Black Angels on What's "Really F#@%ing Cool About the Freedom of Psychedelia"
Photo by Courtney Chavanell
Since forming in 2004, Austin, Texas,' Black Angels have become the proverbial torchbearers of traditional psychedelia, wringing aural acid trips from the keys of reverb-soaked combo organs and droning sitars for the better part of ten years now.
But beyond an impressive discography of its own drug-rock masterpieces, the band has also dedicated itself to protecting and preserving the legend of current tour mate and nearly unsung hero of psychedelia Roky Erickson.
Tomorrow night, Black Angels will be filling Grand Central with its signature haze of echoes, shouts, and fuzzy guitars for what will undoubtedly be a time-stopping adventure through the depths of kaleidoscopically colored experimental rock.
We here at Crossfade were fortunate enough to gain an audience with frontman and multi-instrumentalist Alex Maas and chat about the band's live ritual, his work developing Austin Psych Fest into the "beast" it has become, and his backup plan to play professional baseball if the waves of reverb ever stop crashing for the Black Angels.
Crossfade: How is the road? I saw that the band had to cancel a show because of the weather.
Alex Maas: We've got all this crazy weather up north! It's been a crazy storm, and we're finally out of it! I'm in North Carolina right now, and it's perfect. We canceled one, but we never cancel shows. We actually didn't cancel it; the venue canceled it. We were at the venue, waiting to load in, and they were like, "Sorry you guys drove all this way."
Every time I've seen the Black Angels perform, it feels like everyone on stage is so deep in their own element that it becomes almost a ritual for the group. Is there a key to getting into that element nightly? And does the band ever fail to make it to that place?
You're exactly right. The word "ritualistic" is the spot we're trying to get. You're trying to get to that moment when you're just kind of lost in space, but you're intact with your instruments. How do we get to that point? I just remind myself that other people are there for the same reason, and like, I think feeling that sort of synergy kind of helps me get into it. It's definitely difficult. But you take like ten to 20 minutes before the show and just kind of be alone and realize the reasons why you're playing music.
If it goes shitty onstage and if things don't go well, it's tough. We're kind of hard on ourselves. But you shouldn't be, because there's so much humility in music. Why should we be up there playing music in front of anybody? Why do people care what we have to say anyways, you know? That's the humility behind it that kind of keeps you grounded. It's funny, because the smallest thing can kind of throw you off, say if you botch an organ part or trip on a cable.
I didn't really personally expect to be doing this when I grew up. I swore up and down, when I was 5, that I was going to be a professional baseball player, you know -- like every other kid in America. And if this doesn't work out, maybe I'll go back to baseball. Or be a private detective. [laughs]
I could see that. You would have to be on a team with Barry Zito, because he's definitely the most psych-rock pro ball player.
Thanks, man! On a side note, we played in Kentucky and the Cincinnati Reds were playing and one of the ballplayers came to the show, a fan of ours, and invited us to the game the following day, and they played a couple of our songs when batters were walking up. Like, you kind of hear that and hearing the No. 4 hitter walk up to one of your songs is, like, insane. It was kind of one of the biggest highlights of my life.
That's got to be a trip!
That was so crazy, man! Can you believe it? Imagine writing a song in your room, and all of a sudden, a major-league baseball player just shows up at the gig and then you're at the game and they play it at the game!
Especially for a band such as yours, which might be considered very approachable by serious music fans but might still be considered an outsider sound by others.
Yeah! I think people that are just now getting into it are like, "Whoa, they must be crazy," but people who have known us for a long time know we're all normal people. For someone just getting into the music, they don't know. They may have heard it on a television show or a movie or something and may be like, "Oh, they might be too cool for school" or something, you know?
As someone who helps curate Austin Psych Fest and plays in such a high-profile psych band, how do you feel about the difference between artists that are innovating in the genre and artists that are doing very vintage-specific sounds? In a genre like psychedelia, where there are really no boundaries, it feels as if a lot of bands seem to be biting old bands these days.
I guess it depends on the context in which they do it. If they do it on accident or if they do it on purpose. John Lennon would intentionally make a Chuck Berry song sound completely different and it would still sound like the Beatles, but you could still tell it was Chuck Berry. He would rip off Chuck Berry in a very smart, very genius kind of way.
Some people do it in a way where they just know that they like the song and they want to make something that sounds just like it, but it doesn't sound unique to themselves. I don't even know how exactly to go about doing that, but it's a difficult thing because you have your influences, but also there are so many other influences. Psychedelia is one influence of mine, right? But, so is early American folk music, and so is Native American music, and so is music from the Southeastern Pacific Islands, and so is hip-hop.
So, as far as that goes, I pretty much love all kinds of music, and my favorite thing to do is cross all of that shit into psychedelia and make it all kind of work, make it all fit. There is something really fucking cool about the freedom of psychedelia. Like you said, the no-boundaries part. But because there are no boundaries, you almost have to make boundaries. Does this sound like I could rob a bank to it? Does this song fit the guitar riff? Does this song feel like we're running through Cambodia right now? There wouldn't be synths in Cambodia in 1962; therefore, there's not going to be synths in our music. I'm not hating on synths, but it's like the idea is to take something and make it your own.
With psych-rock in particular, the tools used are such an important part of the equation. I doubt there is a piece of gear on stage with the Black Angels not made before or modeled after something made before 1970.
Yeah, yeah! There's a couple of things on Kyle's side of the stage, but Kyle is, like, the ultimate nerd about music. I can ask him anything about electronics, and he knows about it. Keep the instruments old and there's a good chance you might sound like the Byrds. If you buy brand new Line 6 amps and 8 stringed guitars, you might sound like something else, you know what I mean? If you play a transistor organ from 1967, you introduce that to your music, it'll sound like 1967.
I know the Black Angels have done a lot to take care of Roky Erickson and his legacy over they years, and even toured as his backing band previously. It's got to be a bit of a heavy burden to take on the preservation of an almost unsung legend with Roky's tendencies.
Yeah, the burden was an honor, first and foremost. You almost can't call it a burden. I know what you mean, though. Burden is an adjective to describe a part of it -- it was difficult to learn a lot of his newer material. We didn't know a lot of that. We do now, but we knew all of the 13th Floor Elevators songs.
Our whole thing was "OK, this is awesome, we can go out on tour and play Elevators' songs, like, our favorite ones from every single record." But you know he's got a whole catalog, so you play songs like "Night of the Vampire" and "Two-Headed Dog" and these other songs that are just as great, you know? But whenever you mismatched [the set], instead of it sounding straight up like Elevators, it sounded like the Velvet Underground, like something off of White Light/White Heat or Loaded because there was more of a rock 'n' roll thing. We kept it our style, we turned "Two-Headed Dog" and "Vampire" into more of a Velvet Underground kind of way of doing it, and simplified it and did it that way, which was really fun.
It would have been great to do it on this tour. But unfortunately, we're not. Roky, you know, when he plays a set, he's done. It's over and that's fine. And Roky's getting older; this may well be his last tour. I don't know how much touring he has left in him -- I'm not sure he even does. I just hope it's up to him and I hope the decision is his, just because I know there's tons of ways for people to generate revenue off of his catalog and everything that he's done. I just hope that touring isn't the only thing they think they have to put this 67-year-old man through and have him keep touring for the next ten years. I'm just not sure that's going to be good for him. But that's just my opinion.
Austin Psych Fest has seemingly evolved into an extremely special thing for a lot of people. I've spoken with a lot of artists that performed last year and they have all had an uncanny reverence for what the festival is and stands for beyond being just a weekend of great music.
That gives me the chills to hear that. It's a scary fucking thing to do. It's really scary and a labor of love -- it's not ever been something we've made money off of. All of the money has always gone back into the bands, into the production, into the bands' pockets.
It's a great way for the psychedelic music scene to make a footprint and be like, "Look, this is what's happening," and it's great for us to show Austin that there's other things that are happening in Austin, in Texas. And quite frankly, it's great to see the reception it's gotten, even though it has never been financially successful. If it becomes one of those things where it can't pay for itself, we'll have to stop. I don't want that to happen, but that's just the reality of it.
I can't believe the beast that it's turned into, the small beast that it is. It's still like a little child.
Your latest album, Indigo Meadow, is a bit more rock 'n' roll and approachable than earlier efforts. Was there a conscious decision on the band's part to head in that direction?
Some of that has to do with the mixing, John Congleton and the mixing process of it, but it probably is more approachable for people who have never heard our music. If you play "Snake in the Grass" or something for somebody who has never heard us before, they might not get it, because they're used to hearing Justin Bieber and shit like that. It's probably more approachable and is more rock 'n' roll. But honestly, the next record is going to sound completely different.
I don't know if it was a conscious decision or not. But it is what it is and it was where we were at that moment, in that month and a half. But two months later, we were already somewhere else, and we just got done working on tons of other weird-ass shit, so I don't know where the next record is going to be. But it's great because records are just time pieces, snapshots of where you are at that moment. There's some songs, like "I Hear Colors," which is as psychedelic as anything we've ever done. Honestly, the newer songs have been getting a great live reception. It's fun for people to hear these songs and it's fun for people to be able to move. They're not so mid-tempo, they're a little bit more abrasive and a little bit more upbeat. We play these songs in other countries and people just go crazy over them.
That being said, it was a fun record to make, it was great working with John, and we're always going out of our comfort zone, and that's what we should be doing.
Is there new material in the works at this point?
Yeah, man! On this tour, we recorded ten or 11 songs. We basically got thrown in our lap, like, 60 Roky Erickson songs, and his manager was like, "Turn these into songs," and we're like, "OK!" That was in 2008. So, just now, we're releasing two of them for this tour and we'll probably release more in the near future.
We also have a seven-song release coming out next month, it's kind of like a ten-inch. We've got tons of other shit that we've been doing and tons of other things that have brewing. So I'm really excited about the future of our band.
The Black Angels and Roky Erickson. As part of the Winter Psych Storm Tour. With Golden Animals. Tuesday, February 25. Grand Central, 697 N. Miami Ave., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $22 plus fees via ticketfly.com. All ages. Call 305-377-2277 or visit grandcentralmiami.com.
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