The Black Angels are keeping psychedelic music alive. Their groove-based brand of brooding psych rock spans across four LPs and several side projects. The band also started Austin’s annual Levitation Festival (formerly Psych Fest), a showcase for contemporary psych bands.
Angels’ frontman Alex Maas was in good spirits, having played two full rounds of disc golf on a rarely cool July day the previous day, and several times during our talk we indulged in tangents to share new music we’d discovered.
Most exciting is that The Black Angels are back in the studio hammering out material for their fifth LP. “We’ve got maybe 30 or 40 songs, half of which are fragments that could be turned into tracks. What I’m focusing on now is just finding a cohesive body of work within that. Lyrically I’m trying to figure out the 20 or 25 songs that are recordable.” Lyrics come last for Maas, and provide the greatest challenge, much more so than instrumental melodies. Of his approach to lyrics, Maas says, “The song evokes an image in your head, and I write those down in a very landscape type of way. The song sort of tells me, but it’s still really hard.”
Maas wants to push the forthcoming record into fresh directions. A hint of where the new music might lead is his interest in collecting traditional or otherwise unusual instruments over the years, such as the Taishogoto, a sort of Japanese zither. “Incorporating different melodies and instruments helps break down some of our preconceived notions of what to do, which no matter what we should do because it’ll help us grow.”
This tradition has been with The Black Angels since the beginning. “We found this organ where you spin a crank with one hand and play notes with the other, sort of like a hurdy-gurdy machine. It makes this really big, organic sound. [Maas imitates the tone.] It created this thick layer underneath everything. We’ve since been able to achieve that with other organs and hitting it with a constant delay.” Those sounds can be heard on the first EPs and LP in particular.
Recently, Maas has been listening to music from the Southeast Pacific Islands: old folk music from Vietnam and stuff from Cambodia, Thailand, Mongolia. “Getting into that world is nice because they have no rules. They’re just playing how they think it should sound.” He’s hoping his own band will embrace veering into similarly uncharted waters.
The discussion of Eastern music prompted the first of several music dives where I shared Finders Keepers Records and Alex shared recent releases from his former label, Light in the Attic. Maas’ criteria is, “If you can rob a bank to it, it’s good music.”
It may surprise listeners to learn that Maas doesn’t categorize his sound as heavy metal, though the sound nudges against it in terms of its attitude. “‘Evil Things’ off Indigo Meadow is one of our heaviest songs, it has this big anthemic feel to it. The vintage 60s fuzz pedals we were using to my ear sound different than 80s metal distortion pedals. We’re actually always asking ourselves if things sound too much like heavy metal. We’re very careful about not going into that world.”
Psychedelic music tends toward trippy, poetic lyrics, whereas metal is obsessed with death mantras. In psychedelic, there’s more of an emphasis on groove as opposed to the mathematically technical in metal. “A good groove makes it hard to break out into another movement because it feels good just staying in that groove.” He listed Can, Silver Apples and Suicide as bands that exemplify the groove approach, and very tellingly, all bands that tended to a more experimental approach.
Maas also cited The Raveonettes, Pink Mountaintops, and Black Mountain as influences, and included bands that Angels had played with and supported on bigger tours, like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Warlocks, The Black Keys and Queens of the Stone Age, all of which find themselves in similar sonic territory – or so I thought. “We’re not as fast tempo as Queens of the Stone Age. They have all these changes. Their work ethic and musicianship was incredible to watch. When you see the bass player live, you realize what a monster he is. You don’t necessarily hear it on the record.”
Maas listens to all of the artists that play Levitation, which he began with Angels multi-instrumentalist Christian Bland and a high school buddy. “We basically have a master list of bands we want to play at the fest, and we keep trying to cull that list down. It’s super fun. Scary, but fun. We’re trying to get as many people there as possible. Austin’s always been really good to young entrepreneurs.”
The other big Austin fest is of course SXSW. The ten-day behemoth provides bands with a great way to play outside the festival but still gain a lot of exposure, which is what The Black Angels did when starting out. “We did it kamikaze the week before SXSW, throwing what we thought was a psychedelic music event. This was like ten years ago. I still like the idea of doing it that month because people have an alternative to the huge festival.”
Good psychedelic music induces trances. Some of the techniques employed in psychedelic music over the years (and still), like heavy use of effects, long jams over lengthy track durations, and the incorporation of tribal beats, are conducive to these trances. Some artists don’t like genre labels but Maas is aware of where his band’s sound sits within the music spectrum. “We’ve been making psychedelic music since the beginning. We didn’t really fit into alternative categories, although we do fade in and out of that world. For me, psychedelic music has moved from one specific genre. It’s everything from the really hypnotic Wu-Tang stuff like ‘C.R.E.A.M.,’ to surf music, to dark chamber music or the stuff John Cale was doing with Tony Conrad. Obviously there’s the paisley psychedelic of the 60s everybody knows too.”
Catch Alex Maas for the French edition of Levitation in the city of Angers on September 16th, where he’ll be playing with the drummer from The Warlocks. The Black Angels are also gearing up to play a show in Houston, Texas in September and the Desert Daze festival in October.
The Black Angels will soon be recording their new album for a 2017 release. For now, listen to their latest release, Clear Lake Forest.