Witch Mountain: Psycho Las Vegas Preview

Witch Mountain’s “reunion lineup”: (L-R) drummer/co-founder Nathan Carson, “engine-ear”/bassist Billy Anderson, vocalist Uta Plotkin and frontman/co-founder Rob Wrong
(Photo credit: James Rexroad)

In just one month — 31 days, to be precise — the most anticipated heavy-music festival in the U.S. will kick off once again. Stationed for the first time at Resorts World, the fest is headlined by Mercyful Fate, Suicidal Tendencies and Emperor, the latter being one of the major bands set to play last year but forced to reschedule due to COVID-related complications.

Now in its sixth year, the festival appears to be reverting back to its roots with a lineup concentrated more on metal and less on indie rock, into which territory it ventured in 2019 and 2021. There are exceptions, of course — Warpaint, the Black Angels, Allah-Las and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan among them — but, by and large, attendees will once again gamble with the threat of going deaf.

As we did with our 2019 preview, for which we interviewed 56 bands, the Bad Penny is again touching base with a flurry of participants in the weeks leading up to the onset of Psycho. To kick off this year’s series, we bring you an epic conversation we had with Nathan Carson, co-founder and drummer for Witch Mountain, booking agent for 30 underground bands, author, animator, Moth StorySlam Champion, cookie baker and all-around Renaissance Man.

Witch Mountain previously played Psycho Las Vegas in 2016, while Carson contributed a DJ set to last year’s edition of the festival. But, as Carson recently explained to the Bad Penny, this year is particularly special for Witch Mountain, as the band is celebrating its 25th birthday with three select shows in 2022. Among the surprises: The band is bringing back former vocalist Uta Plotkin and letting legend Billy Anderson (Neurosis, Swans, Sleep) handle bass duties.

Kick back with a cup of coffee, because this conversation with Carson covers all the bases.

Congrats on making it to the quarter-century mark with Witch Mountain.

NATHAN CARSON: Thanks. Last night we had our first rehearsal with Witch Mountain’s “reunion lineup.”

What did the first rehearsal feel like?

CARSON: Well, obviously there hasn’t been a lot of rehearsal in the last three years, because of the pandemic. With the “modern lineup,” we played last December with Yob and played the Treefort Music Fest in Boise with them too. Those are the only two shows we’ve done since 2019. We had some crash-course rehearsals earlier in the year, but it was really with the current band and doing songs we’ve had in the set for a long time.

Does the reunion lineup feature Justin Brown on bass and Kayla Dixon on vocals?

CARSON: No. This summer, Justin is fighting fires, and Kayla is out of the country doing shows with her other band, Dress the Dead. She was bummed to miss Psycho. She really wanted to do it again, but Dynamo Open Air got rescheduled to the same weekend as Psycho. Since this is the 25th anniversary of Witch Mountain, [co-founder/frontman] Rob [Wrong] and I wanted to do something special for it.

We told Justin and Kayla, “Hey, this is a real limited thing.” We’re playing Psycho; Portland; and, on August 6, Corvallis [Oregon] — which is where Uta and I both went to high school. Our parents still live there, so they get to see us play live.

Are you planning to pull out some special material as well?

CARSON: We’ll play songs from the first three albums that Uta sang on [2011’s South of Salem, 2012’s Cauldron of the Wild and 2014’s Mobile of Angels.] Some of those songs we haven’t played in eight years, so that’s why we started rehearsals. There was three different bass players on those albums we did with Uta, but the common thread is that Billy Anderson produced them all.

Playing favorites, we picked Billy to play bass, since he’s a really good friend of ours and Uta, and he’s a constant in our career. When we asked him, he was really psyched. We’re dusting off some songs, and Billy is learning the nuances. He really did his homework. He already knows all the songs. But a lot of them, while written and recorded, didn’t really come to life until we toured behind them.

This is a little bit different, getting into a room with a bass player we haven’t played with before and playing some songs that haven’t been played in quite a few years. It’s exciting, going back to square one, and it comes together quickly because everyone’s friends and professional. Even though Billy hasn’t played these songs on bass, he’s heard them multiple times and is intimately familiar with them, having mixed the records. It’s not like he’s learning something he hasn’t heard.

Is there one particular song you’re most excited to bring back in a live setting?

CARSON: There’s a song for me that I haven’t played in years, that I’m rusty on, but that I can get back into because I remember playing drums on it.

Which song would that be?

CARSON: Err … I don’t want to give away the setlist. [Laughs.]

I caught that show of yours in Boise, where I’m currently based. When Yob started out, they sent me a CD demo of theirs in an envelope with their handwriting on it.

CARSON: That’s how we met them too. They sent us the same demo. In 2000, [singer/guitarist] Mike [Scheidt] sent that demo to Rob.

Witch Mountain started in 1997. And for the first three and a half years, to play with another doom band meant that someone was on tour, because we were the only doom band in Oregon that we knew of. And so we would play with punk bands and heavy-metal bands and whatever, and when a band like Orange Goblin would come through, we’d play with them. Electric Wizard would come through and sleep on my floor after the show too. But when we got that Yob demo, we were like, “Oh, that’s awesome. A band in Eugene is doing this too!” We immediately invited them to come and play a show with us, and we became friends right away. They opened for us probably a half-dozen times — and then we started opening for them. [Laughs.]

(L-R) Witch Mountain drummer Nathan Carson, producer Billy Anderson, Witch Mountain frontman Rob Wrong and Witch Mountain vocalist Uta Plotkin in 2014

How were the audiences back then?

CARSON: It was small and everyone knew each other. The very first time High on Fire came through, we went bowling together and played a show that night, and they slept on my floor. There were probably 75 people at that show. It was the week that The Art of Self Defense came out [in early March 2000]. You would know every one of those 75 people. And by the time Blessed Black Wings came out [in February 2005,] maybe 200-300 people came out to see High on Fire. I looked around the room and thought, “Wow, I only know 10 percent of the people in the room now.”

We had to introduce the term “doom” to everyone in Portland, because nobody knew what it was. The whole idea of stoner rock and doom metal in the late ‘90s … it had been around, but it was still a new sub-genre to most people at that time. We were the first ones doing it in Portland.

In the mid-aughts, I wrote a two-page feature for Alternative Press that explained what doom metal means and what bands play it: Cathedral, Wino, all these bands. How did you discover doom on your own?

Obviously I was a big Black Sabbath fan, going back to middle school and high school. There’s something about it that appealed to me right away. I guess it can be traced all the way back to me hearing “Godzilla” by Blue Öyster Cult when I was five years old. I would rock out to that song with an X-Wing Starfighter in my hand. That’s a really heavy riff. When I was in junior high, a friend gave me Ozzy’s Speak of the Devil cassette, which was a whole concert of Ozzy doing Black Sabbath material. Granted, he was playing it a lot faster, and there was an ‘80s tone, he had Brad Gillis from Night Ranger on guitar — but I still got into Black Sabbath songs like “Never Say Die,” “Children of the Grave” and getting into those songs that way.

The next one that got to me was Candlemass. Here’s a funny story: Before they were called Candlemass, their high school band was called Nemesis. And that material got reissued by Metal Blade in ’91 or something. A friend of mine found it in the dollar bin at the mall. He paid 99 cents for a Nemesis CD! It had a red font on a black CD. “Nemesis” was a word he heard me throw around, because I was precocious and into science fiction and stuff. So he bought it for me and said, “Check it out — Nemesis! Sounds evil.” And we put it on and were like, “Whoa, this is amazing!” Total Sabbath worshippers. And the bonus tracks on the CD were Candlemass demos. And I was like, “I’ve seen that name!”

So I drove to this record store in Eugene that was close by, and they had all three of the Messiah Marcolin-era used LPs: [1987’s] Nightfall, [1988’s] Ancient Dreams and [1989’s] Tales of Creation. I brought them up to the counter, and this super-indie, uptight, classic-metal-hating store clerk said, “Five bucks, take them all out of the store!” So I really got into Candlemass. I didn’t realize what them and Sabbath were doing was part of a sub-genere — it was just two bands to me.

And then, in ’96, I had this experience where a friend and I went to my parents’ farm while they were out of town, basically to spend all night tripping, and we didn’t have any music with us. We stopped at this record store, and one of the tapes that we bought to bring with us was St. Vitus’ [1992 album] C.O.D. [Children of Doom]. It’s not everyone’s favorite, because it’s the one featuring vocals by Christian Linderson from Count Raven. But I bonded with it that night. We listened to it three or four times, and it just blew me away. 

The next day, I got on my parents’ 5600-baud modem. It was the early days of the Internet. I looked up doom metal and found [Cathedral frontman] Lee Dorrian had a page on his website for Rise Above [Records, which he founded in 1988], a one-page manifesto talking about Witchfinder General, Cathedral, Count Raven, Solitude Aeturnus, stuff like that. I was like, “Whoa, this isn’t a coincidence — it’s a tradition.” It got me thinking, because I had never been in a band before that purposefully tried to work inside a tradition like that.

I was about to move to Portland, and there was a band there called Iommi Stubbs, named after [famed Black Sabbath guitarist] Tommy’s fingers. They were not using the word “doom,” but they had a very mathy, intricate take on Eyehategod sludge. It was this Southern groove tuned down, two bass guitars, but also with a lot of Melvins/Jesus Lizard/Dazzling Killmen intricacy to it. I just remember it was, like, 1996, and I’m in Portland, in this small club, and this guy comes out with a full stack and a Strat and he’s playing left-handed, and he’s playing leads.

In Portland at that time, having ProGear was considered lame. Being able to play your instrument was considered lame. Playing guitar solos was considered lame. But I was like, “That’s the guy I want to play with. He is awesome.” [That musician was Rob Wrong.] He claims I gave him my number three different times. I don’t remember that, but I believe it. Anyway, Stubbs went on some short West Coast tour that ended badly, and when he got home, he called me, and we started jamming as Witch Mountain in July 1997.

That’s why this anniversary is so special for us, and Psycho is such a perfect anchor for something like that.

Witch Mountain in 2019

Damn, that’s a hell of a story.

CARSON: Thanks! Never imagined it. But I will say that we made a lot of decisions along the way so that it would be possible. There were several times we got record contracts sent to us, and I would look through these 60-page documents and say to Rob, “Can we just sign this and take the paycheck? It looks like we’re going to be broken up in about five years.” But we didn’t.

We’re still more of a cult band. We’re not as big as we could be. But we own all the music we’ve ever written and book our own tours and are kind of the captains of our destiny. As much as it might be nice to not have a day job, we never started this band playing doom in Portland in ’97 with the idea that it would be a job. We were playing doom because it resonated with us — not because it was a path to stardom. The fact that there are a dozen doom bands in every town in America now is crazy.

Did you turn down contracts over the years because you wanted to keep helping underground bands as their booking agent?

CARSON: Witch Mountain was always a priority. The problem with the contracts was that if anyone wanted to have a side project, you’d have to get permission. All kinds of bullshit like that. Record deals are a loan, and we have not really needed loans from anybody. We’re pretty smart about the gigs we book, and we keep a little bit of money in the bank. No one has had to pay for rent at our rehearsal space in the last dozen years or so.

Since we’re self-sufficient and studios are pretty affordable in Portland to get really good sounds, we don’t need someone to loan us a bunch of money and then keep 90 percent of it. You’re trading any potential to make money for a lot of promotion and marketing. So that’s what we sort of lacked. We didn’t have someone putting ads in every metal magazine, shoving Witch Mountain down their throat.

The critical acclaim I can’t complain about. Over the last dozen years, we’ve gotten great write-ups, and people like our records, and we’re respected. What can you say? The body of work is there. We always looked at it like … we want to be Budgie someday. That wasn’t the biggest band, but they put out a bunch of cool records that are there forever.

That reminds me of an interview I did years ago, when a musician told me why he left major labels to go back to his indie roots. He said that, after he signed a contract with a major label, he found a $60,000 sports car in his driveway the next day. What surprises me is how you had that level of insight at what was presumably a very young age.

CARSON: Rob and I had both been playing on our own since the late ‘80s, so by the time we were getting contracts sent to us in 2001, we’d been playing music for over a decade. It’s not like all those stories about indie bands signing to major labels and not having a good experience weren’t rampant. Those stories were all over the press in the ‘90s. I’m a reader and a writer … we just decided to learn from other bands’ mistakes and not make the same ones ourselves. That’s a big reason why we still get along and are still able to make music.

It’s a long time to work together, and there are ups and downs, and we’re like brothers — or a married couple — at times. There are good and bad days. But in general, we both love the music, and neither of us has delusions about it. We try to spend our time on what’s constructive, not a waste of time and energy.

So, coming back around to Psycho — finally! — tell me what you liked most about the other time Witch Mountain played Psycho, in 2016.

CARSON: It was a really good show, and there’s some good footage of it on YouTube:

We were still pretty new with that lineup, but we had already gotten to do a tour with Yob, and I think the tour with Danzig had already happened. So we had our stage legs by then and were pretty confident. We started to a half-full room, but within five to 10 minutes, people flooded in, and we had a total blast.

We have nothing but gratitude toward Psycho. I work with seven bands that are on the bill this year [Blackwater Holylight, Cirith Ungol, Marissa Nadler, Monolord, Whores, Witch Mountain and Year of No Light]. I have a great relationship with them. No complaints. I’ve stayed at [Psycho founder] Evan [Hagen]’s house. We’ve taken a trip to Vegas together and played black-light mini-golf at the Kiss thing. He invited me to see the grounds before the festival. We had a nice dinner too. We talk pretty often.

Who do you most want to hang with at Psycho, whether it be at the casino or backstage?

CARSON: I started working with Cirith Ungol in recent years, but I haven’t gotten to meet any of those guys, just their manager. So I’m psyched to finally meet them in person. I’ve known Marissa Nadler for years, and we email every day, but I haven’t seen her since we started working together. That’s going to be cool. Oftentimes, I only see my bands when they come through Portland on tour — like Whores, who I saw for a minute recently.

I’ve only seen Emperor once, and I’ve never seen Mercyful Fate. Those are a big deal. [Both Witch Mountain and Mercyful Fate are on Sunday’s bill.] Also, the very first band at the pool party [on Thursday] is Early Moods, and they’re one of the bands I’m most excited to see at the whole festival. They’re a doom-metal band from Southern California and play very much in the Candlemass style. I hear they’re really good live and haven’t gotten to see them yet.

Last question: What’s your most salacious Vegas memory?

CARSON: Unrelated to Psycho, my very favorite Vegas memory was when we were on the Danzig tour in 2015 on the Blackest of the Black Tour. There was one night, it was Halloween Eve, and everyone was off because Danzig got asked to play with Rob Zombie at the Hard Rock [where Psycho used to take place]. So it was going to be Rob Zombie, Danzig and a DJ. Danzig said, “Fuck a DJ. Get Witch Mountain on this.” All of a sudden, we didn’t have the night off. We were driving into town for the show, and there was a billboard for the show with our logo on it. Our jaws were hitting the floor.

It was a great show. It was the largest crowd we’ve ever played to in the U.S. — there were 4,000 people in there. Our music is not that hard to digest if you’re already into Danzig. It’s bluesy. It’s melodic. It’s heavy. There’s good singing, screaming guitars and slow-pounding drums. We were really well-received at all those shows. The only issue was that we were on early, so the crowds weren’t that big — except for that Vegas show.

When I think of Vegas, I think of that billboard.

Check back for more profiles on Psycho artists. For our 2019 interviews, go here.

One Response to “Witch Mountain: Psycho Las Vegas Preview”

  1. Caarl Says:

    W.M. would be great with a decent drummer🤷🏻‍♂️

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