Interview with founder/drummer Mark Greening | By Hutch
Those familiar with Mark Greening’s résumé—banging drums during the formative and defining years of Electric Wizard, Ramesses, and With The Dead—might associate him with a vision of typical doom metal occult and horror imagery. But those expecting the mise-en-scène of Greening emerging from an ocean of nude, gyrating bodies adjacent to a Marshall stack supplying a nefarious soundtrack, while summoning dark forces from the ninth circle of Hell, will be disappointed. Instead, Greening recounts his activities in an exhausted voice, “I’m just sort of chilling out. Just been at work, just got home—just chilling out. Not really doing much. Usual sort of thing. Everyday sort of life.”
He catches himself and laughs, “Nothing very rock ’n’ roll, really. Not a great deal. No wild parties or orgies. Just chilling out.”
From his home in the coastal English town of Bournemouth, Greening’s talk of work, drinking, hangovers, sore throats, and more drinking creates a natural, relaxed atmosphere. The mundane vibe belies the tenacity and bite of the impending release of Dead Witches’ sophomore LP, The Last Exorcism, via Heavy Psych Sounds on Feb. 22, exactly six months after their first day in the studio. The recording was done with John Stephens at Chuckalumba Studios in Greening’s childhood home of Dorset—the same studio that birthed several monumental albums by Electric Wizard.
The songwriting experience was fresh, bathed in the new dynamic of two recent recruits: guitarist Oliver “Irongiant” Hill, who replaced the late Greg Elk in 2017, and vocalist Soozi Chameleone, who replaced original vocalist Virginia Monti, rounding out the lineup of Greening, Hill, and bassist Carl Geary. Greening felt rushed with Dead Witches’ first LP, 2017’s Ouija, and was determined not to repeat that mistake. “This is more thought-out,” he says. “With the new lineup, with Oliver and Soozi, everyone was more involved in the songwriting, and we wrote everything together, all of us putting our ideas into it. Soozi and Oliver have become a big part of the band.”
This process is evident, resulting in a fuller, more developed sound on The Last Exorcism. Bold, turbulent riffs crush when teaming with Chameleone’s haunting vocals and Greening’s organic, rumbling drums. Greening is enthused that the collaboration between all four members yielded such a fully fleshed-out monster. The Last Exorcism’s fuzz-drenched echoes and chaotic wah-wah guitar and basslines layered with hazy atmosphere and depressing tones all collapse inward in a horror-tinged quagmire of loss and tension.
The epitome of this is the eight-minute “Goddess of the Night,” which invites in an eerie organ or Theremin-esque aural expression. But within all seven tracks, there bursts a solemn, oppressive heaviness ordained by Chameleone’s eerie vocals and lyrics beckoning the sinister recesses for motivation. The lyrics are not a definitive character arc, rather a cohesive collection united by the theme of good versus evil, personalized through the story of a priest losing his faith. “I would give her random ideas of what I wanted a song to be about,” Greening says, unveiling his lyrical partnership with Chameleone. “Soozi was great. She had some lyrics already written, [and then], just like that, she had written all the lyrics. She can come up with good lyrics very quickly. We jelled together very well.”
When forming Dead Witches, Greening wanted to stay within the horror-doom realm, but after decades of doing similar bands with male vocalists, he felt the urge to change the dynamic with a female voice. “I wanted it to be something different,” he says, “[but] I didn’t want to change the idea. I wanted to stay along these lines.” In 2017, Greening was faced with replacing Monti after she left to carry on with her band Psychedelic Witchcraft. “I tried and tried to get [another] female vocalist,” he shares. “I really struggled. I was contacting every woman I saw a picture of with a guitar. Everyone lived far away or in other countries or had a million other bands.” Then, a mutual friend coordinated a meeting with Chameleone after a chat in a pub, and, as it happened, she was looking for a band.
After a few rehearsals, the connection was strong. They began doing shows together, mostly reinvigorating old Ouija material. The band were hesitant to introduce new songs at first, with Ouija having been released only six months prior, but when it came time to record these newly-baptized Dead Witches tracks, Greening connected with his old friend Stephens at Chuckalumba. Given Greening’s history with the studio, it made sense.
Chuckalumba is comprised of “reel-to-reels, all vintage analog equipment,” Greening says. “John’s a laidback bloke. He’s known me for a long time. He knows the sound I want. There is no phone signal there, no social media bullshit.” The pastoral environment allows for musicians to hone their ideas. “You can just set your mind to what you want to do,” he adds. “It’s very chilled-out. You can go for walks in the bloody woods if you want. It’s out in the sticks, away from the sea.” This permitted the band to let go of external stimulation or interruptions and focus on the task at hand. “Basically, it was done over a weekend,” Greening says. “We took the gear over on a Friday. We left on a Monday. [Went] back there a few other weekends with fresh ears to do the mixing.”
That dreary environment and its inherent isolation penetrated Dead Witches’ mindset. The studio was the birthplace of both Ouija and Electric Wizard’s 2000 LP, Dopethrone. “Soozi and Oliver were quite excited to go there,” Greening shares, “I think because there’s no computers and phones, no one to hassle you. You’re basically stuck in the middle of nowhere. Even a local shop is 25 minutes in a car.” Greening is excited when recalling the process. Truly, it sounds as if the band coalesced into a common state of mind and were enthralled by playing songs of delectable debauchery together. Greening continues with a simple deduction, “When you want to record an album, you have to have your mind set on recording an album.” Take that freedom and inject the chilling miasma of the secluded woods, and you get a Dead Witches record. “It is quite a spooky place in the night, in the woods like ‘The Blair Witch Project,’” he confirms. “It helps my mindset to be back there, as well as it’s part of my past from many, many years ago. Everyone was buzzing to be out there.”
That walk down memory lane impacts Greening, whose prior projects are hailed as masterpieces of doom, but is it healthy to dwell on the premises that produced his past accomplishments? “Sure, it’s reinvigorating—or annoying too. It can be a bit intimidating,” he admits. Greening wonders if people will compare and contrast The Final Exorcism to lauded benchmarks of his past. Fans are finicky and often want regurgitations of his former successes. He notes a diversion from doom; back when he was in Ramesses with Tim Bagshaw, also of Electric Wizard and With The Dead, Greening formed a straight rock band. “I messed around with a band, sounding ’60s,” he reveals. “Even though the band sounded quite good, no one gave a shit, ’cause it wasn’t dark and doomy.” Not defeated but reticent, Greening admits his destiny: “Doom’s just a style that goes with my drumming, I guess.” He must move forward plagued by comparisons to many critics’ and fans’ favorite doom and psych record of all time, Dopethrone—and really all of the first four Electric Wizard records.
Greening resigns, comfortably, to the solace of human reality: no one can go back in time. More importantly, he doesn’t want to go back. He isn’t trying to rehash anything or pander to nostalgia with his return to Chuckalumba. He simply, pragmatically, loves Stephens and wants the best sound for Dead Witches. “The intention to go there is to achieve a sound, not to recreate or exceed other things I have done,” he confirms. “At the end of the day, I am just doing what I do, what I want to do, what I want to create, and it’s nice to see John. Sometimes, it’s worrying, but you have just put yourself in the now and continue what you’re there to do. The past is in the past.”
With that sorted, Greening sought out Doug Shearer to handle the mastering of The Last Exorcism. Shearer mastered Dopethrone and 2002’s Let Us Prey for Electric Wizard, as well as albums for both Morrissey and Joe Strummer. “That was a longshot,” Greening says. “Funny—I tracked him down on Facebook. I sent him a message. I sent him a few songs. He thought they were cool and was up to doing it. I was glad to have him and with how everything panned out.”
The new incarnation of Dead Witches, resurrected and emboldened, having manifested a devastating record, are poised to impress fans. Greening hasn’t cemented too many plans, wanting to test people’s reactions. “We’re just gonna get out and do some shows,” he says. “There are no plans to take over the world, just see where the new album will take us—where the band will lead us to.”
However, plans do include a third album, as a new song has already been written, and the band feel relief in finally gaining some momentum. “Obviously, after the first album came out, it was a nightmare with what happened to Greg. It was probably gonna be that the band was over,” Greening says, giving full credit to Hill’s recruitment and enthusiasm and the addition of Chameleone. “Now, we’ve got a full structure, already writing new material. We definitely want to do a third album, see where this album will take us.”
In London, on The Last Exorcism’s release date, Feb. 22, Dead Witches will headline at The Underworld Camden for Heavy Psych Sounds Fest alongside Black Rainbows, Giöbia, and Dead Smoke. “Hopefully, once the album comes out, we can get off of our asses and play some good shows,” Greening quips. Dead Witches also have local gigs planned in Bournemouth and Plymouth, as well as a few shows in Ireland.
Heavy anticipation prods his comments: Greening is exceptionally proud of his band’s work and the resulting album. As he should be.