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Pounding the Witch

Texas power trio Dixie Witch does it down and dirty



The music sounds vaguely familiar -- a pulse-pounding beat from the past. It's part Marshall Tucker, part Grand Funk, with an extra dollop of hard rock whomp. Dixie Witch describes its sound as a heavy, fuzzed-out, southern rock trio. The Texas-based group got its start in Austin six years ago, releasing their demo that same year with the engineering help of ex-Butthole Surfer/Honky bassist Jeff Pinkus.

Their 2001 self-release, Into the Sun, coupled with intense touring brought Dixie Witch to the attention of Alabama Thunderpussy, who included them on their '03 Southern Domination tour. The exposure brought success, but also came with the stoner rock label -- which the band wasn't crazy about.

"At first, you want to turn your back on it and go what the fuck, you know?" says Dixie Witch's singing drummer Trinidad Leal, by phone from his Austin home. "I don't think we're a stoner rock band, but the people in the stoner rock community have been supportive of what we do, so I wouldn't bag on it, but I do think we have lot more to offer."

Leal admits to not having a firm grasp on what exactly stoner rock is, but he's sure DW ain't it. "We're just a straight out rock & roll band, one of the few out there that are doing it on this level without having cookie monster growling vocals or paying some kind of homage to Satan."

If there is any homage to be paid, it's to bands of the singing drummer tradition, like Grand Funk Railroad. "In the beginning, people were always giving me shit about being like Night Ranger or Don Henley," Leal says with a throaty cackle. "But one of my main influences is GFR drummer Don Brewer. He was just such a powerful player and sang his ass off." Along with Brewer, Leal also cites the emotion-packed voice of The Band's Levon Helm.

Dixie Witch's bone-rattling thump doesn't have much in common with The Band, but country influences run deep in DW's rural heart. "I'm a huge Waylon fan, Merle Haggard fan," says Leal, who sits in with various country bands when home. Bassist Curt Christensen is a bluegrass fan. "He has family that plays country stuff. It's just kind of where we come from."

The quintessential Texas power trio shared the same breeding ground. But aside from the power part, the Witch doesn't have much in common with ZZ Top -- yet. "We don't mention it, but they're a big influence," Leal says. "We've been writing some new stuff that's got a bit of shuffle to it that's kind of similar to that."

Their latest, Smoke And Mirrors, covers a variety of hard rockin' styles, ranging from the big fat power chords, thundering bass and headbanging southern metal of "Ballenger Cross" to the GFR punch of "Getaway" to the Black Crowes vibe of "What You Want."

Even though the music still packs enough of a wallop to keep your ears ringing for days after a show or a listen to the record, Leal says that the band has cut back on the volume somewhat. "We're learning more about the dynamic, about playing. We used to use three amps apiece. I used to use extra big drumsticks and extra big cymbals and just bashed it out, partially because we were figuring out who we were."

The band has come a long way from their former existence. When the band first started, Christensen was married, Leal owned a record store and guitarist Clayton Mills was running the sound engineering department at a community college outside of Dallas. "It was a 9-to-5 kind of life," Leal says. Within two years of its debut, the band was doing 250 dates a year and the road soon took a toll on the trio. By 2004, pneumonia and fatigue had made couch surfers out of the band, causing them to reconsider the touring schedule. "It is a tour that never ends, but we've settled down to where now we're a little more strategic about it," Leal says. "I'm 36, Curt's 34, Clayton's 32. We want to keep our sanity, and our health too."

The band has upped its schedule to 200 dates this year but have matured enough to be able to handle it without killing themselves. "We're learning how to tour, how to take care of ourselves on the road, have a bit more vision about what we're doing instead of just going for broke every night," Leal says.

Fans have been supportive not only of the band's music but of their lifestyle as well, giving them a hand on the road, a house they can crash out in for the night. "Or, we show up in a town and they've got a grill going -- stop here first and get a meal. This thing isn't just us; it's a lot of people who believe in it who are helping it along."

Leal, whose real given name is Trinidad ("Our family originated from Madrid, Spain, and it's a family name man, four generations of Trinidad."), says the band is his family as well. "We're still brothers and still get along; the guys come over on Sundays for barbecue."

Christensen has taken on some of the singing duties and helps Leal with arranging as well. There has been talk of having an extended family; Leal says they keep an open mind about the possibility of adding another guitarist or an organ player. These guys aren't willing to adopt easily, though -- it would have to be a natural thing. "We're a powerhouse trio, and live we represent it really well. If a killer player ever come along that fit with us, we're not opposed to it, it just hasn't happened yet."

With a Dixie Witch song slated for an upcoming episode of My Name Is Earl and Viva La Bam playing DW as well, things are pretty good as they are. "In this band, there is no life expectancy," Leal says. "We're gonna roll as long as we're happy and having a good time. Our best is yet to come."

Dixie Witch plays the Milestone, with Valient Thorr and Muleface; 8 p.m.; Nov. 6; $8; see for more info.

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