‘I think I’ve always been obsessed with death’ says Caitlin Elliman, wych elm’s creator and frontperson. The young, noisy four-piece have charmed and intrigued the local scene and beyond over the past year, dealing heavily in themes of folklore and the Macabre.
Released a year ago, their debut EP Rat Blanket delivers a nostalgic grunge apathy and heavy sonic influence, letting way to riot grrrl rage, to melody, to singalong. It was passionately backed by Post Mortem Records co-founders Adrian Dutt (Howling Owl Records / Spectres) and Marie Dufrénoy, who released the seven-track vinyl EP as their first pressing. The first 50 copies sold out under ‘Jane Doe’ and were delivered in hand-stitched cadaver bags – after that, the rest followed suit.
Caitlin continues: ‘Death is something I think about a lot, so it comes up in the lyrics. I know it sounds so weird, but I think I was eight years old when I found dead birds in my grandmother’s garden and being like “why are they dead?” Then my mum said that the weak ones get pushed out of the nest. It’s stories like that, or stories about how parents can kill their children; how the human mind works, in a way – I find it all really awesome and inspiring. Lots of people find it disrespectful, but there are people who can appreciate it as an art form and see it as that.’
There are people who can appreciate it as an art form
Walk around the Paris Catacombs, delve through the rich vaults of true crime on Netflix or series like American Horror Story and True Detective, or simply check their half a million streams on Spotify and you’ll find there are, in fact, plenty who agree.
‘Death used to be a very taboo subject, but I think it’s too interesting to ignore the things that people can do. You hear these wild stories like Susan Smith, who killed her children, and I couldn’t ignore it. There was another case with Andrea Yates and that was the one I was really fixated on, because it seemed like really had postpartum depression. Then there’s Susan Smith whose case is known as a postpartum depression case, but if you look into it, it’s not. She’s racist, she wanted to kill her children because she was having an affair, and it seems like she gets more sympathy than this other woman, and I find that really interesting.’
Though evidently a talented vocalist, the EP’s closing track Susan Smith sees Caitlin distort her voice into something almost unpleasant, nodding to the louder, angrier direction she wants to take wych elm with the new material they promise is coming soon.
‘It’s supposed to be emotional, it’s supposed to sound angry and upset. I want to sound angry, because they are angry songs. Being a good singer is about the more you can experiment with your voice, how much you can push it.
It’s supposed to be emotional, it’s supposed to sound angry and upset
‘I think it makes the song when someone can tell how you’re feeling behind the words. Words can be all over the place sometimes, or not easily interpreted.’
As well as the Macabre, wych elm’s other conceptual concern is folklore. Having grown up in Weston-super- Mare, near the home of occultist Aleister Crowley, or ‘The Great Beast 666’, Caitlin’s imagination was captured by the creepy stories and myths surrounding their hometown. Taxidermied polecats (second-hand, they assure ) and a slasher film-ready hand scythe are the props for our photoshoot, though the concept of folklore truly comes into play in wych elm’s storytelling.
Narrative-driven lyrics cast Caitlin as the protagonist, even if that’s not immediately obvious. Susan Smith, for example, explores her fears around motherhood with a history of depression. School Shooter is a clap back at people saying she looked like a school shooter because she dressed differently.
Like the best folklore, its power is in its openness to interpretation. It’s up to the listener to derive their own meaning, says Caitlin, who has received messages from listeners around the world who have found comfort in their own connection to the songs.
Growing out of a solo project by Caitlin and through various lineups and name changes, wych elm is Caitlin on vocals and guitar, guitarist Jack Hitchins, drummer Joe Frost and bassist James Brocklesby. They came together – somewhat aptly – for a gig on Halloween 2017. Despite meeting as a group for the first time that night and by their own account playing a terrible show, something fell into place.
That was a good gig, it was a memorable gig’ says Jack. ‘We had pumpkins.’
‘Yeah, we carved wych elm into pumpkins. We really tried hard’ Caitlin remembers. ‘We threw sweets into the crowd. We gave away a cassette. We sounded horrible. We’ve got videos and it sounds like we’re all playing different songs.’
‘I think it was good jumping straight into gigging and getting on the radar straight away. We did 52 gigs in 10 months’ says Jack.
‘It got our name out there, because it was like, who is this band who is just gigging so much?’ says Caitlin.
we were so young when we started, everyone saw us as little baby dogs
In a polished social media age, where first uploads are mastered and campaigns carefully managed, it’s refreshing to see a young band dive in and learn on the job – huge successes like IDLES will attest that’s how they did it – though it’s also hard to ignore the raw talent Caitlin possesses and imagine what we’re yet to see from wych elm as a unit.
Most of the songs on Rat Blanket were written when she was 16 and 17, and weren’t released for another year while she recovered from heart surgery; yet they garnered huge support from the local music community. As well as the support from Post Mortem, local musician and record producer Dom Mitchison (who has worked with Heavy Lungs and Lice) recorded Rat Blanket in his Malthouse Studios and they’ve scored huge support slots. As a city, Bristol is lucky to be rich in great bands, which means there’s something about wych elm that struck a chord within the industry that people were ready to get behind them and open up opportunities.
‘I think because we were so young when we started, everyone saw us as little baby dogs’ says Caitlin.
‘I was 16’ says Joe. ‘The community is so accommodating and there’s room for everyone, and it works off: if you get along with people, you get along with people. We made friends pretty quickly.’
‘We had so many gigs and we’d been working so hard, we got to meet loads of great people and strike up really good friendships’ says Caitlin. ‘Possibly also because it’s quite 90s and 80s inspired and that probably hit the nostalgia cord for a lot of people. And the emotions behind it, as well. I feel like our music’s quite honest, so it’s easily relatable if you’re going through the same stuff.’
Honesty seems an appropriate word and something that’s bubbling at the core of the best new music spilling out of Bristol, like a mentos in cola. Until fairly recently, Bristol’s underground was grouped together in pockets by genre. But now, there seems to be a tight knit community linking wych elm with the likes of Pet Shimmers, Giant Swan, Lynkks Africa and Mouse, who share very little in terms of sound – but are tied together instead by friendship and a punkish attitude to how they create. And with no trending sound, there’s no room for agenda in music.
‘We’re all really good friends and we all get along so well that when we do these gigs together, we have such a good time. Music that people enjoy is so broad nowadays that it doesn’t matter that we’re so different, because they might like us all.’
Outside of Bristol too, they’re selling out headline shows in London and shipping records out to Spain, Tokyo and America. Although what we’ve heard so far is only the beginning, with their debut album well underway, which will show a much more matured wych elm as they’ve grown together as a band.
‘Being in a band allows me to be more emotional to get my message across better. It gives me the confidence to scream and growl and shout’ says Caitlin.
It gives me the confidence to scream and growl and shout
‘She’s pretty inspiring as well, as a musician’ says Joe. ‘It’s almost like musical brain training – when Caitlin will say she has an idea and then she sings the melody, I want to get it first time and it to be perfect. You want to carry it through and you want to play it with the emotion and the style.
‘It’s a self-imposed pressure to do it justice, because I mean, we’re all in the band for a reason, not just because we want to be in a band. It’s not just cause we just wanna rock out with friends…’
‘I think I did find the three most mentally ill boys I could find!’ says Caitlin.
‘Our instruments are our language’ Joe elaborates. ‘It’s nice to be able to interpret what Caitlin’s saying, because she’s got a very vocal way of expressing things. It’s nice to use that for ourselves and tap in to someone so vocal on sensitive subjects.’
Rat Blanket was our first time in the studio together and I feel like it’s a really good start to us figuring things out, but by the time the songs came out, I lost my connection to them. This next one is going to be really on the ball. It’s going to come out really soon. We’ve got seven tracks and it’s going to be a better representation. It’s going to be a more mature representation. It’s going to be a well-rehearsed representation.
‘I’m ready for this now. I feel like this really represents how I feel right now about current issues, about myself. I’m ready to record it and get it out.’
After this interview was originally published, wych elm drummer Joe Frost announced he would be leaving the group. However, Caitlin, Jack and James are still going full throttle on new music and they’ll be back to gigging relentlessly once the live music world is back up and running following the current COVID-19 lockdown.
Photos by Dominika Scheibinger