I graduated from Vanderbilt University in May. Besides my degree, the best thing I took away from my time in Nashville might be the music of All Them Witches, a psychedelic-blues foursome that has been electrifying the Music City’s local scene for the past couple of years. Their latest album, 2015’s Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, is a stunning display of deep-reaching mythos and raw musical passion that encapsulates the spiritual experience of seeing the band live – which you can do at Lincoln Hall this Thursday evening at 9:00 pm, as part of Tomorrow Never Knows.
I got the chance to speak with ATW’s frontman and bassist Michael Parks, and our conversation took us into the abyss of the collective unconscious and back out. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell would have been pleased.
Let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell me about how the band formed and how you guys developed your distinctive psych-blues style?
We started about four years ago. We met how people meet in Nashville, just bars and shows—I worked with the drummer at a store on Broadway. And as far as developing a sound, I don’t think we’ve ever sat down and done that, it all just comes from being natural and being honest and doing whatever you want. So we didn’t have any preconceived notions about being any sort of band when we started. I think Robby and Ben were trying to play jazz before we all got together.
I guess that contributes to the more improvisational feel that your live sets sometimes have.
Yeah, I love the improv. That’s my favorite part of the whole show, that the shows are different every night. I think it keeps all of us from getting bored. I mean, we’ve all been in bands where you get up and you practice songs and try to get it perfect, and that’s just not us anymore.
Do you have an idea of when you’re going to jam out in each song or are there whole parts of the sets for jamming?
There’s some designated jam spots, but for how long, we never really pick a length of time. It just really depends on who wants to take the lead, if anybody wants to take the lead. Sometimes it ends super abruptly and everybody’s just—honestly, I have no idea how this happens.
It’s weird to describe how you find a chemistry. Was there a moment when you realized that you had chemistry with these guys and you realized you could make this work in a live set?
I think probably after the first time we did a long jam, I’m not sure when that was, I can’t remember the first time we sat down and were screwing around together. It may have been then, it was like okay, I see what you guys are doing and this is totally up my alley. And everybody just went from them.
In terms of the lyricism that accompanies it, where does that come from? I know you take a lot of inspiration from mysticism and shamanism and spirituality, why is that?
Well, that’s such a huge part in being a human, there’s always been this constant battle of what’s out there, how does this relate to me, who am I in the world, and religion rules a lot of people’s lives. It totally dictates their every move, every single day, and I think that’s fascinating. Whereas I don’t go to church, I don’t subscribe to a certain religion, but the fact that you can go into these old stories and books and pull thousands of years of material, I mean, it’s all laid out for you so you could see all these stories and be like, ‘Man, this is how people lived, and how people still live,’ and I think that’s really interesting—old texts and poetry and old music. I listen to a lot of old international folk music; a lot of the time I spend record hunting is for old stuff that you’ll never find anywhere else. Not necessarily collectibles, but the rare, nobody seems to want it until you put it on, and it’s some of the craziest music from the far reaches of the planet.
So, for example, you might go find a record from Kyrgyzstan or the Roma?
Bedouin music, a lot of wandering-type people. I really find that fascinating, people that just wander around and have developed an entirely different style of music or an entirely different style of singing, like the Tuvans or the Inuits throat singing. I’m not interested in hearing songs about guys trying to get laid or keeling over from too much heroin. I don’t write songs about girls, not since high school. So that’s where I pull my influence from.
You’ve certainly woven an interesting tale on Dying Surfer Meets His Maker. What was the story you had in mind when you were composing that album?
I really love a whole-album-type scenario. I don’t usually write songs, everything ties in on itself, whether I want it to or not. It all seems to come back to a center. The way I think of it, especially for Dying Surfer, is there’s a whole duality on the record where Ben is such an amazing guitarist and I’m a mediocre guitarist, and we did a lot of double guitar stuff where we were playing the same thing and you can tell that somebody’s really good and somebody’s just okay. Vocals was kind of the same way, where we were just hanging out in the studio one day and I did a vocal pass that was kind of rough, and then I did another pass over those where I was going for something a little more solid. And it always works out like a more experienced entity leading a younger, more inexperienced entity around.
So it’s a classic part of the hero’s journey where you’ve got the mentor leading the student.
How does that duality progress over the course of the album? Does the mentor go away?
Yeah, he eventually dies. You know, heroes are interesting because usually, the bad guy in a story—take James Bond. You have the hero and he’s perfect. He knows how to do everything and he’s boring, he knows how to get out of every situation. That’s why the bad guys are always the interesting ones in the movies, you’re always excited to see who’s the evil person because you already know Bond. I like heroes with flaws, and that’s kind of how the music is for me, the flaws are what makes it. This album, we spent five days recording it, that’s it. Some people would crap their pants if they only had five days to do that.
Yeah, try telling that to Bieber or Max Martin.
We’re not trying to be perfect. Our albums are usually just a snapshot of what the live shows are gonna turn into. So if you hear the album and then you see us a few months later, the songs are gonna sound a lot different, but you’re gonna know that they’re the same songs. You see the natural progression as time goes on.
Between Dying Surfer and Lightning At the Door [the band’s 2014 sophomore album], your singing voice has definitely matured. Have you worked on that?
Yeah, I consciously work on that every single day. I take time every day to practice and focus on my voice and make sure that I can still do this stuff, which is something I’ve never done in any of my other bands. For a long time, it was about drinking and partying and this and that.
Things that’ll wreck your voice.
Yeah. Now I still do things that’ll wreck my voice, but I make sure that I take time to work on it. It’s actually a real joy, it’s one of the only parts of my day that I have a schedule for something now. When we’re on tour, time doesn’t matter anymore. You have to be at soundcheck and you have to be on stage to play, and the rest of the day, you don’t have to be anywhere except for driving. So having thirty minutes before I get onstage to sit there and warm up, it’s nice. It all comes back to rituals.
One thing I find interesting about your singing voice is that you keep your microphone so low on stage when you play, so your head is bowed over. Why do you do that?
You’re the first person who’s ever asked me that, and I love that you’re asking me that. I keep my eyes closed for most of the set, so if I have it too high, I usually end up bashing my face into it and it’s not fun. So I keep it low, and I also like the feeling, I get to stretch my neck whenever I bow down to sing. It just feels better, until the end when my back is killing me from bending over the whole time, and the bass is wrecking my shoulders.
Throw on the Icy Hot and you’re good.
Yeah, that and stretching. That’s another ritual, I have to do some form of stretching or exercise or I’ll just feel insane, like a swarm of bees is in my body. You have to keep your instrument up, and in our sense, the instrument is the whole body.
According to the pictures on your Facebook, you guys are out in nature all the time. What’s your favorite outdoor adventure from the Dying Surfer tour you took in the fall?
We went to four or five national parks. That’s what we like to do, if we have any sort of time off, we love to go see nature and go hiking. We went to Crater Lake, we drove all through the night and woke up at Crater Lake and saw Moab. I think Moab may have been my favorite one to go see last year. It’s such an intensely beautiful place. And I love that every guy wants to do that, there’s not one of us who ever just wants to go see a movie or get to the city early just so we can smoke another cigarette in the van. And with the way things are building up, who knows how long that stuff is gonna be there?
I know you put out Dying Surfer not too long ago, but what do you see the next year holding for you?
We haven’t really made any New Years’ resolutions as a band. I haven’t actually seen them since New Years’. Robby lives in Ohio and Allan lives in New Mexico, but he doesn’t really live there, he travels around a lot. I’m kind of the same way, I’m on tour so much that I don’t have a house in Nashville that I pay rent on.
So where do you live?
Nowhere, really. I stay in Nashville with friends. Technically, I guess I live in Louisiana. That’s where my family is from, all my important stuff is there. But for me, you live wherever you are, you’re staying wherever you are. I don’t have a single place that I call home.
So how did Nashville become your home base?
We’ve all lived here at some point. It’ll be eight years for me on February 1st, I moved here when I was 19. Allan moved here when he was 18, Robby lived here for maybe a year or two. And then once it got to a point where it wasn’t gonna fall apart, it doesn’t matter where anybody is, we don’t practice anyways. Everybody’s free to go and do their own life. You can’t say, ‘we’re in a band, you can’t leave or it’ll break up.’ It was like that for a minute, then we all realized that’s horseshit.
You know what isn’t horseshit? All Them Witches’ captivating live show. Catch them at Lincoln Hall this Thursday night – tickets are $15.