All Them Witches Want to Kick You Out of Your Musical Comfort Zone — And Theirs, Too
All Them Witches
Photo by Robby Staebler
“I think people are turned off by the [band] name; they just think ‘Oh, that’s going to be a metal band, and I don’t really care to go and see a metal band,’ which we’re not,” muses All Them Witches singer/bassist Charles Michael Parks, Jr., a/k/a Parks. “We are loud sometimes, but slapping yourself into some genre has never really been a satisfying approach, so… erm, what was the question, I’m sorry?” He trails off with slight contrition. The question wasn’t nearly as good as the answer.
The only genre that might suit All Them Witches? They’re a “get-the-listener-out-of-their-comfort-zone” band. To that end, the Nashville-based quartet — rounded out by guitarist Ben McLeod, keyboard player Allan Van Cleave and drummer Robby Staebler — are provocative. More like insinuating, actually. In the nine songs that make up the 45 minutes of their third album, Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, the gamut runs over dreamy, droney, visceral, intuitive, doomy, trippy (but not too hippie), hypnotic, spoken word/Shamanic, lovely and lilting. Yet at times there’s still a song structure and melodic urgency that incites radio play, as in the winning “Dirt Preacher.”
Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, the band’s third album, is an aural departure, and, Parks notes, “I’m really glad that people haven’t been throwing rocks because it is so different from the last album [2014’s Lightning at the Door]. People seem into and I’m into it, too.” Parks feels most “naked” on the spoken word parts, which are perhaps akin to Jim Morrison’s poetry/onstage rants. “It’s a little more vulnerable as you’re not hiding behind a melody; you’re not trying to subconsciously rope people in through a pop lyric or a hook or anything like that. It’s just basically laying out everything that’s in your brain and sometimes just screaming at people. Sometimes that’s the only way that they will listen and get out of their comfort zones,” he believes. “I’m not just trying to get out of mine. I want people to find some sort of joy or a different meaning in their lives, or just everybody trying to find happiness. I think that’s what I’m going for.”
It’s a heady goal, but a journey All Them Witches is committed to. The band’s music conjures tribal kinship a la trippy Zeppelin meets early pink Floyd under a full moon in the California desert circa 2025. There’s a psychedelic undercurrent, an an appropriate one at that: Parks admits, with much coercing, his first trip to New York City also coincided with his first, er, trip.
ATW had a gig — either Piano’s or the Mercury Lounge, he’s not certain — but it was his first-ever visit to New York. “Being in a city isn’t really my top choice; I’m more of an outdoors type of guy… and, oh man, I can’t tell you this,” he proclaims. “It’s nothing super crazy but it sounds super crazy to a lot of other people. Er, we all did some stuff and then went wandering around the city in a way that normal people don’t get to the see the city,” he obfuscates. “We got to ride the subway, under the influence that we were under. There were cops everywhere and oh, it was Fashion Week.”
In other words, he was psychedelicized?
“Yeah, we were on mushrooms, which was the first time I had done any drugs.” Ever? “I’d never smoked weed nor done anything like that,” he affirms. So, first time on psychedelics. Band’s first-ever show in New York. First time visiting the Big Apple. A drug-fueled subway and city journey — possibly not the best idea. Parks demurs. “You know, call it a good instinct. I mean, it could have gone bad. But why live your life on ‘Could have gone bad’ kind of deals?”
If music is tribal kinship and experiential, Parks tries to extend that beyond the edge of the stage. “You spend so much time just having surface chatter with people,” he laments. “I think that’s one of the hardest parts about being a musician; you just have to answer the same questions every night.” He prefers, in conversation and music, to “rock them off their centers for a moment. If we’re talking, I’d rather just hear about their day or problems that they are having or real people stuff. Because that’s all we are: real people.”
The band chemistry and process is as open and real as well. “We kind of pull from each other in weird ways. The band would use some of the music and lyrics that I was expecting to do solo, and the same with them,” Parks explains. For instance, Dying Surfer Meets His Maker was the title of a McLeod tune meant for his solo use. Ditto some Parks songs on the new record like “Open Passageways,” “Talisman” and “Call Me Star.” “A lot of our songs are two separate songs pieced together,” he says. “You can obviously see the change and I think that’s a big defining point for our music; most of the songs have an abrupt shift in the middle or somewhere to where it’s a totally different song. But somehow it works. I like that about [this band). We’re so willing to change, and nobody is stuck in their ways."
The thoughtful troubadour may not always be able to crack what makes a tune work, or the meaning of an album title (as that often changes), but he nonetheless likes to engage with the possibilities. “The way that I hear the music, it makes a story in my head that has been going since we’ve been playing, and it’s a story that’s almost impossible to relate to people; it’s like another world in my own mind,” he begins. “I love hearing people’s interpretations, because most of it I never would have thought, and I think that’s really beautiful. I love... that music is such an open-ended experience, it’s a cultural experience and you can pull anything you want. You can shape it to however you’re feeling that day. Songs I loved when I was a kid mean totally different things to me now, and I love them for totally different reasons. And I think… well, I hope that’s true for everybody.”
All Them Witches play December 4 at Rough Trade NYC. For ticket information, click here.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.