I'm standing with two-thirds of the band The Wytches in a metaphysical boutique in front of some very anatomically correct candles when lead singer Kristian Bell tells me that occult stuff actually makes him kind of uncomfortable.
The shop's resident cat, a giant thing named Will, leaps on a pile of books about sex magic then and bassist Daniel Rumsey gives him a pet -- and I am secretly relieved that the tarot reader on call is not available to do a reading for the guys, as I have obviously misjudged where the Brighton-based band's interests lie.
Sure, fans have gifted the guys with crystals and gemstones in the past, convinced that they're into witchcraft, but the only Voodoo the dudes are really keen on are donuts from the famous shop in Portland, Oregon, which tourmates METZ and Cloud Nothings piled on Bell when he was taking a nap one day.
Bell's assertion comes as kind of a shock, however, to this humble reporter, as the band's upcoming debut LP, Annabel Dream Reader, is replete with references to pendulums, gravedwellers and, most terrifyingly, crying clowns -- but it's a darkness, it turns out, that the band tempers with self-awareness and humor.
"It's supposed to be taken with a pinch of salt," Bell told MTV News, standing in front of a rack of tarot cards (a deck of which he later bought for his girlfriend). "We like to be quite deliberate about how dark it is because then that makes it funny for us. The theme -- the lyrical theme -- is always quite sad or whatever. You kind of put it on this big platform and make it this big grand and destructive song -- it's just funny to us."
Listening to the record, however, is anything but funny. Since forming in college in 2011, the band has been consistently putting out tunes that sound something like Nirvana's Bleach -- if you were listening to Bleach at a beach party full of dancing skeletons screaming through fleshless throats at a blood moon. And that's a sound that they've had since -- and before --- formation.
Bell and drummer Gianni Honey had previously played in bands together when they were younger, but they found bassist Rumsey by posting a flier up at school for their "dark grunge surf lounge" band. Several EPs and a contract with Partisan Records later, and the description morphed into the term "surf doom," an over-the-top self-designation that they say is a mockery of how music reviewers define tunes. "Chillwave," anyone?
The phrase, however tongue-in-cheek, is fitting, though. Bell is really into doom metal and likes the way surf rock sounds when slowed down to the creepy point -- it sounds violent, he said. And kind of evil. Consequently, Annabel Dream Reader teeters on the edge of hard, but is replete with enough catchy choruses and screamable one-liners (see: "You sit there and laugh while my dignity collapses" in "Wireframe Mattress") to make it palatable to those who don't dig metal.
"Wide At Midnight" borders on a ballad -- a lamentation with potent lines like, "Feline, eyes wide/ You are my only reason to keep breathing." Nevertheless, it's a ballad that explodes into screams at the end. "Gravedweller" is a fast-paced jangler -- "evil" surf guitars in full effect -- that sees Bell crooning, "Gravedweller make sure you bury me next to the family that resembles me." Then there's "Crying Clown." The title may hinge on absurd, but it's a serious jam with a chorus that contains the line, "Graveyard girls swinging about like a pendulum." Move over, "Thriller" -- I think we have a new Halloween classic.
The band played their first run of New York shows last week, headlining at Glasslands Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on Friday night. Dressed nearly all in black, blending into the similarly hued background, the trio ripped through a set of jams from the new record, Bell's hair in his face (all Cobain-y) and the crowd hushed in their thrall. The gig felt like a seance calling on angry ghosts.
Despite the feel in the room -- and the fact that the guys say they play better when they're angry -- Bell was likely smiling behind all that hair, however. "We have a good laugh when we play," he said.
In fact, the band's first show -- after only four rehearsals -- was a battle of the bands that they exited rather unceremoniously. "We didn't know if we won because we left as soon as we played," Bell said. "We were really buzzing about it. We played terribly, but we just smashed everything and we were really happy."
"You'd think we're in a really dark place when we're playing [our songs], but they're really uplifting for me," he said. "I find our music uplifting to play."
Sad music like theirs, Bell asserts, is uplifting because it makes a person feel human -- "because you can actually feel something." That's a lesson he learned from songwriter idols Leonard Cohen, Elliott Smith and Nick Drake -- musicians he turns to when crafting his own Gothic lyrics.
And Gothic they are -- despite how fun they are to play. Every line thrums with a kind of desperation and sadness made more illustrative by visceral imagery that would fit just as well in classic novel "The Castle of Otranto" as on vinyl. And that's no surprise, given Bell's vivid imagination.
When I asked, standing amid swinging pendulums and shelves lines with dried herbs, what scared the band the most, Bell's answer was the most involved.
"Really old-school deep-sea divers with the big helmets -- I find them terrifying," he said. "I can imagine being right at the bottom of the ocean -- real deep down, you're like as deep as you can go and it's murky and green but for some reason you can breathe and you're wandering around like normal and then one of them guys just kind of comes out of nowhere and his breath is just getting incredibly loud in your ear. That scares me."
And Bell isn't alone in the darkness. Rumsey told us that his most memorable dream -- a question that begged asking due to the album title -- was as follows: "I had a dream that I killed someone and I was trying to hide the body in our garden and my nan, she was there and she was like, 'No, you're doing it all wrong. You have to cut it up and put in these boxes and then put them in the recycling bag.'"
Yup, two parts terrifying, one part WTF -- that's The Wytches. And although they don't really get down with their namesakes, it seems they're primed to weave their dark spell on us all when Annabel Dream Reader drops on August 25.