Published 18/01/2013 | 18:00
pullquoteDaniel Copeman, of scary nu-goths Esben and the Witch, is speaking in low, confessional tones. "Ten Things I Hate About You is such a profound film," says the lanky frontman, as if sharing a dangerous insight that must not fall into the wrong hands.
"It is dressed up as a simple romantic comedy. In fact, there's a lot more going on than you find in most art-house movies. It was marketed as entertainment for teenagers. And it had some really fascinating ideas."
We've been discussing Esben and the Witch's terrifyingly fantastic (or should that be fantastically terrifying?) second LP, Wash The Sins Not Only The Face. As anyone familiar with the band will expect, it's terribly serious stuff, all droning guitars and songs named after icebergs. So it's a shock to discover that one of the major influences on the project was . . . well, perhaps it's better to let Copeman explain.
"I am a fan of intelligent rom-coms. Our new record is a lot like the movie Sliding Doors," he says, having finally finished rhapsodising about Ten Things I Hate About You (the 1999 high school morality fable starring Julia Styles and Heath Ledger – as if you didn't know).
"It's an exploration of duality, about the life you might have led.
"It's a very Proustian idea, which Sliding Doors does a tremendous job elucidating."
Just to be clear, he is talking about the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle in which she misses her train and thus fails to catch her cheating boyfriend, with hilllaaaaaarious consequences?
"It's such a smart movie and has tremendous resonances. I'm sure we've all spotted someone on public transport and gone, 'maybe I should approach her, say hello. What's the worst that can happen?' Of course you never do. The idea of there being other lives fascinates me. I love it when rom-coms do that, slip these intelligent ideas under your nose."
He has, you gather, devoted a great deal of thought to the idea that somewhere out there is a parallel life he might have lead.
"We spent a lot of time touring America on our last record. You'd be sitting there on a tour bus for hours, crossing these vast landscapes. You had nothing to do but think. I have an almost endless capacity for self analysis. Staring out a window, looking at the landscape, you go on these flights of fancy."
Copeman is especially haunted by drummer and co-vocalist Rachel Davies' desire to quit the band early on.
"We'd been together maybe two months. Nobody was really interested. Rachel was thinking of moving to Paris. We had a very serious chat about what was going to become of Esben and the Witch. In the end, she decided to stay and see what happened. You wonder, had she gone, what would I be doing now?"
Copeman is a charming sort, chatty and self-deprecating – not at all the brooding figure he cuts on stage. It probably does no harm for people to know how down to earth he is. On their excellent first record, Violet Cry, Esben and the Witch were crippled by the 'goth' tag. Critics and punters sized up their bleak record sleeves, the way their songs kicked off in a stormy tumult of drums and guitar and decided they were best left to it. An LP that should have been a hit ended up a cult favourite instead.
"As people, we are probably laid back in comparison to the music we make," says Copeman. "Our songs do give the impression that we are serious and po-faced, I suppose. If anything, we're the opposite. I think our music is our way of channelling those feelings. We're pretty normal, I would like to think."
After Violet Cry, he kept hearing Siouxsie and the Banshees comparisons. He was endlessly amused, having absolutely no idea what Siouxsie and the Banshees sounded like.
"You are always going to be likened to someone – that is inevitable. But we were getting the Siouxsie and the Banshee label a lot. In the end, I decided I would go and listen to them, just because they were mentioned so often.
"I couldn't understand it. The idea that we'd actually set out to sound like someone else always struck me as strange. It was the same with the Cocteau Twins. We were accused of aping them. Why would you actually deliberately want to sound like the Cocteau Twins? What would motivate you to that? It makes no sense."
Harder to ignore was the controversy generated by the video to debut single, Marching Song. Shot in intimate close-up, the promo depicted Davies being physically abused in slow motion. It was haunting and, in all honesty, rather icky. Esben and the Witch were assumed to be ginning up cheap publicity.
"We didn't expect it would cause the fuss it did," says Copeman. "I don't think you can deliberately create controversy nowadays. People have been duped and hoodwinked so many times, they are savvy to it.
"We actually conceived the idea before signing a record deal. We wanted something that would make for uncomfortable viewing. A lot of the credit has to go the guys who shot and directed it. They fleshed the concept out amazingly well. It's a fantastic piece of art and we are hugely proud of it.
"We'll be showing it to our grandkids, strange though that may sound."
Esben and the Witch are based in Brighton, England, which, by Copeman's telling, fully lives up to its billing as London's boho playground. In a way that's the problem. With hipster coffee shops on every corner and a gorgeous beach on your doorstep, knuckling down becomes a chore.
"You worry you're a little too comfortable," he says. "It's a lovely place, very hard to criticise.
"On the other hand, maybe it stops you achieving all that you can. There's that constant temptation to slack off and meet friends for coffee. And, during summer, the beach is two minutes from your house. Why would you want to work when you could be sitting in the sun?"
There's another side to Brighton, he says. In the winter, the town turns properly bleak. The sunshine and the day-trippers are gone.
With the wind howling in from the sea, it can feel like the loneliest place on earth.
"The darkness seems to last all day and you often see these violent storms out to sea. The scenery is dramatic and traumatic. You have a sense of being cut off from the rest of the country. We are hugely influenced by that, I think."
Wash The Sins Not Only The Face is released today
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