Stoke-on-Trent’s veteran instrumental doom titans Space Witch have just released their excellent self-titled debut album on Orchestrated Dystopia Records and it has been receiving well-deserved praise from all corners of the globe. Shaman scribe Tom McKibbin caught up with founding member and all-round Tone Lord Daz Rowlands to discuss why it has taken the band so long to release their debut album, the current state of the UK doom scene, sweet, sweet vinyl and, of course, AMPS.
You guys have been going for quite a long time but have had some ups and downs along the way too – can you tell us a little bit about your history and how you arrived at this current line up?
I started this band back in 2007 with a friend of mine, initially it was an outlet to help me manage a difficult point in my life. After a number of musician try outs we got a solid 4 piece lineup and started to get some momentum in writing our own material. 2008 saw our first show opening at a local venue and it kinda started to balloon from there. We started doing shows out of the area namely, Manchester and Birmingham, as well as releasing our first demo Cdr and DVD. We then lost our Bass Player and replaced him quickly with a friend of the family and part of the Stoke Musician Collective.
2009 we played with Bill Steers Firebird at a local venue and started work on our 1st album. In 2010 two of the original members needed a break from the band so they could concentrate on their main project so we went on hiatus. During the hiatus I worked on perfecting some of the material and started a new band with the Bass Player. It became clear in 2011 that two of the guys did not want to continue with the band so I recruited the drummer from the band I was currently working on and an old school friend to help resurrect the band. By mid-2011 we were doing local shows and played Bristol as well as releasing a 2nd demo Cdr Resurrection. We also produced our first T Shirt, which Adam from Head of Crom Records drew for us.
In 2012 we decided to merge the two bands I was working on under the “Space Witch” umbrella. We had masses of material and worked hard pulling together a combined set that we could take out on the road. Mid 2012 I found myself in the middle of a life changing event and as a result the line-up completely disbanded. I took a break for 6 weeks and then focused on finding a new line-up, which turned out to be a 3 piece. We started gigging at the end of 2012 and upped the pace in 2013 as well as releasing our first EP The Alchemy Paradox. We then decided to add another guitarist and electronics operator to take the band back to its core idea, an instrumental based band with electronics. Since then we have done about 60 shows up and down the UK and released our debut album.
Current lineup is:
Darren Lee Rowlands – Guitar
Daniel Mansfield – Drums
Lee Bullock – Guitar
Peter Callaghan – Electronics
Tomas Cairn – Bass
Was the band always supposed to be instrumental or did you ever contemplate having a singer? What (and who) inspired you to go down that path?
The band was instrumental from the very start and we were paying homage to instrumental aspects of the likes of Capricorns, Ufomammut, Unearthly Trance, Electric Wizard and Hawkwind. During 2012 we did experiment with a couple of vocalists, it just didn’t work out for one reason or another and it just changed the overall vibe of the music. We even tried both options available from a vocalist’s perspective i.e. using the voice as an instrument and more traditionally with lyrics.
A vocalist just isn’t on our radar at all and we find ourselves focusing more on rhythms, timings and electronics lately. Nowadays we’re completely focused on the instrumental sludge psych prog thing. It’s definitely the way the latest material is heading, but it’s taken 7 years to realise it.
Tell us a bit about your album. (Who recorded it, where, inspirations etc). Did it turn out how you wanted it to?
The band initially recorded the album DIY style at our rehearsal studios Star Trak Studios, Stoke on Trent. We borrowed some studio quality microphones from our good friend Phil Goldsworthy and purchased another audio interface that gave us more coverage of the drums. After a long process we managed to get out of it a demo quality version of the album with a similar sound to the The Alchemy Paradox EP. Naturally we wanted something better than the quality of that for our debut, but still wanted to retain that DIY feel to the recording.
We decided to ask our good friend Dan Lowdnes (Cruciamentum) from Resonance Sound Studios to help us finish the recording, mixing and mastering of the album. After some discussion Dan agreed to help us. We decided to keep the original drum and electronic tracks after some edits/mixing of them, but totally re-record the guitars. We did two sessions at Star Trak recording the guitars live and at volume. The later of the two sessions was used to release the track Worship on the Trollkraftt split Wychkraftt. Even after that release we weren’t totally happy with the sound
of the guitars so we did a 3rd session recording the album guitars at Dan’s home studio using speaker simulation technology. We were dubious about using speaker simulation technology initially, but came round to the idea that we were still using the same guitar, pedals and amp which is 75% of our live sound.
We’re really happy with the final release of the album, especially when you consider it didn’t cost us a great deal and we were able to retain an element of the DIY vibe ethic. Hearing the album on the audio cassette format is where it is at for me, the format adds an extra warmth to the overall sound you just don’t get on digital media.
Are we likely to see a vinyl release at some point?
The 2LP version of the album is planned to be released in January 2015 as a collaboration release between Orchestrated Dystopia Records, Fear Me Music and Hevisike Records. The album has been re-mastered to fit perfectly on the 2LP format and we are currently talking to the labels about the detail of the release.
What I can say is the 2LP version will be gatefold with a black and red 180g vinyl’s. There will also be a number of vinyl release shows up and down the country.
What have been the highpoints of your life as a band so far?
This year has been a particular moment of highs from a live perspective having the opportunity to play with Electric Moon / Bong earlier this year and more recently The Wounded Kings. Releasing an album and drawing a line with it has been a particular high for me. There was time when I thought I’d never see the band release a full length, but it happened with the involvement of the right people. To see all our hard work get some recognition as album of the day at Roadburn Festival was just surreal. The band as a unit now has the momentum I always wanted it to have maybe it needed 7 years to get the right balance of people involved.
What has been the low point?
From a personal perspective, it has been the line-up changes and the toll that has had on getting an album out to press. I have to take some responsibility for the line-up changes as I’ve had some difficult life changes to deal with especially in the last 4 years. Deciding as a band to let our bass player of 2 years go was a difficult time, but when things don’t seem to be working, a hard decision has to be made. When you lose a member of the band you seem to lose the relationship you had before the band with them. That is a big low point for me. But saying that, relationships tend to get back to where they once started given the time and the effort.
There are positives that come out of the line-up changes though and this is the way I reflect on them. Having been through 2 major line-up changes in 7 years I can honestly say each iteration has just got better and better.
What are the best and worst things about the doom scene in the UK right now?
I’ve seen the scene grow over the last 2 years, more bands, more shows and more releases. The interest in the scene is definitely one of the best things that has happened lately and it’s produced some great original boundary pushing acts. I think the boundary between stoner, sludge, doom and psych has become even more blurred with bands taking influence from many different genres. The increase of solid DIY labels, promoters, festivals and bands has been good too.
I do feel however, that the scene has become somewhat saturated, there are so many bands now on the underground it’s got stale for me. There seems to be a lot of bands popping up that just sound like another band or are just generic in their delivery. From my observations over the last 2 years in particular, some bands seem to concentrate on being the lowest tuned or the loudest balls out heaviest band (whatever that means) or writing the next riff that Black Sabbath would of typically written or about playing highly sort after vintage guitar amplifiers. I much prefer bands that produce music that pushes the boundaries of the genre as opposed to sticking to it.
The scene has grown massively in such a short space of time, we can only expect for the scene to contract in the coming years.
What are your aspirations for the band now that the album is out?
We plan to keep doing what we are doing and shift our focus onto playing outside of the UK and larger festivals (hint hint). Instrumental music is a hard sell on that front and we fully understand that. We take nothing for granted, but being able to push the boundaries of what we can do is part of the reason we do this nowadays. We’re going to focus on our game and take/look for opportunities that move us forward.
What have you guys got planned for the rest of the year?
The remainder of the year is about promoting the album through a number of one off shows and our 2nd UK tour in October. We have appearances at Fear Fest and Lizard Fest, we really enjoy playing the smaller festival circuit. A lot of work is going on behind the scenes too putting together the vinyl release and making plans to play outside of the UK.
A little birdie tells me you might be heading over to Norway for a 1 off gig later in the year, can you tell us a bit more about how this came about, and are there any further plans to launch the Space Witch over to the rest of mainland Europe?
I can confirm we are currently working with a promoter from Norway to arrange a 1-off headline show in Oslo at the end of November this year. We are currently working on the finer details of that show. We do have plans to take Space Witch to Europe next year and are currently discussing ideas of visiting Finland, Slovakia and the Netherlands. As far as we are concerned next year is about taking Space Witch outside the UK.
As well as being a musician, you also organise gigs in and around Stoke on Trent – is it difficult to get people out to gigs or do you have a crowd of regulars? What do you get out of it as a promoter? (We really enjoyed playing one of your shows recently and were very impressed with the number of people you had presumably bribed to come down and stay for our set!)
We host 3-4 gigs a year at the local venue, The Rigger, and bring bands from out the area that we are personally in too. We’ve been doing this for a while now and have a strong relationship with the venues management, which enables us to offer attractive packages to travelling bands (there is a limit though). We don’t just do them on our own either, the promotional group Functional Onion helps us to promote the shows we host.
Sometimes it’s a hard slog to get people to come out and even then you don’t always get the attendance you feel the bands deserve, but there is a strong crowd of regulars that turn up to the majority of our hosted events. With the shows that Functional Onion put on there is a strong scene in Stoke on Trent, predominately musician supported.
As a promoter we don’t get anything monetary out of the shows. We approach it from a DIY perspective and the money made goes to all the bands. That’s 1 of the reasons we can afford to put £3 tax price on entry. When you’re in it for the love of the music, just seeing a good gig is more than enough of a return to fuel the reason for doing it.
The Undersmile show was a special one for us, top bands and our album release show too. To see so many people attend and pay on the door (not bribed) was amazing. By far the biggest attendance we have seen at any of our hosted shows.
Who are some of the promoters you have played for that deserve a shout out?
A big shout out to the Southern Doom Crew, Fear Me Music, Pity Fuck Promotions, The Beauty Witch, Sonic Lobotomy, Misanthropy Promotions and Pisschrist Promotions. We’ve done shows with all of these guys over the last 2 years and they have all been excellent. Strong DIY ethic, nice people, looked after and supported us. We are truly grateful for their efforts over the last 2 years.
I know that you’re a gear head so give us a rundown of your own and the rest of the bands equipment?
I’ve had a close relationship with Matamp for many years now, I just can’t get that ‘grunt’ out of anything else I have used. Recently they asked me to help them develop a mark 2 of the renowned Matamp GT120 head so Lee is currently using my Matamp GTL head, which thickens our tone no end.
Darren Rowlands (Guitar)
Matamp GT120 MKII prototype amplifier head
Matamp 4×12 & Matamp 2×12 Retro
Epiphone Black Beauty
BOSS HM-2, BOSS TU-2, Mooer Re-Echo Delay, MXR Phase 90 & DopeFX Boba Fuzz
Daniel Mansfield (Drums)
Premier Projector 4 piece drumkit
Lee Bullock (Guitar)
Matamp GTL amplifier head (ex Wishbone Ash & My Dying Bride), Laney GH100
Marshall 4×12 & Matamp 2×12 Retro
Westone Spectrum DX with BK Warpig PUP, Tokai Love Rock with SH59 PUP
Blackstar DistX & Artec Analog Delay
Peter Callaghan (Electronics)
JEN SX 1000
Tomas Cairn (Bass)
Markbass Little Mark 250 Black Line amplifier head
Ibanez 5 string bass
We’ll be adding further equipment to the electronics in the coming months, namely an Echo Rocket and Space Echo.
And finally, here’s a chance to give any shout outs to friends, fans, fellow bands etc:
Big thanks to everyone that has brought our album and/or been to see our shows. Shout out to all Promoters that have put us on, Zines for their continued support and reviews of our releases. And to the bands we have shared a stage with over the last couple of years…
The witch cult grows…
Interviewed by: Tom McKibbin