BY DAVID STAMPONE Witch? Yeah, that’s the heavy (“doom-“/”stoner-“) rock group from Western Mass., the one with a key member arguably more famous for his association with a legendary band from back in the late 80s/early 90s. That would be Witch drummer J. Mascis: he of few words and much shred, forever to be recognized as a hazily crooning indie-rock guitar god from the mid ’80s on, primarily as leader of Dinosaur Jr. (who reformed a few years ago and are due for a second post-reunion album this summer; just signed to Indiana label Jagjaguwar, FYI).
In Witch, Mascis stows the six-string and goes back to his beloved traps, revisiting his initial musical obsession most notably traced to the early ’80s hardcore band Deep Wound (which included Dino bassist Lou Barlow on guitar). Through the years, Mascis has occasionally sat down behind a kit — Upsidedown Cross, Gobblehoof, even guesting with Free Kitten — but nothing like his commitment to Witch, which he co-founded in 2005 with longtime pal Dave Sweetapple on bass and principal songwriter and vocalist-guitarist Kyle Thomas, perhaps better known for Feathers, his Vermont psych-folk outfit that put out a critically acclaimed eponymous debut album in 2006 on Gnomonsong, the imprint of Devendra Banhart and Andy (Vetiver) Cabic.
Sweetapple, an amiable Canadian who moved to Boston in 1991 and worked in the music industry there (meeting Mascis, etc.) before moving to Brattleboro, Vermont (just north of the Massachusetts border), recalls the formation of Witch in interview with more color and precise detail than his drumming buddy typically does.
“I met Kyle [of Feathers] when I moved here,” remembered Sweetapple on the line from VT. “He worked at a record store … he was 16 or 17. One day, we [he and Mascis, both 43] were at some show out in the woods at an old gristmill, and J. was like, ‘What’s up with these kids? When I was this age, we were rockin’ — we weren’t playing this fairy folk shit.’ And I’m like, “Yeah, you’re right.’ I mentioned this to Kyle and he’s like, ‘Well, let’s do a band!'”
“So we got together and had a couple riffs, didn’t set out to make any specific sound … we wanted something loud and to have some fun with it … It developed into this thing with two older guys and two younger guys [Thomas’s Feathers bandmate Asa Irons, who still contributes but has been replaced by guitarist Antoine Guerlain].”
The Witch sound is one that may seem steeped in Black Sabbath and Saint Vitus but its got a sludgy charm all its own, further maturing on last March’s album Paralyzed. All the members are fans of hard rock new and old; Sweetapple does cite the early work of Cali desert-rockers Kyuss back in the earlier 90s as a particular inspiration.
“It didn’t sound like Sabbath, like all the bands they supposedly came from as far as influences go — they were way ahead of their time … But what people call influential metal now, back then was just called a sloppy mess. It turned off a lot of kids [who were] into punk but newer kids were changed by it: ‘Shit, if they can do that, I can do this’ … It felt like when kids first started getting into the punk scene and [they realized] they could play it sloppier, faster, didn’t have to be on a major label …
It was taking a simple riff and expanding on that, turning it way up — it had this sense of balls to it that was way appealing.”