Pop Go The Witches – An Interview With Heretics

By on 24 May 2012

Armed with brooding sawtooth synth bass and just enough reverb to create an expansive sonic space for their songs to unfold, Heretics bring strong songwriting uncommon in witch house. At the same time they deliver songs with an organic, dark atmosphere that is all their own. As flowers will bloom in the cracks of the most desolate parking lot, so does art in the bleakest of times. The aforementioned flower may not be a deliberate protest against the pavement, but it demonstrates eloquently the unstoppable nature of life and creation. Since their inception in 2010 Heretics have seductuve black blooms in the dark light of post-punk, synth pop and witch house. I got the opportunity to ask Heretics’ David Whiting a few questions.

Heretics have been and will continue to find themselves on the bill with many well established and popular acts including Xymox, Method Cell and the upcoming show with She Wants Revenge. I ask what the reception has been like from the audience of very popular acts. “It’s been surprisingly good actually. There’s something intrinsic to audiences in the Goth scene which you don’t get it a lot of other circles, where people are really open-minded to hearing something new.” A good thing to hear, and an encouraging contradiction to the charge of musical conservatism sometime lobbed at the goth scene. “As Heretics is the first music I’ve been involved with which fits into that scene”, David continues “it’s been really nice to have so many people listening to what you’re doing and judging on its own merit.”

Heretics’ eponymous debut album was a home-brewed dark synth pop production, after which the band shifted gears with tempos slowing and the dark hues deepening even further. David has been in a number of other musical projects and continues to operate in other musical spheres under various names. There is obviously no problem with working under different names. In light of this one might wonder what carried over stylistically from the debut through Epitaph to Wealth = Success that unifies the three releases under the Heretics banner. “I think the main thing that ties Heretics together as a project is the songwriting and vocals.” is how David addresses the question “Any of the songs from the first album could be re-arranged to fit the sonic style of Wealth = Success, and I think they’d fit in just fine.” And as to what differentiates Heretics from these other projects, “I don’t really do any conventional songwriting for any of my other projects, so Heretics is the only place where I get to write lyrics and create “songs” in the traditional sense of the word.”

The debut album had a strong -80’s synth pop feel. The sound from beginning to end is unified in its palate, making the song writing as important as the arrangements and production. “The debut album was written in a much more structured way. After writing the first few tracks, we settled into a sound which ended up being used as a template for the rest of the album. It gave the whole album quite a distinctive sonic character which tied the whole thing together, but didn’t leave much space for imaginative sound design.”

“For Wealth = Success we took an almost opposite approach. We decided that the style of songwriting was enough to tie the album together, so then decided we had plenty of space to experiment with the sound.” Perhaps their confidence in the song writing aided in the progress from the from the debut to Wealth = Success. “A lot of the tracks got completely reinstrumented and arranged several times before they found themselves in the form that you hear them now.” says David “It was almost incidental that at the time we were listening to a lot of Witch House, and influences from that definitely crept in to the instrumentations, giving the album as a whole a slower, darker feel.”

Much of Witch House is created in isolation on laptops across the world, releases proliferate at an incredible rate with the thought as to how songs are to be operformed live a question few witch house artists have to face. Heretics has been a full live act from the start. Perhaps this has differentiated them from the witch house crowd. “Live performances are always tricky where you’re a producer first and a performer second. There’s plenty of artists out there just loading up the tracks on a laptop and playing them in front of the audience, but there’s very little to look at or engage with there.” says David about performing live “Having live vocals is a big help, so that even if I’m performing solo there’s live keyboards and vocals to watch so it doesn’t feel too much like a cheat. For the upcoming She Wants Revenge show, we’re experimenting with how we might eliminate the laptop altogether, trading in some of the richness of production for the unique feel that can only come from playing a real live show.”

In light of the subject of playing live, I ask if Heretics brings new material to live audiences first to see what the reaction is to it, or if they hold new songs back until they are relased. “Neither I guess” is the reply “Most new material turns up in demo form on Soundcloud at some point.” This is a not uncommon way of sharing the creative process these days, a mode of engegement with an artist fans enjoy. “It’s a good way of getting some fast extra feedback about a track, especially if you’re trying out something in it that you haven’t tried before. Up until now the live performances have been built by breaking down the finished tracks, but this is something we’re considering reversing for future writing.”

One thing that characterizes witch house is that it has a very strong visual component. The design for ‘Wealth = Success’ is very simple, sharp and effective. Looking at it, one might be reminded of the design of early Swans releases. When asked how Heretics approach the visual side of their work David answers “The visual site of what we do has always been a bit of an afterthought for me.” A casual attitude towards the graphics perhaps, or just the same confidence that allows freer reins on the production around the songs Heretics craft. “I do all of the artwork myself, and assemble all the archive-sourced videos, but I don’t claim to be an expert at either.” he continues “I’ve tried quite hard not to get into the over the top use of triangles and inverted crosses in the visual design as is quite common with a lot of witch house, because I think it leads people to make assumptions about what the music will be like which often turn out to be wrong.”

A selective approach to graphical representation that avoids expectations Heretics might have otherwise received from hard core witch house fans. The same benefit might be gained from the description witch-pop being used to describe Heretics’ blend of genres. “I think it might have been us who first described what we do as ‘witch pop’. Apart from that fact the name sounds a bit stupid, I think it’s quite an accurate description of what we do.” So, pop rears its ugly head in the underground? “A lot of bands seem to be scared of using the word “pop” to describe themselves because they think it’s somehow ‘not cool’, but I don’t go in for that. To me, a pop song is any song you might find yourself singing along to the chorus. It’s quite a broad description, and some people take issue with the lexicographical contradiction of ‘alternative pop’, but without it it’s quite hard to get home the message that you’re doing proper songs with verses, choruses, bridges and all the rest.”

A quick search will find that Heretics are responsible for a number of remixes for their own tracks as well as for other artists including Kommand+Kontrol, Cold in Berlin and Silver columns. Do they get new perpectives on their own work from doing mixes of other artists tracks? “There’s certainly a great potential to boost the creative process by giving yourself a restriction to work within.” says David “Doing a remix of somebody else’s track has that effect because you are constrained by the original work to a certain extent, which leads you to come up with new ideas that can then be incorporated into your future independent work.”

David produces music under the name Demoscene Time Machine. For those readers who are unfamiliar with what Demoscene is, Wikipedia says: The demoscene is a computer art subculture that specializes in producing demos, which are audio-visual presentations that run in real-time on a computer. The main goal of a demo is to show off programming, artistic, and musical skills. And some spectacular visual and audio work is being done in this realm. I ask David of he has been involved in programming demoscene. “I’ve never really done it myself, despite being a musician and a geek,” is the answer “but it’s always fascinating how much of the early demoscene stuff fit into such tiny amount of memory by using algorithmic generation techniques to create intricate details out of simple rules. There’s probably a metaphor I could coax out of that and apply to my music, but it would be pretty strained.”

We are in a period in the music industry that is post-apocalypse, if one listens to some players in the game. One will not hear an echo of this weeping and gnashing of teeth from Heretics. They have their own approach to establishing themelves and selling in this environment. “Our main attitude to the existing music industry so far with Heretics has been mostly to ignore it. The records get sold through the website and other usual channels (via our own DIY ‘label’) and we promote what we do as best we can with the little resources we have available.” And what special strategies have Heretics developed as they progressed? “The key thing here is that we’re selling directly to the fan. No distributor, no label, no publisher, no collection societies, no DRM, no copyright lawsuits. If somebody buys a CD from our website, then it’s me who puts it in a packet, writes the address on with a Sharpie and goes down to the postbox. All the crap in the middle is pretty much redundant these days, which is why the big players are going so mental trying to protect their revenue streams in increasingly desperate and barbaric actions (see all the lawsuits against the people who should be their customers). Obviously some people will always find ways to get records for free, but I think the best way to make people see the value of music is to know that almost all of the money is going to the artist who created it, rather than to some massive faceless exploitative corporation that had no constructive part in the creative process.”

The lyrical aspect of Heretics is one of their most engaging aspects. This is especially one of the greater charms of ‘ Wealth = Success’. Is this something that has evolved along with the music? “I’m not sure it’s really changed that much over time. Each song is essentially a story. Some are about myself and the people I know, some about events or characters from history, and some are about completely fictional characters – although often extrapolations of strangers I’ve seen in different places.”

Where pop song writing often leans heavily on a limited set of tropes, Heretics are not prone to reach for such creative prompts. David breaks the issue down for us. “I really try to avoid digging into the barrel of cliches for song ideas though.” he says. “There is a certain set of songs that get written again and again by different artists – songs like ‘I am nothing without you’, ‘smash the system’, ‘you’re physically attractive, let’s have sex’ and ‘sometime’s I’m sad but the hard times make me stronger’. It’s easy to fall into the cliche trap if you start writing generically, without a specific stimulus in mind, which I why I tend to base mine on stories and characters – even if they’re not worded in any kind of narrative fashion.”

The themes on Wealth = Success resonate with big events of recent years, from financial realities to the messages of Anonymous and the Occupy movement. Being based in London surely makes these actions part of the very air they breathe. “It’s impossible to ignore all these actions going on around you, especially living in London where a lot of focus has been. I guess it made its way into the lyrics as a bit of a vent for the frustration at how skewed the media coverage is of any kind of activism. You can go to any protest in London and see police officers attacking protesters completely unprovoked, then see stories of ‘violent protestors’ rolling on the (supposedly impartial by law) BBC later on that day. When at the polling booths people are presented with essentially three identical candidates, and they don’t protest because they’re scared of being attacked by the very people who are supposed to be protecting them, you have a population of people who feel completely disenfranchised.” A familiar state of affairs across the Western world in the last several years, to be sure. “The financial services industry essentially dictates UK policy now, as the lobbyists have the power line of ‘do what we say or we’ll leave for somewhere with lower taxes and ruin your economy’, whilst the government themselves are persuing an aggressive programme of diverting tax revenues into wealthy pockets and removing yet more civil liberties in the name of ‘security’. This sounds like typical left-wing propaganda, but it’s actually happening, right now, in the UK. It’s no surprise that some people are angry. If you’re not, then you probably need to wake up and pay more attention.”

So, in conclusion need I ask is there a message behind ‘Wealth = Success’? “You got it in one by putting a question mark after ‘Wealth = Success'”.

Heretics whall appear Sunday, 17 June 2012 at WHLND with She Wants Revenge, Cold In Berlin and DJ ∆lex Wolf at O2 Academy Islington

http://www.facebook.com/events/408032062545686/

http://music.hereticsmusic.com/

About Miranda Yardley

I'm Miranda. Bite me.

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