Of all the bands playing the inaugural edition of the Doomed and Stoned Festival on November 18 & 19, the one I might be most looking forward to seeing is Seattle duo Bell Witch, who are closing out the festival with their headlining set. Their brand of funeral doom might be the most despondent in the genre, and their guitar-free approach also makes them one of the most unique. Bassist/vocalist Dylan Desmond was good enough to answer a few questions for us via email ahead of the Fest.
Indy Metal Shows: When Four Phantoms came out last April, it was pretty much universally (and deservedly) praised, not only in the metal world but also in more mainstream places like Pitchfork and even NPR. Did it surprise you at all that it was so well received? It’s really a dense, challenging record that reveals itself slowly over the course of many listens - there aren’t many entry points for the casual listener. I mean, I feel like I’m still pick up on new things every time I put it on, and this is the sort of music I generally listen to.
Dylan Desmond: I was definitely surprised. For one, there’s no guitar, which is awkward to a lot of heavy metal folks. For two, it can be very minimal and slow at times. I don’t think of this as being something a lot folks are open to. There are parts on the record where the tempo doesn’t really even exist, we were sort of changing it between each “beat.”
IMS: When I think of Bell Witch’s music, the first word that comes to mind is space : space between the words, space between the notes. And I feel like those spaces work the same way as negative space does in visual art - what isn’t there is just as important as what is there. I’m curious, though, about those spaces may change in a live setting. Do the songs evolve as you play them live, or do you stay pretty close to how they were recorded? Or does that depend on what kind of energy you’re getting from the audience on any given night?
DD: I think there is sometimes even more space when we play live. Sometimes we’ll elaborate on the distance between notes and one of us will take the lead on when big hits happen. I enjoy this in the sense that it makes a sort of unique touch to every show. The songs definitely evolve in this sense, and sometimes particular passages might be a bit more expressive than on tape. The compositions definitely do not stray too far from the recordings however; once put to tape I think they’re as far evolved in that category as they need be.
IMS: I think it’s fair to say that Bell Witch might be even heavier emotionally than you are musically. Lyrically, things can get pretty bleak, but one of the things I appreciate about the band is that sometimes the most despondent lyrics are paired with musical sections that sound almost triumphant. I’m thinking in particular here of the ending section of “Rows (of Endless Waves),” which is so melodic and uplifting musically and with the vocal melody, but the words are anything but. Are those kinds of juxtapositions something you’re conscious of during the songwriting process - are you trying to occasionally balance out the existential darkness with a little light? Or does it just sort of happen?
DD: Definitely. The lyrics are generally the last piece solidified, and they’re written to match the piece they’re paired with. I appreciate juxtaposition in the sense that it makes a sort of dualism; a relaxing passage can have lyrics that are somewhat unsettling to illuminate a sense of a looming threat, possibly to foreshadow an approaching passage. Likewise, a triumphant passage (particularly the one at the end of “Rows”) is meant to be paired with lyrics identifying a sort of defeat or loss. That song is about being forever trapped in the rows of waves that one can see looking out from the shore. In the final section, in which the lyrics were written and sung by Erik Moggridge, he’s describing a sort of vengeful ghost trying to escape the chains of those waves. The day Erik wrote those lyrics he had driven from Portland to Seattle to join us in the studio. Very soon after his arrival he received a phone call explaining his father had been put into hospice and was likely going to pass very soon. I expected him to leave us and reschedule, but he insisted on pushing through it. I think there was a lot of emotions stirring in him in the hour or so he was recording vocals that added a very powerful touch. When he felt the parts were as good as he could make them, he respectfully departed to be with his father in his final few days.
IMS: Along the same lines as that last question, I would imagine that since there is so much heavy emotion in these songs that they must be draining to play live. Is it difficult to get into and/or or maintain the right headspace to be able to play these songs? Do you have to tap into those heavy emotions every night to be able to play them live?
DD: Sometimes it is hard. In other bands I’ve been in we would drink a lot of booze before we played to sort of loosen up, but in Bell Witch I can’t quite do this. For one, the more beer I drink the more sloppy and less expressive my fingers behave. For two, the less I care about making mistakes in front of an audience, and for three it clouds the music. It usually takes me a minute or two into the set to get in the right frame of mind, and maybe a few extra minutes afterwards.
IMS: Let’s talk about your live setup. Since the bass is sort of doing double duty as both rhythm and melody, I’m curious as to what’s on your pedalboard. Also, you use a 6-string bass, right? What tuning do you play in?
DD: I use a 6 string bass tuned in drop A#. I have three pedal chains that split off to their own individual amps; one set to highlight the upper treble and upper mids, one for lower treble and full mids, and another for deep lows and lower mids. Each chain has a distortion and a clean channel set up in it, and the clean channels have a variety of modulators/reverbs/delays for different passages. I’m basically trying to emulate the tone/power of two guitars and one bass.
IMS: So what’s next for Bell Witch? Have you started writing album three yet, or do you feel like there’s still more touring to do behind Four Phantoms?
DD: We’re a little over half way into our third full length. It’s going to be one long song divided into 7 passages. We’re aiming for 80 minutes, give or take a few. Hopefully we’ll be in the studio in late January/Early February 2017 to record it.