Esben And The Witch formed in Brighton back in 2008 some 14 or 15 years ago and since then have been growing up in public, emerging from the shell of each successive album bruised and in pain, but a little wiser and a whole lot better. Their latest, Hold Sacred, is their sixth album, but unlike the others feels more like a cathartic rebirth. Focusing on the fragile voice of Rachel Davies, accompanied by sparse instrumentation, it’s a side of EATW we haven’t seen before. Or have we? Rachel Davies talked to Outsideleft about the new album.
Outsideleft: Is Hold Sacred a cathartic rebirth of sorts?
Rachel Davies: Its funny, actually, because I was listening back to our first ever EP, a demo that we sent about 15 years ago at the very beginning, before we got signed, the opening track is very ambient piece of music that could be off the new album. I was like, oh, wow, things have come full circle, and maybe nothing has changed. I think it's safe to say though that our sound has certainly evolved over the years. I think we've always been quite restless when it comes to making new music where we always want to try and explore different things that we found interesting and that’s always been a very natural approach for the three of us.
OL: You've gone through a bit of a musical journey since 2008, yet with a stable membership over that time too, which is not always that common. Some of it's been quite heavy, with rock infused songs like No Dog. I love that track, but it's very, very different to where you are now.
RD: We've always been interested in dynamics, really, in the mellow, quieter sections, that are more reflective. As we progressed over time, I think playing live really informed a lot of the music we were making, where we wanted it to be a bit more aggressive, and louder and a bit more primal and visceral because, and I think I can speak for both Daniel and Thomas here, we enjoyed playing live more with those kinds of songs like No Dog and was a cathartic release for other kinds of emotions. You know, anger.
OL: Is it easier live to get that anger emotion across, because in most rock venues performing material which is quiet or very reflective when you've got people drinking beer and chatting and shouting and waving their mobile phones around kind of spoils the atmosphere a bit, doesn't it?
RD: I think that's true. We quite like to be confrontational in some ways, maybe not necessarily in the, you know, aggressive, punk, hardcore way, but more confrontational in an emotional way perhaps. I think that can be both on a quieter level, but also obviously on a heavier level. What's been maintained throughout is songs where we've explored and experimented, and it became more intense through that. Intensity is the thing that we always wanted to maintain, be it quieter, more reflective tracks or guitar lead, heavier, distorted numbers. After the third record where we were touring a lot and it became quite scrappy and punky. We've always been quite a scrappy band in so many ways, especially when it comes to playing live.
OL: That third album was Steve Albini [Big Black] produced, wasn't it?
RD: Yeah, that's right. We wanted to embrace that live rawness. We've always been a very DIY band from day one really, trying to do everything as much as we can self-sufficiently. I think, again, that translated through as the years went by and we were playing lots of dive bars with broken amps and things. That just made the music a bit heavier. I'm sure there'll be fans that will like us to maintain that, but then I think us going back to a slightly more reflective kind of sound means people are noticing things from the first two albums that we did, and they potentially might have missed. You can't please everyone though, right? I think our fans will understand what we're trying to do. I hope so anyway. They've always been very supportive, the ones that have stayed with us over the years.
OL: Have you always had a long-term view of where you all wanted the band to go? Or is it just an accidental process?
RD: Genuinely, it is a totally accidental process. We’ve never had huge designs, really. It was a genuine surprise to us when we got signed! We never had a scheme to say, this is the kind of band we want to be, this is where we want to go. The three of us have always just been very tight and very good friends, and we really enjoy making music together. It sounds cheesy, and lots of bands say this, but I want to be making music that I would want to hear, you know, be the band you want to be like.
OL: I get that. Why would you want to make music that you didn't like yourself?
RD: Exactly. I believe that with any kind of art that if you maintain your integrity continually, consistently, even if people don't like what you do and might think you're pretentious or pompous, which has definitely been levied at us, if you keep sticking true to what you believe in then there'll be a grudging respect that these guys mean what they're doing and they've been doing it for a while. It’s not that we're trying to be a super Zeitgeisty cool band. We're just three weirdos that like making music together.
OL: With the new album, Hold Sacred, it's very stripped down. The instrumentations are extremely light on it and there's quite a focus on you and your voice on it. So it feels exposed, and it sounds quite, I want to say painful. I don't mean it's painful to listen to, I mean in terms it being from the heart, and that what you are expressing feels very personal, and perhaps there are some dark moments in there as well. It’s that kind of honesty, where you can be vulnerable but it's not a weakness. Do you want those sorts of emotions to be brought to the surface in people listening to it?
RD: Yeah, exactly. I think that's pretty accurate to be honest. And I'm glad that has come across. Like I said, I think we've always been a relatively intense band in some ways and potentially quite impenetrable when it comes to certain things like lyrics. So for me, this was definitely a challenge to be a bit more open. It is still going to be metaphors and obscure moments, but for me this was definitely a moment to be a little bit more vulnerable and open. I think maybe that, again, comes with age, with a certain confidence but at the same time with that anxiety.
OL: A lot of acts talk about the lockdown and the pandemic as an enforced hiatus that stopped any touring band dead in their tracks. A lot of recording bands also found it hard because they couldn't get together in the studio, they couldn't rehearse, they couldn't work through things as a band. You started the ideas for Hold Sacred in 2019, I think you got together in Rome in a villa which sounds very grand, to work through those ideas. Then of course, along came this great juggernaut called Covid and tore a big hole through all your plans, and the album is just coming out now, which is actually quite a few years later. Did you actually record it before or after the lockdown? I wasn't quite sure.
RD: We started writing it in 2019. And then everything fell apart in the world, which obviously no one was expecting. The three of us had already had very intense conversations before we started writing it, because I wasn't particularly sure myself if I wanted to write again or even to make music anymore. I was in a certain headspace where I wasn't very happy and yeah, it was trying and it'd been a while since Nowhere, which was our last album, so we were feeling a little lost I think and not entirely sure about things. I certainly was at the level of 'what is the point basically, do I have anything else to say?' Having, you know, a very self-indulgent existential crisis.
There was so much anxiety, both individually, as a band, globally, everywhere! I didn't see my family for two and a half years. Everyone's got their own stories, everything's falling apart. The music that we'd started to make suddenly became this thing to hold on to, this pure kind of joy that just for those moments, we can create something that the three of us who very much trust each other are in a bubble, literally, a COVID bubble. So we can hold on to this, and then try to forget for a few hours what's actually happening in the world.
I guess with Hold Sacred, whilst it can be potentially difficult to listen to at times, it was very much for us wanting to create something that people would find hopefully soothing in some ways or would find solace in. You know, if I'm feeling sad I just want to listen to music that makes me feel understood, you know, my teen angst, but I think it was important to us that the three of us create something we saw a kind of solace in and found beauty, but if it resonates with anyone emotionally in that way, then I feel like it's kind of been worth it.
OL: Finally, this is a question you probably get quite a lot. Where are you heading next? Do you still want to do music or is there another avenue that you want to pursue instead? Could be an artistic avenue, or could be something totally different, like gardening or interior decorating!
RD: I'm interested in lots of things. I draw a lot. I spend a lot of time drawing at the moment, and I'd like to write more. That has always been on my bucket list. I'd love to get myself together and have my poetry book published. I'd love to do that. I think that's something I'm more interested in the older I get. Touring is brutal and can be very tiring and I definitely think in the future I can express myself artistically in lots of different ways. Thomas and I also run our own business as well, supporting other artists (illustrators and writers). We stock lots of different kinds of independent books and zines and art. That's been keeping us very busy of late. I get restless quite easily, so I need to keep myself busy!
Thanks to Rachel for sparing the time to talk to OL. In many ways the new album and the evolution of the band is like growing up. As people get older, they build up more experiences and they think differently, they feel differently about things and see things in a different way, and for EATW you can track that through their records. Some things don't change, as everyone retains things from when they were children, but other things do change, and you see in each of the albums a record of how EATW are evolving as people. That’s a special thing.
Main Image by Sophie Fox
Lower image by Rachel Davies
Hold Sacred is out on 12th May on Nostromo Records.