud to be honest, I think its the closest we have come to actually capturing the sound of the band live, and it has a rawness and an honesty which was perhaps not as present in the previous two releases. We just focused on recording the songs in single takes and embraced the slight quirks that inevitably come with that method of recording.

Has the way you write changed over the course of your career?

Hugely. The band essentially started in my bedroom about 6 years ago now, when Myself, Thomas and Rachel first met. At that point the writing process involved a lot of electronic elements and programming. As a result of this there was very little spontaneity or improvisation, it was a very exact process and extremely considered. We try to write the songs, or at least their core parts, in a live set-up.

Can you talk us through how you came to release A New Nature on your own label Nostromo?

It seemed like a natural step for us to be honest. I think given the kind of band we are and the fan base we have it makes much more sense for us to be releasing our own music. In addition to this we are control freaks about not just the music we make but also how it is released, promoted and packaged; every aspect really. That kind of control is much easier to obtain if you are your on label. Also the music industry is changing, specifically distribution methods and ways to get music to your fans.  Already it feels totally different to even five years ago when first signed with Matador. We are trying to adapt to this evolving situation as best we can.

Is this how you see yourself releasing in the future? We imagine it was a fairly steep learning curve.

Yes it is, and hopefully we will be releasing music by other artists through the label in the long run. It was a steep learning curve in some respects, but in others not so much. We have always been a band who take a keen interest in the more practical elements of how our records were manufactured, released and distributed as I mentioned earlier so we were not total novices. In addition to this I have been co running the Love Thy Neighbour label with the hero that is Andy Rossiter for a while now, so I had some previous experience.

The decision to record with Steve Albini was a bold one, what did you learn from it? Is it an experience you’ll repeat in the future?

It was an honour to be honest, especially for me as a drummer. The man is a phenomenal recording engineer and a hell of an interesting guy. It made perfect sense for the record we wanted to make at the time and I don’t think anyone could have done a better job or been a better influence on us for that specific record. We will see about working with Steve again in the future, but we are a somewhat restless bunch with regards to the sound of our records so I wouldn’t be surprised by anything at this stage.

Are you surprised at the breadth of appeal the album had? There can’t be many records released last year that got strong reviews in both the NME and Terrorizer.

I have given up trying to understand why anyone dislikes or likes the records we make, but yeah seeming to have an appeal in both of those camps is fantastic. I would also say that I suspect that we are more popular with the NME’s writers than their readers given by the average age of the attendees at our shows! I might be wrong though!

Your live presentation has changed significantly since we first caught you supporting Deerhunter in 2009. Do you feel the current show is the strongest you’ve been? Whatever happened to the lamppost (we liked the lamppost!)

The lampposts were another relic from my old bedroom actually! They broke, is the boring honest truth. Well actually one broke and the other was decommissioned by the lighting engineer at Electroworks in Angel because it had a 1930s plug still with earth cable. He banned us from using it and then decided he also needed to cut the cabling and take it for the general future safety of everyone involved. I did not appreciate it.

January 2015, saw you leave Brighton for new home in Berlin, why was that?

Why not! It seems a flippant answer, but we realised that we were in a position to be able to do so, and life is about adventures and taking chances so we went for it. Worst case scenario is we have to come back to Brighton at some point which is no great hardship to be honest, so let’s see how it pans out.

How have you settled in? Are you missing anything from the UK?

Yeah completely, its an amazing city. Very brutal in places and still wearing the scars of being torn apart for nearly 30 years but full of such creativity and excitement. We have managed to survive the winter now as well so we have the summer to look forward to, which by all accounts seems to consist almost entirely of sitting by canals and drinking beer. What do I miss from the UK? Warm flat beer. This is not a joke, beer is very much a passion of mine and for all of the wonderful beer the Germans have they are all cold and fizzy. I need some warm flat beer in my life. Oh and Cheddar.

Judging from the acts that supported you over the years, we reckon you have quite an ear for a band. Any Berlin outfits for us to look out for?

The KVB, Val Sinestra and Suns of Thyme are all great.

What do you feel the differences are between the way bands are treated on the continent as opposed to the UK?

In respect to touring bands? It’s a tough question to answer fairly because the attitude from the top down is totally different, from both national and local government there is a totally different attitude to live music. Firstly in most European countries there is far more funding for local venues and for festivals, etc. This immediately means that the promoters of the show and the venues are able to staff themselves appropriately and train their staff accordingly. For example it is common for most venues in Germany, and Switzerland in particular, have an in house lighting engineer and a whole stage crew because they can afford to, this level of support is not present in the UK. Why that is the case I cannot be sure but personally I believe its because The UK takes its position as a thriving musical hub for granted.

What future plans do you have? Is there a new record on the horizon? Will there be anything new for us at BLEACH on 22 May?

There is always a new record on the horizon somewhere but the next one is a little too far away to be discussing just yet. I think the show at Bleach will be still be A New Nature focused to be honest, but soon enough the new things will get an airing, once they are ready.

Aside from playing this show, what else will you be doing with your time back in Brighton?

Probably sitting at the bar at the Evening Star catching up with a few folk, truth be told. Warm flat beer. I cant wait. Also sitting around on the beach. I miss the sea.

For a band that’s only been going seven years, it seems you have been through so much – ‘Sound of’ nomination, signing to Matador, a constant evolution of sound, setting up your own label and moving countries. How have these experiences changed you? What advice would you give to fledgling bands?

Its been incredible and I can’t even begin to explain how lucky I feel to have the opportunities we have had. I think the travelling has impacted me personally the most. Being so fortunate as to experience different cities and cultures while doing something you love is a genuine blessing. What advice would I give to other bands?

– Take all the opportunities you get to travel and make sure you see more than just the venue. This might require waking up early the following day so make sure you are in a fit state to wake up early after the night before.

– Be aware and involved in as many aspects of your releasing and touring processes as you can.

– Don’t concern yourself too much with what other people think your music is or what they think of it. It’s your music at the end of the day, not theirs.

– Don’t listen to condescending advice from other people in bands when they are doing interviews. They don’t know what they are talking about…

We’re always taken aback by what a strong unit the three of you seem. How have you maintained such strong interpersonal relationships?

By just genuinely really liking, admiring and respecting each other. We are very fortunate that not only did we form a band. we became best friends too. One thing I would say is that it’s essential when you are touring a lot to compromise and be hyper aware of each others feelings. It can be a very stressful very intimate experience.