All Them Witches Return to Winston-Salem
Heavy riffs get wedded to a shamanic worldview in this American band’s music
By John Adamian
All Them Witches are not from Winston-Salem, but they have a connection with the city. The band, originally out of Nashville, played an early show at The Garage and made some fans here. And they regularly return. They ended up recording and releasing a 2015 live record from The Garage, which can’t be that common of a thing. All Them Witches is a heavy band, but they manage to play with fluidity. It’s psychedelic and hypnotic, but it’s powerful. Flux and solidity are both valued in their sound. The band just released its new record, Sleeping Through the War, last week. And they play a pair of shows, fittingly, at The Garage on Friday and Saturday, March 3 and 4.
There’s a lot happening on this new record, their fourth full-length release. It opens with mysterious bird-like noises, a kind of murky whistling launching into a billowing groove with wordless ooh-ah female backing vocals that erupts with a distorted riff. It’s part dream, part nightmare. “I’m sleeping through the war,” sings frontman Charles Michael Parks, expressing the sentiment of being in some sort of feverish stupor while cataclysmic events unfold. Church bells and insistent door-knocking make it all even more alarming. And then some “Kashmir”-ish string sounds round things out on the Mellotron at the end. It’s fairly epic, and if the sound conjures visions of bubbling lava and ancient ruins from Live at Pompeii, that might be fitting.
I spoke with drummer Robby Staebler earlier this week by phone from his home in Columbus, Ohio about the new record and the band’s working methods. Staebler does most of the band’s record covers, T-shirt and poster designs and videos as well, fusing an ominous psychedelic vision that’s wed to their sound. Some bands have a main songwriter who brings songs to practice for everyone to polish. But that’s not how All Them Witches do it. Their process is a little more like a four-man vision quest with instruments, all aided by extended jam sessions and long hours in the van to chip away at and reconfigure what they came up with.
“Most of the songs come from us just being in the room and starting to mess around,” says Staebler.
At some point the band holed up in a house for about five days, working 12 hours a day on taking what had emerged from those initial jams and hammering them into songs.
“When you’re in it, you’re in it,” says Staebler of the process and the focus required. Things have a way of bending and flipping around from how they started, he says. “The structure kind of disappears.”
The end result is mysterious. The songs often have a lumbering rhythmic underpinning, hovering around a couple chords, with prog-metal touches in the guitar and Fender Rhodes keyboard patterns, and with singer/bassist Parks unfurling half-spoken vocal lines that rise slow and ripple above the rest. He sometimes sounds like a half-made preacher who’s had a glimpse behind the veil of reality and is no longer sure what to tell his trembling parishioners. This new record has a little less bluesy rambling than previous releases and more cosmic bug-out. Listen to the nearly seven-minute “Cowboy Kirk,” which somehow evokes Soundgarden, the Doors and the Grateful Dead, in that it’s got a gnarled core, sinister poetic flourishes and expansive swirling mandala patterns. All Them Witches aren’t a metal band, and they’re not a jam band, but for fans of the force of the one and the free-flowing feel of the other, there’s an unlikely hybrid balance to this music.
All Them Witches formed in 2012, and they are pretty relentless, with tour dates penciled in through October of this year having them crisscrossing the country and skipping over to Europe for most of the summer and fall, with only a chunk of time off in August. (The band essentially lives on the road at this point, though they all have homes in different places, and they still rehearse in Nashville. “We’re an American band,” is how Staebler addresses the question of the group’s geographical home base.) More music might emerge by the end of the year as well. Staebler says they’ll be bringing a bunch of recording equipment, taping most nights, and possibly stretching out and exploring new or rare material while they’re at it.
The Winston-Salem shows kick off the band’s run of touring, so, with the exception of one album-release event, this is the first time All Them Witches will have performed the new material live in front of an audience.
“Emotionally and mentally this is the hardest part, to make sure the new songs are translating,” says Staebler. “But also it’s one of the most exciting times.”
Touring brings with it constant motion, the dislocation of travel and the sense of a mythic journey always unspooling, and those are all part of the music too. Singer Parks spent some formative years in the desert of the Southwest in New Mexico, and he injects a haunted sun-baked vision to the songs. It’s an affinity that the whole band shares.
“There’s something massive out there that you can’t ignore and that you can’t really get in a lot of places,” says Staebler.
See tracks with titles like “The Marriage of Coyote Woman” from the band’s 2016 album Lightning At the Door, for a taste of the Carlos Castaneda electric-shaman effect.
That sense of awe in the face of nature’s vastness is something that comes through in the music of All Them Witches. But it’s not necessarily warm and fuzzy. There’s something menacing about feeling like a speck dwarfed by the cosmos, or a particle caught up in some larger current, or like a being that might morph into something else given the right jolt, but some people dig that tingle.
Wanna go? All Them Witches play The Garage, with Irata opening, at 110 W.7th St., Winston-Salem, on Friday, March 3 and Saturday, March 4. Visit www.the-garage.ws for more.