Spellbinders: Ben McLeod and Charles Michael Parks, Jr. of All Them Witches
Nashville-based psychedelic tag-team avoids clichés as they use big tones, open spaces, and surprising improvisations to conjure a new vision of Southern rock’s dark side.
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:
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.