Electro duo ushers in a fiery, sultry new era
In the couple of years following the release of Damn the Witch Siren's 2015 album, Back to Dreaming, the Columbus duo took some time to pause and reflect.
“When we put out our last album I felt like we were not all there yet,” said Bobbi Kitten, seated next to bandmate and partner Z Wolf at an Old North bar.
“We were in a weird headspace,” Wolf said. “We didn't have a clear-cut idea of what we wanted to create.”
While electronic elements, Bowie-inspired visuals and dance-friendly beats are a constant in Damn the Witch Siren's music, Wolf and Kitten are creatively restless and easily bored. Each release is an opportunity for reinvention. But over time, at the band's home in Marion, which the couple renovated into a home studio with the help of fan donations, the two multi-instrumentalists began zeroing in on a new sound, which Wolf refers to as “clubby sex music.”
The music didn't come first, though. A year before writing any of the songs on new record Red Magic, Kitten came up with the concept for the album's cover — a nude photo of the singer slathered in red glitter up to her neck and set against a deep-red background.
“I've been a big fan of so many racy photographers, and I've been photographed by some of them,” said Kitten, who's also a photographer. “It's been a self-love journey for myself the last couple years. That's a lot of the underlying theme of the album: self-love, feminism, liberation. Our bodies are so sexualized. I love the #metoo movement of the last year — women finally talking about the challenges of being a sexualized creature, and wanting to liberate that. … People love to take women's stories and manipulate them. I think it's really powerful for a woman to stand back and be able to be proud of the fact that they can share themselves.”
“On the album cover she looks defiant, like this is her narrative and these are her tits and that's her decision. It's not up to you,” Wolf said. “Of course, iTunes rejected our artwork. ... We resubmitted it and put a parental advisory over her tits. It says, “Parental Advisory #FreetheNipple.”
The image provided a thematic framework for Red Magic, the second release in a colorful triptych (2014's Black Magic EP went out to supporters who donated to the studio; White Magic is yet to come). “We wanted to make something that sounded very red and dark and fiery and sultry,” Wolf said.
On previous outings, the musicians said they tended to overthink their songs in the studio, piling on layer after layer of sound. But they purposely kept Red Magic more sonically simple — a task that proved challenging but rewarding. “We had a song that was almost done, and I loved it. And [Kitten] was like, ‘This is not good enough. This isn't working,'” Wolf said. “I got pretty pissed at her, and we scrapped it. But within two hours she had written my favorite song on the record. … There's this indefinable thing that a musician is always trying to chase, like catching lightning in a bottle. I think we did that a lot more this time.”
Every beat of songs like “Sex U Up” and “Feelin' Myself” are drenched in sensuality, as Kitten inhabits various characters and personas. But Damn the Witch Siren also gets more personal on Red Magic, especially on “The Fire, The Flame.”
“When I was born, it was like a death in the family/I buried my mother's heart in the cold, cold ground/Never told my father not to lay his hands on me,” Kitten sings, sounding vulnerable and damaged. Then the chorus hits, and she transforms passivity into aggression: “I could be the fire, I could be the flame … I can be anything.”
“I came from a small town, and I have a lot of family issues,” Kitten said. “I felt this weird, spiritual, intrinsic thing like I didn't belong with my family. … People who grow up in small towns can be very small-minded. They never really learn how to grow into themselves and think freely and be an individual. I'd always wanted to get out of it, and I got out of it. But I kind of blocked out a bunch of stuff that happened [and] shut it off for a while. And then I woke up to it and said, ‘If I can bring myself out of this, I can do whatever I want.'”
For the next year, Damn the Witch Siren plans to hit the road, starting with a release show at Spacebar on Saturday, Feb. 10. Playing in different cities and states is liberating for the duo, which often feels like the odd man out on local bills.
“I think we're one of five electronic acts [in Columbus],” Kitten said. “Every time we try to find electronic acts around this area it's very sparse, and they're always really light and soft and ethereal.”
“Columbus is a rock 'n' roll town,” Wolf said. “I'll see bumper stickers that say, ‘Drum machines have no soul,' which I find insanely stupid because drum kits don't have a soul, either.”
Still, Damn the Witch Siren has found kindred spirits in rock acts like Cadaver Dogs, the Up All Nights and Betsy Ross. And when it comes to live shows, the duo takes more inspiration from guitar bands than electronic acts. “I love electronic music, but a lot of it bores the shit out of me live,” Wolf said. “I've always wanted to avoid that, and I think we take a much more punk or rock 'n' roll approach to playing our music.”
While the couple said that Red Magic is the era of Damn the Witch Siren in which the musicians have truly found themselves, they also left the door wide open for the future. “One of our favorite bands is the Cocteau Twins,” Wolf said. “We've been dreaming of making something more organic like that … someday … when we're done with our clubby sex music.”