Putting themselves quickly at the fore of a burgeoning Stateside death-doom revival, Seattle-based duo Bell Witch made their debut in 2011 with a remarkably well-received demo. The initial four-track release (review here) landed with enough of an impact to bring bassist/vocalist Dylan Desmond (also of Samothrace) and drummer/vocalist Adrian Guerra (formerly of Sod Hauler) to the attention of tastemaking imprint Profound Lore, which picked them up for the release of the subsequent debut, Longing (review here). Desmond and Guerra, who’d released an album called Mnemosyne together as part of a heavy psychedelic trio called Lethe (review here), departed those stylistic confines with Bell Witch, opting instead for the dreary drama and far-off melodicism they present on Longing‘s six-track/67-minute sprawl.
It’s a fascinating album for several reasons. Primarily because Desmond and Guerra do so well in alternating between a sense of wide-open space, oppressive tonality and nascent harmonized vocals, but also because of the intricacies they bring to the material, working in defiance of the notion that just because something is slow and open-sounding, it has to be simple all the time. That’s never been true, and as Bell Witch switch between growls and clean-sung arrangements and Desmond taps his six-string bass to emulate a guitar solo, it’s clear that there’s more to the band than just holding out riffs until the sound fades away — though when they do that as well, it works greatly to enhance the atmosphere of Longing, the mood of which has no trouble living up to the title it’s been given.
Perhaps the album’s greatest achievement comes on 13-minute second track “Rows (of Endless Waves),” on which Desmond and Guerra, both contributing to the initial barrage of screams and growls, are joined by Erik Moggridge, known for his Portland, Oregon-based solo-project, Aerial Ruin. As the lumbering fury winds down, Moggridge comes on to top periodic rhythm lines and higher-register bass notes with folkish verses that don’t necessarily depart from the darkness of the rest of the full-length, but provide complexity and depth to what that darkness means on a sonic level. At 9:35, bolstered by colossal instrumental swell, Moggridge leads a defiant recitation of vaguely Celtic-derived sway, and from the standpoint of melody and emotional resonance, it’s as rich as Longing gets, begging in its last minute to be sung along to as the waves of destruction mentioned in the lyrics seem to be crashing all around the final moaning vocalizations.
The inclusion and expansion of “Beneath the Mask” and “I Wait” from the demo was a launch point for the conversation, but there was much more than just that I wanted to discuss with Desmond, including the differences between recording with Bell Witch and with Samothrace — whose 2012 outing, Reverence to Stone (review here), was among the year’s most exciting albums, on recording Longing and what other than those two tracks they wanted to bring to their first album, on the use of melody and how it might continue to develop on their next batch of material, which Desmond reveals is already in progress. Choosing his words carefully, the bassist talked openly about all these and more.
Please find the complete 3,200-word Q&A after the jump, and please enjoy:
We were initially thinking of using “Mayknow” from the demo, and Adrian and I balanced it out for awhile and eventually we came to the conclusion that we kind of liked “I Wait” better with the other songs that we had, and we were like, “Let’s just hold onto ‘Mayknow’ for the next one.”
So it’s not off the table.
No, not at all. We’ll maybe restructure it a little bit, maybe add a couple more vocal parts and put it out kind of new.
You did kind of the same thing with “I Wait.”
Yeah. We tried to go through and do some fine touches more or less. Just tighten a few loose ends that it had. For example, one of the bass leads, kind of in the middle of the song. On the demo, I wasn’t so happy with the way that it went. I wanted it to be a little bit more drone-y. On the demo, I think it was al little more weeping, I wanted it to be a little more bummed out, maybe a little more… lagging? No, not lagging. I wanted it to be more of a bummer. I tried to just give it more of a morose feel. That was a change. I added a singing vocal line to the beginning of it. There’s one part where the opening riff goes soft for a second and it kind of comes back in later on, and I thought, I want to put vocals when it goes soft, because it kind of sounded boring, to me at least. It sounded boring when it went soft. Around the time we did the demo, I had a little spoken word part I was doing there, and I didn’t include that on the demo because it sounded cheesy, so I left it out. When it came time to record it again, I was like, “Okay, I want to fill that up with something,” so it ended up being that little sung part that I did.
When were the rest of the songs written? Just over the course of the last year?
Yeah. I think “Bails” would’ve been the most recent one, “Longing” right around the same time more or less, and “Rows” was actually kind of an older song that we’d been doing. “Rows” was actually the second song that we ever wrote. It would’ve been “I Wait,” then “Rows.” We don’t really get to play “Rows” too often, because without Erik [Moggridge, Aerial Ruin] doing the other vocals, it sounds thin, I think. Whenever we’re in Portland, we try to get him to play with us, and when he’s up in Seattle, we try to get him to play it with us. I love that song though. I think that’s my favorite song on the record.
It was one I wanted to ask you about specifically. It’s interesting to hear it’s older, because it seems like there’s more of that focus on the melodic vocals. I guess that comes from Erik?
Especially with Erik, yeah. He killed it too. He has the coolest voice, and his solo-project, Aerial Ruin – I love that band. I was really, really excited when he started working on that with us.
How did that all come about?
I met Erik going on four years ago now. Aerial Ruin, I think it was the first time they were up in Seattle, and we kind of made friends. Actually, I think I met him in San Francisco when Samothrace was down there years ago. I don’t really remember it. I think we were all kind of drunk. And we were talking about that, and he showed up at a Samothrace show in Portland one night and gave me the newest Aerial Ruin album – it was a demo at that point – he gave it to me and said, “Here, check this out.” I put it in my cord bag and kind of forgot about it. Maybe four months later, I pulled it out of my cord bag at practice and said, “Oh shit, I love this guy.” That newest album that they put out, it’s so, so good. I gave it to Adrian and he loved it too, and we were like, “Man, we should get this guy to try to sing with us. It’s too cool.” And we asked Erik and he was like, “Hell yeah, I’d love too.” He comes up to Seattle every so often, because his job is delivering vans, so he’s in Seattle maybe every two months and he’d come up and we’d just kind of hash it out. He’s a great musician, so it really wasn’t difficult at all.
Tell me about the differences between recording for Bell Witch and Samothrace.
Well, with Samothrace, my right hand is always with a pick, picking. That’s standard. I was taught to play the bass [that way], so it’s pretty easy. It’s way more noodly, so it’s fun. I get to do bass solos, which is a ton of fun. With Samothrace, I’ll go through and do a rhythm track, then go through and do some highlights, maybe some doubles, do lead parts, fix any mistakes that I’ve made, which is usually a lot (laughs). Whereas with Bell Witch, it’s really hard recording with that band, because some of those parts are so sparse and there’s no drums going on, so like I’ll go through and do a rhythm track but on the full-length, we doubled the rhythm track up, so it sounds like there’s about six basses going at certain parts, which is technically is the case. But going through and trying to time that, without being able to look at Adrian and see when he’s about to hit the drums is next to impossible. There’s a natural rhythm to it of course, but sometimes it slows and then it speeds up. We didn’t use a click track, so that gets really difficult in there, and for the tap parts, when I’m doing the two-handed tapping stuff, that gets really difficult too with the recording, because the amps get overloaded with signal when there’s that much going on through the pickups, so I kind of had to do them all in sets. I had to go through and do rhythms – as simple as some of those rhythms are, it’s really hard to play them without the tap parts (laughs) – I’m so used to playing them with both my hands going, playing them with just one is weird, and going back through and tapping with just my right hand is weird. I think there’s a balancing issue, where if I’m hitting the neck with both my hands, I’m kind of used to how I need to hold it, but if my left hand is not in the equation and I’m just hitting with my left, it’s really tough because all of a sudden, my neck just flops to my left side. So recording with Bell Witch is kind of – “a pain in the ass” makes it sound like it’s not fun, and it is fun, but it’s just difficult – it takes a lot more time and patience. Maybe even “finesse” is a good word to use, because with two guitars going — and the guitars in Samothrace are pretty active, especially Brian [Spinks] is always active. A muddy part gets stirred in and it’s not that big of a big deal, whereas in Bell Witch, the smallest thing makes the biggest noise. Because it’s just one instrument doing it all. Every amp is gonna pick up on it and make it sound really obvious. So I had to go through a lot and redo tracks that just had the slightest little hiccup. It’s pretty different recording between those two bands, I think.
How did you wind up using the different playing techniques in the different bands?
There’s this guy named Michael Hedges, kind of a classical guitar guy from Oklahoma, that I got into a while back. He’s just insane. He’s dead now, but he would just play like a piano, like he’s playing a huge grand piano on just a guitar neck. I loved that guy. Really cool stuff. So I was kind of trying to do that with a bass, and it’s really fucking hard, because a bass isn’t setup to be played like that – or a guitar, for that matter. I started doing that years ago, just for fun, and with Bell Witch, when Adrian and I, our old band Lethe broke up, our guitar player moved away and we had a friend who asked us to play a show, we were kind of like, “Sorry, we can’t, we don’t’ habe a guitar player and we’re broken up,” and they were like, “Cant’ you just throw something together for the show?” and Adrian and I to each other were like, “Should we just play Lethe songs? You know, I’m kind of bored with that shit.” We were both kind of getting into Worship and Mournful Congregation, and we were talking about getting together a band like that, and we were like, “Well, let’s just try to throw something together and it’ll be outlines when we can find other band members and whatnot.” I kind of threw the song together and I was like, “Fuck, I could try to do that tapping stuff,” and so technically “I Wait” and “Rows” were written like that, for the first show. Then after that, it was like, “Fuck, we don’t even need a guitar player,” I thought this’ll be a really cool challenge and I can try to get better at this tapping thing and learn what I’m doing, and maybe two people is good. There’s less room for drama, less room for bullshit, practice is really easy. It makes things quite a bit easier.
Especially going from the demo to the record, it seems like you guys really focused on the vocals an really nailing down two vocals as part of the band’s sound. How did that develop during the writing and recording?
Brandon Fitzsimons, who did the recording, he explained this to me better. He was like, “The vocal stuff you’re doing, no one ever does when they’re in practice,” and he’s totally right. When we were in practice, I would sing, but I’m going through a full guitar stack and basically a full and a half stack on bass and it’s loud as hell in our tiny practice space. I’ll sing through the P.A. and I can kind of hear myself, but it’s basically just to practice singing and playing at the same time. When it comes to recording and I’m not holding a bass and there’s nothing else but music in the headphones and me singing, it’s like, “Holy shit, that’s way different.” And it’s really hard! I think the demo was the first time I’d done that and the first time I heard my voice sound like that, besides like driving around, being a dipshit in the shower, being drunk or whatever – occasions when singing happens (laughs). So the demo, it was really tough, because I’d never done that before. I was trying to practice that by the time we were going to do the full-length, and it took me forever, took me a couple days to get all the tracks and there are still spots that I listen to that I’m like, “Damnit, I could’ve done that better.” But yeah. I gave it a lot more attention, because I felt like it was so rough on the demo. It probably wasn’t that bad – I’m probably being tough on myself – but it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I wanted it to be way more full and dynamic, less Kermit the Frog-ish.
There’s room to grow then, for next time.
Definitely. The new stuff we’re working on is gonna have a lot of vocals in it too. I’ve got a lot of ideas. I think I’m gonna try to go take voice lessons from someone to teach me how to project it better. Sometimes I run out of breath. It’s really hard to hold those notes at the same pitch, to sustain that for long. That was one of the hardest things on “Longing.” So many of those vocal parts go on and on and on, and I’m holding that note forever. It’s really hard to keep it at the same pitch the whole time. That’s something I’d like to learn, how to control my voice better to do something like that.
That’s where people who play really fast win.
Yeah. I could quick spurts over it. Done.
Other than learning from the experience of it, was there anything specific that you wanted to do going from the demo to the album?
Something I liked about the demo but I didn’t want to repeat was the last song on there. We probably will repeat that on the next one, but that last song, “The Moment,” I kind of love that and want to turn that into something else. I like how sparse and barren it is – maybe “barren” isn’t the right word – but I kind of wanted to make the album – especially since it’s a debut album, I wanted it to be full of definite songs, as opposed to little dirges. I kind of felt like “Moment” was something that would be really cool – and it is cool, I like it a lot – but for the debut, I didn’t want anyone to say it’s filler. I didn’t want there to be filler for the debut. I don’t think of it as filler, but sometimes those critics are kind of tough.
I don’t know, man. Everything I’ve see about this record has been pretty positive.
Oh yeah, for sure. I guess just in anticipation of what they were going to say (laughs). Without even thinking about them, I think Adrian and I wanted it to be very full, song-oriented. That song “The Moment” was just kind of two riffs that wasn’t necessarily a song – well, it was a song, but most of the Bell Witch songs have quite a few riffs, they go on for a long time, they have ups and downs and they go all over the place. That song didn’t go very far. It was pretty stripped down in that regard. I think that we wanted to make all the songs something that could stand on their own, but they also worked together as well. The first three songs on there are kind of… We were trying to combine the songs together in a way that it kind of worked together. If there was no tracks, if it was all one track on a CD player or on a record, it would still work, and I think it does. I think all those songs could work as one song. Not necessarily a concept piece, but I guess more or less it is kind of a concept piece, but that wasn’t the phrase we were tossing around.
Something that flows together like that, then, musically.
Yeah. Something that works as a novel as opposed to a book of short stories.
Would you see yourself doing a one-track album?
I think that’s possible, but no. When people do that, I think it irritates me, because sometimes I want to skip to a certain part of the song, like, “Oh yeah, I love this part of the song, I want to listen to it right now!” Then it’s like, “God damn it, it’s all one song, I have to fast forward to 31 minutes and 44 seconds, it’s fucking so annoying!” (Laughs) Maybe that’s taking something away from the piece, but I do it. It’d be fairly hypocritical of me to make my band do something like that, I think.
For someone on the other end of the country who’s never seen you live, how well does the record compare to Bell Witch live?
I think it’s pretty close. There are some definite things that we can’t pull off live. I doubled up my vocals most of the time, and I think Adrian did as well. If the person doing sound sucks and they don’t know how to work a reverb unit, then it’s different (laughs). The vocals would be the biggest difference. There’s a lot of harmonies I was doing on there to make it sound like there was more of a choir feel, as opposed to one person, to an individual. Live, there’s just one track each. The vocals are probably different live. Other than that, I think it’s pretty similar. As far as the bass and the drums go, we’re playing those pretty much exactly the same. I think a lot of people in some of the reviews I’ve read, someone even mentioned they thought there was a guitar in it – that wasn’t you, was it?
I said it sounded like guitar.
Oh yeah, okay. That’s what it was. And it does. It totally does. I think it does throw people off, listening to it as opposed to seeing it live. I’ve got that high string, and all those notes would be on a guitar, so it does sound like a guitar a lot of the times. I think it throws people off when they see us, they’re expecting to see me playing with a pre-recorded guitar track (laughs), but I guess that’s what they’re thinking, no one’s ever said that to me. I think that’s a fun part about it, surprising people in that regard who are like, “I didn’t expect to see that.” In that, it’s very much like the live show, the album is. We do the sample live. Other than the vocal harmonies, it’s pretty much I like to think perfectly replicated.
Will you guys do more touring for the album?
Yeah. We were just out on the East Coast, before it came out. We did a three-week tour. When the vinyl comes out on Flenser Records, we’re talking about doing a week and a half, two weeks on the West Coast with that. I don’t know what will happen with it, but there was discussion with Loss about going down to California in May. I don’t know if that will continue out, but there’s discussion of that, and yeah, I’ve got kind of a hell of a job, so leaving for me is somewhat difficult, and Samothrace is going to be touring as well, so I can’t be out all the time like I’d like to be, but I think I can probably do about nine weeks to 12 weeks every year. It’s not too bad at all. Could be way worse. I think that we’ll probably be touring as much as I can get off work (laughs). Hopefully we’ll be out on the East Coast again by the end of 2013, maybe we could do a month that time, do a month out on the West Coast as well.
And in the meantime, you’re writing again?
Yeah, we’re trying to start putting new songs together. We’ve got some riffs we’ve been tossing around for new songs. Making a new album’s kind of the fun part, so we’re working on new songs. It’s easy with just two of us. If I’m kind of sitting around doing nothing and Adrian comes to practice, it’s real easy. You don’t have to call every guitar player at work, babysitting, whatever the hell they’re doing.
*All photos for this feature were taken from Bell Witch’s Thee Facebooks page. Hover your mouse over them for credits where applicable.
Tags: Bell Witch, Bell Witch Longing, Longing, Profound Lore, Seattle, Washington