The quiet, almost Americana-ish intro to All Them Witches' latest album, Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, is something of a false lead. Beginning with bassist/vocalist Michael Parks singing as sweetly as any folk troubadour, almost imperceptibly the song builds into a storm of rolling thunder and psychedelic lighting. It is soon apparent that such quiet/loud interplay runs rampant throughout the album, adding definition to a predominately swirly, heavy sound. Formed in Nashville in 2012, founder and drummer Robby Staebler says the bands predilection for spacy, psychedelic jams was predestined.
“Yeah, that’s how it is. We all had ideas on this kind of music before we even knew each other," he says.
It’s hard to avoid comparisons to Pink Floyd, Camel, Savoy Brown and Led Zeppelin. The latter stands out in — if you listen for it — in Staebler’s jazz-inspired drumming (John Bonham was a jazz drummer first). Throw in some bluesy ramblings and harmonica play, spacey guitar effects, ground shaking basslines, and dreamy fantasy-like lyrics, and getting lost with All The Witches' coven of haunting sound is joyously easy. It’s a damn good head trip, too.
We have pretty clear intentions, and we’re doing it for the right reasons. I’m not surprised it’s working out.
New Times caught up with All The Witches drummer Robby Staebler by phone as the band travelled cross-country on the tour bus to discuss musical (and other) inspirations, balancing quiet passages with “the heaviest 4/4 you could imagine,” and the fact the band’s lone surfer, guitarist Ben McLeod, won’t reveal why he named the album Dying Surfer Meets His Maker.
New Times: Let’s start with influences, but not musical, per se. Given your artwork and some of the mystical lyrical tales, is fantasy and sci-fi, be it books or movies, a big part of who All Them Witches are?
Robby Staebler: I wouldn’t say that, and I’m speaking for myself. Maybe it is with [vocalist Michael] Parks. [Yells to back of bus.] Hey Parks, are you into fantasy (yells to back of tour bus)?
Parks says he likes it. For myself, not really. What has shaped me is photography, learning how to paint with light and understanding what’s happening, and then getting these images back. They are representative of what you were doing in the places that you were, but there’s something drastically different about it. It’s more realism. As far as my drawings [Staebler does all of the band’s artwork], there’s not any influence I can put my finger on. It’s just kind of been something that’s coming out. I’ve been drawing and painting and doing stuff since I was a small boy. It’s always been a part of my life, expressing myself that way. The sci-fi thing is not really there, it’s all just what’s been in my head since I was born. Maybe it’s from a past life or something.
Your other-worldly cartoon video for “Dirt Preacher” video made me think of that movie Heavy Metal.
That’s cool. I haven’t seen it and I know about the comic books called Heavy Metal. That stuff looks appealing, but I have a hard time giving long-term attention to stuff like that. I have a hard time sitting down and watching a movie. I’d rather be making my own. The video was Parks’ treatment. He wrote the story about that and we had this guy Chad VanGaalen animate it. He did it in his own style, the way he wanted to. Parks gave him the idea, but I have no idea what Chad is influenced by. Maybe he watches Heavy Metal all the time.
You talk about your photography and what you take from that. When you’re setting up a photograph, and there are so many little details to get just right. Is it this way with the songwriting as well?
For me it totally does. What inspires me all comes from the same source. I like to do different things and use different mediums but it all comes into the music from the same source. The same energy that goes into shooting photos comes out in the music. It manifests in different ways.
I read that you guys are from Nashville, but the picture on your website shows you guys standing on a cliff above a beach. Given the album title, are you guys surfers or did one of you have a near death experience trying to surf?
None of us are from Nashville — that’s just where we were all living when we formed the band. We meet there for tours and rehearse there. Ben [McLeod, guitar] is a surfer. He was experiencing some success as a surfer and was traveling around to contests and such.
[Yells across bus again.] Hey Ben, did you almost die or something? What’s up with the name?
He says no comment on where he came up with the name. But Ben is a surfer and we’re all avid lovers of traveling all over. We have some preferred places where we like spending time and near the ocean is one of them.
One of the things I like about your sound is that it’s not just heavy or noisy, but has these raw, quiet moments. “Call Me Star” is a great example. The song starts off acoustic and the vocal intro is haunting, then slowly the tension builds, so that even when it’s full on electric, it doesn’t feel overbearing. How do you manage to balance the heavy and intense with the quiet?
Playing the album live it’s definitely different. That was one of the first time we’d played that song — any of the songs on the album. We’d played some of the songs maybe for an hour a week before we got into the studio. The vibe kind of dictated itself because we were learning the songs. It wasn’t fully revealed to us. When we play live we like to incorporate quiet aspects as well. For the specific example, “Call Me Star” — on the record when it’s in full stride and at its heaviest, still it’s kind of tame. When we play it live it’s tame, but the ending is a crusher. It’s a little different than the record. The balance is because we’re not just a one track kind of band.
Your press release talks about your jazz drumming esthetic, and yet this album doesn’t seem jazzy, in the traditional sense anyway. So how does jazz influence your style?
Learning how to play jazz as a kid I would play along with jazz because I didn’t understand it and it would force me to continue to play, but in a way that I would still be learning. It taught me a lot about dynamics and hearing the notes foreshadow things that were going to happen. It’s a strong influence in how I play the drums. It might not be obvious to anyone watching me play the heaviest 4/4 you could imagine, but it plays into it.
You recorded the album live, yet you say things are different in concert. How are the songs different? Do they expand and explore new territory with them?
We have songs that don’t venture off, and we have songs that are the same when we play them. I play different drum fills every night. I try to maintain the same structure, but I try to further the songs, and I think every one of us are all trying different things. We have songs where we give ourselves a lot of space to try different things.
On the album all the songs bleed into each other; one continuous theme, in essence. It reminds me of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, or something conceptual by Camel. Was that a intention, a conceptual idea, or did it just fit better that way?
This album was meant to be listened to as a whole piece. We always had the idea that it was going to be something you’d listen to in order and it would have a story behind it. When we were recording them it was obvious everything was going to flow together. It wasn’t an act of direct inspiration from listening to other people’s records, it just happened.
Remaining consistent with your earlier work, the heavier, psychedelic aspects are strong, yet it seems the bluesier side of the band is fading. Are you moving away from that?
We’re not moving away from anything or toward anything. This time around this is what it sounded like. We didn’t plan it.
So you just have a great telepathic connection and the music just comes out?
Yeah, that’s how it is. We all had ideas on this kind of music before we even knew each other. There’s definitely something there at the beginning, but we’re fine tuning it. It just translates for an easier and easier process of writing songs together.
I wouldn’t say All The Witches is getting lots of hype, but certainly numerous positive reviews and accolades…
I think that’s cool, and it’s certainly an affirmation that we’re doing something right. We always have known what we have and what we’re doing and I’m not surprised people like the music. We have pretty clear intentions and we’re doing it for the right reasons. I’m not surprised it’s working out. But it’s cool to know that it’s significant for people because it’s significant for us.