Alex Maas of The Black Angels: It may have been a dream
Since forming in Austin in May of 2004, The Black Angels have become a premiere psychedelic rock band. Named after a Velvet Underground song, they quickly gained a reputation as a fierce live band. Their latest album, last year’s Indigo Meadow is another collection of droning tunes that suggest the band’s psychedelic influences. Singer-guitarist Alex Maas recently phoned from his Austin home to talk about the band’s upcoming tour with psychedelic pioneer Roky Erickson.
The band formed ten years ago. Are you doing anything to celebrate that anniversary?
Wow. I can’t believe it’s been ten years. We should do something, huh? We don’t have anything planned right now. We got a seven-inch that we’re releasing. It’s something we recorded with Roky in 2008. It’s been shelved and we just fought to have something for the tour. We have a 12-inch for record store day, too. It’ll be seven songs that didn’t make the record and four brand new songs.
Are you playing those new songs at the shows?
Yeah, that’s the plan.
For this tour, you’ve teamed up with Roky Erickson. I think you’ve toured with him in the past too. Talk about what you like about his music.
Last time around, we were his backing band, which is interesting. We had never been a backing band for anybody. We’re not classically trained musicians and we’re not used to playing other people’s songs at all. Our style of music was just a couple of chords and a feel and groove. To learn those songs was quite a process. It was really good for us. It was very educational and playing someone else’s material taught us to communicate better and watch each other more on stage to make sure we’re on the same page. It wasn’t the easiest thing for a lot of reasons, mainly because our musicianship wasn’t able to do that kind of thing. Now, he has his own, capable backing band. It was fun for us. We saw it as an opportunity to bring The 13th Floor Elevators back. We compromised on playing the entire catalogue but we did dig deep into the 13th Floor stuff. It was cool because he literally hadn’t played that stuff in 14 years. We sat down in living room and retaught him those songs.
Is he really fragile?
I think everybody is. He has been through a lot. The state of Texas put him through the ringer as they did with Townes Van Zandt and a couple of other people. Texas has a history of having a really messed up judicial system. I think they kill the most people. It’s weird. It’s such a religious state but it’s that whole fire-and-brimstone thing is taken literally. It’s nuts that that culture would breed such brutality. It’s crazy, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s been cool to tour with Roky and really fun. We’re not his backing band, but we might do a collaboration. Maybe we’ll do a song or two with him. We’re still trying to figure that out. I don’t want to make any promises. It wouldn’t be difficult to do a song or two with him.
Austin has such a glut of bands. What enabled you guys to stand out?
I looked at bands that were successful like Spoon. Bands like that were touring and getting known in other places and playing with other people. I identified that quickly as a point where bands would be successful. You come back to Austin and hear echoes of people seeing you in Seattle and other places and you realize touring was where it was. There are bands in Austin that just don’t tour. You have to put yourself out there in a blind faith kind of way to create those opportunities for yourself. There are bands that could play circles around our band but they don’t get known outside of town. We understood what we wanted to do. We wanted to make dark psychedelic music and not many people were doing it in Austin at the time. You had Butthole Surfers and other bands doing psychedelic music. There weren’t a lot of people doing what we were doing. We loved The Velvet Underground and The 13th Floor Elevators. Those elements were darker songs with different kind of melodies. It might be a happy melody with a dark song and that dichotomy was interesting. We were sticking to that kind of mentality. If we didn’t get the chills to a song, it didn’t make the record. If you can’t rob a bank to the song, it didn’t make the record.
Was your live show always so dynamic?
Reading about the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and The Velvet Underground and early Pink Floyd and their light show — that was a vision of ours from the beginning. It wasn’t realized until recently. Our live performance I hope is getting better with age. You find someone just was excited as you are. We found this guy, Bob Mustachio. He used to be the drummer for the Warlocks. He’s like our light guy and like a light scientist-type person. Knowing that the visual aspect was just as important as the auditory aspect helped us. Sometimes we would throw in a DVD and have something play behind us. We have different content for the songs. To me, it’s getting more focused and it should. Our band feels more focused.
Talk a bit about Indigo Meadow. What did you try to do differently this time?
Nothing specifically. We always want to make different music. We want to push ourselves. When you hear Radiohead change from album to album, that’s a band that doesn’t have any parameters. We’re not as drastic as that. That freedom is really appealing. They just believe in it. Because they believe in it, it becomes true. That’s what’s interesting about that band. For us, some of these songs were brand new and some were melodies we had since Passover and never really got out but really fit. You always want to evolve obviously. That’s the point for this record. The next record will sound entirely different and these new songs we’re releasing sound totally different too.
It sounds sharp. Where did you record the album?
We recorded with John Congleton who is in Dallas. We recorded in Tornillo, Texas which is on the border of El Paso and Juarez. The fence backed up to the outskirts of Juarez. One of the guys told us we might hear gun shoots. It’s on a pecan orchard. There was a studio there too. It was this weird place, but it was magical too. There could be people crossing the border. There was that element and that maybe added something to the record.
The song “Holland” is so haunting. What inspired it?
I would just say that going to the Netherlands many times and seeing other people go there and talk about it. The whole thing is that these affluent Westerners go to Holland to lose their minds. There’s this other culture that’s aware of that. Seems like a prowling by both parties. Like a lot of the songs we write, part of it might have been a dream or a conversation we have with someone. That’s one of my favorite songs too. We played that for the whole tour in Europe and hopefully we’ll play it again.
Upcoming 2014 Tour Dates
Granada – Lawrence, KS
The Firebird – St Louis, MO
First Avenue – Minneapolis, MN
Majestic Theatre – Madison, WI
Park West – Chicago, IL
Southgate House – Newport, KY
Beachland Ballroom – Cleveland, OH
Magic Stick – Detroit, MI
Phoenix Concert Theatre – Toronto, Canada
Corona Theatre – Montreal, Canada
Black Cat – Washington, DC
The Met – Providence, RI
Union Transfer – Philadelphia, PA
The Grey Eagle – Asheville, NC
Mercy Lounge – Nashville, TN
Terminal West – Atlanta, GA
The Social – Orlando, FL
Grand Central – Miami, FL
State Theatre – St Petersburg, FL
Fitzgerald’s – Houston, TX
Granada Theater – Dallas, TX