A major tourist trap in eastern Tennessee, Pigeon Forge is home to Dolly Parton theme park Dollywood and a phalanx of gaudy theatres, eateries and outlet malls. Recently it has also been a somewhat unlikely backdrop for Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, the latest album from Nashville quartet All Them Witches.
The band recorded it in a mountainside cabin overlooking the resort. “That town is a crazy fucking capitalist place,” says singer/bassist Charles Michael Parks Jr, “so there was a lot of duality going on. The fact that Pigeon Forge was down there just solidified the fact that we needed to be up on a mountain instead. We forced ourselves to make the record, from morning until night. We did the whole thing in five days.”
There’s very little that’s conventional about All Them Witches. Named after the book given to Mia Farrow’s besieged character in the 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby, they’re as likely to create boiling riptides of bluesy psychedelia as they are pools of mystic folk and doomy ambience.
Formed in 2011, All Them Witches is the summation of years of road work with various other bands across the US. Parks is from Louisiana, guitarist Ben McLeod comes from Florida and Allan Van Cleave and Robby Staebler (keyboards and drums, respectively) have known each other since their teenage days in Ohio. Dying Surfer Meets His Maker, following 2012 debut Our Mother Electricity and 2014’s_ Lightning At The Door_, is their most complete statement yet.
“Spontaneity and improv are key,” Parks says. “When we play live even the structured songs become something else. They change from one night to the next. That’s what keeps it interesting.”
Dying Surfer is also a highly visual piece of art. The animated video for lead-off single Dirt Preachers – featuring wizards, horses and a horned deity with a thing for hallucinogens – is a fair indicator of the band’s filmic weirdness. “I was originally planning to make an entire animated movie for the album,” Parks says. “I’d like to get involved with soundtracks and scores, because regular music just doesn’t really do it for me any more.”
Up until two years ago, Parks and Staebler were holding down day jobs as arborists. It was demanding and often dangerous work. “There are so many different things that can go wrong,” explains Parks, “like messing your hands up, getting a log dropped on your head or being sucked into the chipper.” Music, though, is where he’s always wanted to be. “The other guys do more of the planning, whereas I’m just trying to focus on the moment and be present. And that’s why the band works. Again it’s the duality. Most people are so worried about the future that they forget to look at what’s happening right now. And this is something I’ve been striving towards for a while.”
FOR FANS OF: The Blue Nile
“Nobody here in the States really knows who the Blue Nile are,” says Charles Michael Parks Jr. “But A Walk Across The Rooftops is one of my absolute favourites. It blows my mind. Paul Buchanan has one of the most genuine voices. He sounds like he really means it. And that’s exactly what I’m looking for in my own music.”