Feature / Dis/Engage: An Interview with Bell Witch

The new album is just over 80 minutes long. How does one song get to be that long?

Dylan Desmond: Well, the original thing that happened was that we just kept expanding on an idea. This is the second one we’ve done that’s roughly this length, and I think as we were working on Stygian Boughs stuff, it didn’t feel done. In order for this song to be a fully-made statement, it needs more and needs a full scope of things that sometimes can’t be said very quickly.

Jesse Shreibman: These are absolutely the longest songs I’ve ever been involved with! There was an old band I was in that played a long song, but it was only 30 minutes, and it was fast. We minimise the instrumentation because it’s slow and it’s just two people doing all the stuff, but I think there’s a tendency on both our parts to see where it can go next, or further expand on one little thing. I can only speak for myself, but I always have way too many ideas and it just spurts out, and we both have a tendency to continue this building, whereas in other bands I’ve been in there’s always someone who wants to minimise that or cut it off. For whatever reason both of our personality types seem to keep building and building and building. We both also like long-ass movies and long-ass books, and we both finish them! Not everyone always does that! The other media and mediums that we’re both attracted to are tying into this idea of building bigger and more epic. We can focus in on specific motifs and movements if we have no time limit.  

So it’s really drilling down into this one concept and exploring it to whatever feels like its absolute limit? The other half of this question is: what is your general composition process like? Is it more akin to writing classical music than to a “standard” song – i.e. working around one or two central riffs and/or lyrics?

Dylan: A lot of times it’ll expand over weeks, months, years maybe. Following that train that Jesse just started, we do keep expanding on ideas and spreading them out and looking for more ways to illuminate an idea. As Jesse was talking about long movies, long books, I started thinking of a book by Octavio Paz called The Bow and the Lyre (El arco y la lira) and he talks about how modern poetry is a photograph or a painting. With a painting you might look at an image for hours and try to look at every tiny detail, and that’s what we’re doing with a Bell Witch song. We might have a riff and then we try to look at what’s in that riff. Let’s try to go through and define every turn of the pen or the paintbrush. As opposed to other bands I’ve been in where it’s more like, “how do we compact this to package it and make it a unit? OK, got it, next riff.” And I’ve been in other bands where going from one riff to another isn’t necessarily that important, you just do it, you fly over it. Whereas what Paz was saying about poetry and photographs is you have to pay attention to the very subtle details and all of a sudden there is a transition from this golden spot to the skull outside of it. When we’re writing a song, we are looking at it to try and find the little intricacies of what’s going on and let those take their own vitality and let them be themselves. We have to see it first too, but it’s like it’s already there—there is an outline or a structure that we’ve envisioned and then we have to poke at it and look at the angles and try to understand what we’ve seen and give it the proper time to blossom into what it already is.

That makes sense, like you can plant a seed and let it grow into its full magnificence or you can get a bonsai kit to trim it to the smallest possible version.

Jesse: Similar to what you mentioned about many bands where there’s a riff and you dig into it, we do that same thing and then there’s all these other textures at our disposal. We can use synthesizers, we throw organs on things, whatever. For example, on the new album, for every section of that, we probably had, no joke, between three and ten different versions of each of those parts that we tried out that might have been finished but then the next part would come and we would think, “fuck that, that’s gone, that didn’t work at all.” So there’s still that same thing with the riff building and the transitions but the unique and fun thing about this experiment that is Bell Witch is that we aren’t afraid to completely scrap it. We might work on a part for months – not always the same part, we’ll hop around—but there’s a part in my head that we spent, off and on, eight months on that we scrapped. There are so many versions of this particular section, a fifteen-minute section, and it’s great, but I have no idea where it’s going to go. I hope it goes somewhere! I don’t remember all the versions we have. It’s recorded somewhere. Then, once we have the riffs, we’ll think, “does it need organs, synths, vocals?” What’s been nice about this process over time is that there isn’t a feeling of “wasting time” necessarily. In some bands, there might be some impatience about, “we’ve worked on this long enough,” etc. We’ll bicker about it sometimes, but I think I’m starting to enjoy that we can work on something that long and then scrap it.  

So, one of the things I was wondering about the composition process was that it feels more akin to classical music than “standard composition.” But I’m wondering now if it’s more—and maybe this is sounding a bit over-grand—like the painting of the Sistine Chapel where you can work on one bit for months at a time and then have to take a step back and move elsewhere. Is that an apt metaphor, or am I talking nonsense? 

Dylan: I think that’s fair. There’s definitely some of that. Sometimes we’ll do that for months and then think, “oh wait, that doesn’t work, it doesn’t fit with everything else. Maybe that’s a thing in and of itself that needs to be something we’ll come back to.” Michelangelo didn’t have that luxury!  

But you’ve got all the recordings and you can go back to another point. Do you ever find yourselves arguing about the arrangements or is it more harmonious?

Dylan: We’re always going back and forth and feeling ideas out. “Vocals here? Let’s try it.” “Does this part need synths?” It’s a constant process of toying with a section and seeing if it fits. It’s feeling out, “how does this work?” And then there’ll be a moment of, “oh, that’s how it works.” The answer is always there; it just has to be illuminated.

Jesse: What’s interesting about this, what’s just popped into my head is those “all rest” moments in classical music. We’re doing those “all rests” but they’re in the form of a dynamic shift rather than a full rest. In a larger piece there might be four movements and the orchestra will stop and start again or there’s an intermission. What we’re doing is a similar thing where there are motifs or movements from each part that return again. But we’re ditching the “all rest” and making it into the form of a bass passage or an organ passage and it’s a mood shift that will segue into a new piece as part of the larger whole. When it comes to this triptych, we’ve got some work cut out for ourselves, but the idea is that with those ebbs and flows this giant larger piece, once the third one comes out, those movements and ideas will be fully illuminated.  

Do you have all three movements planned out? Or is the future still unwritten? I’m sure I read that the next part of this triptych is coming next year!

Dylan: Next year would be great! I have so many files with different names, and there is a tentative structure now for the next two records.

It sounds like editing a film, in some way.

Dylan: Sure! I would say so.

Jesse: And what’s cool is that we’ve rehearsed the second record a lot. It’s not in its full form, but we’ve played a lot of the parts of what will be on the second record live. We toured on some of the material that’s going to be on the second record when we were on tour with Neurosis and Mono. This is a good example of how the songwriting will take on a life of its own: the second record was supposed to be the first record, and that was what we scrapped. We ended up completely flipping everything around. It was more of a set than a finished piece, and the parts of it got moved around, and some ended up on the first record. We already have an idea of parts that will come back later. Maybe there’ll be a verse and a chorus in there!

Dylan: It’s so much fun. It was just like the song took the wheel away from us. There was back and forth about it but after a while it felt like, “there’s something that needs to go between these parts” and so on. There’s a thing we’re tapping into, and it’s something that Arthur Rimbaud came up with: “Je est un autre.” The individual is another. The individual is an unseen influence and force. What we’re tapping into is the idea that the song takes the reins itself and the song is conducting us to write it.

Often in a live setting, the headliners only have an hour to maybe 90 minutes. Do you find yourselves limited in live settings? And could there ever be “An Evening with Bell Witch” where you played everything you’ve written? 

Dylan: There’d have to be bathroom breaks! This past weekend we played a festival, Northwest Terrorfest, and a couple of weeks ahead of time they sent out an email to everyone involved with set lenghts. We had a 30-minute set length, and we found ourselves asking, “what do we do now?” And to some extent that’s normal. No venue is ever going to say, “we’ll stay open as long as you need.” We have to fit within a set length, but 30 minutes is a big cut out of what we play!

Jesse: We’ve always figured it out. We always try to put a heavy focus on making sure the set doesn’t feel out of context. It can be challenging, but it always works out. If they give us a 20-minute set we might be screwed! We played the second third of the new record on this last tour, but it worked. We’ve done a seated tour for Mirror Reaper, which was a little like that idea of “An Evening with Bell Witch,” and that was nice.

Dylan: Next time we’ll have to get them to make dinner for the audience.  

Jesse: If we’re doing the dinner theatre thing, we’re doing something wrong. But my grandma would be stoked.

Dylan: We’d need outfits! We could dress up.

There was a fascinating article in The Quietus recently about musical art installations set over lengthy timescales, including one guy who was doing a snare drum roll for 30 minutes. It can be an endurance test for the audience, and for the musicians. Do you ever feel, either for yourselves or the audience, that your music is an endurance test? Or is it designed to be meditative or contemplative in some way? What do you feel your relationship is to timescale in your compositions?

Dylan: We’re not doing anything like that drum roll piece, but there are moments where something of that spirit is being touched on. If I were watching that guy doing that drum roll, I would probably get into a weird headspace, so long as my mind doesn’t wander! If I was able to immerse myself into something like that though, I would feel like I had to hold on, no matter how hard it was. There’s a lot of emotions like satisfaction that come with doing that. And we’re definitely poking at that nerve even if we’re not doing that exact endurance thing. In this album, there’s a bass part that’s just bass, that’s poking at that particular nerve. It’s more structured as a riff progression and it’s in that spirit of communicating the idea of, “hold on, push through.” When we’re putting something together, there’s a broad storyline being told than what would be hyper focused on in the thirty minutes of snare roll. We’re not making one concise statement; we’re making a broad one with a lot of dramatic flair all over the place that sometimes relies on that method.

The article goes on and looks at an installation in a church in Germany wherein every note of the organ is going be playing at once, but won’t finish until the year 2640!

Jesse: I think we are experimenting with time in its own right. It’s in the eye of the beholder. For some people it might be a sound bath. For some it might be the biggest waste of time they’ve ever experienced! Time is a commodity, it can be fleeting, or it can take forever; it’s relative to who is around you and who is experiencing it. What I do appreciate about the fact that we’re even being correlated with performance art in that regard, we are helping people experience time in a different manner. If they like it or not, that’s up to them, but I like the idea that digitally you have to listen to the whole thing or nothing, and it’s hard to skip around. I feel like our lives are becoming fast food and the way we consume everything is instant gratification. I struggle throughout our band practices, sometimes, to not use my phone. We’re all in that space. I watched Bell Witch before I joined, and I can only assume it’s forcing people to disengage while theoretically engaging with what we’re doing. They’re still disengaging enough to feel that change, and I believe that has an intrinsic value, especially with the way we’re living now.

How did you come to find your artistic homes in the doom subgenre, and more particularly in the realm of funeral doom and drone, and what other bands would you recommend for someone looking to explore your artistic niche?

Dylan: Bell Witch came about from Adrian and I listening to Worship, Skepticism, Thergothon, Mournful Congregation, and how cool we thought those bands were. Jesse’s first show with Bell Witch was us playing with Worship in Seattle.

Jesse: I got welcomed into the doom metal family by a German guy, it was awesome.

Do you ever find yourselves thinking, “this is all a bit much; we just want something fast.” What’s the fastest band you listen to?

Jesse: I used to play in a grindcore band! I’ve been on a compilation that was 110 songs on one 7” and we wrote a ten-second song with four parts!

That’s the complete opposite end of the spectrum to Bell Witch! That’s so impressive.

Dylan: We have single notes that go longer than ten seconds!

Did you set out always enjoying and wanting to play doom metal or was it something you fell into?

Dylan: Doom metal has always been around. If you’re going to metal shows and listening to metal, you’ve encountered doom metal. Black Sabbath started the whole thing and started it with what we would now call doom metal, basically.

Jesse: I remember the first out-of-town show I played with the first touring band I was in was with Asunder and Graves at Sea. We were a fast band! For me, Asunder were my gateway, they were the band that got me interested in it. I was a little too young and into the fast stuff to delve into it. But them, live, it was awesome.

Bell Witch’s new record, Future’s Shadow Part 1: The Clandestine Gate, is out now via Profound Lore Records and can be purchased here.

Words: Nick Dunn

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