ALL THEM WITCHES
Interview by Cat Celebrezze
In case you missed All Them Witches' recent Bowery Ballroom show in NYC, here's the visual: four guys in their 20's consisting of: a ripped, shirtless drummer sporting a mohawk and lording from a giant drum riser, looking for all intents and purposes like Bahphomet as he pounds out some massive backbeat rhythms; a trucker-capped, stoic-faced keyboardist, uncannily still and focussed, though he's letting fly fantastic chord combinations and solo fugues; a wiry guitarist hidden behind a valence of hair wailing out a hybrid sound of Tony Iommi and Duane Allman; a zen looking bassist, praying out vocals with a bent head and a detectable southern drawl, standing like a Bodhisattva in the eye of a storm. Behind their personages, a psychedelic patterned backdrop in neon Rorschach catches the black light, referencing the cover of their latest release, Sleeping Through the War (2016, New West). Their names are, respectively, Robby Staebler on drums, Allan Van Cleave on keyboards, Ben McLeod on guitar, and Charles Michael Parks, Jr. on bass. They are All Them Witches, formed in Nashville in 2012 with a sound that can be described in du jour genre-bending flourishes, such as Heavy Psych, Neo Psychedelia, or Blues Rock. But really, it's straight forward ROCK in the same way the Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath had to use the term before there was such a thing as heavy metal and well before “classic” rock - that horrific and ubiquitous hollowed-out, industry-created moniker - came and appropriated all things loud and committed to a heavy groove. And rock these guys do, bringing a thrilling and solid ju-ju to the stage as only the best bands can.
If it feels like a reach to compare All Them Witches to titans like Zep and Sabbath, take a listen through what they've produced (and how they've produced it) in the short give years they've been together. Their first release, Our Mother Electricity (2012, Elektrohasch) is a heavy hitting set of ten songs with lyrics both sparse and complex - short, cryptic, engaging narratives about putting ashes in an urn and killing a man at midnight, run through with tough rhythms and stratospheric runs of soloing by all instruments. Of note is Ben McLeod's guitar playing, that runs a gamut between a longing Allman slide ("Until It Unwinds") and a heavy Iommiesque crunch (listen to "Heavy Like a Witch"). As a debut album, it feels like a first iteration, and indeed was self-recorded and shopped by the band to distributors, but is no less stand-out. Their second album, Lighting at the Door is a revelation for anyone wanting their music unrelenting in that unison-guitar-drums-bass Sabbath way while offering tales as weird as The Wizard (listen to "When God Comes Back": “Cut me up primitive / I'll die a good slave / riding on the wings of that Jesus snake”). While on other tracks they do some heavy carousing that delves deep into sonic wells of wah-wah and cut by tight keyboard action pointing the way through the awesome din ("Surface to Air Whistle"). This release was also self-recorded (and self-released on Bandcamp, then later re-released by New West, their current label) and has all the characteristics of a musical entity that has found it's frequency and is seeing how many patterns they can make out of it. There is a honed arc to the songs, with instances of instrumental-only tracks and lyric-driven songs balancing each other out.
Their third studio recording is different - trading the terse marauding of their first two albums for an exploration of the longer song with hermetic rhythms. It's called Dying Surfer Meets His Maker and there is a mystic quality to the recording, a willingness to go deep, and sometimes balladically, into where a groove can go (see "El Centro," a fierce eight minute jam that is illuminates their simultaneous strident and melodic tendencies). Recorded over a week's time in a cabin in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Dying Surfer is a slower burn but no less satisfying in it's songwriting and blues-based renditions of a dark psychedelia. On both Dying Surfer and the most recent 2017 Sleeping Through the War album we get the a fuller sense of Parks' vocals, rich in gothic character, sometimes a drawl and sometimes a growl, depending on what's needed (see "Dirt Preachers" on Surfer and "Don't Bring Me Coffee" on Sleeping). And though one can say Sleeping Through the War has more shades of Sonic Youth than the rock of the '70's, or the Alistair Crowley-tinged trip into the rhythms of the occult, it's got both a vibe and an energy that says these guys are just getting started.
While wrought in the forge that is the Nashville music scene, All Them Witches takes that fire out on the road and into the studio, going as many places as they can, both musically and with their nonstop tour schedule. No small part of this comes from a continued curiosity on their part about where the music can go and where the music takes them as individual musicians.
I got to catch up with Parks just before their New York show and the conversation reveals a band that is working hard and very much worth giving a ear for listening.
PSF: Are you guys on the road still?
CMP:Yeah, I forgot we'd be driving right now when we set up the interview.
PSF: I'm recording you, just FYI, just so wire-tapping isn't an issue...
CMP: I'm recording you as well.
PSF: Excellent. So, you guys have been on tour for a while now and I was really curious, since you've been over in Europe, if you've noticed any giant differences in how crowds react to you there vs. the United States.
CMP: I would say, people just seem... they seem happier to be out. The shows are earlier, the crowds are more excited because more people get to come and as a headliner your on the stage by like, 8 o'clock and that's absurd in the US. So I think more people come out just for the fact that they can get off work, go to a show and go home and still have time with their family. The whole culture is different around it, so people actually go out and support music. In America, it's just always been roadhouse, hasn't it? It's always just you gotta have a late show and it's gotta be wild and everybody has to party and get home late and be hungover and all of that stuff. I don't know... it's just two different sides to the same coin.
PSF: Were you playing a lot of bars over there? Or more performance spaces? What were the venues like?
CMP: We kind of did everything I think. We did everything from what seemed like a bomb shelter in Paris and all the way up to huge concert halls... er not concert halls (laughs) but bigger venues...
PSF: The Royal Albert Hall?
CMP: (Laughs) No... but we did up to twelve hundred people in Greece.
PSF: Wow, that's a good size crowd.
CMP: But then there's the festivals in Europe which are INSANE... we played for like six thousand people in Dusseldorf and that was... I didn't know what was happening... I never know what's happening, pretty much (laughs).
PSF: Do you guys pow-wow before each gig and kind of figure out how you are gonna approach the crowd? Or do you guys pretty much got your thing down?
CMP: No, no way, never. I feel like whenever I say this it comes out with me sounding like a dick but I don't mean it that way, but we don't ever take other people's, like, (laughs) opinion and add it into our own thing. Whenever we go on stage, we're just giving the same thing we all ways do: you go into a room and you put on your instrument and play because you want to play and we're on tour and it's great and everybody's have a good time. So if the crowd, you know, reacts to that then that's exactly what we are going for.
PSF: Speaking of instruments, I noticed you played mellotron on your most recent release. Had you known how to play mellotron before, had you known how to work one of those things or did you learn specifically for that release?
CMP: No, I feel like I hardly know how to play my instrument that people know me for. I feel like I hardly know how to play bass! No, I'm more of a tinkerer when it comes to music. I cast a wide net and I know what I can do. But I'd ever touched a mellotron before come to think of it. It was just something like, Dave [Cobb, producer] said, 'bring out the mellotron, let's try some mellotron' and we were like, 'OK, let's try some mellotron' and it (turned) out to be a big part of the record.
PSF: And you aren't originally a bass player, right? You were doing guitar?
CMP: I've always done both.
PSF: Would bass be your instrument of choice? Of is it that's what you got and what you're working with?
CMP: You know, bass reminds me of (laughs) I don't know... I would say I'm a bassist by trade, but I've played guitar longer than I've played the bass... they are not very different for me they kind of play the same way anyhow. I think its nice to be able to switch up, I wish all of us would do that and we're kind of working it into the set...
PSF: Trade hats, and see what comes out?
CMP: Yeah, it makes it interesting and keeps the ball juggling, er, rolling.
PSF: In terms of Sleeping Through the War, the recording is going in a different direction for you guys. It seemed like you were really deliberate in what you were putting down and a lot of the recording seems really thought about and, I guess the word I'm looking for is “handled.” Where the sessions different that earlier recordings session or where they the same and this what you guys were working on?
CMP: This is the only time we were prepared to go into a studio to tell you the truth. All of the other times we had about half written songs that we brought into the studio and then we would write the other half there. And this time, we didn't have a time to just hang around and think about a record because we had about four days to write it in between tours so we got all the songs together, it was crazy. After about eight songs we were like, should we write any more? And we looked around and said, no, this feels pretty good. And then we went on tour again and came back and immediately recorded it and that was about six days. And now it's out.
PSF: Has the reception been pretty good?
CMP: I think so. Crowds have been into it. Everybody seems to be having a good time.
PSF: You guys seem like playing live. Some artists don't like to go on stage even though they know they have to do it. You guys seem like you have decent dispositions for being on the road as much as you are. Are you guys planning more tours? Are you gonna slow down a bit? What's coming up?
CMP: We can't slow down yet. As much as, you know, the body starts hurting the longer you go, we can't slow down. From what I know, our whole year is booking up. And that's just how it's gonna be. We had four months off and that's been the longest break we've ever had as a band in the five years. And of the past two years it's been non-stop.
PSF: Yeah, you're working hard. And now you're gonna be in New York. How do you like playing in New York vs. other places in the states?
CMP: Yeah, it's definitely different. I can't be in New York for that long, I don't feel comfortable around that amount of people...
PSF: The density?
CMP: Yeah. We kind of get in and out... . Do our thing and then wish them well in their life of concrete and city.
PSF: You guys did some sessions in a cabin down in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Did you guys go to Dollywood?
CMP: No, we didn't go to Dollywood... We literally had a cabin on the side of the mountain looking down on the Main Street in Sevierville and we'd wake up in the morning and you'd be inside of a cloud for the first five hours of your day then some time around one or two in the afternoon, the clouds would burn off and you'd see this drastic tourist city, after being in this mountain for some many hours. It would just open up and that huge Ferris wheel and the lumberjack pancake houses and Christmas stores... I hope that doesn't make me sound like a humbug... and I like Dolly. I met her one time in Nashville. I was working in a retail store and she kind of floated through with her big white hair and her long white flowing clothes and she was very nice and smiled and shook hands and left. I love that book thing she does for the kids too. She'll send a book to a kid every week for their whole lives for free...
PSF: Yeah, we need more books in kids hands these days. That's another thing I was going to ask you, if it was strange to be in Europe what all this political tumult was happening in the States with the election?
CMP: Yeah, everyone wants to know... but if neither you know the language and you don't have to time to get to know someone, for me, it comes out like baby language. You try to put all your feelings and emotions out there and half of it comes out with English words they never use or I don't know any Spanish, so it was hard to relate the feeling of that, you know, we're not all terrible lizard people. On the other hand, it was actually really nice to be in Europe when that was all happening because there was a lot of support from the crowds, like “we feel for you guys.” In America, you're raised to believe we are always the “caregivers” and the ones going out and doing heroic deeds... I guess every country has that for it's people. But it was nice being over there because people were like, “we feel for you and hope that it doesn't happen and hope that you guys are ok.”
PSF: That would be nice. I think we all need a little dose of that.
Also see the All Them Witches website
Also hear Cat Celebrezze's band Yvonne Champagne album Murder Winds on Spotify