BIG EARS 2015: Demdike Stare

In Cover Stories, Music Stories by Eric Dawsonleave a COMMENT

When Demdike Stare’s Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker were first invited to perform a live score for Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages for the British Film Institute, they hesitated—the pairing was too obvious, they thought.

You can’t blame them.

The electronic duo from Manchester, England, takes its name from an unfortunate woman accused of witchcraft in the 1612 Pendle witch trials in Lancashire. Old Demdike (“devil woman”) was the nickname of Elizabeth Southerns, who perished in prison while awaiting trial. Häxan is Danish director Benjamin Christensen’s famous 1922 film based on the Malleus Maleficarum, the 15th-century book on the persecution of witches. Demdike Stare had already named a track and a club night for the film before being approached by the BFI.

In the end, though, the offer proved too perfect to resist.

The film’s alternately creepy and amusing imagery—including torture, orgies, nudity, nuns gone wild, cartoonish demons, and the most ludicrously lascivious devil ever filmed—has made it a cult favorite for years. It’s had multiple soundtracks, including one in 1968 featuring a William Burroughs narration that was the only version available to Americans for many years. It’s doubtful any of the scores have sounded anything like what Demdike Stare have created. Much of their music already sounded well-suited for a horror soundtrack, and it’s easy to imagine some fans had already paired it with a Häxan DVD at home.

Not that all of their music is well suited for such things. Demdike Stare has released a slew of albums, singles, and mixtapes, each possessing a slightly sinister vibe, heavily reliant on dub, but also displaying the members’ magpie crate-digging aesthetic. Techno, jungle, footwork, noise, ambient, and African- and Middle Eastern-influenced percussion are just some of the sounds found on their releases. The duo’s 2012 album, Elemental, takes for much of its source material the sounds of pianos being demolished, the plunk of vibrating strings and splintering of wood.

The numerous mixtapes contain a range of musical selections that is impressive, even in an era when seemingly everyone’s tastes are catholic. Transitions from club bangers to krautrock to Thai orchestras to free jazz never sounded so good. Some of these mixes, along with Whittaker’s DJ sets, are readily available to hear online and are worth checking out. (Here’s hoping for a late-night Big Ears DJ set.)


Demdike Stare: Häxan Rescored • Bijou Theatre • Friday, March 27 • 11:30 p.m.

Read all our Big Ears coverage here.

Eric Dawson
Contributing Writer |

Eric Dawson is Audio-Visual Archivist with the Knox County Public Library's Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, and with Inside the Vault combs the archive for nuggets of lost Knoxville music and film history to share with us. He's also a longtime local music journalist, former A&E editor of the Knoxville Voice and a board member of the nonprofit performance venue Pilot Light.

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