Be Witched 

How some folkies in Vermont hooked up with one of alternative rock's pioneers.

It wasn't unusual that Witch bassist Dave Sweetapple was late for his interview. After all, when a rock group with a reasonably famous member is only a couple weeks away from going on tour, it's not unheard of for the members to be preoccupied with photo shoots or rehearsals. So what had Sweetapple so wrapped up? Mushrooms. "I was running around doing errands and I said, 'I gotta get the dog into the woods before it gets dark out.' So we end up getting in there and you start to find the odd mushroom and stuff and it's like, 'Oh, Jesus.'" For those of you who haven't turned on the Food Network lately, chanterelles and black trumpets are in season near his home, and Sweetapple took the opportunity to grab a few caps. This is how life operates in slow-paced Vermont, the band's current headquarters.

The lack of glitz and glam in New England helped bring Witch into being. Back in 2001, Sweetapple and friend J. Mascis (yes, that J. Mascis, of Dinosaur Jr. fame) were both living on the East Coast. Sweetapple was in Boston running Surefire, a music distribution company, and Mascis was in New York City working on various projects. Rent skyrocketed, forcing both of them to pack up and find someplace more affordable. Sweetapple settled in Brattleboro, an anti-metropolis in southern Vermont boasting a population of just over 12,000. Mascis set himself up about forty minutes away in the equally sedate city of Amherst, Massachusetts. The two of them started hanging out at the few places Brattleboro offered for recreation. A show here. A barbecue there. They befriended Kyle Thomas, a clerk at a local record store and guitarist for what would become the psychedelic twang band Feathers. Thomas' friend and fellow guitarist, Asa Frens, would drive in frequently from New Hampshire and became a regular visitor to the Brattleboro get-togethers. Little did they know that the four of them would soon be collaborating on something new to the Vermont area.

How is it that one of alternative rock's pioneers found an alliance with a couple members of a quirky folk band? In Brattleboro, mixing and matching between genres is apparently inevitable. "Because it's such a small scene you've got the folk thing, and the noise thing, and the punk thing, and indie rock all kind of mixed," Sweetapple explained. "It's not so segregated. It's like, 'Oh, you're into music? So am I.'"

As refreshing as it was dipping their toes in a myriad of musical flavors, Sweetapple noticed a lack in hard-nosed grittiness. There was no strict rock band "unless you drive over to New Hampshire to see some cover band doing Van Halen." In 2005, Sweetapple came to a point where he stepped back and said to himself, "What the hell, man? These kids don't rock at all." Long story short, offers were placed and pitches were made. Mascis was an easy sell to helm the drums. Thomas and Frens — both fully involved with Feathers — were on board just as quickly. Thus, Witch was born. A few months later they were playing shows on the East Coast sharing bills with groups such as the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Dead Meadow, and Blue Chair.

In 2006, their self-titled debut was released on Tee Pee Records. The seven tracks flow dark and heavy like syrup — unrefined, Grade B, pumped-from-an-oil-drum kind of syrup. Classic rock riffs swirl together with high-pitched vocals teeming with reverb. Witch's retro vibe invited an avalanche of comparisons to Black Sabbath. Not that the band was annoyed with this constant name association, but in truth it's not terribly accurate — more like a way for critics to acknowledge the band's '70s influences. As Sweetapple explained, "They're used to reviewing indie-rock stuff. 'Well, obviously J. Mascis is in the band so we have to review it.' ... They don't really have a reference point for a lot of the heavy rock." The funny thing is that Black Sabbath isn't a band that can even be credited as an influence on Witch's sound.

The band's sophomore effort, Paralyzed, released in March, is a record of bluesy, spaced-out fuzz rock. It was an intentional change of pace from Witch's 2006 self-titled debut. "We didn't really experiment too much with different sounds," Sweetapple recalled. "I just used the same amp, the same pedal all the way through. There was no variation." For Paralyzed, more pedals were brought in, Thomas switched up guitar sounds, and the handcuffs were taken off Mascis. Punk influences are undeniably strong in kinetic tracks like "Mutated" and "1000 MPH." As much as they up the tempo for those songs, they just as easily show a wonderful aptitude to slow down to a subdued groove as shown on the ballads "Sweet Sue" and "Old Trap Line."

The band has been touring on and off since March, and is now hitting the West Coast for the first time. Getting all the members together for rehearsals and gigs has proven to be formidable. As Witch was solidifying its shows, Dinosaur Jr. scored some European gigs that threw the band into a bit of a lurch, so Mascis will not be joining his band mates on this leg. Filling in for him will be Mario Rubalcaba, drummer for fellow Tee Pee band Earthless. Also, Frens parted ways with Witch more than a year ago and was replaced by expert axe-man Antoine Guerlain.

Mascis' absence will likely put a damper on the expectation of fans who're attracted to the band because of his involvement. But admirers of vintage rock 'n' roll won't be disappointed.

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