9 October 2017


The Black Angels talk new record Death Song, what music means to them, the rough patch the Levitation festivals have been through, and the biggest lesson they have learnt over their 13-year career.

Photography by Eleonora C. Collini

No other band has contributed to the last decade’s revival of psych-rock as much as The Black Angels have. For the Austin five-piece, psychedelic music is a cult, to the point of creating a psych festival that has served as a model for others of the same genre (which have been springing up like mushrooms in recent years) and founding a label to try and support new psych bands. 

After a four-year break, their fifth full-length Death Song came out last April, once again gracing us with the band's trademark sound made of ‘70s-inspired melodies, reverb harmonies and pulverizing rhythms. 

I caught up with frontman Alex Maas and guitarist Christian bland to have a chat on what music means to them, the rough patch the Levitation festivals have been through over the last couple of years, and the biggest lesson they have learnt since they started making music thirteen years ago.

How do you think the new record has been received?
Alex: Pretty well, I think. Better than the last record for sure, as there seem to be more people coming to the shows. It is very hard to judge from inside, all that we have is seeing how many people come to the shows, as we try not to read reviews.

Death Song is probably your most political album to date. Do you see your music more like a means of observation or a way to deliver a message to try and change things?
Alex: Both. We are mirror to what we see and the world around us, but at the same time music can be a chance to deliver a message if you have one. When we write lyrics we try not to be too preachy and to write in doublespeak. People who are listening to our songs can choose their own adventure and ear what they want, whether it’s a love song or a protest song and so on.

What other form of art other than music do you think has the strongest influence on people?
Christian: None, just music [laughs]. Graphic Design, which I also do, is probably the second most powerful art after music.
Alex: I think movies are very influential and very educational too. Everything is art….. A book can be art, a conversation between people can be art, anything.

One of the recurring themes in your lyrics is observing that we all have an obsession, something we want to achieve at all costs and we would do anything, even horrible things to get. Have you ever experienced that kind of obsession?
Alex: Yes, there are a lot of things you can believe in and fight for, whether it is a relationship, a band, your family, an idea, basic rights like the ones that are still taken off American women right now, which is pretty fucked up… anything you stand for.

Has your writing process changed much over the years?
Christian: No, it’s pretty much still the same. I usually come up with a riff, then we start writing words to it and then refine them together.

Do you usually improvise or deliberately sit down to write music?
Alex: There is a lot of melody and lyrics improvisation. We usually have a riff and try to improvise what kind of melody would go with it and what lyrical content could describe the sound in that room. It’s probably a backwards approach as the music comes first, and then the lyrics tell the story of what the sound sounds like.

Do you ever write the lyrics first?
Alex: Yes, sometimes I do a bit of free writing at home and find a line that could fit right here and there. I have a notebook that I always carry with me, but generally, we tend to write the music first.

Have you started working on any new material yet?
Christian: Yes, we have basically a new record almost done. We wrote forty songs for Death Song, so once we are done with this tour, we are going to start working on those songs that haven’t made it to the new record.

How did your deal with Partisan Records come about?
Alex: Tim [Putnam], one of the founders of Partisan Records is a good friend with our manager, and he wanted to sign us a long time ago, but our manager wasn't sure as he was after someone bigger. Then it turned out that lots of the people we were originally signed with at Blue Horizons had left and started working for Tim, so it was a sort of reunion on one hand. We are getting along with Tim very well too, as he believes in the new record, is really passionate about what he does, and not full of bullshit, he just tells us the truth.

How was working with producer Phil Ek?
Christian: He was like a sixth band member. We didn’t do much post-production afterwards, as this time it was all about getting the sound right, the first pedal correct and everything from the get-go, but I would definitely work with him again.
Alex: He is a total master. What Christian means is that we recorded everything in that moment, how we thought it should be, so whenever was the time to mix the song we just pushed the faders up and everything was there already. When we started working with Phil, the songs structure didn't change much because we had spent four years writing, but sonically they changed quite a bit and that was probably the best thing about working with Phil. We also needed a prospective, as we had forty songs and just didn't know what to do with them.

Did you find it difficult to choose what songs to put on the record given how much material you had?
There were around eight or nine songs we all immediately agreed on, and then there were around four or five debatable ones. So we just voted democratically as we always do. That is probably why we are still a band, because it’s not just one person making all the decisions, though there are people definitely speaking louder than others.

The Levitation Festivals have had a couple of rough years as first you had to cancel in Austin due to weather conditions last year, then this year neither Austin nor Vancouver and Chicago happened. Was it mainly a money reason?
Alex: Yes, we had lost so much money that we couldn't afford to take the same risk this year. We had to start all over from zero, and as we are still scared, next year the Festival will be back in Austin, but we are going to do it in the city, in a lot of venues, more like we were doing originally, SXSW style. But Angiers still happened this year and on the Saturday we actually sold out.

And what about your label, The Reverberation Appreciation Society?
Alex: We are looking at re-structuring that too, as after the festival got cancelled in 2016 we had to freeze everything, which is unfortunate for a lot of bands. I think if we carry on with that everything has to be done in a smarter way, with a lot of more people involved. It is just four of us at the moment, instead of ten-plus people, which is what a label needs. We will need to have an in-house marketing person, someone for social media, someone to just answer emails, someone in charge of the distribution and so on.

How do you think the psych music scene has evolved over the years?
Christian: Our festivals grew from 700 people in 2008 to 10000 in 2015people, so I guess that is the indication of the interest in psych -rock. I think it’s continuing to grow, but I am not really sure what direction it is taking, as sometimes it can be a little corny [laughs]

Yeah, to me the events are getting bigger and bigger, but I can’t think of any cool new psych bands….
Alex: Yes, I probably shouldn't say that, but I know people should be looking in new countries, like Thailand, Uganda, to find new cool bands. I think the deeper you dig the more cool bands you find. There are a lot of great bands in Israel, Japan, and Australia obviously.

At some point you were considering doing a Psych Fest in Australia too, right?
Christian: Yeah, in Melbourne, but in order to start a festival somewhere, someone has to come forward. So please, if someone in Australia would love to come forward we would really like to do one there!

The Black Angels have been together for thirteen years now. Looking back at your career what is the biggest lesson you have learnt?
Alex: Stay positive. The only thing that keeps me sane is the thought that things are going to get better. A lot of horrible things happen, so you just have to have blind faith that things are going to work out and have a lot of positivity. Also, another thing I have learnt, is that you need to understand all the facets of the music business, which is something festivals have helped us do, as people don’t realise the amount of work that is behind them.

If you could go back in time, is there anything you would like to have done differently?
Christian: I don’t know… I think we made all the right decisions! I am really happy with where we are right now. Personally, I could have stopped after opening for BRMC. I was going to all their shows and gave them our CDs, because I was just so obsessed with them, and then two years later we were opening for them……
Alex: We have a great management that have always believed in us and in general we have been so lucky along the way, so I would be afraid to change history as maybe we wouldn't have the same luck the second time around.

Originally published on London in Stereo

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