With Mirror Reaper (Profound Lore), Bell Witch have pushed the band’s sound further than it’s ever gone before. They have started the European tour in support of the album a week ago and I couldn’t wait any longer to see them live. Before the concert in Barcelona at Sala Upload, I had the chance to talk with bassist/vocalist Dylan Desmond and drummer/vocalist Jesse Shreibman about death and music.
Mirror Reaper was released in October 2017. Are you pleased with the response from the critics and your audience?
Dylan: Definitely. We were expecting much more negativity from people. We thought they were going to be like, “Oh, an hour-and-a-half long song!” But people seemed to like it a lot.
Jesse: We were definitely surprised, and it’s very humbling. And it’s cool that people were coming to the shows.
The tour started a week ago. You already did a couple of shows in Russia. How was it?
Dylan: It was great. It was so cool. Bands from the US don’t tour in Russia all too often. It’s not unheard of, but I think that neither of us had a frame of reference of what to expect.
Jesse: We were kind of nervous, I think.
Dylan: Our two countries have weird politics. They don’t get along so well, especially right now, and just historically as well. So I think we were both wondering if everyone was going to hate us when they heard us speak in English and what was going to happen. It was so great. I can’t imagine it having been better.
Jesse: It was amazing.
How was the audience?
Jesse: The audience in Moscow, in particular, was probably one of the most enthusiastic and excited audiences I’ve played for since being in this band, or ever.
Is there a European city where you’re going to play that you feel an emotional attachment because of its musical history?
Dylan: Maybe London.
Jesse: We’re not playing Birmingham this time, but the last time we were here we did and that was really cool. It’s where heavy metal came from.
Dylan: Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, I think Esoteric is from there, and Carcass, and the list goes on and on. So yeah, Birmingham is kind of at the top of the list.
Napalm Death too…
Jesse: Yeah, everyone’s from there. So that was cool. On this tour, I don’t know.
Dylan: There’s cool stuff from everywhere really. I guess I can’t think of a band from Freiburg where we played the other night, but I’m sure there are. So yeah, probably Birmingham or London for me.
Are there some place you don’t want to miss seeing while in your Europe?
Dylan: Last time we were in the UK we went to Stonehenge, which was so cool. We’re going to Tel Aviv and we’re talking about going snorkeling there.
Jesse: And there’s this old place at the top of a mountain called Masada, which has been conquered by basically every civilization, it’s pretty epic.
Dylan: And we’re going to conquer Masada.
Jesse: We’re also going to Athens, Greece, which neither of us have ever been to, and just like everything is there. It’s pretty exciting. I’ve never been to Oslo, but there’s the record store there. I’m excited about that.
Dylan: The Blitz, which I think we’re playing, is one of the oldest squats in Scandinavia, and everyone has played there. It’s had a ton of cool shows.
What should someone expect when they attend one of your shows?
Dylan: To take a good long nap. I guess they should expect that they should bring earplugs. It’s maybe kind of awkward because it’s loud, long and slow – maybe not the most exhilarating music for conversation. Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know. That’s what I would say.
How important is the connection to the audience for you?
Jesse: Very important, I think. I know that for me, personally, playing in front of people and experiencing that aspect of music is the reason why I’ve continued to play music my whole life. It’s really fun and it’s cool, especially now that we’ve been received better than in the past. We’re consistently playing in front of crowds that are really receptive and supportive. And that keeps it fresh and new for me.
And talking about Mirror Reaper, all of Bell Witch’s music is about death in one way or another. But Mirror Reaper represents a different kind of immersion into it. When did your interest for death, ghosts and the dark aspects of this world begin?
Dylan: We started the band just to play one show because another band that Adrian Guerra and I were in had broken up. So he and I were going to start something new to play a show and we didn’t really know what we were going to do. I think he and I both were listening to Worship and Mournful Congregation and Corrupted all the time. So we thought, “Let’s do a band like this.” We were working with names and we were thinking about a lot of different choices and I think Bell Witch was the one we both liked the most. The idea behind it was that we could give it a theme and make all the songs try to fit into – I don’t want to go to far with this – but if the bell witch is supposed to be this spirit that was haunting this family then what’s the motivation behind the haunting? Why? So we tried to go from that angle and make all the songs fit into that category.
When did you experience death for the first time?
Dylan: I can remember dogs dying when I was kid. There were always a bunch of stray dogs living around my house and I can remember them being hit by cars, being shot or being run over, that sort of thing.
For example, the death of my grandfather was super heavy for me. I have this super horrible memory of this period when I was a teenager…
Jesse: There was one death that was particularly weird. It was in high school and it was this girl that I had known since I was six or seven. We were never close friends and she was always kind of weird. But we had known each other forever and she jumped of the Golden Gate Bridge and killed herself when were both 17. And that, in particular, kind of struck me differently than family members’ deaths. I was just surprised at how upset I was by it, because we were never really very close. And that sort of fragility of life when a younger person dies is very different than when a grandfather or grandmother dies and it’s sort of more expected. That was the first time I remember being like, “Whoa, I could die tomorrow.”
Do you think that playing music helps you face horrible moments like the death of someone? Or that music can help to face shitty situations?
Dylan: Yeah. I guess in the way that if music is a sort of release or escape, then focusing on something that’s a release or an escape can be perfect for that sort of thing.
Talking about the record, what is the utmost fear that you wanted to create with Mirror Reaper?
Jesse: I don’t know if we were necessarily going for a particular emotion or effect like fear. Maybe that’s too specific. There are parts of fear, but I guess overall we always talked about being unsettled. Kind of like a ride that you can’t get off.
Dylan: Maybe like peaks and valleys that never stop. At one point we started talking about how the song could be seen as the stages of grief. There’s denial, anger, being crushed and sad. There were just so many things and we we’re trying to make these different emotions throughout it. I think there’s kind of a fear section about 30 minutes in.
Jesse: That’s the part when there’s super heavy drums.
Dylan: That part gets into fear. Or maybe even fear would actually be a bit before that and that would get into anger. So yeah, I guess fear wouldn’t be the primary emotion but it’s in there. It’s definitely a layer that’s intended to be in there.
How much do you think that the loss of Adrian Guerra has influenced this album and you as a band?
Dylan: Well, when we first started writing the record, Adrian was alive. And Jesse and I were talking a lot. I think it was tough for Jesse because he’s the new drummer, but we thought, “We have to make this extra good because it’s a new lineup and it has to be it’s own thing while still being the same band.” So we were working with that and experimenting with new sounds and ideas. And then Adrian died, which made everything so much more complicated. And I think that we were like, “We don’t really know what do now. It’s really weird now. Do we stop? Is this too much? Is this dishonoring him if we continue? Or is that stupid?” I think that if somehow Adrian had died but he hadn’t died, he would say, “Don’t stop.” So we thought we should keep going, but if we went forward we had to pay tribute or homage to him in some way. We used the same old logo that he had designed. And there were a lot of things that we did with the idea of honoring him. And I think that just the emotional weight and any ambition we had was all of the sudden put under a microscope. We had to really try a lot harder in every aspect to make it worthy of sorts. Does that sound fair?
Jesse: I think the biggest way that his death in particular affected it was that Dylan and I were practicing a lot and working on writing the record. And then when Adrian died we took a pretty significant break. It was probably almost three months of not practicing very much or at all because it was just super heavy. And so I think that that break and us sort of reevaluating what we were doing and why we were doing it, how we were going to make this even better than it was maybe going to be basically lit a fire under our asses and really forced us to reshape our idea of what were doing.
Dylan: It pushed us to polish everything, which ultimately is great. We’ve been working on new material and it’s a lot cooler than the older material. We would just being walking into new stuff with this different approach that is more established.
So do you think that your way of writing is different since Mirror Reaper? What has changed after this album?
Dylan: I think it’s going to be hard to write a 20-minute song and feel like it’s complete now. 22 minutes… I don’t know, there’s not enough going on there. We’ll see what happens with that. I think that it’s going to be different. I guess we don’t have to write a 22-minute song.
One of the things I appreciate most about Mirror Reaper is the capacity to communicate deep feelings almost entirely through music. Do you think that music can speak for itself?
Dylan: I think that without question the music should speak for itself and then the lyrics added on top can add more. I guess it depends on the type of music. But for me the music has to be the solid without the lyrics.
Jesse: One of the things that I’ve always appreciated a lot about heavy music in particular is that the vocals are sort of just another instrument. They’re not the lead instrument as they are in pop or whatever else. So I think that’s one thing that is cool about heavy music. But I think that for us, the focus is definitely on the music first, probably about 90% of it. And then at the end, we figure out the vocals. And I think they’re great, but I think they’re just another layer that we try to not use too much.
And talking about instruments, it’s difficult to believe that there is no guitarist on this album. Have you ever thought of adding a guitar to the process?
Dylan: When we first started the band we were considering it and we didn’t. I think it was because Adrian and I had just had a band break up because the guitarist moved. And we were like, “Argh! To hell with guitar players! Fucking guitar players! Who needs them!” And we were having so much fun just the two of us playing basic drums that it was just like, “Let’s try to do it without that.” And then I think as it started going on I tried to play more melody lines with my right hand, which became a challenge and then I didn’t want a guitar player because that would have taken away the fun.
What bands are you listening to during this tour and in general over the past months? Are there some new bands that you like?
Dylan: I’ve been listening to Suffocation all day today. Oh, Sonne Adam from Tel Aviv. It’s like a death metal band, kind of like an Autopsy style death metal. It’s good.
Every time you release a record I wonder what will come next. What are your future plans? Are you working on something new?
Dylan: We’ve been working on stuff, but we haven’t had a lot of time.
Jesse: We’ve been touring a lot lately.
Dylan: Since the record came out, we’ve been touring a lot. We’ve been discussing with Erik Moggridge, who sings on the entire album. We’ve been discussing doing a project with him, or a collaboration with him, I should say, that’s maybe more like his project Aerial Ruin mixed with Bell Witch as opposed to him just singing with Bell Witch. And I think, in my head at least, that ends up being that third Over album, that neo-folky album. I imagine it ends up being kind of like that. But we don’t know what’s going to happen with that yet.
Jesse: We have a bunch of riffs left over from Mirror Reaper and I think the two of us will probably be able to develop a new album maybe a little faster, maybe a little different than Mirror Reaper. Because that was obviously this really big thing and I think that it’s going to be really cool to figure out what our sound is now after that.
Dylan: Yeah, and we’ve been playing with stuff too. We’ve been playing with trying to change up time signatures from rotation to rotation to rotation, which is fun. And we’ll see what happens with that.
Thanks to Chromanation