Suffering, Music and Seattle: An Interview with Bell Witch
When I interviewed Dylan Desmond of Bell Witch I wasn’t expecting him to be so… bubbly. Surprisingly friendly and wonderfully eloquent, this doom metal god in the making gave me a chance to pick his brain and discuss just about everything. Funny, charming and subtly brilliant, the mastermind behind one of the best doom bands in the world is endlessly interesting.
How the hell are you?
I’m doing well! I’m a little jetlagged I guess. We just flew in from Berlin two days ago and I don’t think I had even adjusted to the time over there. But I’m alright.
How was the Euro tour?
It was great. It was really good! The first ten days were with Ulcerate from New Zealand. Every member of that band has a very unique role, each person does something very distinct and it kind of combines to make something special. Sometimes I think that three distinct voices doesn’t work very well in a band but those guys use their voices to work together to create one amazing band. Then we played with Monarch for six shows and they are incredible – kind of a good stylistic match for us. They are a ton of fun. Then we met up with Ortega from the Netherlands and played ten or eleven shows with them, and that was incredible.
So you must be beat…
Tired but alive!
So how does it feel to fly 3500 miles to play one song?
(Laughter) I was a little confused when I saw that we only had a thirty minute set! It was a little strange. I kind of thought that that was more of a projected time frame and I thought it could be extended because with a forty minute set we can play two songs. But that’s okay. There’s six bands, I understand!
What got me about Bell Witch is the lyrical bass playing. What’s your musical background?
I grew up in Kansas and everything out there is country. I was really into a guitar player named Michael Hedges. He’s kind of a hippy but he’s a virtuoso and he plays the guitar like it’s a symphony piano. I got really into him and tried to do similar things on the bass. I really like old funeral doom and death doom. I listened to a lot of that stuff but I obviously didn’t get that growing up – it doesn’t mix with country too well!
Were you playing country?
No – I was in Samothrace who are obviously still around kicking ass. There was this band Wormwood though who were like a death-doom band from Lawrence, Kansas. They would sneak us into bars to watch them when I was in high school. They eventually moved out to Seattle as did I. Listening to them a lot was pretty cool. Their percussionist recorded our demo.
I actually wanted to ask about the Seattle thing… Obviously the Pacific Northwest is known for its doom. Why do you think that is?
I have no idea! There are a lot of bands that tour a good amount. But I book at a bar in Seattle and sometimes I feel like there’s not enough. The doom bands we have play a ton of shows. There are a lot though. I guess it could be said that there is a good heavy scene in general. There’s a lot of good death metal, thrash and black metal. It’s a city that a lot of people migrate too and I think a lot of like minded folks go there because they know there are like minded people. That’s why I moved there. I had so many friends who moved there over the years and said there were awesome shows every night. That sounded a lot cooler than Kansas! The weather is great too! (Laughter)
A lot of folks talk about the relationship with that and heavy metal. I think a lot of folks think there is a correlation between the dreariness and the music.
Well isn’t that like the Birmingham scene. It’s a shithole that gave us some great metal…
We played there the other day and the bartender was listing off bands from there, and I had no idea!
So how is it working with Oblique Management? I’m curious!
It’s been wonderful. We were put in touch with them by our label. Our manager and I talk on the phone all the time to line things up. I think it serves really well for us in particular because there’s a lot of stuff to do and we’re a two piece and can’t do it all. We’re touring as much as we can so having them there to handle the administrative stuff is so helpful. We get stuff done that I wouldn’t have even thought of.
What’s your goal with Bell Witch?
Something that is unique about it to me as opposed to other bands I’ve been in is… not that I’m the sole songwriter but that I can give the vision myself. When you’re in a band with four people it can be hard to agree on the same direction, things can get diluted. For me it’s so nice to be able to go at it myself and then arrange it with someone else so we can both make it work. It’s kind of taken on, in my head at least, a bit of a literary narrative to it. You can make stories out of the songs rather than making quick little catchy vocal lines; we can have lyrics that match melodies and tell stories. The goal is really to continue doing that I suppose! I love being able to do that. There’s more fulfillment in that than anything else in my life.
What puts music above other art forms for you?
I don’t know. I think I’m just more inclined to listen to things rather than look at things. I grew up in a very musical household. I’m not as visually stimulated.
I find that surprising because I’ve always loved your artwork… where does that come from?
With the art for Four Phantoms Paulo Girardi and I had an extended email conversation. Visually he handled all of the coloring. I gave him a concept about the four songs that tied together and I asked him to make a waterfall that ran through it and connected everything. He obviously expanded quite a bit on that, and I think what he came up with was stunning.
Right before the interview you mentioned being bashful. Are you generally introverted?
I work at a bar and my job kind of requires me to be extroverted, but I think it wears me out. Sometimes talking to people can be work because I’m so used to that being a work thing. Maybe I am introverted – I don’t think about it that much.
For me such a big part of Bell Witch so I’m a little surprised that you’re this… friendly? Does that make sense?
I kind of like trying to make it introspective. It’s kind of meant as an examination of… misery would be a cliché but I think I’m focusing on that and looking at it as having the dynamics inside. I’m looking at one emotion and getting very potent on that. I think that lends itself to a little more introversion.
Are you looking at misery in your own life or in general?
I would say that there is a little bit of both there. I feel that humanity in general feels like no matter what their walk of life or place on earth is, and of course it will be different for the individual, I feel like it’s an emotion all humans feel. Negative emotions are something we all have.
So, how much of Bell Witch comes from depression? It seems like that’s a fairly common trait amongst your fans…
I was talking about this with someone the other day – how everyone involved in the underground seems kind of depressed. There’s something kind of fucked up about us. Maybe you could say that about any human – I think it would be silly to say some people aren’t fucked up. Part of the human condition is suffering. That’s a tough one though. It’s hard to say because it gets into a large population and everyone has their own reasons for being attracted to heavy metal. I think some people are more into the aesthetics than the music or vice versa. That gets pretty personal.
You said you want to communicate stories and obviously on the new record every song has a partner, and what story are you to trying to communicate?
I view it as two songs with two movements apiece. What I was hoping to achieve with Four Phantoms was something of a smooth record. It has this dynamic shift. I wanted it to maybe go in waves or almost feel like a roller coaster. We arranged the songs so that they would flow nicely. I don’t want to sound clichéd but I guess everything in art is a cliché.
I’m interested in what you said about writing in movements – I was talking about that with Mike Scheidt a while back – Yob write music in movements too and tie that back to an almost classical idea. Does Bell Witch share that idea?
I think we’re definitely inspired by that. I really like the Chopin symphony orchestra stuff and I really like how classical music has these big dynamic shifts. It’s like the old Loony Tunes cartoons and those soundtracks match the mood. Of course it’s always a little ridiculous and silly but a lot of classical music tells stories like that but in a more serious regard. I think that’s really cool. For me that goes light years beyond your standard pop song. I don’t really see a lot of challenge or expansion on anything in that. I think that’s just recreating something that’s been done a thousand times. It’s like if I ate the same pancake for breakfast every day, I would shoot myself.