Photography: Alysse Gafkjen
It’s been roughly half a decade since All Them Witches made their live debut, firing a triple-barreled blast of blues-metal stomp, Southern gothic grunge, and muddy space-rock upon a hometown crowd at The Basement. It was New Faces Night — the venue’s weekly showcase for young Nashville bands — and the guys had yet to build any sort of following. From the first note, though, their music packed a serious punch.It’s freezing in New York City. Outside The Bowery Ballroom, several dozen people are lined up in winter jackets and boots, waiting for the venue to open its doors. Everyone’s here to see All Them Witches, but no one seems to recognize guitarist Ben McLeod as he walks by. All Them Witches aren’t really that kind of band. The guys have never appeared on their own album covers. They’re rarely in their own music videos. The point is clear: in a group like this, it’s the songs themselves — not the individual Witches — that cast the biggest spell.
McLeod definitely sees the line, though. Back inside The Bowery’s green room, he compares tonight’s upcoming gig — a headlining show on a Friday night in a club where the Shins will perform one week later — to the band’s first date in New York.
“We were playing Pianos, opening for Kadavar,” he says, remembering the tiny, 140-capacity club several blocks to the east. “Those guys cancelled their show, but we still showed up to play, because we were supposed to meet this booking agent. It was a huge deal. We were all really excited. And he left after the third song.”
Tonight, things will be different. The room will fill up with metalheads, hard rock fans, and very patient girlfriends. Fans will sing along to new songs from the band’s fourth album, Sleeping Through the War, which is still less than a month old. And no one will leave during the third song. This time, the Witches’ magic holds.
“It was obvious that Ben was a ripping guitar player and it was clear that all the guys had an amazing handle on what they wanted to do,” says the club’s owner, Mike Grimes, who ran the soundboard that night. “They separated themselves from everyone else on the bill, just by the sheer level of musicianship alone.”
In a town full of musical mini-scenes — the cowboy- hatted millennials playing throwback country music; the joke-cracking singer-songwriters doing their best Todd Snider impressions; the metal maniacs trashing the stage at The End — All Them Witches were a bit of an anomaly. Their guitar riffs nodded to the ’60s and ’70s, when bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Mountain ruled the hard-rock roost. Their drums were fierce, like Sesame Street’s Animal doing his best Mitch Mitchell impression. The vocals were half-sung and half-spoken, shot through with Middle Eastern scales one minute and barking bursts of semi-melody the next, and the bass playing was loud, representing the pulsing heartbeat of the band’s blues-metal Frankenstein. The influences were clear, but this was something new.
Their sound began taking shape during practice sessions in an East Nashville home off Straightway Circle shared by three of them Witches — bassist/ vocalist Charles Michael Parks Jr. (“Parks”), drummer Robby Staebler, and keyboardist Allan Van Cleave. McLeod, who lived nearby, often joined in.
“We had an 18-foot teepee in the front yard for the train kids,” remembers Staebler, who doubles as the band’s in-house art designer. “Allan was sleeping on a pallet that he made in the laundry room. We had a loft suspended from the ceiling. It was small as fuck in there. We had five dudes and three dogs, all together in a three-bedroom house. That’s where we wrote and demoed the first and second record.”
While everyone has fond memories of that crowded house, All Them Witches did most of their growing up onstage. They were a live band in every possible sense, stretching the limits of their music every night. Songs were revised. Solos were swapped. Arrangements were rearranged. Some nights, Van Cleave’s keyboards would take center stage; during other shows, McLeod’s Les Paul would drive the band forward. All Them Witches’ gigs weren’t about polish or perfection; they were about electricity and energy.
“It’s like juggling,” Parks says, looking for a way to describe the band’s improvisational approach. “You’re constantly passing the ball around. Someone catches it, and you just go. You let them lead, then you let them pass it to someone else. Things just fall into place, and it makes sense.”
“Our songs are like burgers,” Staebler offers, midway through his own preshow dinner in the Bowery Ballroom’s dressing room. “When we play live, we can dress up that burger. Tonight, we might throw avocado and bacon on it. And maybe the cheese wasn’t good during last night’s show, so we’ll take that off.”
“Let’s cut the cheese!” McLeod yells from across the room. Staebler gives him an approving nod. Not long after that initial gig at The Basement, the Witches hit the road. Trading the cramped quarters of their East Nashville home for the rows of a passenger van, they played dive bars, clubs, and barbecue joints across the country, handling their own booking operations for two years before teaming up with their first agent in April 2014. Tucker Tharpe, owner of The Garage in Winston- Salem, remembers the guys passing through town in 2012, kicking off a long-standing relationship with his venue. Years later, All Them Witches chose Tharpe’s club as the setting for their first concert album, 2015’s At The Garage.
“They’re like a psychotic jam band,” Tharpe says. “They spin out into these 10-minute jams of heavy, dark awesomeness. The first time they played The Garage, it was raining and the club flooded, and we kept having to stop the show so we could suck the water off the floor. The people who stuck around were mostly musicians, and I could tell they were there because they’d finally heard something fresh. It was the heavy rocking blues they’d grown up with, mixed with all these influences from the past, but done in a way that sounded cool and new again. All the local bands wound up wanting to play with the Witches, from the heavy dudes to the indie rock dudes. The next time All Them Witches came here for a show, we had three or four killer local bands playing, with the Witches slapped in the middle of the lineup, and everyone came out to see them. And everyone still comes out.”
The proof is in the numbers. The Witches recently sold out a two-night stand at The Garage, racking up more than 325 tickets. On a normal night, the club’s capacity maxes out at 125.
“I think their fans stick around because they can really sense the band’s earnestness,” Tharpe adds. “Those guys are loyal. They’ll play The Garage until they absolutely can’t. And they’re almost there.”
Back at home, the band caught the attention of New West Records’ incoming president, John Allen. It was May 2014, and the Witches had been named Lightning 100’s “Band of the Week,” a local honor that promised them daily spins in exchange for a free, station-sponsored concert on Friday night. Intrigued, Allen showed up to the gig.
“This was before Lightning 100 started doing those shows at Soulshine Pizza,” he remembers. “They were hosting them at the Pourhouse instead. So I went to the Pourhouse on a Friday afternoon, and I saw the guys setting up in front of a table full of girls who were obviously there for a bachelorette party, and I thought, ‘Fuck, this is gonna suck.’ But then they started playing, and it was great. When you’re making music like this, it’s really hard not to sound like you’re aping certain classic rock bands, where it’s like, ‘Here’s our Sabbath riff, and here’s our Cream song.’ But these guys were making everything their own. They were moving forward. One of the reasons I came to New West was to break a new artist. That was the expectation, that was the goal, and that’s what we’re doing now with All Them Witches and Ron Gallo.”
On June 11, 2015, New West officially announced All Them Witches as the label’s newest client. The guys played Bonnaroo the following weekend, with Allen tagging along. There, on an oversized computer screen backstage, the label CEO made an important discovery.
“Everyone talks about marketing strategies,” he says, “but there was a moment at Bonnaroo where it hit me. YouTube had this big display backstage, where they broke down a band’s number of streams across different territories. It was Minority Report-type stuff. I looked up Ben Folds, and you could see he had a huge audience in South Korea. Then I pulled up All Them Witches, and they still hadn’t toured all that much at that point, so I figured their Top 10 cities would be nearby places like Nashville, Asheville, and Atlanta. When I looked at the YouTube insights, though, I saw Cologne, Mexico City, France, and Rio. Nashville wasn’t anywhere close to the top. Looking at that screen helped me understand the power of YouTube discovery. The people who love this kind of music are super-fans, and they talk to each other. They recommend things. I knew we needed to get the guys overseas.”
All Them Witches headed to Europe for the first time in February 2016, kicking off the tour with a sold-out show in Greece. Parks remembers singing to a crowd of 1,200 Athenians, most of whom already knew his lyrics. Later that week, 900 people showed up to the band’s first gig in Tel Aviv. John Allen was right: The band’s audience stretched far beyond the Southeast.
Meanwhile, All Them Witches’ own roots had begun to move beyond the Southeast, too. Simply put, the guys were moving away. Staebler headed back to Ohio. Parks resettled in North Carolina. Van Cleaves headed all the way to New Mexico. With McLeod holding down the fort in East Nashville, All Them Witches continued to be a Tennessee-based band, with the others flying into town for pretour rehearsals and studio sessions.
“I love getting to travel to places like Europe, because it gives me more perspective,” says Van Cleave, who works as a trail builder when he’s not manning the keyboards. “Being in New Mexico does that, too. It’s the opposite lifestyle of the one I live day to day with the band. I remember one time, I was living in a canyon on the Green River in Colorado for three weeks straight, with three other people. It was a two-day rafting trip to get there, and a park ranger would come and bring us vegetables once a week and take our trash and raft it out. I went from that situation to the Salt Lake City Airport, where I caught a plane to Columbus and played a show with the guys at Carabar, and I almost had a panic attack! It was such a shock to my system, because of all the noise and all the people, and the fact that I was playing a rock & roll show to 20 times more people than I’d seen during the past month.”
Another shock to the system arrived in the form of Dave Cobb, the Grammy-winning producer behind albums by Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, and Sturgill Simpson. A lifelong rock & roll fan, Cobb had first approached the Witches in 2015, offering to help them record the album that would later become Dying Surfer Meets His Maker. At the time, the guys didn’t feel ready to work with an outside producer. When Cobb reiterated his interest one year later, however, they jumped at the chance. The timing was right. The result is Sleeping Through The War, the band’s most expansive record to date.
“I’ve never heard the Sturgill record, the Stapleton record, or the Jason Isbell records,” Parks admits. “Those records aren’t the reason we wanted to work with Dave. After we went out to lunch with him, we just knew we were on the same page. He was cool with experimenting in the studio and re-amping and doing weird stuff. He’s got the rock & roll spirit. He wants to make art. He wants to make albums. That’s what we want, too.”
For years, the guys had produced their own records, working fast to keep costs low. They tracked Our Mother Electricity in one day, paying their mastering engineer with a case of beer. They recorded Dying Surfer Meets His Maker in a makeshift studio inside a Pigeon Forge cabin. They never used click tracks, preferring a somewhat lo-fi sound steeped in the freewheeling spirit of their live shows.
“They are four alpha males, and they didn’t know how to go into the studio with someone,” John Allen says. “But I finally got them to meet with Cobb, because I knew he’d get it. And once they met him, they knew that, too.”
Rather than book time at RCA Studio A — Cobb’s Music Row headquarters, filled with tall ceilings and steeped in country history — the crew set up shop at Creative Workshop, a funky, 1970s studio in Berry Hill. They took their time dialing in the right sounds then knocked out eight songs in a single day. The rest of the 10-day recording cycle was spent listening, mixing, and laying down overdubs, including the stacked harmonies of a female choir — Erin Rae, Tristen, and Caitlin Rose, all first-rate songwriters — and “When the Levee Breaks”-worthy harmonica riffs from longtime Willie Nelson band member Mickey Raphael. Captured in a single take, Raphael’s harmonica leaves a honking, haunting path through the album’s 10-minute closer, “Internet.”
“That’s how we work, too,” Parks says. “First takes are better. The energy is there. We know that from being a live band. We get one take a night, so that take needs to be good enough to keep.”
“They already had a good, firm grip on who they were, so my job was to be a cheerleader,” says Cobb, who let all four Witches record in the same room together, each instrument bleeding into the next instrument’s microphone. “Separating them or putting them in different booths would have taken it all away. We didn’t even use headphones. Instead we used microphones and monitors, like it was a live show, and I just let them go. It was loud in there! Everybody was blasting, and it sounded great.”
Back at The Bowery Ballroom, the guys wrap up their take-out dinners and head downstairs, ready to kick off their headlining set. It’s their biggest New York show ever. Onstage, a giant backdrop of Sleeping Through The War’s cover art — a Rorschach-ish swirl of dye on watercolor paper created by Staebler — reaches toward the ceiling. The guys walk beneath it, their heads down, and pick up their instruments. Then a keyboard drone gives way to a flurry of guitar feedback, the crowd surges forward, and All Them Witches are flying high once again, casting the spell that’s taken them halfway across the world.
All Them Witches’ new album Sleeping Through the War is available at local record shops or on their website.