March 15 2011 07:41 PM

Esben and the Witch and the return of goth-rock

From left: Daniel Copeman, Rachel Davies, Thomas Fisher
Photo by Angel Ceballos

Whether you noticed or not, goth-rock has made an impressive return despite the genre being often shunned by critics and musicians. Consider the elements of the genre—heavy keyboards, tribal drumming, introspective lyrics and dense guitars. A host of recently lauded indie bands could potentially fall into the category; Zola Jesus, The xx, Bat for Lashes, Choir of Young Believers, Beach House and even the masses-approved Florence & The Machine could all be pegged as goth-rock.

The problem is, ever since kids co-opted the genre as an excuse to wear all black and sometimes mow down their classmates with semi-automatic weapons, no band wants to be pegged as “goth.” After all, almost all bands like to think they’re making music for adults, lest they not be taken seriously.

But Esben and the Witch are kids. Well, they’re very young. All three members of the buzzed-about British band are in their early 20s. Nowhere is this more evident than in their music. That’s not to imply that their skills are rudimentary or that their lyrics are trite; on the contrary, their songs are mature and nuanced, so much so that they were signed to Matador Records—the legendary indie label and home to bands like Yo La Tengo, Pavement and Belle & Sebastian—after playing only a few shows.

However, the dense sound and brooding lyrics on Esben’s recently released debut, Violet Cries, certainly speak to the alienated, estranged teenager within us all. Singer and bassist Rachel Davies says the band doesn’t necessarily mind being called “dark” or “gothic.” After all, the band is named after a Danish fairy tale with scenes of child abuse, human sacrifice and all kinds of bloodletting. But she’s also quick to point out that the name doesn’t completely encapsulate them or their sound.

“People listen to our music before meeting us and they have this perception that we’re going to be dark, morbid characters who don’t want to speak to anyone,” the affable Davies says over the phone between tour stops. “The whole gothic thing was never something we thought of ourselves as. We just explore subjects we find intriguing and evocative. It just so happens that some of those things fall into that, well, dark bracket.”

The band, which also includes multi-instrumentalists Daniel Copeman and Thomas Fisher, originally met in the “resort” town (according to a tourist website) of Brighton, England, a beach city just north of the English Channel. A Google image search pulls up pictures of lovely beaches and sunshine bouncing off of buildings. But what the PR doesn’t tell you is that the weather is shit most of the year and summers are hot as Hell.

“We are definitely inspired by the places we inhabit and those we visit, but equally we draw upon landscapes we’ve never seen,” Davies said in an interview with the music website The Quietus. “Places on ancient maps, lost cities and the people who lived in them, desolate plains, glaciers, mountain tarns.”

No member of the band is originally from Brighton, and Davies says the three immediately bonded over writers like J.G. Ballard and bands like Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Copeman and Fisher had been making instrumental music together for a while, but they found an unlikely muse in the diminutive Davies. Her voice—think a less-banshee Siouxsie Sioux with a dash of PJ Harvey circa To Bring You My Love—is an astounding instrument, considering she’s never had any formal training. On the album, her voice is often looped so that it sounds like she’s singing behind a chorus of wails.

What’s most interesting about Esben is that while songs like “Warpath” and “Light Streams” are heavily syncopated, the band does not have a drummer. Listeners might be shocked when they show up to an Esben show thinking the band’s sound is going to be scaled down, only to find the members collectively beating on drums, running around stage and creating an expansive wall of sound.

“There’s only three of us to create all this noise, and we don’t want to rely on backing tracks, so there’s a certain amount of reimagining when we play the songs live,” Davies says. “We all enjoy going to shows where you leave feeling like you truly witnessed something. We want the show to be very immersive and aggressive in some ways. Even theatrical.”

While the theatrics and lyrics might not help Esben shake off the goth-rock pigeonholing, Davies says they don’t worry about it too much. After all, they’re still young.

“We’re learning a lot as we go along. We’re quite naive, really, but we’re trying to embrace that naiveté to our advantage.”    

Esben and the Witch perform with Tapedeck Mountain and Otis Heat at The Casbah on Monday, March 21.