It’s been listed as goth, library music, drone, doom ambient, ghost trance, glo-fi, post-punk, hauntology, ghost drone, spectral pop, drag, were house, haunted house, and an extension of chill-wave: either way it appears the leaders of the genre-coining movement, or the bands themselves, have been channelling Nathan Barley for inspiration.
It could also be considered Facebook or Myspace music; a genre growing from disparate groups of people who never meet but produce and share ghostly influenced music - like electro-pop in a morphine slurry. First glances show a collective of young artists, and I suspect so young that the full extent of the 80s and 90s music scenes have bypassed them in a rather concrete way. The term ‘drag’ is supposed to reference a Houston sound perpetuated in the 90s by DJ Screw and similar crews: the major addition to their sluggish music was the strong influence of cough-syrup codeine and fizzy juice known as purple drank - it frequently led to deaths, including DJ Screw at the age of 29, who turned down record deals to remain with his purple drank crew.
The witch house band Salem jumped on DJ Screw’s legacy and kept the chopped-up, sluggish and ethereal quality while working in synths and vocals along a Boris Karloff theme. Other artists chuck in electro-rock, or dub, or ambient, but the genre seems entirely based on themes of the occult and the paranormal, albeit through a psychedelic aperture. A side-look at dubstep suggests the likes of Burial helped to add some ethereal inspiration to the genre. .
One of the labels behind the witch house sound is Tri Angle, founded by Robin Carolan. He has been quoted as saying: “Hip-hop and rnb, in essence, is a commercial kind of music. But when you get down to the nitty gritty of it, it’s sonically at least really strange music. And there’s so much you can do with that. I’m surprised it’s taken so long for it to start being experimented with by people who aren’t in that world.”
And for me, that’s the crux of it - “people who aren’t in that world”. Houston’s drag hip-hop / street-rap artists in the 90s ran a merry-go-round with codeine syrup abuse, plenty of whom didn’t survive their ‘muse’, and they were predominantly from poorer African-American backgrounds. Witch house or whatever you want to call it, comes from people who saw little of that era first hand simply due to age differences, and they come from markedly different backgrounds - in some way it reminds me of a marketing plan to extract a culture-specific genre/style and tweak it for the mass market. Strip off the syrup abuse, add in genres tapping a definite trend, and it is reborn with little contemplative thought for the founding fathers who did not survive long enough to see purple drank music without the purple drank aspect.
Tom Ewing of The Guardian disagrees, suggesting: “What witch house tells me is that genres now aren't exercises in innovation or marketing, so much as ways of framing an experience. And if you won't feel open to that experience, your investigation of it won't get far.”
So, underground trend marketing or framing an experience? Stay tuned to this blog for the second part in Witch House deconstruction, where we delve into the artists, their naming conventions and their different interpretations of the sound.