Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Witches - (Feb 25 @ Small's in Hamtramck)

"...kind of dark and mysterious and kind of noisy...and, kind of like living in a haunted house...like, ya know, the crazy kid up in the attic with his weird poetry and nursery rhymes..." (-drummer Eugene Strobe)

"...like the Monkees if they were kind of bummed out and on LSD..." (-guitarist/engineer Jim Diamond)

"...(people) just wanted to hear some garage soul, hehe, but...what we were doing had all these bizarre references and bizarre things flying all over the place...which sound normal to me now..." (-bassist Matt Smith)

"...it's an interesting bag..." - singer/guitarist Troy Gregory "...and one of my favorite bands..."

Setting down the spectral and shuffled story of:

(words: milo)

Charismatically creepy...and inherently chameleon, The Witches's brewed a psychedelic pop and gory/glammy rock shuffle that elucidated a dimly lit basement haunted by an irresistably piquant pack of dissonant and obscure ghosts simmering up from the grout.

Conjured in the mid-90's, the Witches blurred genres and influences as much as they blurred the boundaries of the spirit world; sublimely sinister scenarios howled and trounced out as raucous seances that effectively undermined the locks on your door meant to keep out both the paranoia and the phantasmagoria.

But, once that door broke open - you realized, weird, provacative or even snarling as the sound was, that this was the kind of rock n roll party you never wanted to leave; a strange psychosis you could identify with, decorated with an eye and an ear that showed reverance for a galaxy of outsider art and varied nostaligas, whether it was cable-access TV's hey-day of Ghastly and Ghoul, or the minable aesthetic value of KISS' blood-splattered ouevre.
These demons had hearts! And all these mutant bubblegum pop songs were delivered with this tumbling, hook-heavy rock sound, warmed with a playful punch and shimmying jangle, but still haunted by a raspy baritone crooner...

That distinctive voice belonged to Troy Gregory, whose eerie/entrancing poetry and melodies served as the base for all Witches tunes.

A Haunted Person's Guide - (release show 2/25 @ Small's Bar)

Sixteen years on (and, after three years of unintended inactivity), The Witches have reformed its longest-held line up of players to celebrate the release of A Haunted Person's Guide, their veritable best, or defining, or canon-spanning collection, on Alive Naturalsound.

After five albums, four record labels and a procession of a dozen steadily contributing members, its likely that the band has never yet been properly documented because its identity still feels opaque...
Like the portrait could never be painted 'cuz the subject kept restlessly jittering off of the stool and out of frame - only to return with a new face, or new faces...or maybe grinning with fake vampire teeth.

"When the 'space-rock' thing was happening in Detroit in the 90's, people were calling The Witches space rock," said drummer Eugene Strobe (2001-present). "Then, when the 'garage rock' thing was happening, they called us garage rock. It seems like by our nature, we're just open to different forms of music. (It's) just the raw feeling of music, that raw feeling tranlsates well into those kind of genres, I guess."

"...the sound of the Witches? I imagine that's what it sounds like in Troy's brain all the time," said drummer Deb Agolli (mid-late 90's). "He invites some friends over to round it out and to have a few laughs with...at least that's what it was like for me."

"It's...." Gregory said, "...just a name for one of the things where I'm getting together with other people. The same as people get together to go bowling, or a church picnic or a convent! In the Witches--it's just that collaborative thing..."

"It was like being a member of a fun weirdo gang," recalled Agolli, who now co-owns a video post production house (Crash Edit) in Royal Oak. She first saw the Witches at Zoots when Scott Michalski (of the Volebeats) was drumming. She told Gregory she loved the songs and that should she'd be up for it -should there ever be a need for drumming.

And that's how it went, said Gregory. "It was...whoever can do it." (Until the line up finally would settle with Nash (The Alphabet, Electric Six),drummer Strobe (Cosmic Light Shapes)
and bassist Phil Skarich (of Deadstring Brothers, Blush and later on, LCD Soundsystem).

(pictured: 02/03 -> 10/11)


The band, itself, was initiated by songwriter/producer Matthew Smith, back in 1994, by way of his coaxing Gregory's words out into the world, to be fleshed out by members of his group, Outrageous Cherry (including drummer Deb Agolli, bassist Chad Gilchrist, guitarist Larry Ray).

Gregory, having at that point just ended his tenure with NY heavy metal band Prong, moved back to Detroit and, as Smith puts it, "locked himself in his room and started writing songs that sounded like The Archies..."

"He was playing in heavy metal bands," Smith said, "in early 90's in Flotsam & Jetsam and Prong and all that, surrounded by all these metal people who didn't know who Charles Mingus was or any of the kind of stuff he was listening to, so he started calling me on the phone again." The pair of them started their first band (with drummer Mike Alonso) in the late 70's, as 12-year-olds fatefully situated in the same metro Detroit neighborhood. In the 80's, they went down separate roads, Smith went off to college while Gregory went off to California (where the latter delved into its burgeoning heavy metal scene).

But in 93-94, they realigned. Smith visited his friend, having then, so freshly re-settled into his hometown, to hear/read these songs. "(He) completely abandoned the whole heavy metal rock thing and started writing these bizarre songs. I kinda forced him to record a whole albm and just kept bugging him... So, he had this finished record with this really bizarre production and I offered my band to be his back up band."

Then things got experimental. "The idea was the amplifiers had to have a lot of reverb," Gregory said.

"I remember there being like five guitars on stage," Smith said. "They would all have to play the same parts, exactly. But, with everybody playing in unison, a bunch of guitar parts, not too loud but in unision; it creates this resonance effect that's really hypnotic."

The Witches, early on, were based around a revolving cast, which often included members of Outrageous Cherry. It also featured guitarist John Nash (of The Alphabet and currently Electric Six) who had collaborated with Gregory on an early Witches prototype project Mice Termite. "I carried over...like when a company gets bought out and some employees keep their job. I was paid in reverb."

They stated playing around Detroit, at Zoots and The Gold Dollar (when it opened in '96,) . Gregory said some nights he'd grab whoever was available to come up and sit in with the band.

"People would say: 'Oh! Like Phil Spector?'" Gregory recalls. " '...Well, not really like that...' We were messing with these kinds of Morton Subotnick kind of ideas, or, maybe not so much Subotnick...more Morton Feldman."
Gregory's early songs, often with straight three-chord pop structures, "had a real character," Smith said, "and seemed to represent his personality pretty accurately. Those songs were a good format for his stream of consciousness-lyrics and for him to be himself; he wasn't restricted by the stylistic trappings of the day."

Rehearsals were like loose hang out sessions, said Agolli--who hosted a few at her Ferndale home, back in 96. Gregory brought lyrics and skeletal structures to then be fleshed out. "We would play each song once each. There was a comfortable level that was completely liberating. Everyone fell into place when someone started a jam; no questions, just play."

Let's Go to the No-Go Zone

But, back to those early gigs in 96; once they started, "(Gregory)'s writing exploded and he just started writing hundreds of songs. He'd show up to practice with 20 new songs each time."

Smith/Gregory's collaboration was highly complimentary at this point (early 90's), having "hooked back up," they found they were digging the same sounds and styles: Velvet Underground, Joe Meek, bubble-gum pop and the Rolling Stones. "We found our niche as songwriters by working together," Smith said. The pair had tried writing together in the very early 90's as side projects (away from Gregory's Prong or Smiths' Volebeats/OC) but it didn't start "hitting the mark" until that genesis of the Witches. "We were arriving at that moment of grasping (songwriting) at the same time."

But, Smith said, once Gregory found his own niche, it led to an "onslaught of songs..." and thus, by the time the still loose "group" had found an outlet to release its humble debut, Gregory already had the next album's worth of songs written and decided, instead, to just move forward with the fresher material. What wound up as the Witches' proper, realized "debut" was 1998's Let's Go to the No-Go Zone.

By this point, they had settled into a five piece.

Engineer Jim Diamond (of Detroit's renowned Ghetto Recorders) was just getting his operation off the ground when he met Gregory around 1996. Diamond said he would have to "bug people to come up" to his downtown studio, a place that would later become somewhat of a landmark for fateful recordings with the White Stripes, the Sights and many other notables.

"Somehow we ended up doing a live Witches record in early 97, (No-Go Zone). We had a party and a keg of Motor City Brewing Works (John Linardos and I were roomates at the time). Sometime after that I joined and had the idea to play electric 12 string gutiar tuned down to a low b-note. I always thought our guitar blends sounded so good."

Thus, the No-Go Zone line up of Gregory, Smith, Nash, Diamon and Agolli played through 97 and 98. Smith and Agolli had to depart eventually, due Outrageous Cherry's accelerating album output. Cory Martin (an original member of the Electric Six), Matt Hatch (an original member of The Go) and Wolfman Bill Peterson (of the Volebeats, Medusa Cyclone, Wytchhyker) joined the group in time to record what would prove to be the Witches' most well-regarded album, Universal Mall (1999-2000...produced by Diamond at Ghetto Recorders).

"...When I get interviewed," Diamond said, "I usually get asked -what's a favorite record (of mine), and I usually say (Universal Mall). Troy and I had a lot o fun in the studio and made those records fast." This would be the recording location/set-up for the following two Witches albums-- 2002's On Parade and 2007's Thriller. "A favorite memory is a drunken, shirtless Troy yelling at Nash and I about how we needed to deconstruct some song or another. ...We talked him down."

Furled with smoky organs, singed with bluesy guitars and pounded forth with instantaneous strutting beats, the ballads of Universal Mall - a balance of rock n roll swagger and psychedelic/blues surrealism - likely formed at least some shread of an archetypal sound in the minds of Detroit's music audience... Indeed, there was an energy surrounding it that was likely spurred on by the whole "garage explosion" of the time (...White Stripes, Dirtbombs, Doll-Rods, Go, Sights, OC, Detroit Cobras...and more).

"The local music scene was busting at the seams," said Agolli. "I don't think I saw a national act for years because the stuff that was happening in our own back yard was so fucking great it was not to be missed. (With No-Go Zone's recording) at Jim Diamond's, it seemed like every band in town was in and out of there. I loved working with Jim, to me it seems like the track is practically mixed by the time you finished recording the song."

Universal Mall's dynamism was what piqued the interest of bassist Skarich - who started following the band right around that time. Strobe, meanwhile, had been playing drums with the blues power-trio, the Sights when he crossed paths with Witch-chieftain Gregory. The two of them would soon join (roughly between 2001 to 2002).

On Parade / Thriller

The Witches were again a five piece following Universal Mall - with Cory Martin still on drums (and Strobe as 2nd guitar). But, in early 2003, Electric Six's fateful "Danger! High Voltage" single would jettison them to worldwide popularity and an increasingly demanding tour schedule led to Martin's departure. Diamond had already moved on, becoming busy with his then-contributions to The Dirtbombs.

Strobe moved to drums. The band moved back into Diamond's Ghetto Recorders. And the result was their third album, On Parade (on Fall of Rome Records); the subtler 10-song display was more of a straight ahead rock n roll affair...still shadowed and grimed with the characteristic, boisterious gleam of Gregory's lyrics and strutting hooks.

Fall of Rome and likewise Alive Naturalsound are both headed by people who can be counted as Witches enthusiasts. Mark Rome, who worked with a few other Detroit bands, was a fan of The Witches, just as Alive's founder Patrick Boissel. Put another way, selling the Witches was never a top priority for Gregory. It's more that he's worked with people who have believed in him, or shared his drive/inspirado/penchants... Bewitching, indeed.

"I don't think anyone in the band has ever been that proactive (about) promoting," said Skarich, namely because of the band's unique existence - which is always dependent upon others' personal availability.

"I have no problem making it," Gregory said, referring to the galaxy of his work, which includes filmmaking as well as music. "But, this distribution thing, it's a whole other business."

"(Boissel) thought (Haunted Guide) was right as this 'introduction' to people. It's weird how the songs have gotten around over the years; it seems with the Witches records that more people tend to trade them, or tape them or have them suggested from a friend. Rome, a gentlemen, a good guy, he was really into the music and we liked him. But people still came to us and said 'I can't find the albums...' Not that we were expecting the distribution level of Rihanna or something. Eh, people are busy - it's hard to find out about things...I spend all my time making music."

And that's what it came down to... This man, this songwriter, this rampantly idea-spewing, song scribbling maniac... simply spent to much time engaged in the work to really save any time foisting it upon A&R desks and poking publicity agents.

"Prolific is putting it mildly," Smith said. "It's definitely like Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices) or something...that level of being prolific."

"Troy is so out there," Strobe said admiringly, "he's like the sparkplug."

"Troy is extremely prolific," Agolli added. "There was never a shortage of new stuff to play."

"I truly think Troy is one of the most talented people around," Diamond said. "I've told people that around the world, and will continue to say it."

Yet, still, The Witches struggled somewhat to find an audience, whether it was in distribution or whether it was in distinguishing itself from the rest of the early 00's "garage" scene.

Haunted Person's Guide is poised to show you and the world what you've been missing heretofore!

A Haunted Person's Guide (to The Witches)

"I knew of The Witches," said Boissel, "but I hadn't realized the extent of Troy's body of work until he sent me his albums. I thought the quality of the music was so amazing that it needed a second chance. I came up with the idea of a compilation; an introduction of sorts, of the Witches. I think the album stands on its own among the band's discography."

After Toronto-based Music for Cats released Thriller (in 07), the band went into sort of a holding pattern. "The band never broke up..." Gregory said, "we were just all doing other things for a while...." (Strobe began teaching at the School of Rock as well as developing his own project, Cosmic Light Shapes; Skarich toured with LCD Soundsystem through 2008; Nash toured constantly with Electric Six and is currently producing said-band's forthcoming record; while Gregory spearheaded the Stepsisters as well as reactivated a new band for his solo material). "The whole idea was: we'll try not to force this stuff so much..."

Boissel got turned onto the Witches by Smith. The rest...leading up to February 25th's release show at Small's, is history.

"I like the Witches because they didn't sound like anything else," Skarich said. "A lot of bands wear their influences on their sleeve and I've been in bands like that. But I've always liked the bands that have a sound that is themselves. The Witches didn't really have any sort of influence outside of very broad genres, like the -psych and 60's pop stuff. Troy's a fun guy, he's a good guy--I like his outlook on life."

Skarich continued: "He's mentioned that he really liked this line up (Nash+Strobe+Skarich), but I think there's been plenty of great line ups. Everbody's easy going, there's no primadonnas, nobody's really in charge...which, heh, can be a bad thing sometimes..."

Skarich said that he, Nash and Strobe are "pretty introverted, quiet, and mostly shy. Troy-is the extrovert. The one who can talk a mile-a-minute. There's a kind of dichotomy there. Troy might have a hard time being in a band with himself."

Nash said, "Troy has a very magnetic personality and he is easy to work with. Phil is indifferent and Eugene is enthusiastic. Like Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman--it was instant synergy."

Strobe said: "Phil is the silent rock that keeps the foundation with a smirk and witty sense of humor; John is the quiet genius on guitar, whose sometimes overshadowed by Troy's boisterousness. Troy is the sparkplug, John is the wick, Phil is like the wind, or something...and I'm the stones trying to help Troy ignite... Well, Phil is as much the wick as John is the wind. Or maybe we're all different elements of the Earth. Troy is definitely the boisterous element, whichever one that is, I don't know if it's sulfur or...salt?"

Gregory: "Phil Skarich's sense of humor is just brilliant. Gene is never one to say: 'I'm bored.' And if he's bored he'll do something about it. And Nash, just an easy guy to hang around with and I really like the way he plays guitar. It's just, like, someone you really like making music with--when you get together you tend to inspire each other and give each other ideas."

"One thing," Gregory surmised after recently reuniting with this line up in the run-up to the release show, "playing with these guys, well, has always been wonderful, but, it's got even more of this other kind of groove happening, now."

The band plans to tour later on, in the spring, including trips to both coasts, Chicago, New York and hopefully Europe. "(Recording) a (new) single is a great idea," Nash said, especially, "in this day and age. It's like the music industry is starting over again from scratch, except minus the industry and making-money part."

A Haunted Person's Guide is available now, on vinyl, CD and itunes, plus 100-limited yellow vinyl editions.


"The history of the Witches...it's one of those Detroit bands that have shared a lot of members," Strobe said, "either just for a little while or for longer; which was kind of the Detroit-mantra for a bit. The Witches brought different elements of the Detroit music scene together and presented it on stage; people could jump off and do their own thing for a while and come back. That was the beauty of the Witches. It was more a revolving cast of influences and musical sounds, playing through the framework of these particular tunes."

"I get this impression," Smith said, "judging from people's reactions of hearing those records, years later, that this stuff just sounds really fresh to people now. So, maybe this stuff was just ahead of its time, maybe what we were doing then- while at that time it just frightened people, it all seems pretty normal now."

Milo: ...are people catching up?

Smith: "I think so..."


Matt Smith is currently producing the next Outrageous Cherry album and preparing a tour for the Volebeats. Jim Diamond is wrapping up recording work on The High Strung's forth coming LP. Deb Agolli, along with raising her two sons (age 7 & 10) continues to run Crash Edit in Royal Oak. The various hours logged at audio recording studios (through bands) helped Agolli make the switch to video - and Crash Edit's been going for 10 years now.

The Witches continue... and will play live on Feb 25 at Small's - with Hi-Speed Dubbing and The Make.

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