Witch Mountain Interview with Nathan Carson: The Shape Truth Takes

Musician Portrait series

Something is stirring in the Witch Mountain camp. I don’t know quite what yet, but on Nov. 10, the Portland, Oregon, outfit posted the following: “Just booked studio time to record a song in early December. Details when we are allowed to share them.”

Cryptic but precise, obscure and calculated, the message itself sums up a lot of what Witch Mountain have become over the last few years. After getting off tour this fall Nik Turner‘s incarnation of Hawkwind, the band — founded by guitarist Rob Wrong (to whom I’ve never spoken because he used to review records for stonerrock.com and would blow my meager knowledge of heavy out of the water) and drummer Nathan Carson (who also runs Nanotear Booking and has been interviewed here before) — said farewell to vocalist Uta Plotkin. They lost their bassist at the time as well, but it was Plotkin who grabbed the headlines, and reasonably so. Among metal singers, hers was a singular voice, resonant in its power and presence, but able also to convey emotion, bluesy soul and, particularly in the case of their latest album, Mobile of Angels (review here), a desperate sense of longing.

Their third offering for Profound Lore and third since reactivating following a long hiatus after their 2001 debut, Come the Mountain (discussed here), it’s easy to think of Mobile of Angels as a culmination in light of Plotkin‘s departure, and certainly it is their crowning achievement to date, but it’s also a step in an interrupted progression from their last two outings, 2012’s Cauldron of the Wild (review here) and 2011’s South of Salem (review here). With the constant thread of Billy Anderson‘s production, one can hear Witch Mountain growing on these three albums, becoming the assured, progressive act they are on Mobile of Angels, patiently presenting an all-too-brief 38 minutes that’s beautiful and desolate at the same time.

Carson knows that whoever takes the vocalist role has a challenge ahead of them. In the interview that follows, he talks about how Plotkin‘s leaving took shape, making Mobile of Angels, the mood on this last tour and what they might be looking for in a new singer. The question at this point, after the above Nov. 10 post, is whether or not they’ve found that person. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Full Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.

witch mountain nik turner tour bannerHow was the tour?

It was the most successful trip that we’ve ever done. It was definitely, on an interpersonal level – just because there were two people with one foot out the door – it’s just like anytime you give notice at a job, the last two weeks can be a little dicey, but everyone was professional and did what they needed to do and we played really well and ended on a really high note. I’m really happy that we did it, and I’m also happy that it’s over.

At what point did you know Uta was leaving?

We’d had inklings for a while, but it was after the European tour she let us know. She called Rob and I separately and let us know, and I think Rob was a bit more upset about it than I was, because I just feel very pragmatic about these things. If somebody is not happy doing what they’re doing, then I don’t want them there. I don’t want to talk anyone into being part of my art project. We are doing some really amazing work together, and if that’s fulfilling to you, that’s wonderful, and if not, then you need to do what makes you happy.

When was the European tour over?

It was June, so basically July she let us know. Luckily, she’s a pro and a good person and wanted to fulfill our tour obligations for the year, which was the Nik Turner tour, so she said, “That’s gonna be my last trip with you guys and this is my last record,” and I said, “That’s awesome, thank you for your great work and I’m really stoked that we have this trilogy of albums and this legacy we’ve built.” She’s leaving when the band’s on this very high note, so in a way I think it’s timed out really nicely. We’ll do the tour and now the record’s out there, working for us while we rebuild a new lineup. The record’s sort of touring itself now.

The album was done by then, right?

We mastered the day before we left for Europe. It’s been quite a grueling train that we’ve been on this year. Uta was in New Orleans for the winter, while we were writing, and she was writing, and basically we rehearsed four days a week for a month, went in the studio for a couple of weeks, mastered it, got on a plane for Europe the next day, came back for six weeks and then went out and did this Nik Turner tour. I think we’re all very relieved to be at home and not in a van and not on stage at the moment. Lot of great shows this year. No one can complain we didn’t come to their town because we went pretty much everywhere. The ironic thing is I think we’re building a lot of new fans at the moment, and people are saying, “Ah, when are you coming to Paris?” We were in Paris two months ago. “Well I just discovered you.” Well, I’m glad you finally caught on, but we’ve been doing this for 17 years. That’s okay. It wasn’t good timing to be a doom metal band in 1997, period. But that’s never been a concern.

Tell me about working with Billy Anderson. He’s the guy, right?

Especially these days. I think he’s doing some of his best work ever. This year alone, he’s done Agalloch, Pallbearer, Leviathan, Holy Grove, us, a lot of really great witch mountain (Photo by Marne Lucas Photography)music coming out of there, and we had been friends for years. He had been asking about recording Witch Mountain record for a long time, so finally when we got around to making South of Salem, it was a no brainer that we were gonna get him. Luckily, he was willing to work with us on kind of a shoestring, sliding-scale, friend deal so we could get that record made, and that really is the ball that got everything rolling for us. By the time we did Cauldron of the Wild, we’d already worked together on a record, and Uta was writing her own lyrics by that time, and we’d been gigging a lot more, so that record came out even better. Then we did the “Blood Hounds” single with him, because it was the first time we had a Scion-sized budget to pay him what he’s worth. That was a bit more luxurious. Then this one was the best ever, because Billy actually lives in Portland now, so it was the first album we’ve ever made for him where he wasn’t sleeping on our couch. He was able to go to his own bed every night. It was better for everyone as a result, and also, we were very prepared, and we’ve done so much work with him in the last couple years and we’re also close friends, this was the easiest record any of us has ever made. Even though it was maybe more ambitious in a lot of ways, we were just very prepared and the communication was like butter. It was awesome to work with him and I can’t say enough good things about him, and I certainly recommend him to great bands all the time.

You mentioned before the album doing a lot of the work, touring itself. I guess that’s what gets me about this whole thing. The album is so good it makes the timing seem shittier. It seems like these three records, each has built on the last, and you arrive here and now you have to start over. Do you now have to revise what you want from the band, sound-wise?

Yes and no. The way I look at it is that a lot of bands peak early on, and we never did that. So if every tour and album we do is better than the one before, that gives me a lot of encouragement to continue moving forward, especially when we have the same songwriter and the same manager, these founding, guiding forces of the band. Uta’s voice is a huge component of the last three records and she’s a really creative, talented person, but I still would stand by the fact that one of the best things we ever did was change singers, so perhaps that can work for us again, and I think having someone in there who’s really enthusiastic and sees it as an opportunity is only going to be that much better for morale all around. Mobile of Angels, is a really sad, heartbreaking, crushing record. I think that works for doom, but I wouldn’t mind getting us all to a place where we’re really excited and thriving and happy (laughs).

You mean not necessarily completely soul-crushing and miserable?

Yeah! I mean, it works because it’s honest. It’s real. It’s not about dwarves and dragons, it’s about breaking ties and moving on and not settling. It’s very moving to me. There are songs on that record I listen to and it chills me to the bone because I know exactly where she’s coming from. It’s great we got to capture that, because it’ll always be there on tape, but that’s not necessarily a mindset I want to live in for the next five years.

Better find a new singer.

Yeah. We’re already getting some amazing demos, and it is not the toughest sell in the world to say, “Move to Portland and join a band that is touring and recording internationally.” It’s a mindfuck to me that we went from being this tacky, obscure footnote of the local Portland scene to being like on the frontpage of Pitchfork and talked about on every metal blog like it’s a household name in the metal community of this point. That’s been the struggle for the last five years and I think we achieved it. I think we earned the ability to step back and survey what’s going on and put together a group that can really take advantage of what we’ve built.

There are so many bands out your way too, the whole Pacific Northwest. You wouldn’t even necessarily have to go far to find somebody.

Certainly we want someone who lives here, whether they move here or already here remains to be seen, but I do think I would rather take two or three years to find someone than settle in any way. witch mountainThey’re big shoes to fill, and we don’t want Uta #2 or someone that has the exact same range or hits the exact same notes, but we need somebody who creates that kind of power and feeling, and we want someone we really gel with and get along with and someone who sees it for what it is. I don’t think being in a doom metal band is a career move. I think it’s something you really have to be passionate deep down about, and so I really want to make sure it’s someone that doesn’t just have stars in their eyes that we’re touring Europe. I want it to be someone who really resonates with the style and has something to contribute to it. Even though we’re a very traditional band, I feel like we’re always trying to add another quilt square to the tapestry of doom. So far so good. It seems like we’ve staked out our own territory and we keep exploring it.

On that note, give me the summary of what these last three records have been for you.


Not even for the band. For you.

I think it was somewhat a redemption. Witch Mountain was definitely in this limbo state for a long time, where we’d come out of the gate swinging, we were ahead of the curve in the Portland metal scene for quite a bit. YOB’s first Portland show was opening for us. Agalloch’s first show ever was opening for us. We had sort of made some great strides 15 years ago, and then we just lost the thread because of jobs and families and other things, and I had other bands. So the whole idea of coming back in this sort of post-divorce phase that Rob and Dave and I were in, and me meeting Uta and realizing here’s someone locally that has the talent to help us do what we want to do, it really let us put Witch Mountain on the map in a way that I felt like it deserved to be. I always knew that the number one thing we needed was a body of work. We needed to prove ourselves. It couldn’t just be, “Oh, we played with Electric Wizard on the Dopethrone tour,” “Oh, we played with High on Fire on The Art of Self-Defense.” Yeah, we played amazing shows with amazing bands to 100 people however many times and bills now that people would cream to have seen, but that’s all in the past. It’s all about what are you doing lately. The goal was to do three albums in three years. We took four, but I don’t feel bad about that because we played hundreds of shows, made it to Europe twice. That was a long-standing goal of ours as well, to get overseas. Now we’ve done it a few times and done some major festivals and I feel like the door’s open for us to return when we want to or when it’s convenient. That’s a great place to be. I guess, for me, I really threw all my eggs in this basket because I believe in Rob as a songwriter and a guitar player, and Uta’s one of the best singers in the world. It was a great vehicle for me to get better at playing slow and to travel and have a great time. To be able to look back on these records and go, “Wow, these sound so great,” although I wish we could re-record all of them after we toured them, I think how any band feels after they make a record.

After they tour it, anyway.

Yeah, exactly. I don’t know. It feels great. It feels like we have earned a little bit of a respite here. I don’t think we’re gonna kill our momentum that much if we step back for a moment, because there are still so many people discovering these albums right now and the music’s there and I think we just need to keep being creative and we need to find somebody who is the right voice for that.

Even if you were otherwise going to hit the road in, say, February, and go back out. I think the tradeoff in that time of finding the right person will probably be worth it.

Definitely. We actually have a really amazing offer to tour in February or March –

Lucky guess.

(Laughs) We certainly are giving it a strong consideration, but only if we can do it in the classiest way possible. I wouldn’t do it just to do it. We shall see.

It’s early for this question anyway, but would you want to write an album first with a new singer and have a release out or tour and then write?

It would be premature to do a record too soon now, switch mountain mobile of angelsince our record’s only been out for a week.

It was a hypothetical!

(Laughs) No, I get you. I think it all depends on the climate. Yes, I think at least releasing a single with a new singer, just to sort of introduce the voice to everyone, would be a good starting point. I also would lobby really hard to tour the material before we go in the studio again, since South of Salem’s the last record where we had the opportunity to do that. It would be nice to let the music get that lived-in feel before we go in the studio. And because we didn’t have the opportunity to tour Mobile stuff in advance, that’s why we rehearsed it four days a week for a month. We just sort of toured the rehearsal space. That got us close to where we needed to be, but I’m also really glad that we recorded so many of the shows on this last trip, because I think those songs, having been performed every night in Europe and then every night in the States, they really took on a certain kind of live gleam that I hope people will get the chance to hear.

Are you going to do a live record?

We multi-tracked the final show and filmed it with multiple cameras. I haven’t heard or seen it yet. That’s the first step in that process – or I guess the second step since capturing it is the first step. But yeah, Billy recorded it with 24-track, and we had a camera crew, so ideally, that show will get released at some point, and everybody seemed to enjoy it and I remember it going very well, but I couldn’t commit until I’ve actually seen and heard it. But considering we’d just done 31 shows in 34 days, I think it’s probably a pretty tight performance.

Is Rob going to keep writing in this step-back phase?

I think so, but I also think he has got his eyes set on doing some sort of solo record right now in the interim, which I think would be a really healthy, good thing for him to do. Not only have we played in a band together for 17 years, but we share a house, where I’m upstairs and he’s downstairs, and we’ve been in vans together – and Rob and I are getting along great – but we have definitely been in each other’s business a lot. Any opportunity for him to work with some other people or express himself is a really good thing. But yeah, he’s still writing, and I’ve obviously always got something going on myself, too.

Witch Mountain, Mobile of Angels (2014)

Witch Mountain on Thee Facebooks

Profound Lore

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