Witch Mountain: A Doom Interview


I recently read an unusually poignant YouTube comment that described Portland, Oregon Doomsters WITCH MOUNTAIN as a perfect synthesis of the masculine and feminine. Hearing their sound, it’s difficult to disagree; they have found a remarkable balance in their music that lesser bands might only dream about. WITCH MOUNTAIN were just as incredible this time around as the first time I saw them, a few months back. Although they were placed in a lineup of otherwise Rock-oriented bands, the reception for WITCH MOUNTAIN was fantastic, and for good reason; if their excellent studio material wasn’t enough to sell a listener, their live performance is a world of its own. I caught up with WITCH MOUNTAIN drummer and Doom aficionado Nathan Carson after the show to ask a few questions about the band. Cheers to WITCH MOUNTAIN for putting on such a great show – I can’t wait to see them perform again!

Hey Nathan, it’s pretty coincidental that you’re wearing a RUSH shirt, because listening to you guys this evening, I totally got a “Necromancer” vibe, particularly with Rob’s lead playing- he’s got a great Alex Lifeson vibe in his style.

On our last tour in November, we took a day off to see RUSH in San Jose, we missed them in Seattle so right where we crossed paths, we saw them and sat on the Alex Lifeson side, soaked it in.

Yeah, I saw them a couple of years ago during their “Snakes & Arrows” tour. They’re excellent!

I love “Snakes & Arrows.” “Clockwork Angels,” too!

WITCH MOUNTAIN, it’s an interesting band name and really seems to mesh with your chosen style. Where did you get the name from; did it have anything to do with the Disney film of the same name? (Escape from Witch Mountain)

Well, I won’t say that that wasn’t an element! We started playing Doom Metal in 1997 and there were a lot less bands playing within that style then. So, there was this whole tradition with bands with ‘Witch’ in the name. I mean, it was already a tradition 15 years ago, and now there’s hundreds more! But we also loved mountains, we thought it was such a huge image. We were surprised someone hadn’t taken that name already, and I’m positive that if we hadn’t taken it then, someone would have the name now. Plus, we figured that if you’re going to be as heavy as humanly possible, you should name yourself after a Disney movie.

We need Pixar Metal next! *Laughs* So, Doom Metal – it’s a tried and true style but I’ve noticed a schism within the genre, between bands that are wanting to ‘modernize’ by fusing it with more extreme metal styles, and the bands that are keeping it true to form. What’s the appeal of this traditional sound in Metal to you?

Well, obviously I grew up listening to BLACK SABBATH, then I got turned onto CANDLEMASS, and at this point I was thinking it was a fluke of sorts. There were only a few bands following that sound and we’ve always liked post-apocalyptic films, really outsider art and extreme ideas, post-modern culture… There was one night when I was at my parents’ goat farm and we brought a SAINT VITUS tape and listened to it four time- under what circumstances I won’t really describe! *Laughs*- this was 1996 and I got onto my parents’ 2600 Modem and looked up this band and music, I found the Rise Above Records website – which is Lee Dorian’s (of CATHEDRAL) label- and read this manifesto he wrote about Doom Metal. He talked about TROUBLE, and CANDLEMASS and SAINT VITUS, WITCHFINDER GENERAL… And then it dawned on me; this isn’t an accident, people are doing this on purpose. I had been playing in bands for years, but they had always been weird, progressive bands that sounded like whatever people were wanting to do – we never cared about tradition or genre very much… Then I heard this style – it appealed to me, it was accessible and approachable to me, and if I got the people together who were likeminded and also into the sound, then I could put my own sort of stamp or blueprint on the traditional form. Not copying it, but trying to add another facet to it. Now I think we’re at that point where we’re finally ‘there’; we’re clearly influenced by that genre, but we’re influenced by other types of music – Blues, touches of more Extreme Metal… We’re not interested in being ‘that’ extreme all the time, we listen to MORBID ANGEL and whatever. Those influences seep into our sound – it was actually Uta’s (the singer) idea to bring in harsh vocals – that was never something we had thought of doing before. Then there is also a double kick we use at times, but we keep away from doing the ‘extreme’ stuff all of the time…

It makes the extremity actually mean something!

Yeah, exactly! We want dynamics, and a lot of bands are so focused on being so loud, so heavy, so extreme that they lose the dynamics, the song writing, the hooks, the audience! We want people of all ages and genders and lifestyles to enjoy our music, not because we made it sugar coated but because we try to make it classic.

witch-mountain-photo-by-Justine-MurphyOne thing that I noticed on the band’s Facebook page is that you style yourselves not simply ‘traditional doom’ but ‘traditional American Doom’, and that idea of describing the music as an American creation really reflects on the music. Take Black Metal for example; bands like AGALLOCH or PANOPTICON with their latest album seem to nail the image of the American landscape and folklore rather than the more generally peppy European variety. I get this feeling with WITCH MOUNTAIN as well – it really feels as if your music draws more from the world around you. What do you think of the American form of Doom Metal, and how it contrasts with the European variant?

For one, I mean – this kind of music, it’s gotten past the back-and-forth between continents… From early Delta Blues in America to England after the British Invasion bands with CREAM and BLACK SABBATH, then Hendrix kinda steps in. It’s not to say that we aren’t lovers of music from all around the world, but the European bands are influenced by their scene and what things are like there. I notice a lot more Blues and Rock here, and a more ‘classical’ sound over there in Europe, or marching influence there. We’re in Oregon, we’ve been under grey, cloudy skies for 15 years, bands like YOB and AGALLOCH have grown up with us, and played their first shows with us. We’re just so happy that people around the world are finally paying attention to these bands and watching them grow from a start-up band to a world-renowned, amazing act is always satisfying. When we first started out in Portland, we were the only Doom Metal band in Oregon that we were aware of. We were usually playing with punk bands, speed metal bands and bands that came through on tour. We became known as the guys from Portland; when HIGH ON FIRE came to play their first show, we set it up and played with them. We played with ELECTRIC WIZARD and ORANGE GOBLIN. Blah blah blah.

Portland especially lately has become a cultural hub as far as this sort of musical aesthetic goes. 

It’s a new thing there, and I’ve been really trying to coax it along, and it’s really cool to see how much people are finally embracing it and creating their own sounds.

Do you think there’s something of a bond amongst the Pacific Northwest – or what some people have called ‘Cascadia’? Not just between Seattle and Portland, but also in Vancouver – an aesthetic transcending the national border that unifies the area together culturally?

I don’t know – I think that the ‘Cascadian’ term applies to bands that got involved later. I don’t think that any of us doing that- being inspired by nature and making dark Heavy Metal music – were thinking of how to put it under one umbrella, you know? I don’t have a problem with it, but usually when I see a band using that term, I imagine they must have come out sometime over the last three years.

Going back to the American topic, Doom Metal tends to place quite an emphasis on the lyrics – the expansion of time allows for words to be explored to greater lengths. With an album title like “South of Salem” for example, there’s tons of distinctly American imagery conjured up, what sort of influences have had an impact on WITCH MOUNTAIN’s lyrics?

It is mostly an Uta question at this point. Rob did the lyrics for the first couple of records and we mostly used Rob’s lyrics on “South of Salem” because most of the songs had already been written by the time Uta joined. Then with “Cauldron of the Wild”, it’s the first time where [Uta] has been writing everything she’s been singing, and that’s one of the many reasons why I think it’s the best record we’ve done yet. It’s so much more integrated, because you can sing with conviction when you’re writing something that came out of you as opposed to someone else’s words, there are very narrative stories like “The Ballad of Lanky Rae”, it feels very northwest and creepy, as if it could happen in the woods not far from us, I really can’t speak for where her inspirations come from, but I know that we both grew up in the same small town and we always see eye to eye on a lot of things. We’re interested in things that are very local and regional, but also things that affect the whole world.

‘Female-fronted Metal…’ It’s a pretty weak term when it comes to describing music, but nonetheless it’s something that a lot of listeners may use when attempting to describe WITCH MOUNTAIN. Of course, it certainly plays a role in the music, and I know you’re doing a panel at SXSW about this very subject, trying to assault the preconceptions of females in Metal. What are some of your thoughts on this issue?

I think women being involved in Metal is only a good thing, and whether that’s as performers or fans or people in the industry – overall it’s been a very skewed genre as far as genders go, so anything that can be done to balance that out is great, and it’s something I’ve personally worked really hard on over many years to reverse. I’ve put on festivals for a number of years, and in many cases, half the bands will have female members in them, I have a booking agency and help book acts and 13 of those 24 bands have female members in them. My assistant at the booking agency is a woman and all of the bands I play in have women in them. It’s not a purposeful thing, but I think maybe over time, my network has shown that it’s a friendly place to work in. No one’s being judged, there’s no room for that kind of ignorance in that kind of scene. In the more popular suburban Metal scene, there’s lots of outdated, Cro-Magnon ideas that I try not to interface with. If I get the gist that somebody is exclusive instead of inclusive, then I’d prefer to stay away from that. Obviously, with ‘female-fronted Metal’, we’re seeing that as a tag a lot of the time, and we’re also seeing a lot of new bands starting with that formula. Anything that comes together and is done well, it leads to this Gestalt where others begin to copy it. I have to say, most of the time, it’s really a nice thing when I see more of this. Above all, I just want to see good singers, I don’t care if it’s a man or a woman, I want to see someone who takes their instrument seriously, and there are a lot of people in bands – maybe their drummer has been playing in his bedroom for 10 years and is incredible – but the singer just got up, drank a beer and is shouting into the microphone. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of extreme Metal vocalists I absolutely love. I just think the bottom line is that metal is a healthy genre that’s actually growing compared to many other forms of music, in large part because firstly it’s able to be hybridized with so many other forms of music, and every year there is a new record that is the fastest, or heaviest, the slowest, and I think the more different kinds of people we get involved instead of just angry young white men, we’re going to make it a much longer lasting style of music.

Nathan Carson

Nathan Carson

Actually, one of the things that’s really excited me is that places like China and India are only starting to have a significant Metal presence – wait 10 years and we’ll be seeing amazing stuff.

No doubt, it’s a universal language! Anyone that’s looking for that kind of catharsis will be able to relate to some kind of Metal band. I think that for a long time, there was a stigma- especially in the ’90s of early ’00s’- if someone didn’t like a certain kind of vocal style, or didn’t like double kicks, there was just a lot of snobbery and that’s gone away. We have Pitchfork and Spin writing about Metal, it’s really great to see a lot of those old bias go away, I don’t want to make rules about what I like and don’t like.

How do you think Doom fits into this overall canon of Metal?

Well it’s weird because it’s always been the least popular sub-genre. As you were saying earlier, it’s the smallest scene in Vancouver and it was the smallest in Portland too. I remember doing a search about subgenres of metal on Google. Death Metal would bring up two million results or something, Black Metal would bring up 1.7 million results, and Doom would bring up three hundred thousand or something – a mere fraction. But it’s really starting to change! When we were touring maybe in 2001, there was one band in each state that was stylistically similar to us. Now you go to any town, and there’s going to be half a dozen or a dozen Doom bands of varying quality. Some are going to be really mediocre because they think playing slow is easy, and some are really fantastic, doing something original and doing it really well. We definitely try to seek out people that are doing it for the right reasons. I mean, no one has ever quit their job for a Doom Metal band, maybe except for BLACK SABBATH, but they pioneered an entire sound. They were the KRAFTWERK of Doom Metal.

Actually I think that’s the best way I’ve ever heard them described! *Laughs*

It’s true! BLACK SABBATH and KRAFTWERK both had huge influences on the underground, huge explosions of ideas and thousands of bands have been miffing at their coattails ever since. Unfortunately, a lot of bands that are into Doom only focus on one specific aspect of what made BLACK SABBATH great, whereas BLACK SABBATH were huge BEATLES fans and Blues fans, bringing in choirs into the studio… Trying all kinds of different shit! That’s what’s inspiring to us, to be heavy and real, but also draw in ideas like PINK FLOYD or the BEACH BOYS did, instead of  just saying ‘we need another riff’.

One thing you said, that bands think play doom metal is easy because of the tempo, seeing WITCH MOUNTAIN play again I got the impression that were you all lesser musicians, it would be boring. Especially as a drummer, how do you manage to infuse the performance with this sort of dynamic power?

I think you really have to feel like you’re in a tar pit while you’re playing. There are rhythms and pulses and things that are found in nature. It’s like with Black Metal, you can show someone and they might just see it as noise, but if you really focus in on it, you can hear these elemental waves that are coursing through longer passages of it. With Doom Metal, it focuses on that elemental vibe without throwing in all of those extra notes, I don’t know if I’m actually answering your question but it took me a long time to get good at it. I know that if I hear recordings from my first 10 years, there are times when I would play a fill and come back in fast, and you lose that rhythm and spell you are putting people under. Through a lot of rigorous rehearsal and listening and playing and watching Travis from YOB!

What do think lies in the future of Metal?

I think a lot of things you imagine will happen, and many other things we could never expect will happen! It’s getting fragmented and spread further and further apart. The only bad thing about that is that if certain people get hung up on certain styles, for example someone saying they only like Grind, but if you’re open minded, there’s so many bands and so much going on. Someone’s always got a new great idea or something great going on, some will stay more traditional and others will push the boundaries and not be appreciated until later, as is the nature of innovators. Look at VOIVOD for example; it’s taken them 30 years to get the respect they deserve.

What advice would you give to other Metal bands trying to ‘make’ it, be it artistically or in terms of getting themselves heard by listeners?

I would say play with people you really love and get along with, don’t worry about what others think at first. Don’t put musicianship or career first, whatever you’re doing, it has to be a group of people that really care about each other and have the same vision musically, because if it’s going to be really good art in a collaborative way, everybody has to be on the same page and be serious about it, and it’s difficult to find those people who are willing to put their lives on hold for an art project. Anybody whose approaching it another way, it’s more craft than art.

Final words? Future of WITCH MOUNTAIN? Favourite type of cheeseburger?

There’s some good burgers in Portland. As long as it’s organic, free-range beef, that’s a good start! We’re just stoked to get back up here a second time. We’re headed to Europe really soon, it’s been pretty amazing having such a slow burn for so many years and finally getting recognition. It’s tough to say because we’re still at the cusp of that, so it could really go either way, but it’s exciting nonetheless. Starting this band in the ’90s in Portland – which is a very Indie Rock town – we were totally against the grain, and now it feels like people accept this kind of music, we’re better doing it, we’re more connected, we’ve sacrificed enough to the point where we can get on the road several times a year and tour. We’ve dedicated ourselves to this project, and we’re really thrilled!

Cool! Cheers, and thanks for the interview, man!


  1. Chuck

    March 28, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    I’ll always maintain that “doom metal” is the truest form of “metal”, since Black Sabbath was the first true metal band. Their brand, or style, of metal is what most doom metal bands hold near and dear to their hearts, and it shows. It’s ironic, of course that Black Sabbath’s sound/style is sort of relegated to an underground “sub genre”, but it suuuure is great stuff.

  2. Pingback: Bandcamp undercover: Second Grave – s/t

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: