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Witches photograph

Oxford’s Witches have been steadily gaining friends and fans within the local scene for the last eighteen months or so, and growing in confidence and quality as both a live and recorded proposition. They’re a complex, multi-instrumentalist take on the dark-edged pop music of bands like Sparklehorse and American Music Club, but are managing to develop a sound all their own, with fragile vocals delivering strange, sinister lyrics, growling guitars, creepy rhythms, trumpet and glockenspiel. At present – February 2007 – they’ve self-released a couple of singles and are in the process of assembling a debut album; now would be a good time to introduce yourself to their music and follow as it gets better and better.

Dave Balch, Dan Burt, Dave Griffiths and Tim Roberts from Witches kindly answered my questions…

Basic stuff first. Who is in the band, what do you do, did you used to be in other bands, when was Witches formed and why?

DG: Dave Balch plays drums, Dan Burt plays guitars and bass, Benek Chylinski plays trumpet and glockenspiel, Dave Griffiths sings and plays guitar, Tim Roberts plays guitar and Richard Thomas plays synth, piano and bass. Dave G previously played in eeebleee, Tim played with Richard Walters and in Polysoul and Dave B played with Barry and the Beachcombers. Dan played in local bands back in the heady days of the late 80s, then drifted off into electronica and home recording. Witches was formed in December 2004. Dave G had recently left Oxford-based keyboard-led glitch-rock band eeebleee and wanted to start something more guitar-driven with a stronger live sound. Originally a four-piece line-up (v&g, g, b, d) Witches expanded during the summer of 2005 to include two additional members – Polish funeral trumpet player Benek Chylinski and Oxford-based songwriter and noise-maker Dan Burt, originally brought in as graphics wizard for Witches live shows – and a whole host of additional instruments spread throughout the band.

What do you think you sound like, and how is that different from what other people have said or written about you?

DG: With Witches being such a large band, and with songwriting being largely a collaborative effort, the range of influences contained within many of the songs is pretty sizable. Tim cites Death Cab for Cutie and Radiohead as his two main influences, whereas Benek mainly listens to classical and jazz. Dave G and Dan are more influenced by Americana and sixties psychedelia (from Richmond Fontaine through to Gong and Tyrannosaurus Rex), whereas Richard is heavily into downbeat stuff like Low, Neutral Milk Hotel and Iron and Wine. At the rock end of the spectrum, Dave B is into bands like Nirvana and Sepultura, though listens to all sorts of things, including more downbeat stuff with unusual sounds and rhythms.

DG: People don’t seem to compare us to other bands all that often; more often than not people state that we have a sound unlike anything they’ve heard before. We’ve had a few people compare us to bands like The Flaming Lips and Belle and Sebastian, but these bands are diverse in themselves, suggesting that people hear influences in certain tracks rather than an overall set of influences covering a full set of songs. Generally speaking, however, most of the time we agree with what people say we sound like, simply because there are so many influences that what they say is probably in there somewhere.

Which is your favourite of your own tracks and why?

DG: ‘Multiple Personality Detective’. I always wanted a track that sounded like Let’s Get Lost by dEUS. This track nearly achieves that objective. I also like it because it was the first track that Dan brought to the band. He contributed the chords and general riffage, and I added some arrangement ideas, additional melody lines and lyrics. Everyone else further enriched the song by developing the ideas further – I particularly like Tim’s guitar and Benek’s trumpet towards the end.

TR: ‘Summer Aftenoon’. It has a nice chilled vibe and I’m really pleased with the guitar part at the end.

DaveB: ‘Putting You Back in the Ground’ (the studio version from the Chaos EP) – even though I don’t play on it. Nice dubby bassline, cool drums programmed by Tim, with these gentle vocals and guitar, developing into something a bit harder edged. I also think it might be about murder.

How has Myspace/the internet helped your band?

DG: Myspace seems to have become the centre of the universe, particularly for bands. It is amazing that such a clunky website should become so useful to such a wide range of musicians around the world. Nearly all of our e-mail correspondance these days is done via Myspace. Record companies now ask for Myspace links instead of CDs. Yes, it’s incredibly useful, but I think it’s only a matter of time before something better comes along (like Last.fm) and takes over.

DaveB: I hate Myspace. It’s only good attribute is that lots of people have heard about it – it sucks in all other possible ways. I want Last.fm to fix their unique band names problem, then they can take ove r. I find the internet is great for finding music (and trivia) you’ve never heard of before – I want more spare time to browse Last.fm and Wikipedia finding more cool music. The other side of that coin is that people can get their own music out and get feedback, maybe even a little bit of money.

What have you been listening to/reading lately that you’d recommend?

DG: Daniel Johnston is my new favourite. His new album Fear Yourself is produced by Mark Linkous and is about as beautiful as it gets. The recent film The Devil and Daniel Johnston accompanies the album perfectly, though it doesn’t seem to feature any of the Fear Yourself recordings. I’m currently reading Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time, which is inspiring me to write my first book, and a collection of Phillip K. Dick stories.

TR: I have too many books half-read at the moment, but I’m enjoying Cold Mountain (I’m a bit behind the times I think!). I’ve been listening to The Longpigs again recently, and I really like their sound.

DanB: I’m really enjoying There’s No 666 In Outer Space by Hella – brutally intense, but highly atmospheric and nicely constructed. I’m not much of a reader, preferring graphic novels in general – at the moment I’m really enjoying The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, and am slowly working through World War Z by Max Brookes. I love zombies – that’s why I work for Oxford University.

DaveB: I’m liking random things at the moment: ‘Caipirinha’ – Peeping Tom, ‘I’m Your Boogie Man’ (Sex on the Rocks mix) – White Zombie, ‘Ladies Do Love Me’ – djBC and The Beastles. Some light reading in the form of Terry Pratchett – good if you don’t want to think a great de al.

What’s so great about Oxford?

DG: Music, eating, interesting people, proximity to the beautiful English countryside, diversity, in short – everything. The fact that so many people I know move to London and then move back again.

TR: A lot of my friends complain that Oxford is too small, but I think that is one of the things I like most about it. You are always likely to meet some one you know, and there seems to only be two degrees of separation between any one you meet – that is kind of how Witches came together really.

DanB: The architecture, plus the fact I can cycle from one side the other in less than 20 minutes.

Do you feel an affiliation with any community, with regards to the music you make?

DG: I guess we’re a part of the Oxford independant bands music scene (for want of a better title), and various people within it have been hugely supportive, particularly during the past year. Top of our hitlist include BBC Radio Oxford, Autumn at the Zodiac, Stuart from Oxfordbands, Ronan from Nightshift and various touring bands, particularly Blackbud and Low vs Diamond. Without help from these people we’d almost certainly be getting nowhere. They help us to feel a part of a larger, supportive infrastructure, one that can be very supportive whilst being healthily competitive.

How important are lyrics to your songs, and where do you tend to come up with lyrical content?

DG: Lyrics are pretty essential to Witches tracks, since I think we’re generally a song band, though we’re currently working on a couple of instrumental numbers so as to provide some variety to the album. I generally write most of the lyrics, and they’re normally improvised in the first instance, stream of consciousness stuff. Later on, when I get around to it, I start shaping and developing the lyrics around a particular theme. If I hit on an emotive thought I find the words generally just splatter on the page, a kind of emotional vomit. I’m often asked if some of the songs are about people I know. They’re generally about no-one – it’s often easier to personify an emotion, disguising it as something else so as to avoid being too blatant about everything.

What would you be willing to give up/sacrifice for success in your band? Are you DIY purists or major label aspirationists?

DG: I would give up my job and my (already pretty basic) standard of living if it meant I could make music in Witches for a living. I could never give up my relationship, my family or my friends. I think all of Witches would most like to be on a decent independent label, though in the meantime we’re happy with the DIY approach. We’ll keep making records regardless.

TR: We just enjoy the music we make so we wouldnĂ­t ever want to change that just for the sake of popularity or to please a particular group. We’d all love to get signed and put out a record, but the DIY approach means that we can continue making the music we like regardless.

DB: I’d love to be able to spend more time working with the band, and less time working with computers, so I’d be grateful for the opportunity whatever form it came in.

DaveB: I find most things are negotiable if the right deal comes along. I don’t think I’d have a problem with a major label, but I don’t see that we’re really major label material – a nice independent would be cool.

If diskant could buy you one thing for your band for Christmas, what would it be?

DG: Six return tickets to Poland and some extra holiday allowance so we can go and meet Benek’s family. And air conditioning for Room C at Oxford’s Rotator rehearsal studios.

TR: …and possibly a few more bottles of the intoxicating spritits that Benek brought back last time he went home.

DanB: a farmhouse in Normandy and a family of goats.

DaveB: Dan’s idea sounds nice, so long as we’ve a nice royalty income to live off of…

Websites: www.witchesband.com / www.myspace.com/witchesband