Whatever happened to witch house?
© Vallery Jean/WireImage/Getty Images
This intensely foreboding electronic micro-genre stepped out of the shadows to both fanfare and puzzlement a decade ago, before scuttling back to the margins. We explore the scene's musical legacy.
Witch house lived up to its eerie name when it ghosted into existence and, for the briefest of moments, cast a spell over alternative culture. It was 2009 when the shadowiest of all micro-genres was born – a dirty cauldron stew of screwed beats, scorched synths and nods to the occult, forged on the internet by bedroom musicians with a penchant for the dark web and shamanism.
For a short time, it was the sound of the American electronic underground, thundered into the zeitgeist by bands like Salem. The UK's Guardian newspaper called it an “intriguingly queasy” potion made from “nerve-jangling samples and bad-dream sounds.” And before too long it infiltrated the mainstream. In 2011, Beyonce danced in a L'Oréal ad to the strained sonics of Tri-Angle artist Balam Acab's See Birds. Two years later, Katy Perry scored a US Number One with a single, Dark Horse, that borrowed heavily from witch house. Then, almost as quickly as it had wafted in, the sound seemed to disappear.
Or so the story goes. Ten years after the emergence of witch house, it's seldom discussed anymore, filed next to cloud rap and nu-rave as another of the millennium’s flash-in-the-pan sounds and subcultures. But what if it never went away? What if it now just bubbles under the surface of popular music, only under different names? This is the theory of Travis Egedy, the New York artist who creates music under the name Pictureplane, and who's credited with creating the term 'witch house' in the first place.
Travis Egedy, aka Pictureplane, living up to witch house type below
“The term started an in-joke,” Egedy remembers. “I said it in an interview with Pitchfork and it just sort of snowballed from there.” The name was coined in a conversation with his fellow underground artist Shams – a playful pun on house music, though what witch house came to represent had very little to do with club culture.
“At that time, there was what I like to call 'rainbow rock': hyper-bright artists like Animal Collective and Dan Deacon making really colourful music,” says Egedy. Witch house, with its spooky sonics and shadowy visuals, inverted the kaleidoscopic psychedelia favoured by these artists. “It became a new aesthetic within underground electronic music. It was dark, where rainbow rock wasn't dark.”
Critics would laugh about it, even though there was really serious, amazing music being made
That aesthetic caught fire among DIY artists exposed to the scene on platforms like MySpace, who were suddenly able to make music at home, thanks to easily pirated music software. “It was an explosion,” says Egedy. “There was, at the time, an amazing network of DIY warehouses and raves and shows happening all across America. And at the same time, bedroom electronic music was really blossoming. People were making music in their bedroom with synthesisers and new software that made it really easy to do.”
“Any kid could download a pirated version of Fruity Loops or Reason,” agrees Bryan Kurkimilis, of New York witch house band White Ring. Just like it did in the 'blog house' micro-genre that came before witch house, this democratisation of technology meant more people dabbling in stranger types of music, with more scope for experimentation. “It was the same across the board. If you were a young rap producer, you didn’t need an Akai MPC anymore; you could do it on the computer your mum had in your basement.”
The result was a new generation of music makers taking sounds they loved and testing their boundaries. For previous generations, recording in a studio, with an expensive engineer on the clock and every hour pushing you closer to financial peril, there wasn’t time for experimentation. For this new gen, working from home, on software downloaded for free, there was time to toy around, “while retaining the soul of the older bands they were inspired by,” Kurkimilis says.
Witch house coincided, too, with the rise of Tumblr, which swarmed with its own new-generation goth community. This new micro-genre, with its “vibe of chaos magic, magical freedom and anarchy,” as Egedy refers to it, inspired musicians belonging to that community, as artists began to surface whose music captured a certain mood – menacing, but beautiful.
We weren’t actual magicians in black robes with pentagrams surrounding us
Salem were soon joined by critically acclaimed acts like Holy Other, Purity Ring, oOoOO (pronounced “Oh”) and London’s Crim3s. The Guardian, the New York Times and others were suddenly reporting on this new wave of occult-inspired electronic music, none of them quite sure exactly where the genre’s boundaries lay. Was The Haxan Cloak a witch house artist? How about A$AP Rocky producer Clams Casino, they asked? Publications missed the genre’s inherent humour, too.
“It wasn’t pretentious. We were just having fun. It was tongue-in-cheek,” says Egedy. “Obviously, we weren’t actual magicians in black robes with pentagrams surrounding us.”
Journalists met witch house artists – who often stylised their stage names with strange symbols, like GL▲SS †33†H and ///▲▲▲\\\ – with suspicion. “People didn’t know whether to take it seriously. There was this hesitation for critics, who’d laugh about it, even though there was really serious, amazing music being made. There was a resistance to it from a critical standpoint,” Egedy recalls.
It struck a chord with listeners anyway. Salem became cult sensations, soundtracking scenes in Ryan Gosling movies and in UK teen dramas like Skins. Crystal Castles, who borrowed from witch house, became indie titans, collaborating with Robert Smith from The Cure and ending up on UK music publication NME’s best albums of the decade list. By 2012, witch house had blotted out the hyper-bright neons of nu-rave and 'rainbow rock', scrawling charcoal black across the jagged border between indie and electronic underground music.
Eventually, though, witch house faded from the cultural conversation, replaced by Tumblr-approved seapunk as the music press’s flavour-of-the-month micro-genre. But its influence had taken root, says Egedy. Its poison already in effect. Witch house was one of the key inspirations for Kanye West’s abrasive 2013 album Yeezus, which set the blueprint for the next five years of hip-hop to come (Salem’s Jack Donoghue is in fact credited as a co-producer of that record’s lead single, Black Skinhead). As a result, witch house is still alive today in hip-hop, evident in the caustic, synth-led songs of Travis Scott and Danny Brown.
“I see the influence hugely in rap music today. The dark electronic beats, the lyrical content – a band like Salem, with their really crushing lo-fi synths and trap beats, had a massive influence on what we’re hearing now,” says Egedy. “That sonic template of blown-out, gothy electronic sounds.”
Kurkimilis agrees, describing the way the sound haunts contemporary hip-hop as an example of influences coming full circle. Witch house artists, he says, were as inspired by the DIY approach of early rap pioneers as much as by spectral-sounding artists like the Cocteau Twins. Its slow tempos and narcotic undertow were heavily indebted to the chopped and screwed Houston hip-hop of the ‘90s, too. So perhaps it’s fitting that rap has ended up inspired by witch house. “All of the original witch house artists grew up listening to hip-hop. In a weird way, it’s like a form of genuinely appreciative cultural appropriation: taking something you have a genuine love for but that you don’t want to bastardise, so you twist it instead.”
It’s not just hip-hop that witch house has influenced. “You see it everywhere,” continues Kurkimilis. “In soundtracks, and in the aesthetics of pop acts like Billie Eilish. I definitely see an amped-up, morphed version of those original ideas.”
It makes sense that it's stuck around: the concept behind witch house, after all, is as enticing now as it was a decade ago. It stemmed from “realising that reality is mutable, and that you can create your own world and reality,” as Egedy puts it. The name may not have endured, but its murky sonics still haunt contemporary mainstream music, providing a darkness to get lost in.