The opening track on Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, the third album by All Them Witches, could sound like it was a carefully planned product of focused writing and collaboration. In four minutes, “Call Me Star” builds up from a gentle, atmospheric and psychedelic folk introduction into an increasingly layered and harder hitting stoner rock anthem. Each piece locks into place with fluid grace, the music taking shape with direction and intention. It’s casual and spacious in its sound, but as the writing goes, it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s a tightly written song.
The sound of “Call Me Star” is representative of All Them Witches’ stylistic approach—at least in part. But the cohesion doesn’t necessarily come from intense focus or organization. When the band plays their songs live, bassist and vocalist Michael Parks Jr. says in a phone interview, composition and cohesion become secondary to letting their songs loosen up and get lost in the moment.
“I’d say half of it or more than half of it is just made up on the spot,” he says.
That looseness can be heard throughout the entirety of Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, released in October via New West Records. On a very basic level, all the music on the album can be vaguely described as “psychedelic rock,” but they cover a ridiculous amount of ground within that general framework. Where “Call Me Star” is a concise and catchy folk-rock tune, “This Is Where It Falls Apart” is an extended blues jam in the vein of early Led Zeppelin. And where “Mellowing” is a gentle acoustic instrumental song, “El Centro” is a crushing heavy-psych dirge that bridges the cosmic excursions of Hawkwind with the proto-metal thunder of Black Sabbath.
Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, on paper, might even seem like an overload of ideas all crammed into one space. But somehow it works, and Parks enjoys the diversity and sprawl that All Them Witches display on their records.
“If you start just putting out the same thing over and over, people start to expect that. And that gets pretty boring for us,” he says. “We listen to such a huge variety of music and really love and look for those surprises in all forms of music. We collaborate, and that’s just how it is. Nobody ever really takes a lead on anything for too long.”
The band’s commitment to letting their music go wherever it needs to has allowed them a lot of flexibility in the kinds of bands they book shows with. And indeed, they’ve shared stages with metal bands such as Windhand and Red Fang, as they did at the Day of the Shred festival in 2014, as well as playing with a number of contemporary and classic psych-rock bands at Levitation Festival in Vancouver last year. It’s both a blessing and a curse, Parks says, though they’re not necessarily changing their approach for marketing purposes.
All Them Witches play January 23 at The Casbah
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out right now, how to maintain a steady fan base that you’ve built without getting way outside your market,” he says. “It’s always an interesting thing. We’ve played with everyone. We’ve played with country bands, Americana stuff, and heavy, heavy metal, stoner guys, jam band festivals. And it’s cool to see all those crowds, they’re all very different from each other. It’s fun. I think we’ll keep jumping around, I don’t want to stick to just one thing.”
All Them Witches is, ostensibly, a Nashville band. But they don’t all live there. Parks and guitarist Ben McLeod live in Music City, while drummer Robby Staebler lives in Ohio and keyboardist Allan Van Cleave lives in New Mexico. For most bands this would present a pretty major obstacle to being able to write, record and practice together.
That’s not so much an issue for All Them Witches. For starters, they communicate regularly, and they’re still good friends despite the distance between them. But more importantly, they’re a band whose essence is in unpredictability and practicing extremely infrequently. So while another band might fall apart under the weight of the logistical complications, Parks says it’s never held them back in any way.
“The first couple years…we lived together and practiced every day, as much as we could,” he says. “And I think at the two-year mark, we kinda split up, location wise. But it’s never been a problem. We don’t really practice anyway, except for occasionally, maybe once a month. And it just always works. We like what we do and we like each other, so we just make it work.”
The way Parks talks about working with the band feels very zen, as if the songs All Them Witches write just come to them. Indeed, it’s hard not to hear a spiritual component to their bigger, more ambitious psych guitar freakouts. But most of all, it’s hard not to get the sense their music is just something fun shared by four laid-back dudes with a unique chemistry.
“It’s all very natural,” he says. “You just have to give it space to do its own thing.”