The first thing you notice about Witch Mountain's "Wing of the Lord" (you know, besides the fuzzy, Hendrix-ian doom metal riffs) is the voice of Uta Plotkin. You don't hear much soul in metal — and not because the musicians have sold them all to the devil, mind you, just that attitude and mysticism lends itself more easily to the crushing chaos therein. This is what made vocalists like Dio such a rarity: their ability to belt out without sacrificing something deeper. But it took the Portland, Ore.-based Witch Mountain almost 10 years to find Plotkin after the band's last album, not to mention downtime with babies, side projects and, well, just life.
I got on the phone with Witch Mountain's drummer, Nate Carson, to discuss the band's excellent South of Salem, and why so many eyes are suddenly on Portland's metal scene.
It's been 10 years since Witch Mountain's last album, Come the Mountain. Why did it take so long for a follow-up?
Well, the main reason is that both Rob [Wrong, guitarist] and David [Hoopaugh, bassist] had kids shortly after that record. Their family life kind of coincided with me getting really busy with other projects and my booking agency and collaborating with other artists like Sunn O))) and Agalloch. We just naturally cycled around in the last few years when their kids were a little older and all three of us have gone through divorces in total doom metal fashion. And then we met Uta Plotkin. We met the singer that we had been looking for since we started the band. I think it's just been a really natural cycle for us over time. We had a really good ride from '98 to 2002, where we were getting international press and our record was really well-received, and Man's Ruin [Records] was sending us contracts and other labels were trying to woo us with money. We made every decision to keep a long-term plan for this band and not sign our lives away to anybody. Fourteen years in, we own every song that we've ever written. Nobody has a piece of Witch Mountain — it's just stayed an independent entity for a long time. Yeah, we could have done a lot more in the last 10 years, but the fact is that we have our integrity and we're doing things exactly the way we want to do. We're a fully functional unit and family right now. I really wouldn't do anything different.
I'm inundated with digital promos all day and have to audition new music on headphones from iTunes when I'm at work — it all becomes a swarm, to he honest. When you handed me a copy of South of Salem at Agalloch's New York City show a few weeks ago, I got to actually sit in my apartment and listen to it on some nice, old speakers. The album came much more alive to me than when you sent a .zip file. Do you have the same experience with vinyl?
Yeah, 100 percent. We recorded it at Smegma Studios, which is an analog studio that's been around Portland for over 30 years. We brought in producer Billy Anderson, who's really an analog guru and is known for his work with Mr. Bungle, Melvins, L7, High on Fire and Neurosis. It's not that we're 100 percent analog purists, but I have a lot more records than I have CDs. I DJ several times a week, I play heavy metal vinyl exclusively. It's what we grew up listening to, so we designed the production, the songs and the artwork to be that kind of experience.
As a booking agent, I'm in the same boat that you are: I go to the grocery store and people hand me their CDR demos, and it's really hard to get excited about a CD. That's why this album isn't even on CD. It is a limited-edition LP. It's an album that was constipated in our systems for about eight years, and now it's officially out, and it's a huge relief.
It was a huge liberation for us to be like, "Okay, South of Salem is done," even though it wasn't out yet. But in our minds, it was complete, and "Veil of the Forgotten" is our statement of intent as a band. South of Salem is an album I'm very proud of, and I love all of the music on it, but it's very much an indication of where we were at during those limbo years. "Veil of the Forgotten" is where we're at today. To have both of those releases coming out a few months apart, it's very exciting, and it just leaves the door wide open for us to complete our third album, which I think we'll record this year.
The artwork for Witch Mountain's South of Salem, featuring a drawing by Skinner and colors by Jason Lewis.
Courtesy of the artists
I'm actually looking at the artwork for South of Salem right now, and it's kind of an intense map of Oregon with a dragon, a gnarly-looking witch and a pentagram dripping with blood. Who came up with this idea? Who drew it?
The idea of South of Salem was something that came to me in 2003. I grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, on a goat farm south of Salem, Oregon. The reality is that all of us are from south of Salem, Oregon. Rob's from Seaside, Uta also grew up in my hometown of Corvallis (although she's about 10 years younger than me) and Dave was from the Mount Shasta area. The fact that Salem has this strong resonance with witch imagery because of the Salem witch trials and the fact that Slayer has the album South of Heaven just made South of Salem resonate with us profoundly.
I had this idea for a weathered map of Oregon — you know how you see a red star over the capital of a state on a map? I had this vision of a red pentagram over Salem, Oregon, with blood down the roads and rivers. Flash forward to 2009 and I was DJing an art show for a lowbrow fine artist from Sacramento named Skinner. Skinner's been getting a lot of work the last couple of years — he's really blowing up, because he's a really talented and metal-oriented visual artist. He's been doing a lot of stuff for Relapse [Records] lately. I think he did the cover for the new Brian Posehn CD. He's done a bunch of mural work in Portland and the cover of The [Portland] Mercury here. He basically approached me and said, "When's Witch Mountain putting out a record, and can I do the album art?" At that point, I just thought, "Well, if an artist I respect is coming to me asking to do this, he should be the one that does it." That's how I feel about record labels, as well. I want the people that seek me out. I don't want to be the guy that's tapping people on the shoulder and asking for favors, if at all possible.
I explained the concept of the map to Skinner, and he got it instantly and asked us which particular landmarks we wanted to have on the map. He rendered it really quickly and really beautifully. There are the nubian goats and pot leaves on the back, which references my childhood in Oregon. Skinner was too busy and maybe cost-prohibitive to color it for us, but I have a good friend named Jason Lewis who re-colors comics for Marvel Comics, so we hired him to do all the coloring. Then our good buddy Mark McCormick helped take my logo design and render it to completion. It was three different artists, a labor of love and a great collaboration between all of the different people involved: Mike Lastra from Smegma and my brother Merlin who recorded the feedback intro at his War Axe Studio, Billy Anderson who wanted to produce our record for years, Mel Dettmer who masters albums for Sunn O))) and Boris mastered it, and then the three different visual artists. It was just a collaborative effort of West Coast minds.
I hear a lot of love for Portland, and I certainly got that from you when I met you a few weeks ago. Portland has a lot of interesting bands coming out of it right now. Red Fang, for one. I just read about this band called Nether Regions, and then there are more established bands like Agalloch who've been around for many years, but are finally getting their due. Why Portland? Why now? Why are people paying more attention now than maybe they used to?
There are so many answers to that question. For one, Portland is an amazing city where we have clean water, clean air, quality food and a reasonable cost of living, considering the size of the city. There's no other city in America where more than 50 percent really care about having a high quality of living like that. Almost anywhere else you go, that kind of hippie mindset is a fraction of the populace. There's a few people who want to shop at the co-op and then there's a million who eat at McDonald's and don't give a s—-. But in Portland, the average person really cares that the streets are clean and that people are nice to each other and that they have good food.
As far as the music scene goes, Portland's really been known as an indie-rock town for years and years and years. Certainly, when we started Witch Mountain in 1997, doom metal was one of the most uncool styles of music you could play. We were absolutely ignored by the local press in those days, even though we had an album out on an English label [that] was getting reviewed in every country, except our hometown. That's changed. There's a big feature in the Willamette Week today; the Oregonian's covering us. It's really nice to see the attention. I mean, it's such a complex question. I think that bands like Sunn O))) and Pentagram and other styles of metal have really opened up the doors for so many different people, and having Agalloch on NPR, thanks to you. It's just not as taboo a subject as it was 10 years ago. We've seen that sea change where it's not uncool to like metal. In fact, it's the opposite — metal is a very hip style of music right now. I've been really championing good, quality underground metal in Portland for a long time now. I've been promoting shows, I DJ several nights a week, I've been writing for the weeklies for over 10 years, so I'm really a gateway for a lot of good metal music that comes to Portland. People appreciate that. I'm sort of grandfather-claused into the scene, and the fact that my band that's been around for X amount of time finally has a new record out, I think is really advantageous to us.
As far as the good bands coming out of here, what we've found for the last five years is that metal was really popular music, but there weren't many bands to support it. Portland became a great tour stop for a lot of national acts because there was an audience hungry for metal, but maybe a dozen quality bands, at best. But that's been proliferating, just because people are excited about that kind of music. Maybe people in a garage band 10 years ago now prefer to play doom metal, and I think it's fantastic. Red Fang — you know, those guys are incredibly talented musicians that have been in awesome bands for the last 20 years, and they finally found a way to simplify things to the point where they can play way beneath their ability and reach a much larger audience, and I'm really happy for them. Nether Regions is a really fantastic band, and Joe Wickstrom was here playing music 20 years ago. Wizard Rifle are really young kids that I think are one of the most exciting bands in Portland right now. Rabbits just finally put out a record on Relapse. Danava has been one of the best bands here for several years. It's an exciting community. These bands are all our buddies, they're people that we practice down the hall from in our practice space, they're people that we play shows with periodically, and nobody has a big ego about it. [We're] pretty much just all lifers, and there are two paths to success: You can be really lucky or you can have longevity, and that's what most of us have relied on. Aside from Wizard Rifle and the guitar player in Nether Regions, the rest of us are old fogies that just never gave up.
South of Salem comes out April 9, which happens to be Witch Mountain's record release party at the Backspace in Portland. You can purchase the vinyl through Bandcamp or CD Baby for digital.