Not all that lurks in the dark is grim.
If Sam Raimi and Beetlejuice have taught us anything, it’s that the creatures of the night have a playful streak. Think Frighteners and you’ll have a fair parallel to murky Minneapolis shoegaze band Witch Watch. Think Stephen Merritt in a ghastly mania or the Undertaker handing out balloon animals at a thaumaturgical rite.
Guitarist/songwriter Derek Van Gieson designed Witch Watch to conjure such absurd allusions. On their debut album, Wandering and Wondering (released April 21), Van Gieson and his band taunt the listener with fangs and a black tongue, moving through genres in curious, impulsive jerks. One song, he’s strumming out a blithe, existential hippie groove (“Happy Hollows”), and the next, he’s grinding through a hateful dirge punctuated with the scratch lyrics, “I’m gonna cut your dick off and feed it to you” (“2/5”).
“We wanted to write a song about digging up your ex-lover, and it just didn’t work out,” Van Gieson says.
Before Witch Watch, Van Gieson played guitar with Minneapolis surf-goths Murder Shoes for two years. His polymathic songwriting and dour illustrations helped establish the band as a standout in the local scene, but sharing songwriting duties with his two bandmates left him creatively stymied. The other lyricists didn’t understand why he wanted to take things so far off the rails when they already had a successful formula.
Van Gieson had started looking around at other options when he heard that his Red Stag Supperclub co-worker Anna Neighbors sang for a local roots-folk band. He listened to some of her work with Flowerstalks, and that’s when he knew her gnashing, Nico-meets-Elvira vocals would provide the perfect incantations for a side project. Convincing her was easier than anticipated.
“When I went up to Anna, I was like, ‘How would you feel about doing some minor-chord, dissonant, atonal indie rock?’” Van Gieson says.
Neighbors didn’t flinch. “I was like, ‘Yes. That sounds good.’”
Neighbors and Van Gieson began as a bedroom-gloom duo, working with the songs Murder Shoes didn’t want: “My Insect Funeral” was deemed “too surfy,” “Invocation” and “Chimney Sweep Reapers” were “too dissonant.” Soon they had a hard-drive full of demos. After Murder Shoes broke up last September, saying farewell with a nearly done LP of B-sides titled Fall, Witch Watch became a full-time pursuit.
“When Anna and I started working together, we were only working on rejected songs,” Van Gieson says. “Usually, to Anna’s almost disgust, I would field them to Murder Shoes first, and whatever they didn’t respond to I’d pull back on the other side. Then, when the band broke up, everything that was in the demo Dropbox came back to me.”
Neighbors and Van Gieson soon realized they needed a dedicated rhythm section. Van Gieson pulled in Monica LaPlante’s drummer Austin Cecil, who’d sat in with Murder Shoes on their tour with LaPlante the previous year. Cecil tipped off his bandmate Rory Donovan, and the two ended up playing on about half the album.
Like Fall, Wandering and Wondering offers a glance at what Murder Shoes could’ve been. Unlike Fall, there’s no committee to counterbalance Van Gieson’s morose whimsy. He calls the record a “director’s cut” of a Murder Shoes LP, but more accurately, it’s what Murder Shoes would sound like in an alternative timeline where Danny Fields was elected president and Twin Peaks never went off the air — an unfiltered expression of Van Gieson’s playful madness.
“It’s nice to not have such a narrow strike zone for a song,” Van Gieson says. “That’s what was uncomfortable about before — limitations. I had to write very specific style songs to get them past. But now I can do whatever I want.”
The writing relationship between Van Gieson and Neighbors is jocular and unencumbered. For inspiration, the two play word games and watch campy horror flicks. “My Fist Is on Your List” is a flippant rehashing of a Hall & Oates hit, and “Song for Billy” uses Gremlins as a metaphor for a one-sided love affair. With Donovan and Cecil joining permanently this past month, the four-piece have become an efficient factory of absurdity, resulting in the 15 oddities collected on Wandering and Wondering.
The new album is capricious, touring many genres — Britpop (“Transparencies”), freak folk (“Wait for Me”), and post-hardcore (“Chimney Sweep Reapers”) among them — and hardly cracking the three-minute mark on a given song. There are moments of despondent arrhythmia (“Hand-Painted Dinosaurs”) and teeth-clenched screeds (“A Personal Eclipse”), but if one song epitomizes Witch Watch and their no-thing-too-precious approach, it’s the twangy “My Insect Funeral.”
Van Gieson admits that “My Insect Funeral” is “probably the most ridiculous song” in Witch Watch’s catalog. The lyrics describe the titular burial and its various attendees (many, for some reason, named Tony) as the procession crumbles into a spiral of self-loathing. Witch Watch gladly positioned “My Insect Funeral” as the second single off Wandering and Wondering — the first song Van Gieson and Neighbors ever worked on together, it set the tone for their collaboration.
“The absurd ones are my favorite,” Neighbors says. “I love getting an email and reading the lyrics and being like, ‘Can I do this?’”
As the title of Wandering and Wondering suggests, there was no destination when Witch Watch hit the studio. They only knew that they had expectations to abolish.
With all the ghosts of Murder Shoes exorcised, Van Gieson and Witch Watch are looking forward to creating something together with no stigma of rejection or vestigial histories to shake off. Cecil and Donovan will have more input, and Neighbors will begin writing her own lyrics. Competing with Van Gieson’s autodidactic weirdness isn’t a concern, though. Witch Watch will continue to operate with no stylistic mandates.
“‘Too weird’ isn’t a limit,” says Neighbors, with a toothy smile.
Van Gieson agrees. “If anything, we’re not weird enough.”