Where on the path of rock ’n’ roll evolution the hippie and the hesher parted ways, each to pursue his own subcultural explorations, is difficult to pinpoint. Whether it was after Black Sabbath got paranoid or Blue Cheer’s Vincebus eruption, who can say? But at some point, the heavy-obsessed and the jam-oriented diverged, and have crossed paths rarely since. Two sides of the same gatefold, heshers and hippies are spiritual brethren, yet seldom find satisfaction in the same sounds.
Nashville’s All Them Witches, performing at Middle East Upstairs on Friday, wants to change that. Heavy and heady, the band seemingly channels the churn of the universe and connects with a big, bad, uncaring cosmos. There is a primal ebb and flow at the core of its latest LP, “Lightning at the Door,” self-released in September, one more akin to the malevolent grooves of Miles Davis’s “Live/Evil” era than more mosh pit-ready fare.
The band’s mystic atmosphere, dark but not brutal, is the result of a tireless work ethic, a grueling tour schedule, and a tape trader’s compulsion for documenting every show. “[Drummer] Robbie [Staebler] and I are huge Grateful Dead fans,” guitarist Ben McLeod says. “We like that with the Grateful Dead, you can listen to almost everything that they’ve ever recorded — it’s just a neat concept.
“It wouldn’t work if it were a band with songs that are the same every night,” he continues. “Not that that’s a bad thing, but for us, every night is different. We can play one of our songs one night and make it 10 minutes, play it the next and make it four minutes. There’s all kinds of jamming going on, and we just love to capture those moments.”
The result is a Bandcamp page (allthemwitches.bandcamp.com) that’s bursting with evidence of the group’s 2014 adventures across the country, nominally priced and ready to stream or download. From a business standpoint, it’s an ingenious response to the Internet’s constant demand for more content. From a fan’s perspective, it’s a fun rabbit hole to fall down. And for the band, it’s fodder for the creative process — fuel for the fire that sent them into the Great Smokey Mountains last month to record a follow-up to “Lightning at the Door.”
“I know bands that tour and tour and tour and struggle — that’s not this band,” McLeod says. “Everything’s moving very quickly, and we’re just loving it. We rented a cabin in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., just to change things up. . . . [We] brought a really good buddy and basically his entire studio full of gear, packed a van and a trailer to the brim, and turned [the cabin] into a studio for like five days.”
The band, McLeod says, went into the process of recording under-rehearsed, and with only around half of the songs written. “We practiced a week before we went in the cabin, worked out parts and finalized everything when we got there, then we would do two or three takes and pick one,” he reports. “It all came together perfectly in the cabin.”
Hardly the first crew of musicians to say, “Dudes, we should rent a cabin and make a record,” All Them Witches nonetheless is the rare species that actually follows through with it. That the group chose Pigeon Forge, birthplace of Dolly Parton and setting of Cormac McCarthy’s rural-horror masterpiece “Child of God,” gets to the very core of what the band is. The members’ knowledge of tradition, their willingness to step beyond genre limits, and their ability to indulge thematic darkness without being consumed by it set them apart. Put simply, this is not by-the-Nashville-numbers crew.
“This is the first experience in the studio [where] we just get in the studio and bust out songs we’ve never done and we’re all really happy with it,” says McLeod. “Live, we can just shut our minds off and just feed off each other. I guess that’s what being on the road does and playing every night does: You know how everyone plays, and you know how to work around it.”
Sean Maloney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.