It’s weird, but pretty much every single year, Infest (this year’s edition reviewed on /Memory of a Festival/033) has one breakout band that everyone talks about afterward. This isn’t a headliner, but a band further down the bill, and last year, Promenade Cinema (who later took /Countdown/2018/Albums/#1) were that band.
/Talk Show Host/055/Witch of the Vale
/Talk Show Host/2018-19
This year, a mysterious Scottish duo that I knew next-to-nothing about – aside from a number of reports about how great (and in a couple of cases, how bad!) they were live – opened Saturday at the festival, and drew an enormous crowd for the slot, that’s historically not one that garners too much interest.
Their captivating show and presence had me wondering quite a bit about them, and very much curious to know more. So thanks to both Erin and Ryan of Witch of the Vale for taking the time to answer my questions over e-mail. The photos are my own from that Infest show.
A note about the interviews on amodelofcontrol.com. This is now a long-running, occasional series, occasional because of the fact that I only interview artists when I have something to ask, and when artists have something to say. I don’t use question templates, so each is unique, too. Finally, I only edit for grammar and adding in links, so what you’re reading is the response of the artist directly.
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That was quite the show at Infest. What are your thoughts on how it went?
Erin: We were very surprised at the turnout. We didn’t really think people would brave the Saturday afternoon hangovers, but it was great. We made a lot of new friends and got some very kind feedback. We were apprehensive, as we were aware that our sound is a bit different to what most infest-goers might be looking for, so…very relieved that we went down well.
There was a distinct feeling of you wanting to obscure yourselves in some way (particularly with costume and masks). Was this a deliberate act, or something that is just part of how you want to present?
Erin: I struggle with stage fright and feel very self conscious. It’s convenient that dressing up in masks and gowns fits with our sound. Initially I was very against the idea of ‘dressing up’ or wearing costumes. Probably because I really didn’t want to be a concept band, and I feel like if you do the costumes, you’re also somehow doing a character, and before you know it there’s a story and it all feels a bit LARP-y. But I think what we wear helps to bring an atmosphere to live shows that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
Many of us knew little about you as a group before you took the stage. What can tell us about yourselves?
Erin: Not much? We’re boring people with boring day jobs. We noodled about with music for a while, never intending to actually do any shows, or pursue anything with it. Ryan actually coerced me into it. Those first couple of songs took a long time to pull together because I was so anxious I couldn’t have him in the flat when I was recording vocals. He had to go out for long walks to pacify me. We’re a bit better at it now, at least.
Is location critical to how your music is created? Parts of it feel to me that it could only have come out of the more rural parts of Scotland with the atmosphere that it invokes.
Ryan: Though we don’t consider our music to be folk, we are still very much influenced by our culture and heritage. Erin grew up learning to sing traditional Scottish music and I grew up in the Outer Hebrides, learning Gaelic folk songs.
Musically and lyrically, a lot the Scots folk songs are actually beautiful, and very sad.
Did you have a musical upbringing, and how did that influence your musical tastes?
Erin: I had some singing lessons when I was a child and took part in some competitions, but I never got past my grade one. I found it too scary and stressful and stopped by the time I was about 12. I nearly went to a music school but I didn’t get past auditions, which involved a little bit of self-sabotage to be honest. I did teach myself guitar, so not a complete lost cause.
Ryan: Yeah neither of us can even read musical notation. From a very young age I taught myself piano, but didn’t know any songs, so I spent my time making my own up.
I mentioned in my live review of your Infest show that you have taken a known base – Witch House – and added an original spin on it. Was the growth of the Witch House scene a consideration as you began to make music?
Erin: To be honest, I really don’t get the comparison to Witch House, we’ve taken no conscious influence from it, and I can’t really hear a likeness. From my understanding, Witch House is a sub-genre of House music, with the typical vampy Ibiza synths and obscured vocals that are used more like an ambient, side-chained synth. Whereas we like our fake, electronic noises to sound like trees, wind, and rain and stuff. Don’t get me wrong, though. I love Witch House.
Huh. What music does interest you, and would call either formative or current influences?
Erin: Most of what I listen to falls into the dark wave/goth/post-punk bracket. In terms of artistic influences, Joy Division are a favourite and I probably take a lot of inspiration from there in what I write. Another undeniable influence for me is HIM, who have always been one of my favourite artists, and definitely got me hooked on melancholy and sad songs. It’s sad, I’ve been mocked more than once for my love of HIM. People can be very puritanical and judgemental about music.
Ryan: A weird mash of influences for me, early teens had me listening to Skinny Puppy, The Cranberries, Tori Amos, Cranes, This Mortal Coil and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Little elements of each can present throughout our tracks.
The other big surprise to me was the cover of Lana Del Rey‘s Gods & Monsters, and you seem to entirely reinvent the song out of it’s decadent, LA base into some nightmarish world (and inject a whole lot more energy into it, too). It was not something I expected – do you enjoy confounding any expectations with it?
Erin: It’s an excellent song with very emotional lyrics. Del Rey’s vocals have a sultry, sleazy sound but actually the music behind the voice is very sombre and beautiful which I always felt was the contrast that makes the song so poignant. I really enjoyed putting the song through the Witch of the Vale machine and seeing what came out the other end. And I’m glad our version holds its own and doesn’t just sound like karaoke. It’s so much easier singing other people’s songs.
Ryan: The original uses a lot of background ambience and cinematic sounds not dissimilar to our own approach. Certainly the process of creating cover song is taking something you admire, and pretending it’s yours. No cover version is better than the original, but a good cover is different. Ultimately it’s a fantasy, pretending we wrote such a brilliant song when we didn’t. We just emulated it.
It’s difficult to “hype” a band so much on social media nowadays – I think too many of us are wise to it – but there has certainly been a buzz about your music this summer. How do you feel about potentially having “expectations” from an audience now, and how do you deal with that?
Erin: We didn’t really know there was any anticipation until after we played. So that came as a surprise to us.
What’s next from you – are you sticking with EPs or is an album to come in time?
Ryan: Recording a song locks it down before we get to really explore the music by playing it live, which is a very different environment from our living room. We consider our songs quite fluid, and every live performance mutates them little further. Our plan is to release an album, with evolved versions of our existing songs and a selection of new ones.
We have been hesitant to release physical versions of the EPs for this reason. Holding off for a big physical release of our first album, and to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of selling the same thing twice. That said we bit the bullet and as an experiment, brought a 100 physical versions of our EPs just for Infest, and to gauge the response, which was overwhelming. So we will likely do a very limited physical release of the EPs on bandcamp soon.
Witch of the Vale’s releases so far are available on Bandcamp.