The Wytches are back, and their new album Three Mile Ditch was a long time in the making. For their third record, Kristian Bell (vocals), Daniel Rumsey (bass guitar), and Mark Breed (keyboards, guitar) went back to their instincts, writing as if they had no eyes on them – no opinions, no expectations.
The meteoric rise of their debut album, Annabel Dream Reader, saw the band work with Bill Ryder-Jones, tour extensively – including major festival circuits in the UK, Europe, and America – and go on to work with Jim Sclavunos (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Grinderman) for their second record All Your Happy Life. A four-year break lent itself to intuitive writing, leaning into more melodic influences like Alex Chilton, without losing their raw, chaotic appeal.
The lead up to Three Mile Ditch brought a lot of change with the departure of Gianni Honey (drums) last year, with the band also opting for a change of scenery, recording with their friend Luke Oldfield at Tile House Studios. Released on their own label Cable Code Records, hitting reset refreshed their rough edges for confident songwriting that’s to the point, dynamic, and sounds like a band that’s ready to hit their stride.
Clementine Zawadzki: Tell me about the lead-up to recording Three Mile Ditch, because I understand the band went through a bit of a precarious stage and things didn’t look certain for a while.
Kristian Bell: When we did our second album (All Your Happy Life, 2016) it was really the only time that we made up some songs from scratch for a quick turnaround, because with a lot of band’s first albums it’s an accumulation of material from a long period of time…
CZ: You’ve got a lot in reserve for when the moment comes…
KB: Well, that’s it. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but it [Three Mile Ditch] ended up being very similar to how we did our first album, which was gathering material from a good four years and picking the best stuff. We never demoed anything with our second album, so we made sure to do that this time. I’d been getting into recording and that side of things, so I was practicing that with our third album. We actually had a big old list of tracks that were fully finished and recorded to a certain extent, but it would’ve been a bit too lo-fi if we’d just put that out. There were talks about doing that at one point, making it this really overly raw thing, but we’d sort of fizzled out of the music industry and no one was paying for us to do anything anymore. It was very much a DIY thing, how it was when we began. When we were given the opportunity to go to the studio, we knew exactly where we wanted to go: with our friend Luke [Oldfield] who engineered our debut, but we went to his studio [Tile House Studios] rather than Toe Rag Studios.
CZ: It’s a safe space…
KB: Exactly. We’re comfortable with Luke and I think it’s really important to not feel embarrassed about sharing ideas. When it’s someone who isn’t in the band, I tend to get a bit embarrassed by myself, but being with someone we’re really familiar with and who’s a good friend of ours made a big difference.
“I feel like even if we have to play where everyone is sat on the floor drinking tea, I don’t think I’d handle the show any differently.”
CZ: You mentioned the third album was like going full circle, back to the starting blocks. How did the pressures following All Your Happy Life contribute to this reset?
KB: I didn’t know how it seemed to everyone else, but to me, it was like we were rock stars overnight or something. We were just another pub band or whatever, but because there were suddenly industry members involved from all different areas, I had no clue what all of that was about. I didn’t even know music reviews were a thing. I had a pretty sheltered life before that…
CZ: You were just doing your own thing…
KB: I’m from the most boring place on planet earth. At that point I lived in the lowest part of the UK – literally – the ground level is the lowest in the entire country. It’s just the flattest most boring place in the world, and I was just trying to switch things up and make it exciting. When it finally reached the outside world, it spun me out a bit. There was a lot of pressure to put something out fairly quickly after the first album, but I was really young when we did the first two albums, and I was in a bit of a phase rejecting everything and just completely changing things for the sake of keeping things spontaneous. I ended up writing songs that had nothing to do with what people knew the band for, because I was over the surf thing. A few negative things led me to want to reject it, but I’ve grown up a lot since then and I’m not bothered about what people think. I’m also aware of not completely alienating fans, although in retrospect there was a portion of fans who did appreciate our second album. In general, I think it was a turn off for people, but I’m glad we did it. That album is wacky to me and I love it for that.
“At that point I lived in the lowest part of the UK – literally – the ground level is the lowest in the entire country.”
CZ: You’ve worked with a lot of talented, knowledgeable people throughout your career, how did those experiences influence your approach to your third album?
KB: For both albums we never had unlimited time, but I think just from experience I wanted to make sure all the extra bits – things that probably won’t appear on the live versions like guitar solos and overdubs – were completely finished before we went in, and to do all the experimentation beforehand so we’re not plugging things into random bits and wasting time in the studio. I was conscious of that and I suppose really, it was quite a different way of doing it because the first two were done live with all of us, but with this one it was just drums and bass live and we tracked everything else. It was different altogether, but what I took from it was not to dwell on things, like if you pronounce a word weird, you don’t want to scrap the whole vocal take just to mend that bit, and remember people aren’t listening with certain things in mind like I am. I can be critical of ridiculous little things and I wanted to scrap that to feel freer.
CZ: Having said that, once a song or the record is complete is it hard for you not to keep pulling it apart?
KB: I don’t want to big myself up or anything [laughs] but I was quite happy with how it came out. I spent the first couple of months after it was done just listening to it. I’m a lot happier when music is filling up my life and I suppose for a while it felt like it was fading away.
CZ: In respect to your previous work, you went into Three Mile Ditch with a simpler approach. The album still sounds quite sonically complex, just maybe more refined and melodic in certain parts. How did you pare it back?
KB: An example would be when a chorus kicks in, rather than whacking another ten guitars onto that to make it seem bigger, it was just making the chorus better. Trying not to use studio techniques and instead have the intensity come from the original performance. There’s still a lot going on like Mellotrons and organs, but we held back from crowding the songs. A lot of the overdubs we did came from Mark [Breed] who played the organ for most of it. When he was taking control of the overdubs and keys, he’s got this knack of coming up with things on the spot, and I think he’s a lot more melodic than I am, he has a better ear for layering harmonies and he just added so much to it.
I think it’s simpler because I’ve always wanted to do this organic thing and have it just sound like a rock band and not polishing things so much. We just kept that in mind when we went to add something on, and a lot of the time we took bits out. I suppose also, we’re quite confident with the quality of the songs, we didn’t feel it needed it.
CZ: And you love film scores, right?
KB: Yeah, I just love really dramatic music. I’m like the biggest Bright Eyes fan on the planet and I’ve been listening to their new album a lot. I think a lot of my love for that came from Bright Eyes and just how grand it all sounds, I don’t really know how to describe it, I just love that about music. If I could score a film it’d probably be some kind of car chase.
“If I could score a film it’d probably be some kind of car chase.”
CZ: For a band with such a focus and reputation for their live shows, how do you feel about releasing an album when the prospect of shows as they were is on hold for the time being?
KB: It’s a strange one. In the early days of us gigging and stuff, people didn’t know us or people who were at the gigs weren’t necessarily there to see us, so we weren’t getting much back from the audience, like people weren’t throwing themselves around, but that didn’t change my mind because I’d still just throw myself around even if it looked like they weren’t enjoying it. It just feels weird to play intense music and stand completely still. I feel like even if we have to play where everyone is sat on the floor drinking tea, I don’t think I’d handle the show any differently. Sometimes I get a bit worried when the crowd is going crazy because there are people getting injured. I think when I was younger I didn’t like to say anything because I didn’t know how to also be a security guard, but the few shows we’ve played the past couple of years, I’ve made an effort to say, “Don’t be so rough with each other.” I mean, I would like to play just sat at a table as well, like have a meal with me [laughs]. Mark and I write songs together that isn’t Wytches stuff and before all this I remember us saying that it’d be fun to play a show with a table and drinks on stage.
CZ: If there’s ever been a time to revisit this idea, it’s now. Speaking of ideas, the video for A Love You’ll Never Know is amazing – you built the set, right?
KB: Mark made and painted the actual backdrop, and I sat in my room for like a week and just made all this little furniture out of cardboard with a glue gun, so I think it took about a week to make all the stuff. The hardest thing were the puppets because we had one hand puppet and two string puppets, and I really underestimated how difficult it was to control the string puppets. You can see in the video the ones on the strings are doing the most basic movements. I was literally just waving the strings to make them hobble along. I can’t believe people can actually do that, because all I could manage was lifting an arm so it looked like it was swatting a fly or something. The miniatures were really fun to make and the effects were because Mark filmed it on his iPhone, then filmed his iPhone with a VHS camera, and then filmed the viewfinder of the VHS with his iPhone.
CZ: It’s like Inception.
KB: Yeah. It’s my favourite of ours because it’s a little different to the usual stuff.
CZ: And Three Mile Ditch is being released on your own label Cable Code Records. Is this something you’re also hoping to expand on and branch out with other artists in the future?
KB: That’s definitely the plan. Over lockdown, I was calling my friend Sam [Gull] who has always done our artwork and we were just making plans about what we’ll do with it. We were speaking to friends who make great music and once this album’s out of the way, we’re going to try and have everything in-house, so Sam would do the artwork and I’ll do the recording and engineering for the releases. I think for the time being we just have friends in mind and then we’ll try take it from there and bring in people from the outside we’ve seen or heard of and make it an actual thing. I watched a Sub Pop documentary a little while ago and I got me pumped to want to give this a go. It’s probably a lot harder than I have it in my head, just like with the puppets. I thought puppeteering would be easy, but it wasn’t.
The Wytches’ Three Mile Ditch is out now via Cable Code Records.