All Them Witches Stir Up the Pot
“We’re definitely not the band we were when we met, and that was only five years ago,” ponders Charles Michael Parks, Jr., vocalist, bassist, guitarist and chief lyricist of Nashville-born band All Them Witches. “We welcome the change.”
The quartet has certainly refined and grown its sound since the ancient past of 2012, while retaining all the good parts. Arriving on the scene drenched in swampy stoner sludge, their debut album Our Mother Electricity was an impressively faithful but all-too-reverent recreation of the likes of Iron Butterfly, Amboy Dukes, Blue Cheer and early Sabbath. Though it could still easily be mistaken for a psych-metal artifact from 1970, they broke out of the shell significantly on 2013’s Lightning at the Door, exhibiting more command, intensity, mystery and scope, along with more prominent and intriguing lyrics. (It’s no coincidence that Parks took over the majority of the lyric writing from guitarist Ben McLeod with this album.) Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, their 2015 debut for New West Records, found them fully confident in their skin, taking more unexpected detours while laying down some of their more epic extended jams. At the risk of pigeonholing them, their closest artistic kin would be Led Zeppelin, another quartet anchored in hard rock but with an adventurism that would welcome in (and steal from) blues, folk and other musical elements. Plus, they also share with Zeppelin a fondness for some absolutely pummeling, bicep-building Bonham-esque drum slogs, courtesy of Robby Staebler.
So after all that, what do they do for their fourth album, Sleeping Through the War? They get weird, that’s what.
But not “weird” in the pretentious, attention seeking, overly arty Flaming Lips sense. No, the album slithers and grinds and winds through thick, heavy grooves like their best stuff always has. It’s more in the way they keep pleasantly surprising you, doing the unexpected, keeping it interesting and not looking back. The album’s eight songs are a more varied mix than any they’ve assembled in the past. They’ve grown tremendously as musicians. Parks’ vocals, filtered through foggy reverb, are sinuous and glowing, adding to the cryptic layers of his lyrics. And, more than anything, the whole slab just sounds MIGHTY.
Which in its own sense is sorta weird, since Sleeping Through the War was produced by Nashville “it” producer Dave Cobb, whose recent credits include just about anyone associated with the current roots-focused country/Americana resurgence in Nashville, be it Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Shooter Jennings or Jamey Johnson. One would be forgiven for assuming All Them Witches would thus be inspired or encouraged to explore their more Southern rock leanings (and they are there). But see, turns out it’s not even a factor. They do the unexpected, and they make it work.
“We met [Cobb] when we were about to record Dying Surfer,” recalls Parks. “And he wanted to do that one, but we didn’t feel prepared enough to do that. So we held out, and then when the next album came around he still wanted to work with us. And that was great.”
Knowing that they wanted to be prepared, the band put more care into the writing of the material that would wind up on Sleeping Through the War than they had ever done before. Which still doesn’t seem like much, compared to a lot of bands. They composed the songs in a four-day/ten-hour-per marathon in Athens, Georgia, wedged between European tours.
“We don’t want to [write] it in Nashville,” says keyboardist Allan Van Cleave. “I think we were trying to get away from our comfort zone.”
It helps that New West has an office in Athens, plus a small performance space called Normaltown Hall, where the band crafted and refined their new material. “The last day, at the New West office, we just [played] the record from start to finish. Not like the order that people hear it now, but every song. And that’s something that we still can’t do to this day with any other record, just play it completely from start to finish,” says McLeod.
Though still considered a Nashville-based band, McLeod is actually the only member who still lives there. The others moved away some three years ago – Parks to Asheville, Staebler to Ohio and Van Cleave to New Mexico. They insist that it hasn’t adversely affected the dynamic of their interplay or songwriting.
“We’ve always been a touring band,” stresses Parks, “so that’s how we write music. That’s how we’ve always written music. Not necessarily on the road, but things pop up when you’re soundchecking and whatever, and you take little bits and pieces from all the little things that you do, and take pieces out of jams, and make new songs out of ’em. I’m always working on shit in my head.”
“Our music’s really open,” adds McLeod. “Like, there’s room for mistakes. A lot of bands, they want to practice, they live together, or they live in the same city and they want to practice all the time to get their songs right. And our songs are never right. I mean, they never turn out the same way. Every night is different. Even the straightforward songs, every night is different. So we welcome the mistakes because that’s the only way that you grow.”
Appropriately, none of the four is from Nashville originally, either. Parks moved there from New Mexico after high school in 2008, when he was 19, hoping to work as a musician. Van Cleave and Staebler met in college, and after the former moved from Oregon to Nashville to join a band (prior to All Them Witches), Staebler soon followed suit. And McLeod moved there to escape St. Augustine, Florida, his hometown.
“My sister lived in Nashville before I moved there,” the guitarist says. “So I would visit, and, like, in a two-month period I decided that I was just going to drive up there and try to get a job and apartment. And I just never drove home. But if my older sister hadn’t have lived there I probably wouldn’t be there. She was kind of my introduction to the city. She does tax accounting for, like, the Black Keys, and Taylor Swift, huge household name people.”
At first it was just Robby and Ben who got together to work on a jazz-oriented project. “We pursued that idea for, like, a day, and then we abandoned ship,” laughs Staebler. “I was really into jazz, and the music that I was making before I moved down [to Nashville] was like this weird, bizarre stuff. That’s kind of what I was trying to go towards, so we were doing some jazzy jams. For one day! It wasn’t going the way I wanted it to. And then I just started playing stuff in half time, and then that was it. It was really just noise. Just getting together and just making noises.”
Soon enough, they coalesced around their psychedelic blues-rock style with the addition of Van Cleave and Parks.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. There’s guitar, bass, keys, drums, and one vocal,” emphasizes McLeod. “It’s just really simple. Like, everything from our stage plot, or input list, to the way that we record – it’s all just bare bones.”
“Everybody’s really good at what they do. I will say that,” offers Van Cleave.
“Yeah, and the way that we play – everybody knows how to weave,” says Parks. “Everybody knows how to dip in and out of a song. Whether everybody is thinking it, or not thinking about it, it just works.”
“Maybe that’s the jazz influence,” Van Cleave considers.
Staebler: “We let our subconscious come out through our music.”
McLeod: “We can play a metal festival, a blues festival, a jazz festival…[even] a folk festival. And fit in, somehow.”
“At first, the shows and the bills we were getting on would be, like, singer-songwriter stuff,” laughs Staebler. “And metal shit.”
Speaking of, Parks’ sparse but poetic lyrics are (naturally, keeping with their habit of defying expectations) neither straightforwardly descriptive nor far-out stoner-metal fantasy excursions. Comparable in certain respects to Bo Orr’s approach in Arbor Labor Union (who I’d love to see share a bill with All Them Witches), they’re sorta in a realm of their own. In contrast to the sprawling intensity of the music, they’re almost mundane, but also strangely evocative, like you’re never really sure what he’s going on about.
“I get ideas from all the wild shit that everybody says all the time,” Parks tells me.
“All these other stoner bands that sing about Mars and shit, they don’t know anything about that stuff. It’s just ridiculous,” says McLeod.
“Riding off into space on a space ship? Yeah, I try to stay away from that false kind of narrative,” Parks agrees. “I feel like a lot of it is forced at this point. And it’s like, people who like that genre, the fans, they’re diehards for it. And a lot of those bands are awesome. A lot of them are our friends. But yeah I think if you look at [our] records from start to finish, you can see the change from [us] kind of doing the weird, cosmic thing, and then you see it get to present day. Each album is kind of different, and it’s set in a different period of time for me. So, yeah, [Sleeping Through the War] is a very present day album. Whereas the first one is like old times. And the next one… I don’t know what it’s going to be about.”
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.