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Spellbound: A Chat With Esben And The Witch

Something bewitching this way comes—in the form of UK band Esben and the Witch. Imagine the dreamy, gloomy atmospherics of Siouxsie and the Banshees, the left-field rock ‘n’ roll emotiveness of Scott Walker and the literate swoon of PJ Harvey encapsulated in one threesome—and you get something of an inkling of Esben and the Witch’s debut long-player, Violet Cries (Matador).

I spoke with Daniel Copeman, who plays guitar and contributes electronics to the band, last week, as the hooting and hollering sounds of South by Southwest in full swing went down in the background. Esben and the Witch headline at Bottom of the Hill tomorrow, March 23.  
Where are you right now?
Daniel Copeman: I’m in the middle of Sixth Street and it’s as absolutely mad and deranged as I was led to believe it to be! I’d like to come to South by Southwest as a fan one year—if you’re in a band, it’s a fury, the constant falling of equipment and gear and playing. You end up sweating and tired and sticky.

How many shows are you scheduled to play—a dozen in three days?

DC: Six—we have two more.

I’ve been immersing myself in Violet Cries. What did the band set out to do there?
DC: It was more that we kind of started with the idea for the record before we had the opportunity to specifically write it. It was quite natural—as a debut album, it’s always quite fractured because you write it over the course of two years and hopefully the second one will be more cohesive.

What was your initial idea with Violet Cries?
DC: We wanted to work around ideas of different emotions, anger, typical emotions for bands. I’m not sure it’s so unique! What we do that’s different is we decide on each song’s atmosphere and emotion and then write the song around that. With us, generally, we come up with the verses, choruses and lyrics first and then writing music around it.

Why do you take that approach? Is it because all of you are such great readers?
DC: We’re inspired by stories we read—odysseys, really. Strange happenings historically or otherwise. We didn’t realize there were a few recurring themes, like war, aggression, loss, disease or mental psychosis. Those things keep recurring, and it makes us sound unbelievably morose! Especially if you read reviews of the album, which are all about how it’s really dense and dark and scary.

We didn’t realize it was like that until other people wrote it up, but then if you write two songs about disease and four songs about mental disease, I guess it’s understandable.

The opener is titled “Argyria”—what is that?
DC: It’s a manmade disease—if you’re overexposed to silver, your skin turns blue as a result. A lot people have taken colloidal silver, famously before the millennium when people worried that medication would run out. [Stan Jones of Montana], who ran for senate, is one of them. 

We’re all big readers generally. In particular I find the Internet fascinating—the amount of options you can travel down is absolutely intriguing—a lot of it is about stumbling around and following a link on something and then another link, and you find yourself looking at a peculiar Web site about disease or a site where someone placed a pinhole camera on a pole and took one picture a year and made a stop-motion film about a year passing.

Has being online helped Esben and the Witch find more listeners?
DC: Absolutely. You can get your music around the world without having to have songs released and publicized and marketed, though those things are still in place and important certainly. But anyone anywhere in the world can discover a band and it means essentially regardless whatever you’re doing and however obscure the music is, there’s a vehicle for you…

Going back to the band’s lyrics, were you ever affected personally by mental illness?
DC: Everyone has first-hand experience with mental illness or psychosis—in your family or among friends or. It seems healthier to explore it by writing about it and turning it into something you’re proud of. Certainly quite a lot of people I know have experienced it—I don’t know if says something about the people I spend time with! I think people are becoming more and more open about it, as well—I don’t know if it’s more prevalent or people are just better educated or comfortable with it. The main thing I’ve learned, having friends and family who have dealt with it, is everyone has had a unique experience dealing with it. When I was growing up, music was a way out for me. It’s incredible to give someone a sense of escape.

Is that a quality that Esben and the Witch hope for?
DC: Absolutely. We’re not a late-70s punk band making music about working-class life—we’re writing music that is transportive, whether or not we achieve it is entirely up to everyone else. It’s about trying to make something where you can step outside the day-to-day experience.

What kind of music takes you out of the day-to-day these days?
DC: This L.A. band Health, we think is amazing—absolutely the best band in the world. Wild Beasts, Scott Walker, Radiohead, TV on the Radio, this sort of guitar music, but ideally guitar music with a modern and intriguing twist. 

What can we expect at your upcoming SF show?
DC: The show we do whenever we’re playing as headliners is more aggressive than the album—a bit more primal. Since it’s just the three of us, we can’t play all the instrumentation, so we need it to be more visceral and guttural, in that respect. Hopefully a bit more considered and nuanced.

Being that you’re such an avid reader, what are you reading now?
DC: I just finished Freedom by Jonathan Franzen—a staggeringly beautiful book. I’ve got that horrible thing where you finish a book and you grieve for the characters slightly because you’re never going to hear from them again! You are finished with them, but you still have a hankering to know what they’re going to do next. I just started reading some short stories by Lorrie Moore. It’s starting well, but whenever I fall in love with a book, I feel like I’m betraying the characters by reading something else!

I’ll let you go now—it sounds like there’s a lot of screaming going on in the background.
DC: There’s always a lot of screaming going on in the background.


Esben and the Witch perform Wednesday, March 23, at Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. Julianna Barwick and Hungry Kids of Hungary open. 9 p.m., $10. (415) 621-4455.