Charles Michael Parks, Jr. uses half-round strings on his modded ’72 Rickenbacker 4001 bass. For massive low end, he uses a Tomkat Bender Fuzz, and his current favorite pedal is a Red Panda Raster delay. He uses the same pedalboard for both bass and guitar. Photo by Nick Garcia
Although there’s an improvisational, jam-oriented aspect to All Them Witches’ music, the songs are concise and easily digested. How do you rein things in to keep songs so approachable?
McLeod:It’s always just worked out. We’ve never gone into a song before we played it and said, “We’re going to jam on this for 16 bars.” We just see what happens. In the studio, when the jam stuff comes out, we’ll do what a band like Can did and record a full jam and choose a portion of it. Maybe we’ll put vocals on it or adjust where we place that chosen section within the context of a bigger song, but it’s a different way to approach composition that doesn’t require us to have it mapped beforehand.
A lot of what we do is jam first and add things after. For example, the last track on the A-side of the record, “This Is Where It Falls Apart,” was originally a 15-minute jam of blues licks and us throwing things at the wall. We spliced it up, Parks put a cool spoken-word thing over it, and then we had [Willie Nelson band member] Mickey Raphael come in and add some harmonica to it. There’s never a set process for us, though.
Parks:That song had a lot more overdubs than we typically do. Mickey likes to get in there and take a few passes and then have us pick what we want to use. That track has really grown on me a lot as time goes on.
You’d never be characterized as a jam band in the sense of what that has come to mean.
McLeod: A lot of it has to do with us being more vocal and blues-based. We really go for something like if the Peter Green-era of Fleetwood Mac extended their jams a little longer. We’re focused on staying accessible in that vein, and a lot of it has to do with the sonics, like the gear we use and the sounds we go for.
We always talk about this as a band, but there will be parts during the shows in which all of us are digging into a jam and trying to find a deeper groove and we’ll look up and 10 minutes have gone by, and we’re sorry that the crowd had to sit through that, in a way, but it always ends up somewhere good in my eyes, and that’s our favorite way to write music!
The reason people start bands is because they want to play with their friends or with other people. I hope that that never goes away for us—the joy of just jamming for hours and hours, and getting weird and creative with new gear and each other. It’s the marriage counseling of being in a band!
Ben, what gear did you use on the album?
McLeod:I used my Gibson Les Paul Traditional on just about every track. It isn’t an old guitar or anything fancy. I bought it off the wall at a Guitar Center in 2010, but I absolutely love it. It has a really beefy neck and I put a bone nut and a new set of saddles on it, so it stays in tune really well, and that’s the one for me. Our engineer, Mikey Allred, brought in a Gretsch Tennessee Rose hollowbody for the sessions, and that thing was amazing. I used that on “This Is Where It Falls Apart” and “Blood and Sand / Milk and Endless Waters,” and that thing was so beautiful!
As far as amps, almost everything was my Fender Twin Reverb, which I’ve had since the 4th grade, when my dad bought it for me because it was the Jerry Garcia amp for many years. That amp has gone through many repairs and speaker replacements over the years, but I love the sound it gets. I pushed a Fulltone ’69 fuzz into it, and that was pretty much my sound for the whole record—that amp cranked to being almost dimed, the reverb up really high, and that fuzz pedal. I also used an Electro-Harmonix Memory Boy for the super-quick delay parts, and that pedal was really cool. I also used a wah wah pedal, which I can’t recall the brand of, for about 20 seconds on the track “El Centro.”
You must ride the guitar’s volume knob for dynamic shifts with a setup like that.
McLeod: Oh yeah! If I wasn’t able to do that, I don’t know what I’d do. And I use the tone knobs a ton, which some people really neglect. On a Les Paul, once you have your rig dialed in the right way, you don’t even really need pedals with the options those tone knobs and variations in volume knobs can give you. We just played 71 shows and I used only one pedal the whole time!
The Fulltone died, so I replaced it with a Death By Audio Fuzz War. I’ve been on a really deep Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall kick, and that’s the fuzz those bands use. It’s just so awesome. It cleans up so well. You can leave it on the entire time and roll back the volume knob on your guitar and get the cleanest, most beautiful sound. Most people wouldn’t expect that from it, but it’s the truth.
Charles, your bass sounds particularly big live. What are you using?
Parks:Well it’s changed a bit because I got my board redone in the way that I’ve wanted to for a while, but haven’t had the means to do so. I was using a Pro Co RAT for a long time for my overdrive tones, but I just got a Tone Bender clone from a company called Tomkat, and that’s been awesome. I wanted something that would sound good on guitar, too, and that thing hits the best of both worlds for me. That’s my main distortion sound. I’m using an Xotic SP Compressor and an Akai Headrush, which I use for its looping. I use an Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synth, an MXR Phase 100, and the Red Panda Raster, which is my favorite pedal right now. I actually bought it because I wanted to use it for my solo harmonium recordings, but it works really well for a lot of the guitar stuff I do in this band. I run both guitar and bass through the same board now and I have an A/B switch to select the amp. That Red Panda shows up live on “Call Me Star” and “Open Passageways.” I really love it for the reverse setting, which really opens things up in a weird way.
My bass sound has a lot do with the half-round strings I use on my Rickenbacker, which is a bastardized ’72 4001 that someone bought and turned into a makeshift lefty—flipped it over, cut off one of the horns. I use a Sovtek Mig 100h into an 8x10 cab, and that’s really my sound. When I play guitar, I switch off to a ’72 Fender Bassman 10. Despite being a guitar head, the Sovtek with the bass rolled up makes for a great bass amp.
What guitars are you using live, Charles?
Parks:I was using a ’69 Gibson SG Custom, but it’s my only expensive possession and one that has a lot of sentimental value, so I had to retire it this tour. This new guitar is a custom I had made with a ’66 Rickenbacker 450 12-string body that was modified by Eastside Music Supply in Nashville, and it’s almost a cross between a Gretsch and a Rickenbacker with a ton of its own character. Eastside was really cool about experimenting and doing something new with it. I put some TV Jones pickups in it, and with extra sympathetic strings—the two highest strings are doubled—it’s super jangly. We use sort of a unique tuning, D–A–C–G–A–E, and the 8-string set up really works nicely with that tuning, which has its own flair. It’s not a tuning many rock bands use—more acoustic players and guys that do jazz-oriented, two-hand tapping, like Andy McKee.
“Open Passageways” is a buffet of cool guitar. How many guitar tracks are we hearing and how did you lace them together?
McLeod:You’re listening to four tracks of guitar on that song. Parks is playing the 6-string acoustic you hear right when the song kicks off, and that parts travels through the entire song. I added the electric guitar part as well as a 12-string acoustic part, and the super fuzzed-out riff that comes through feeding back at the end of the song is me again driving that Fulltone ’69 through a silverface Fender Champ, which turned out to be the perfect sound.
There’s a heavy doom-metal element in the band’s sound. Where does that come from?
McLeod:When we started, we really loved playing as loudly as possible and throwing really big riffs out. It’s so much fun to tune down and let it rip, and we all love bands like Sleep and heavier stuff, too, so it’s a part of our musical DNA. A funny thing that happens because of that is a lot of people come up to us and point out similarities in our sound with Black Sabbath, and none of us really actively listen to Sabbath.
Actually, that influence really comes from a local band called Hellbender that broke up, but lived in Nashville. They, in my opinion, were the best in that vein of music. “El Centro” is really us trying to be Hellbender, honestly. Listen to the album Second Sight and you’ll immediately see their influence on our sound. It’s almost like super-heavy krautrock. The solo on “El Centro” is my favorite that I played on the album. Every time I listen to it, I say to myself, “I will never be able to do that again!” I have to do it a little different every night, but it’s something I’m very proud of.
Check out All Them Witches’ upcoming 2016 spring tour dates here.
The open, atmospheric sound at the core of All Them Witches’ live performances resonates through this live-in-the-studio delivery of “Charles William,” from 2013’s Lightning at the Door. Ben McLeod plays pointillistic slide and melody on his 2010 Les Paul Traditional, and it becomes clear that bassist and vocalist Charles Michael Parks, Jr.’s often slashing and droning bass approach is what earns the band comparisons to Black Sabbath.