Interview: Bell Witch
I think part of the idea is just throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks and when it does stick. . . Whatever the medium it's kind of just has a mind of its own. After a while, it just starts to take the wheel and it's more like the artist is merely conducting the train that is on tracks.
It’s no secret that Seattle’s epic doom duo, Bell Witch, are long-time favourites of Echoes and Dust. Not content with their celebrated 90-minute long Mirror Reaper, the doomsome twosome have embarked on a three-album sequence (Future’s Shadow), part one of which was released in April. Jody Dunstan caught up with bassist and vocalist Dylan Desmond before their show at Arctangent, and discussed their creative process and the challenges of making an album triptych. . . and spaghetti.
E&D: So just for those who are unaware, can you give us a little background of the band, how you got to where you are today?
Dylan: So Bell Witch started in 2010, I think. The then drummer, Adrian Guerra and I were in another band before that that was kind of breaking up and there was a guitar player and Adrian and I had been practicing a lot together just as a rhythm section. When that band broke up, we started working on things that were different. A promoter in Seattle asked us to play a show with the old band. And I was like, sorry, the old band’s broken up. Can’t happen. She was like, who cares? Start a new band!
E&D: Like you do, right? Right.
Dylan: Yeah. And it was like, well, okay. I remember calling Adrian being like, Michelle wants us to play this show. What do you think? He was like, well, we could do that weird thing that we’ve been practicing that the guitar player never showed up for. I was like, okay, yeah, let’s just, let’s just do that. So we kind of just started tinkering with these, we had like three songs that we just started expanding on and, we played this show and everyone seemed to like it. We’re like, whoa, let’s, let’s do it again. Um, I owned a club at the time, so I started, you know, just to fill out bills. I just started throwing my own band on it. Like, I can probably bring 10 people out. It’s better than nothing and it just kind of, we just started practicing all the time to play all those shows and then we started going on tours and it just kind of kept expanding and expanding and. . .
E&D: Snowballed as they say.
Dylan: Yeah. The next thing I know, I’m here in England having a conversation with you very far from home (laughs).
E&D: Exciting. Well, I hope the reception has been good.
Dylan: Yeah, It’s been great. It’s been wonderful. It’s like, it’s mind-blowing, like continuously mind-blowing.
E&D: I’ve had a listen to your new album [Future’s Shadow Part 1: The Clandestine Gate]. How on earth do you start to create something like that, this big long passage of music?
Dylan: Uh, this particular one just started with one little riff that was just three notes repeated over and over and over. And it kind of just kept expanding off of that. And so like, I was just trying to write as many riffs as possible. They were all kind of based off that one. And some, a lot of ’em went in a certain direction that was kind of unconnected, and there’s a lot of ’em that connected really well.
So there’s a lot of shit that just kind of got thrown to the side, like, that just doesn’t work anymore. Like, it’s fine for what it is. Maybe it could be used for something else, but it doesn’t quite fit with this; and at the end of it, there’s like all these different narratives that kind of go off. And the challenge was figuring out where those all go to make sort of a concise storyline that works in kind of a, a loop if the song is to be compared to a story, I suppose maybe a little woo woo of me.
But, yeah, we got the first one out. Obviously that’s recorded. The second two have a very solid structure that’s going to be probably broken and put back together 21 times before they’re each done. But we’ve got a really good direction on how to approach them both
E&D: So you’re not sort of starting with some sort of grand vision? It seems it’s developing organically?
Dylan: Yeah, I think it developed organically, but I think that some of the grandiosity of it did come about at the beginning. I think like the idea of making the three albums kind of spurred off that idea of those three notes – ironically enough those three notes that were like the beginning of it all, that got scrapped itself. So, that’s long gone. I think maybe some of those over-the-top ideas did start coming about early on. Then, you know, we just kind of kept running with that.
It’s very possible we could have scrapped the idea of the three albums. And at times, we almost made it two albums; and we’re like, well, it could be four, there could even be this extra part. We’ll do a whole hour-long ambient thing that’ll go at the end that got vetoed, unfortunately.
I think part of the idea is just throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks and when it does stick, how you know what’s in that; you know, there’s sort of like a divination. I think this is true of a lot of art. Whatever the medium it kind of just has a mind of its own. After a while, it starts to take the wheel and it’s more like the artist is merely conducting the train that is on tracks. They just have to make sure it doesn’t, you know, hit something!
E&D: That’s really interesting actually. As a band, you need to get to a a consensus of opinion that you’re sure that this is right?
Dylan: Sure. I would say if you’ve got four members of the band and they’re all in the room, they all probably all wanted to sound a little differently. But because those four have all come together, it’s going to sound like all those little differences of opinions and those differences of egos are all gonna combine into the one song; and it’s gonna have its own personality, which maybe it’s kind of fatalistic of me, but I would say that that’s kind of like the outcome that’s supposed to come up. That situation, like that song is supposed to sound exactly like what those four people, all of their influences, their ives, their whatever they want be playing, saying, etc., just goes right into it. And that’s just kind of the way it’s gotta be.
E&D: I remember someone saying sculptors see the sculpture inside the rock ’cause they have to remove the bits that they don’t need.
Dylan: Yeah. That’s cool. That’s a good analogy.
E&D: So what’s coming next? Do you know that yet? Or is That something that’s gonna develop as you go?
Dylan: Yeah, it, it’ll continue to develop. So, Album Two, I’ve gotten that in the bag. I’ve got a chart of what Album Two is, what the structure’s gonna look like. And we’ve played through a lot of it. It was originally going to be Album One, and then there was a spot where we’re like, right there, [for] Album One, this part right here needs a better connector, the transition’s off. And next thing you know, we have like 40 minutes of music right in the middle. It’s like, oh damn. . . I guess Album Two is already written (laughs). But as we take into album two, I expect similar things will happen.
And we’re both going to grow as musicians from touring this much, from playing: we’re gonna have life experiences that are gonna make us approach things differently. So I think that Album Two will, as well as Three, will just continue to evolve as any, as a human being does. So the song will continue to do the same thing in and of itself. So I think that a lot of the structure that’s already ripped is very likely just to get thrown aside. But it’s a great starting point.
E&D: I guess it’s quite nice to have the freedom to be able to do that, right?
Dylan: Hell yeah! It’s great. It’s the fucking best feeling.
E&D: And if people like it all the better, right?
Dylan: Yeah. And if they don’t, that’s okay too. There’s always naysayers and that’s fine. But I guess, as I’m talking about this, I can see that I’m kind of contradicting myself and talking about how it, the song, is sort of writing itself and the artist in whatever medium is the conductor. And I’m also saying that as the artist is growing, But I think that is also part of the complexity of it, that it’s just gonna keep expanding in and of itself, and growing in and of itself. And it’s almost like that’s, uh, just not designed to be that way, but it just has to be that way.
E&D: I think it’s, you’ll know what it is there.
Dylan: Yeah. Exactly. That’s it.
E&D: So what’s your inspiration? What’s driving you and anything? I mean, it doesn’t have to be music; maybe outside music?
Dylan: With Bell Witch, there’s always been an angle towards literature. There’s always been an idea or storytelling. So there’s always been this idea of let’s try to make a story, so to say. And I think that like with Mirror Reaper, we were able to really do that because we were able to tell a longer story, which was great. And I think with this one, it’s interesting ’cause the storyline, the narrative, is sort of changed where it becomes a circular story as opposed to just a linear start to finish, which is fun.
I think that when little weird ideas come about like that and it’s just Jesse [Shreibman] and me, we’re sitting to practise, talking about how we’re gonna go about this, and we’re kind of conceptualizing and talking about like the ins and the outs of what’s the ultimate goal here. So we cut some of those ideas, adding new ideas. It’s like, that shit’s exciting. It’s be fun to think about what’s gonna happen and what we’re trying to do. And more ideas just start brewing. It’s so much fun. I mean, that’s what it’s all about.
E&D: You said earlier that people’s life experience is gonna drive and change them, and maybe that comes forward in the music subconsciously?
Dylan: Absolutely. I think that the way that we cook our breakfast in the morning is probably a residue of how we went to sleep the night before. To some extent, you know, to maybe overly simplify things. I guess I can’t speak for other artistic mediums other than songwriting, but I think it definitely comes from one’s experience.
It’s like when we were doing the heavy composition structuring of this song, he and I were both having really fucking weird shit happen to us in our lives in addition to the Pandemic. And maybe these things came about from the Pandemic, who knows. I think that definitely played into it. And there’s particular spots on the recording, parts I think are really bleak; and I think that’s because when we were writing that part, we were both fucked up.And it just, it just comes out and that’s awesome. It’s better than bottling it up, that’s for sure.
E&D: Well, I have talked to a couple of bands about that – of having a release on stage to get it all out of your system.
Dylan: Absolutely. Yeah. I think that black metal does it a lot where the musicians are doing crazy shit on stage, and there’s props and there’s blood. And I think that taps into a similar thing. I mean, all performance art is kind of going at that sort of release, like getting something out that’s in there.
E&D: It’s quite primal, isn’t it?
Dylan: Very primal. Yeah. But shared amongst all of us, in varying degrees.It’s healthier than being a serial killer!
E&D: Are there any other bands you wanna give a shout out to? Anyone we should be listening to at the moment?
Dylan: Jesse has another band going on tour directly after this one called Autophagy. They have a record out, I believe earlier this year. Can I just like, make plugs for members of my own band right now?
E&D: Sure, there are no rules!
Dylan: Right (laughs). I’ve got a band called Pyrkagion that just released an EP yesterday – black metal stuff. I have a solo, kind of dark, ambient synth thing that’s coming out probably in a couple months. More on that soon. I have another band called Serpentent that had a record out last year, which is kind of like dark psychedelic folk, in that direction. Yeah, that’s everything I can think of!
E&D: That’ll keep us busy for a while!