Black Celebration: The Wytches' Kristian Bell interviewed
To listen to The Wytches for the first time is to be transported – picture a vampiric, amphetamine-fuelled 1950s rock and roller playing surf guitar in a graveyard and you’re nearly there. Frontman Kristian Bell says it's no happy accident
The Wytches, on the surface, seem far too loud and anguished to be part of some polite new intelligentsia; those with songs that have nods to high-brow cultural references, jarring key changes and outlandish vocals. Look beneath the distortion, though, and this Brighton trio have all these things in spades. An abundance of touring has clearly paid off too; well-oiled, playful, but most importantly powerful, they're a hell of a fun band to see live.
Flanked by bassist Daniel Rumsey and drummer Gianni Honey, frontman Kristian Bell is the key to their carefully crafted sound. Often serious, he’s not much of an open book and his mind is largely on the music. Hailing from a musical family, Bell reels off a long list of classical instruments that swamped his childhood – violin, cello, saxophone and clarinet, to name a few. You wonder where the doomy, grunge-ridden sound of the Wytches found a place in all that. Having spent his formative years swaddled in music of all kinds, from prog to folk, he enthusiastically speaks of his inspiration to start writing songs. “The Artic Monkeys' Humbug album. I thought it was just brilliant when that came out and a few years after I had a try at writing songs. I remember thinking I wanted to write something like that, which is deliberately dark.”
Even their band name The Wytches is a subtly pinched homage but with the spelling shifted for search engine efficiency, mirroring their blend of old and new. “I love 1950s surf music,” Bell says of one of his first musical encounters. "It’s got a lot of presence and reverby guitar. There’s an old 50s dude called Kip Tyler and he’s got a song called She’s My Witch, which is a proper psych track. I thought about that a lot when I was young.”
“We were in our own little world" – Kristian bell
As a band, The Wytches give careful thought to the outside world's perception of their style as well as the tunes, entrusting all artwork and visuals to long-time friends Mark Breed (also an occasional Wytches guitarist) and Samuel Gull. Fans of the band are likely to have worn one of Gull's designs on their t-shirts, or watched one of Breed's videos on YouTube; Bell clearly has a lot of respect for what they bring to the table. “All of Sam’s artwork is quite conceptual to our lyrics and I know he goes about it with his own interpretation of me telling him what it’s about, " he starts. "I think he understands me and Mark and sometimes we get caught up in misunderstanding, but we always get along.”
First single Beehive Queen, released to HateHateHate records, paved the way to an eventual signing with London Heavenly (home to TOY, Jimi Goodwin, and Mark Lanegan) was no hasty decision and their relationship is a good one. But in the past Bell has been generally despondent about the industry, and he’s given up reading anything the press writes about the band. “We kind of got pushed into it,” he says of their reluctant step into the spotlight. “We were in our own little world and we never took into account that maybe the rest of the world would get it. We had a lot of photos when we first got signed and we did a video in some clothes that really weren’t our thing, but we were trying out stuff. We’ve kind of realised what we are again.”
It’s a mature sounding comment that one might expect from a band on their fourth or fifth album, rather than a few short months after their first. But as Kristian is quick to point out, “we released 3 EPs and went on quite a few tours before anything came about.”
With an industry full to bursting with buzz bands being hoisted onto the shoulders of giants, it’s refreshing to hear how this one earned its stripes the hard way, with years of incessant touring all over the UK. “We’d do a show and stand there afterwards, watch the other bands, then pack up our stuff and drive back to Brighton every night. We never really exposed ourselves to this whole rhythm that is the music industry. We’d been going for about a year and a half, creating our own little thing and then someone got in touch. We must have played about 80 shows before anyone heard about us.”
The gigs are of course the beating heart of the band and are hot sweaty affairs from start to finish. Now in the midst of their first headline tour that will see them hop the pond, Bell is incredulous that “people are specifically coming to see us.”
“We get stage invasions and there’s a lot of black clothes,” he laughs, referring to their hardcore fans. Yet he can also begin to see the band's broader appeal and has found new methods to encourage that in the live arena. “It’s cool that there are a variety of people who listen to it and there are plenty of people who get something completely different from it each time. I kind of like the idea of different styles. “We kind of encourage each other to come up with a different way to approach the songs and we’ll give ourselves a little theme and we’ll go down that route. Like at the moment it’s just insanely heavy. I mean they’re the same tracks but done in a different way.”
Now relative veterans of the UK club circuit, they've supported the likes of Pulled Apart by Horses, as well as visceral Canadian punk exports Metz and Japandroids. Whilst Bell explains that touring with US-raised kindred spirits The Growlers have had a lot of influence on their live shows, his latest musical love affair off-stage is Esperanza Spalding; a bassist whose challenging jazz is far cry from the graveyard sound of the Wytches. “She just seems like a really talented girl that knows a lot about jazz music,” he enthuses. Room to explore on their next recording?
“I don’t know about the next album, I have songs but I haven’t laid them out yet. I have some ideas,” he muses. “I feel weird if I neglect any of my main inspirations, so it’s just a load of stuff tangled together. These days I like to write so that if you read it without the music it would read like poetry. I think that’s an interesting way to go about writing because it gives you another version of it.”
Bell seems optimistic about the future, citing Annabel Dream Weaver as "early days in terms of writing" and simply a way of documenting the songs he wrote in his latter teens. Listening to Bell speak, it certainly seems as though the best is yet to come. He's genuinely modest about their achievements so far. “I’ve never come at this thinking I’d get a career out of it. I haven’t got any expectations that I’ll be doing this forever; I think at some point down the line I’ll start to be really embarrassed by The Wytches. But you never can tell because I’m really dedicated to this band, so we’re always going to switch it up depending on what we’re into at the time. I hope we’ll be going for a while."