In the Danish fairy tale “Esben and the Witch”, the youngest and smallest of a farmer’s 12 sons saves his brothers from losing their heads to an evil, bearded old hag by tricking the witch into beheading her own daughters instead. And that’s at the beginning of the story!
English musician Daniel Copeman plays in a band named after the grim tale. Reached at a tour stop in Toronto, the guitarist says, “It’s your classic sort of underdog fairy tale, but with a few sort of malevolent twists, where people get their heads chopped off and people get burned in ovens and stuff like that. It’s quite macabre, but we’re drawn to the imagery and everything of it.”
Indeed, the music of Esben and the Witch, as heard on the Brighton-based trio’s debut LP, Violet Cries, is dark and foreboding, shot through with a threat of imminent sonic violence that never quite materializes, lending the whole affair an air of unresolved tension. The focal point is singer Rachel Davies’s plaintive voice, saturated in reverb and surrounded by alternately crashing and ebbing waves of delay- and chorus-treated guitar and electronics, courtesy of Copeman and multi-instrumentalist Thomas Fisher.
You could call it gothic rock (as many already have), but not if you’re hoping to get on Copeman’s good side. He’s heard all the Siouxsie and the Banshees comparisons he wants to hear, thank you. “It feels very glib for someone to say to a band, ”˜You haven’t made something new; you’ve just made something that sounds like it was made 20 years ago,’ every time the band does something,” he says. “From a journalistic point of view, it seems strange that journalists wouldn’t want to describe what they’re hearing in a new way.”
In fact, Copeman has no interest in labelling what Esben and the Witch does at all. “People seem to have to put a genre on something, otherwise they don’t feel like other people will be able to understand what they’re talking about,” he says. “I’d like to give people more credit than that.”
Copeman and his bandmates probably don’t have much time to ponder what their music should be called in any case. Things have moved pretty quickly for Esben and the Witch since it put out a self-released EP called 33 in late 2009. The trio’s audience expanded immeasurably when Pitchfork posted one of its tracks, the incendiary “Marching Song”, the following January. Tours with the likes of the Big Pink, School of Seven Bells, and Deerhunter followed, as did the inking of a deal with Matador Records.
All very awesome, and Copeman insists he isn’t taking any of it for granted. “It never gets any less exciting,” he says. “Touring North America as a headline band is something that none of us ever expected to have the opportunity to do, and it feels bizarre but wonderful at the same time. Being able to come to Vancouver and play a gig—I didn’t think I’d ever get to go to Vancouver, let alone go do something that I loved.”