It’s mating season for snakes in the woods in Arkansas, where All Them Witches’ singer/bassist Charles Michael Parks Jr lives in a rundown cabin. Four or five venomous breeds lurk in the undergrowth and creeks of this untamed pocket of the American south. Mosquitoes are large and merciless, especially in the heat of August. There is no TV, cell-phone service or internet.
Parks lives out here alone, except for a cat, which hunts the rats and brown recluse spiders that creep inside from time to time. He hunts and fishes when he needs to, and when we talk he’s just been drying food for the winter. He’s also nursing a lot of industrial-strength bites, but is otherwise in good spirits.
“I’m a country boy by design,” he says, his deep, Jim Morrison-rivalling purr instantly recognisable from All Them Witches’ commanding, enigmatic fusion of rock, blues and hazy psychedelia, which up to now peaked on 2017 triumph Sleeping Through The War.
“I grew up in Louisiana and spent a lot of time in the woods there,” he continues. “And I’ve spent a lot of time out in the desert by myself in New Mexico, wandering around, tracking and looking and studying… That’s where my heart lies. I’m only in town or in the city if we’re doing some sort of music thing.”
Even when All Them Witches first began, in Nashville in 2012, Parks had a semi-nomadic existence. As the band began to spend more time on the road it became more difficult to lay down roots, resulting in many nights sleeping in his truck or people’s backyards.
“Then I moved to North Carolina because I wanted to get away from town for a while,” he says. “I lived there for a couple of years in the middle of nowhere, in a big field surrounded by cows. I really like the nature-boy kinda life."
It was a conscious lifestyle decision, even before the current social-distancing era. In recent years Parks has retreated further from city life, and all the bars, noise and people it entails. Music aside, much of his time has been filled with wandering in the woods, absorbing film soundtracks (The Hired Hand and La Planete Sauvage are two of his favourites), short stories and absurdist literature (he sings the praises of Ray Bradbury and Richard Brautigan), and reading translations of key Taoist text the Tao Te Ching.
All of which fed into All Them Witches’ compelling new album Nothing As The Ideal. Recorded at Abbey Road just before COVID-19 hit, it’s their most expansive, kaleidoscopic work yet, with atmospheric, almost mystical layers spicing up their mix of roots, heavy rock guitars and twisted blues.
Working at the famed London studio was a contrast to their previously favoured cabin-in-the-woods recording set-up. “It’s too clinical, y’know,” Parks says of formal recording studios. “Getting music done in that way is not something that comes easy to me. I’m much more of a live player. But it wasn’t like that this time, it felt very comfortable in Abbey Road.
“It’s crazy,” he continues. “You just see pictures all over of people standing exactly where you’re standing. Like: ‘Oh, this is Mick Jagger sweating and screaming his balls off’, or something. It’s a surreal experience. Like: ‘Why am I allowed to touch this?’ That’s the feeling I had a lot of the time.
"And then I had friends who listened to the record and they were like: ‘Wow, that reverb sounds just like Pink Floyd.’ Cos it’s the same reverb tank system that they used. And so that was all kind of mind blowing, being able to use the quality gear that all these old people that you look up to have used as well."
Still, when they’re finally able to play songs from the new album live, don’t expect them to sound exactly as they do on the record, given the band’s propensity for live improvisation.
“They [the songs] just change so much,” he says. “So I don’t take a lot of stock in making a perfect record before I go into a studio, or performing it the same way live. Honestly, I would go insane if I had to play songs perfectly every night, and it’s the same with making a record. Within a year’s time they’re going to sound different live.”
Although the influence of Pink Floyd isn’t difficult to spot (along with a fair helping of Led Zeppelin), All Them Witches’ roots go way beyond classic rock standards. When Parks first met drummer Robby Staebler and guitarist Ben McLeod in Nashville (they’d each migrated there from their respective home towns), the drummer and guitarist were trying to start a jazz group.
Parks’s own band, in which he’d played guitar, had fallen through, so he offered himself to the duo, exaggerating his bass-playing prowess to blag his way in. The three of them quickly clicked through jamming, rather than exchanging records. Listening, rather than talking.
“Telepathy has been a big part of our growth as a band,” he says. “I don’t know how to speak in music terms. I don’t know enough about theory to be efficient about telling someone else what to play. Music ideas start at sound-check for us, when you’re standing around and everyone’s mixing up stuff, you have ten minutes to sit there and goof around on your guitar.”
This free-form approach is tempered by the influence of devotional music. For Parks and Staebler in particular, religion runs deep. In his youth Staebler attended Ohio’s World Harvest mega-church. Parks went to church in Louisiana with his grandparents. When he was 14 he moved to New Mexico and became heavily involved with church there, playing contemporary Christian music with friends who also attended.
“I was totally convinced that God was looking at me all the time,” he says with a laugh. “When you’re a kid and you’re in a Christian church, you’re just constantly fearful of all the ghosts and the angels and people judging you, and doing the right thing and begging for forgiveness. All of these things that kind of darken your life. It’s all the things that people tell you not to do as an adult, like living in the past, dwelling on the past, worrying about the future. All of those things that you have to unlearn.”
Around this time he started picking up world music at public libraries, beginning with a Tuvan throat-singing record and deep-diving into weird and wonderful sounds from there.
“Celtic music, Bulgarian chanting, Bedouin music, Gregorian chants, Russian folk songs…” he recalls. “I went pretty far into a tangent and I don’t think I ever really got out of it. I like to collect records like that.”
He no longer subscribes to godly beliefs or practises, but the primal, strangely alluring hoodoo of religious music, from cultures all over the world, runs deep in the immersive worlds evoked by All Them Witches’ records and shows. Dark, smoky parallel universes that feel cinematic in their scope but, ultimately, always rock.
“In my mind I’m writing a movie as I’m writing songs,” Parks says, “or creating characters or coming up with storylines or any of that. In my mind I’ve wanted to be able to move people the way that movies do. I’d love to sit in a room and narrate a movie with music.
"Like Dead Man, the way that Neil Young did it. He just watched the movie, basically, and played along with it a couple of times. I think that’s great. I would love to get into soundtracks.”
Nothing As The Ideal is out now via New West Records.