More about: Witch Fever
The stage at Brixton Academy is big, even for a 5,000-person capacity venue, but on this Monday night in January, Witch Fever have no problem filling it. As the opening act on the IDLES European tour, the band has the earliest slot of the night and they take to the stage as people are milling around and buying their first pint. It’s an unenviable job, but Witch Fever are anything but background music. They smash straight into their first heavy riff and by the end of their opening song, have commandeered the attention of everyone in the vast academy. Three songs in and lead singer Amy Walpole has jumped off the stage and is in the thick of the crowd—a frontperson in full control of their audience.
When I catch up with the band a few weeks after the show, to chat about their upcoming debut album, Congregation, I ask about that set. Was it a challenge to open such a huge show, especially when many of the crowd, naturally there to see IDLES, might not have been familiar with their music? “Our strength has always been in playing live,” says bassist Alex Thompson. “When we started playing on bigger stages, I was actually really nervous because we're used to small venues where the stage is tiny. But that night was our biggest show ever and it felt good. We can really pull it off.”
The doom punk four-piece, comprised of Walpole and Thomson, along with drummer Annabelle Joyce and guitarist Alisha Yarwood, met through mutual friends while studying in Manchester and have been playing as a band for the past five years. Their band name is as powerful and evocative as their sound. Inspired by the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, and Europe, it summons up the hysteria that historically surrounds any women who dares to step out of the norm, as well as the different tools applied to belittle, suppress, and diminish them. It’s a message that translates naturally into their music, which often focuses on the modern female struggles of identity and autonomy. “Our music has a big emphasis on female empowerment and female anger,” says Thomson. “There’s something really powerful about playing heavy music, a feeling of breaking out.”
The band’s heavy sound has been compared to the dark tones of Black Sabbath, the energy of Slaves, and the rawness of the earliest Nirvana EPs, but Walpole, Thomson, Yarwood and Joyce have no interest in other people’s interpretations of what they do. “I don't think we can be put into one box,” says Thomson on the labels applied to them in the media and on the road. “I just really hope people stop calling us riot grrrl. We've never sounded like riot grrl but we constantly used to get branded [with] it.” Lead singer Walpole laughs and rolls her eyes in agreeance. “It’s so frustrating! I come off stage and people go, ‘Oh, that was great! You're like Bikini Kill!’” she exclaims as her bandmates laugh. “It’s like saying, ‘you sound like any band that has any woman in it ever’. So frustrating.” Thomson agrees: “we get The Slits a lot and I don't think we sound anything like the fucking Slits.”
The band’s new album, released later this year, is set to overthrow interpretations of their sound even further. Written during lockdown, it blends the recognisable thrash of early Witch Fever with a new, more complex and daring songwriting direction. “It was actually really good for us in a writing sense to have some time off gigging,” says Thomson. “Before, we couldn't write songs very frequently, and when we did, we had a formula that we stuck to. Being locked down opened a lot of doors for us to have a bit more freedom and time to play around with our sound and develop it.” The result is an album with equal parts raw passion and musicality, carried along with singer Walpole’s amazing lyricism. “There's definitely more space in the music, we’ve given the songs more room to breathe,” she says. “It's not just like back-to-back thrash-y and crazy: there’s some slower songs, some songs that are like more bass lead and less guitar led. Compared to other stuff, while its definitely still heavy, it's also more experimental.”
The one through-line of all of Witch Fever’s music, however, is an artistic manipulation around themes of the church and a use of religious symbolism, both lyrically and aesthetically turning recognisable tropes on their head. In the video to their 2021 song ‘In Birth’, Walpole plays the role of a crazed preacher to the other band member’s bored congregation, and over the three-minute track the scene dissolves into bloody chaos. It’s a powerful statement, but the band make clear that it’s the structure of religion that they’re targeting, not faith itself. The use of religious symbolism is personal, inspired partly by singer Walpole’s own experience as a member of a “charismatic Christian church” in West Yorkshire as a teenager, that she describes as a very toxic environment.
“In my lyrics, I'm sort of talking about my specific experiences within Christianity, but also about how these sorts of organisations are super patriarchal,” Walpole explains. “You've got the male gods, who are above all else, and the understanding that men are always the ones in charge.” Drummer Joyce adds to Walpole’s thoughts; “Our church imagery developed over time, but it has come quite integral because it fits so well with the themes of our music. There are so many strong images you can use with Bible references and religious imagery, especially when it comes to women's role in religion, the idea of gods and the patriarchy is a very resonant thing.” Walpole nods in agreement and continues, “I see stuff all the time about how queer culture often uses Catholic imagery and turns it on its head,” she says. “It feels very potent. It feels exciting to utilise this thing that men teach and use to dictate everyone's lives and tell women what they shouldn't be doing. Through our music we’re like, ‘Fuck you, this is mine to use and to interpret as well as yours’.”
It sounds like a fairly political stance for a band to use in their art, but surprisingly, the four members don’t view themselves as a political band in any strict sense, shying away from the idea of their songs giving direction to fans in terms of social politics. “I'm never coming with an agenda with my lyrics. I'm not writing them thinking, ‘I want people to learn something from this,’” argues Walpole. “But they are always written with a feminist undercurrent, so in that sense I guess they are political.” One of the band’s lyrics states “my body my choice,” a famous political statement used globally by the feminist movement in conversations on bodily autonomy, reproductive choices, and abortion. “My lyrics are always quite personal to me and I think that's something that I might start to play with and change for future albums,” says Walpole. “Up until now, all my lyrics have been about being women and trauma. I grew up going to that church and it was a very horrible place, so a lot of my lyrics are about that. I've always used writing as catharsis: anything difficult that I've been through, I can like find power in it.”
The song ‘Bully Boy’ is a powerful example of Witch Fever’s cathartic creation in action. A collaboration by the whole band, the track and its video are a response to a 2018 gig in Bristol, at which the four members experienced extreme misogyny and physical threat while performing at the venue. “From the moment we got there, it was weird,” says Walpole of the gig. “People were being really disrespectful and for some reason lots of things happened all in one go. Someone asked me for a striptease while I was on stage—he literally stopped me talking when I was on the mic to ask—then someone else told me that he was going to be wanking at the back of the room, and another guy grabbed Alex by the neck.” An experience in stark comparison to the band’s message of female authority and need for self-rule, the resulting track is an astoundingly powerful outpouring of rage, with lyrics that shout, “Off with his head! Let's see how he burns,” and a bubblegum pop coloured music video, showing the four band members beating besuited male emblems—made from inanimate objects—with knives and baseball bats. “That song is about an instance that we all went through together as a band and experienced collectively,” says Thomson. “That’s why it's so angry, it’s because all of us can still feel the aggression of that experience.”
While some gigs show the culture that Witch Fever are playing against, others are a shining example of the positive direction in which things are heading. The show at Brixton Academy in January was one of them. With the band joining headliner IDLES and playing alongside joint support act Self Esteem, the event’s line up was representative of the trend of anti-toxic masculinity prevalent in 2022’s music scene and the ways that different musical genres are tackling modern day identity in a potent way. Do they feel that their music fits into a bigger movement and find themselves more inspired by the gigs of recent years? “For sure, there’s definitely a feeling of [anti-toxic masculinity] in music at the moment,” says Walpole. “There’s a movement where across all the different parts of the industry, people are doing more for it. Like, there’s more promoters and bands creating these safe space gigs and other spaces like that. There's definitely more of a community going on where that movement is pushed.”
With an extraordinarily accomplished debut album out soon, and a summer full of gigs ahead of them, Witch Fever feel like a band right on the cusp of going stratospheric. While their platform is quickly growing, the band are clear on one thing—it won’t change the music they make. “It’s important for us to do things our own way and represent ourselves as we wish, regardless of outside opinion,” says Joyce. “We're very lucky that the team behind us don't want to try and put us into anything or change us,” adds Thomson. “We don’t feel the pressure to become anything different than what we are because we’re getting more popular.” While the band is sure that they won’t be changed by the outside influence of the industry, they haven’t yet realised the alternative. With such a powerful message and with fierce new music on the horizon, they have the potential to be the ones who change the industry instead.
Congregation arrives 21 October via Sony's Music For Nations.
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More about: Witch Fever