“I always just wanted to play blues,” says All Them Witches’ guitarist Ben McLeod, shown here playing his Les Paul Traditional with Robby Staebler on drums and Allan Van Cleave on keys. On the band’s last tour of 71 shows, McLeod used only one pedal—a Death By Audio Fuzz War. Photo by Nick Garcia
Psych-rock can mean many things in 2016. The spin Nashville-based quartet All Them Witches has applied to modern psychedelia is unique yet somehow classic sounding. The band has taken the best elements of blues-rock and doom-metal, and a penchant for Grateful Dead-informed jamming, and filtered them through a distinctly Southern musical patois to create a sound and focus that is hauntingly original.
All Them Witches’ third album, Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, is an exceptionally satisfying trip through a hazy world of deep, meditative grooves. Its nine songs are laced with delicate acoustic guitar and fiery salvos of electric 6-string and 8-string that will satisfy the needs of any Peter Green fan, plus crushing, fuzz-riddled explosions of darkness that never trample the Southern Gothic vibe—which embraces not only free-ranging guitar and bass, but an unexpected bed of Rhodes piano. After signing to New West Records, All Them Witches re-released Lightning at the Door this past January—an album which they originally recorded in 2014.
Leading this creative charge is main guitarist Ben McLeod and bass player, lead vocalist, and auxiliary guitarist Charles Michael Parks, Jr. The pair—whose bandmates are drummer Robby Staebler and keyboardist/violinist Allan Van Cleave—is responsible for weaving the dynamic patchwork of guitar and bass textures that is the band’s calling card. McLeod and Parks have an affinity for coming up with licks and ideas that are as adventurous as they are catchy. Premier Guitar spoke with the two string-stranglers to discuss how their band’s musical gumbo developed, the gear they use to stir it, the tracking of Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, and ways to avoid blues clichés.
How did you get started?
Ben McLeod:It all starts with my dad, who is a huge Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers fan, so I was born into a house filled with Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, Jimi Hendrix, and just tons of Jerry Garcia. He’s definitely in my top three favorite guitar players and I still listen to the Dead all the time. Jerry’s playing brings me back to my childhood and was a very big influence. So all of it was my really my dad’s fault, and he gave me a great education in all of the classics, but by middle school I had gotten into punk music and expanded a bit. And by high school I had gone back to things like the Doors and started getting into players like Roy Buchanan, which brought it back to the blues, which really is my love. I always just wanted to play blues.
Charles Michael Parks, Jr.: The earliest memories for me were also from my dad, seeing him play bass. Beyond that, there are certain bass parts that have really affected my musical life, like “If You Want Me to Stay” by Sly and the Family Stone. That one hit me really hard. I love jazz bassists and take a lot of inspiration from those guys, even though it’s not immediately present in my own playing.
Lately I’ve been really into this band called the Blue Nile. They’ve got an album called A Walk Across the Rooftops that I listened to for an entire year, and that record had a big impact on the layering aspect of our record.
Listeners might be surprised to hear Jerry Garcia was such a huge influence, Ben, considering All Them Witches’ heavy sound. What is it about his playing that turned you on so much?
McLeod:His tone and his phrasing were a huge deal to me—the way he used to play hopscotch with the song and walk around it with such ease and creativity. But above all, I really love the spontaneity of his playing and the Dead’s approach in general. Jamming on things is an important aspect of musical exploration to me and I like how the Dead didn’t want to play the same set every night or stick to the same licks, and how they could play a song any number of ways, but it would always evolve.
McLeod:For the most part, every record we’ve done has been done essentially live, and then we’ll do some guitar overdubs, and Parks will go back over and do his vocals. But we always keep the basic rhythm tracks—drums, guitar, bass, and Rhodes—and go from there. We take splices of jams that we did in the studio and place them in the beginning or end of a song to suit.
Parks: We do like to experiment and use the studio as its own instrument and we try not to subject ourselves to much in the way of restrictions, despite tracking much of it live. The layering on this record was a big focus for us.
Ben, a lot of players in your age group—those who grew up with the influence of Stevie Ray Vaughan as an introduction to blues—fall into clichés really easily. I hear blues in your playing, but not clichés. Do you consciously have to avoid them?
McLeod:Oh yeah! I approach every song with some pentatonic thing, and it can get really typical-sounding, but you have to try to find interesting ways to adjust and re-voice things. One thing I’ve been working on is listening to a lot of saxophone players and stealing their licks and phrasing. The baritone sax player from Morphine, Dana Colley—I’ve been really digging his playing lately, and it’s been really effective attempting to pull musical ideas from that world. Obviously guitarists have been nicking sax licks for years, but it does work.
Fortunately, thanks to Allan [Van Cleave] taking up so much sonic space with his Rhodes, I can space out and not play or fool around with my own use of negative space, because he’s always there holding things down. And it helps because it’s not like having too much guitar, and keeps our sound uniquely our own.
The blues stuff really does take over most of the time. I don’t really know how to do anything else in the context of this band, but it works out nicely that our sound really fits my playing well.
Do you find yourself fighting for space with the Rhodes, since it can occupy the same sonic territory?
McLeod: On the records, we’ve never had to discuss it. It’s always been a dynamic relationship and it’s always just worked. Live, we have a lot of fun trading riffs and playing off of one another, and it adds an interesting dimension to our sound that a lot of bands don’t have.
“Mellowing” has really fantastic fingerpicked acoustic guitar that’s unlike a lot of the other playing on the record. How did that song come about?
McLeod: Parks and I wrote that together on the road. We always bring acoustics on tour to jam on and pass the time with, and I wrote the first half and he wrote the second section. That’s actually both of us playing at the same time. It was recorded with one pass, straight through with two microphones. Really simple!
Watch the band's Rig Rundown: