By Rich Hobson
There are few concepts in popular culture which have been romanticised as much as The Road. Envisioned as the last free territory, The Road is a mythical place where identities are forged, preconceptions are challenged and artists, musicians and writers alike are truly born to their artforms. The Road never changes, but is never the same: be it as the refuge of 50s alternative culture in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, the battlefield for the soul of 80s music in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life or as a constant companion and antagonist in the collected works of Henry Rollins (most notably Get In The Van and the Black Coffee Blues series), The Road is imagined as the ultimate canvas on which an artist can create their craft. The Road is also the only place that All Them Witches can call home.
Originating from the musically fertile city of Nashville, Tennessee, All Them Witches learned early that they would need to work hard just to be heard above the din of the local music scene. “When you have a million bands in one place, that’s not a scene,” explains vocalist Michael Parks Jnr. “Nashville is a ride or die city: either you keep going and you play, keep getting shit on and eventually leave to go play small towns, or you fall apart.”
Speaking to the band in Birmingham, their first show in the UK as part of a larger run of European dates, it is very apparent that ATW are one of the bands that managed to make it out – and they’ve never looked back. “We toured Nashville for two years, but then we had to leave. We couldn’t play there any more; we wanted to be a touring band, not a Nashville band.”
A lithe punk with a voice like Jim Morrison and a similar propensity for waxing poetic, Michael Parks Jnr. is – much like his band – an anomaly. Just as happy chatting about Fugazi as he is about his band’s tendency to burst into a psychedelic blues jam mid-set, All Them Witches owe as much to the ‘never-ending tour’ ethic of the 80s indie and hardcore scene as they do to the jam-heavy stylings of stoner rock. In the past two years alone they have played the UK no less than five times, managing not only to build a fanbase but also to increase the size of the venues they play – not bad for an indie label rock band with no noticeable social media presence.
“We’re good at posting images on Instagram, but that’s about it,” Parks admits. “The best thing about going to see bands before the internet was not knowing what was going to happen. You had the ticket, you had the time you had to be there. The rest was a mystery, part of a travelling circus.”
For ATW the circus is always in town, one way or another. While parts of the industry scream that live music is dying, ATW are out playing shows, watching the crowds get bigger. They aren’t a band beholden to album/promo/tour cycles, preferring to develop their sound and fan base organically.
“Touring is where you knock all the rough edges off,” says Parks. “Playing a different room every night, with different people in every town… It’s good because it tests your limits.”
The Road’s propensity for testing musicians’ limits is legendary. Often depicted as an adversarial entity that threatens loneliness, drug abuse and even death (to say nothing of real-world problems of a financial and political nature), touring is often seen as a necessary evil, albeit one which becomes more and more difficult with each passing year. With this in mind, it’s not hard to see why musicians like The Killers’ Dave Keuning are swearing it off completely. So doing this all year round, barely taking a break – it must be tough.
“Well, it’s easy for me!” exclaims Parks. “Living in the van has been the past decade of my life, and not necessarily just with this band. This is it; there’s no sense of ‘I wish touring was more like back home’ because I’m here more than I’m ever home.”
Despite casting the visage of eternal wanderers, All Them Witches have found time to record four albums since forming in 2012 – the latest of which, Sleeping Through The War, dropped in February. You have to wonder how they find the time… “When it happens, it happens; when you get time to do a record, you make a record and that’s just how we are,” explains Parks.
With half a year of shows between the release of the album and this run of dates, you have to wonder how fresh the songs from Sleeping Through The War still sound to the band. “The songs from Sleeping have never sounded better,” Parks says confidently. “Each night you get to surprise yourself, grow a little more with the songs. That’s endearing to me – walking hand in hand with your songs, rather than beating them into your head until you hate them. I’m not going to do that – I like playing my songs. That’s what touring does – it helps you out with the old stuff, works through the present stage and prepares you for the future all at once. It’s a very therapeutic art form.”
This sense of living, breathing art is reflected in ATW’s keen interest in seeing their performances captured, both by the band and by fans. “We encourage people to tape our shows,” Parks says. “We used to do it ourselves but we don’t really anymore – which is a shame, because recently we’ve been getting better and I wish we had recordings of that. But, sometimes everybody sees something and nobody catches it and that’s good, because it’s an actual experience; nobody is living through the recorder.”
While all records serve as time-capsules for the artists that create them, the ever-evolving sound of ATW serves as a powerful reinforcement of this phenomenon. Written pre-election, Sleeping Through The War is a fuzzy ride through a cynical Americana soundscape, oozing world-weariness to create an atmosphere that isn’t so much pessimistic as tired.
“I’m not here to debate people about Trump every fuckin’ day,” says Parks. “It’s just a part of our lives that’s been thrust upon us, like where you’re born or what language you’re trapped with. At the start of the race it was a joke, so there’s a jokey element to it all, but it’s getting harder to take that angle when it’s so clear that it’s not a joke any more. Everybody is out for blood, much as they have been throughout history, but it’s very different reading about it happening to your grandparents, and it happening to you.”
“The politics of this record were written in a context that was more about how I understand them,” he explains. “It’s more about questioning what people are trying to feed you, being aware of that so you can make the choice of whether to eat it or not. Freedom of choice isn’t just the freedom to choose between things that are bad for you.”
In not taking a direct political stance during an incredibly turbulent time of American politics, whilst still casting shade at the prevalent nostalgia posturing that typifies an attitude so painfully simplified by the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, All Them Witches make the shrewd decision to encapsulate a timeless attitude over current sentiment or issues. But then, the band’s career has been defined by decisions – to focus on their performance, rather than recorded output. To acknowledge the troubles of the world, but not drown in them. To tour, tour and tour some more, so hard and so often that Get In The Van becomes less a romanticised guide to life on the road as a singular instruction. So what do All Them Witches choose next?
“Another tour,” Parks says, smiling.
Sleeping Through The War is out now via New West Records.