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Escape Velocity

Caught By The Fuzz: The Black Angels Interviewed
Ben Graham , June 25th, 2013 04:26

Ahead of a series of shows in the UK, Ben Graham speaks with Austin's fuzzed-out voyagers the Black Angels, to discuss psychedelic music's power to create connections and change perceptions

Taking their name from the Velvet Underground's 'Black Angel's Death Song' and their philosophical cues from the 13th Floor Elevators (with whom they share their Austin, Texas hometown), no-one can accuse the Black Angels of not knowing their psychedelic history. But the band, who have just released their fourth and perhaps finest album, Indigo Meadow, are far from mere revivalists. It's more accurate to say that they acknowledge a tradition or continuity of musical development, ideas and attitudes; an evolving psychedelic counter-culture in ongoing opposition to the conservative establishment. And while other obvious touchstones in their sound may include the Doors, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacemen 3 and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Black Angels' twisting, doom-laden fuzz mantras don't quite sound like anyone else.  

Formed by guitarist Christian Bland and singer / bassist Alex Maas in 2004, alongside drummer Stephanie Bailey and, since 2007, guitarist and organist Kyle Hunt, the Black Angels' music maintains the outsider community values and the anti-war, pro-environmentalist stance of their forebears, but with a hard-edged, feedback-peppered vision that leaves sentimental peacenik platitudes jerking in the dust. They're also the force behind the annual Austin Psych Fest, which this April celebrated its sixth year by going outdoors for the first time, with a sprawling three-day open-air festival on the edge of the city. Starting in 2008 with a ten band line-up under the SXSW umbrella, this year's event featured over seventy acts on three stages, including Billy Gibbons' reformed garage pioneers the Moving Sidewalks, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Roky Erickson, Boris, Tinariwen, Goat, Acid Mothers Temple, Om, The Soft Moon and many more, proving that 21st century psychedelia is a broad church characterised by a spirit of adventure and openness, rather than adherence to one specific style.

The Black Angels have also toured extensively as a backing band for former 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson, assisting in the visionary vocalist's return to the stage following decades of mental illness and periods of enforced hospitalisation. Talking to Alex Maas prior to the band's embarking on a summer-long tour taking in Australia, Europe and the UK, the love and respect the Black Angels feel for the musicians that inspired them is obvious, as is their belief in music as a uniting, healing force.

"We're not the best musicians, and we know that," says Maas. "But identifying that therapeutic side of music really helps me to justify the fact that we're playing music for a living. It feels like identifying success; it's not a monetary thing, it's a happiness thing. It's self-gratifying creation that's therapy, at the end of the day, for us and other people."

You're all very serious disciples and proselytisers of Texan psychedelic music. Why do you think so much great psychedelic music, from the 13th Floor Elevators onwards, came out of Texas?

Alex Maas: It seems like with any action, there's always an equal and opposite reaction. So if you have a conservative culture you will have a very liberal underground, whether it's powerful or whether it's modest in its approach to how it wants to grow. Austin's always been a kind of liberal town, and I think the conservative culture in Texas has naturally bred this interesting art escape, this opposite effect to escape from that. That's all you had, and that's why in the 60s the psychedelic movement was big in Texas. It kind of got big all over the place, but the 13th Floor Elevators coined the term 'psychedelic rock & roll'; they put those two words together. But I think it has to do with the conservative nature of the state, and Austin is literally an oasis in the state. I don't know if you've been here, but it's very apparent when you come in that this is a very liberal place.

I've not been there, but I know it has a reputation for being alternative and liberal, and the whole "keep Austin weird" thing. Does it still live up to its reputation?

AM: Yeah. That's another thing about Austin, it's got a lot of - I won't say attitude, but it's got a lot of things that are self-proclaimed. Keep Austin Weird, the Live Music Capital of the World, all this kind of stuff. It's kind of interesting that Austin has done that, and at the same time you have to believe in this kind of self-fulfilled prophecy; that if you believe it so, you will make it be. That's kind of how I see Austin in general, on a lot of levels. There are a lot of young entrepreneurs here that are like 'I'm going to start a bar, I am this, I am that', and they become that. Austin is just a town that breeds creativity. And a lot of people come for it, a lot of young entrepreneurs and people with drive in general. I think that's one of the best parts of Austin, one of its best qualities.

What you're saying sounds very much like what the Black Angels have done as well. You seem very proud of the tradition of psychedelic music in Austin, Texas, and you believe in giving things back and furthering that, by activities like setting up the Austin Psych Fest. Are the band still involved with the running of the Psych Fest, or has it taken on a life of its own?

AM: The Austin Psych Fest is our baby, and a baby does take on a life of its own, as you would want it to. In the early years you just decide that you're going to have a festival. You're going to have a baby. And then you start nurturing that baby, and then it starts having a personality, and in the second or third year it starts talking to you, it starts giving you feedback, it starts telling you where it wants to go. And then it starts truly taking on a life of its own. By its sixth year it's telling you it wants to go camping and it wants to experience other parts of the world. The festival now is going to be in its seventh year coming up, and we have bands from all over the world, and it's almost like a cultural gathering of music. It's still psychedelic music, whatever that means to you, because that's a very vague term, but the festival's taken on a life of its own, it's become its own thing, with its own mind and its own characteristics. And it's still a child, if you think about it. It's still a six year old. So it makes mistakes, it stumbles, and it learns from its mistakes, that's the most important part.

If the festival never made a dime, if nothing was ever financially successful, I see so much success in the festival in a non-financial way, it's so apparent. If you were at the festival you'd see and hear so many different types of people from all over the world that were just happy to be there and happy to be around other people that were just truly music appreciators and music researchers. That's the difference that I would identify; that people that listen to this style of music are active music researchers, they're constantly seeking out new bands. And by definition, it's kind of funny, but the definition of an intelligent person is someone who is actively researching information all the time.

So if you apply that to people who come to the festival, these are actually intellectual music researchers. And this is a different festival; these people might have been to a hundred festivals in their life, and so we don't get some of the problems that other festivals are prone to. Like, some kid's not going to run off and do something crazy; these people are seasoned music lovers. And I think that's kind of interesting too; the range and the scope of people that come. People in their sixties and seventies all the way down to teenagers, and realistically the teenagers might have got into it because their older brothers are there, or their parents are there, or something.

Even in the Black Angels' career, the first people that were coming to our shows were record store owners in their fifties and sixties. And it was that way for a long time. And just recently, very recently we're like wow, there's younger people! There's actually a girl here to see the show! I'm halfway joking about that, but we've started to see the demographic of our fanbase - that sounds so tacky coming out of my mouth, act like I didn't say that - the people that come to our shows, whatever they need from a show, that demographic is changing. I think it's interesting. It's spreading, it's getting more youthful, and at the end of the day if this style of music becomes the new pop music, like it used to be, if it becomes the new popular scene, I don't think that will be a bad thing.

There's the Psych Fest and there's the Reverberation Appreciation Society, who are the official organisers and who also run a record label. What's the relationship between the Black Angels and the Reverberation Appreciation Society? Are you kind of the same, or are they different people?

AM: It's basically the same. There are four of us. The Reverberation Appreciation Society is me, Rob Fitzpatrick, Christian Bland and Oswald James. We started this organisation and gave it this weird long name to do stuff like the festival, and we wanted to be able to help our friends if they didn't have an outlet for their music. We've met tons of great musicians over the course of our career, and tons that just don't have an outlet, and that was kind of why the society was created. It was to keep the music going, the music that we believed in. There are bands that we work with that obviously inspire us, and that have inspired us to become a band, and now we're booking those bands that were key inspiring factors in the creation of our own band. We're having them play at our festival, and it's like this weird full circle that's very humbling and we're very grateful to the little successes of this festival, and the different projects that we're doing; we're very appreciative of the little success that we've had.

Knowing that we're working with bands like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club or the Warlocks or Tinariwen or the Brian Jonestown Massacre or the Raveonettes, the list can go on and on. We wouldn't be a band without some of these key people. And we've realised as we've matured and grown, it only makes sense and it's only fair to give back to that community and that ball of energy that we were inspired from originally - whether that be Roky Erickson, or the Seeds, or the Moving Sidewalks, or Simeon from the Silver Apples.

Speaking about working with the people who inspired you, you've toured with Roky Erickson [of the 13th Floor Elevators] as his backing band. How was that?

AM: We're from the same city as Roky; we're inspired by the 13th Floor Elevators, and so if we backtrack to 2007, 2008, actually being in Austin and creating the style of music that we're doing, there wasn't a lot of people doing that. And I think people quickly started connecting the dots, and we're not a band that hides our influences. And word got back to Roky's manager, Darren Colbert, and Darren called us one day and asked us if we wanted to back Roky Erickson, and be his backing band on a tour. And we were just like wow, that's just like amazingly incredibly awesome, a great offer. We were really looking forward to playing a lot of 13th Floor Elevators stuff; like, this is maybe our chance to play lost 13th Floor Elevators songs, shed some light back on the Elevators. But they really wanted to realise the full scope of Roky Erickson's career, from the Elevators on… well, basically everything after the Elevators! So we were like, oh, well our favourite stuff is kind of the Elevators stuff. So we came to a happy agreement on the set list of Elevators songs that we could play and stuff that he was comfortable playing.

Yeah, because Roky does seem to do more Elevators songs playing with you guys than he does normally. He usually doesn't like playing Elevators songs apart from the one or two that he solely wrote, but he seems happier playing a wider range of songs when he's with you.

AM: Roky came to our house - we're all living with each other - and we sat down and we re-taught him these songs that he wrote when he was 16, 17 years old. We re-taught him the lyrics and the guitar parts. It was fascinating; it was like, you wrote this song in 1965; can you tell me about it? And he was like; I don't really remember writing that song. And then we'd play it for him, and Christian would play his part for him on the guitar, and it would start to come back to him. And then all of a sudden he'd remember more and more of the song, and by the end of the session he'd remember the entire song, when he wrote it, and what he was thinking about. But in the beginning he didn't really remember any of that.

That was when I started looking at music in a different way, in a kind of therapeutic way. Music really cleared his mind up a lot, and really made him more focussed and… just more clear. If we were hanging out with him before we were making music he would just be kind of looking off into the distance. He was there, but he was distant. But once you started playing music, he became more alive. It was feeding his soul; you could see it in his eyes. And he'd clear up and start communicating more, and he'd start smiling and it was truly like this therapeutic thing that I noticed, it was amazing, it was beautiful.

What was it like actually touring with him?

AM: I'd kind of compare it to riding an unbroken horse. While being chased by a vampire bat. In the dark. And there's no saddle, and you're just holding on to the mane, and trying to stay completely connected to that beast, and help guide it and just live through that whole experience and get out safe! I remember there were a couple of times when we just kind of looked at each other on stage and we were all just kind of lost in a way. Sometimes Roky would play a verse a couple of times not how we had practised it, and we just had to go with it, which made us better musicians. It made us pay more attention to each other, and listen to each other. So the whole process was a great learning experience for us. Whereas in the beginning, live with the Black Angels, we could close our eyes, turn off the lights and just make music, and not ever look at each other once. But this added a new element that definitely helped our band grow.

One thing that's always been there in your lyrics, from the first album on, is that you do write a lot about war and about guns; that's there from 'The First Vietnamese War' on the first album, to 'Don't Play with Guns' and 'War on Holiday' and 'Broken Soldier' on Indigo Meadow. This is a subject you keep coming back to, it seems.

AM: Yeah. I think again that's one of those things where if you were to ask me what kind of music I was going to write, I probably wouldn't tell you 'Oh, I'm going to write about this, this, this and this'. But if you were to document it you might say wow, there's a lot on this theme here, you know. And those are things that we obviously care about. We care about the community and we want to empower people to do something great with their lives and question those things that are destroying the world. It's always amazed me the amount of energy and money we put into discovering fossil fuels and changing other peoples' perceptions. And we don't spend an equal amount of money back home helping assimilate soldiers back into society, helping the education system of America, getting the pharmaceutical chemicals out of our water - I mean, it's just amazing how much money and energy we spend in the search for fossil fuels, and other peoples' land, and we don't put an equal amount of money or energy back into the problems we have at home. It's always been apparent, and growing up in Texas, or just growing up in America, you see these issues and you hear people talking about them, but they're in reality more as you get older. More and more veils are lifted up, and you see more things are connected. All the dots become connected in this constellation of terror, of fear.

There's a lot of fear and tension in the Black Angels' music, it seems.

AM: Growing up, having parents who are products of the Cold War, you would hear these conversations, like how close we came to global destruction. The truth of it is, I don't think the Cold War is over. It's not called the Cold War; it's called something else. We're still having the same issues, but it makes people feel better to say that the Cold War's done. That Cold War specifically is done, because we outspent every other country. And through our space program, it's like, okay, we're on the moon! One little astronaut! We outspent every other country, in terms of our military, our space program, but the Cold War's still not over. It maybe changed its focus a little bit, but going back to our thing, being a product of parents who were really familiar with the Cold War, and having that fear hanging over your head, it trickles down into the youth, into the children.

And there are a lot of elements of fear growing up, especially in a Christian community, with that whole [idea that] the world's being held by a string and at any moment God can cut it, and you fall into Hell and you burn forever. You know, that's a very scary thing to be told as a child. And like we said earlier, when you have a culture raised with those notions, that mentality, you have a counter-reaction to that, whether it's conscious or subconscious, it's inevitable that it's going to happen.

Do you see that happening on a wider scale?

AM: I think we're seeing that now. My parents saw it in the '60s, and everything's cyclical, but at the same time, right now we're dealing with things that we've never dealt with before. We've never had this information that can travel at the speed of light, literally, to other nations, that helps feed us fear, and also at the same time helps numb the fear. And it helps people take their minds off the true issues. The internet is a very powerful tool, and it's a very interesting ingredient to throw into the cyclical behaviour of society. We've never seen it before, and we won't truly know the power of the internet until fifty years from now, or what its potential can be. I'm very hopeful that it can be used as a great tool. That's just my outlook on life though. Fearful and afraid the same as everybody else as I am, I still have hope for humanity. That's just what I choose; I choose to believe in people, that there are more good people than bad people in this world. And that is the inspiring factor for me to write music. And that's a huge inspiration for me, in seeing people do their things.

One thing that's impressive about the Black Angels is that you do actually write about something, whether you'd call it political or not, but you do make some kind of statement. And it seems that fewer bands do that now, especially among the 21st century psychedelic bands that often make great music, but seem to deliberately avoid saying anything. I don't know whether you feel that audiences are a bit more cynical and wary of bands making statements, so bands are a bit more wary too, of having a strong radical message in their lyrics in the way that maybe their influences, like the Doors or Jefferson Airplane, once did?

AM: Yeah, I don't know what to attribute that to. I always go back to asking, what do people do with the power they have? And again, let's throw the internet in there. Why did the internet get big? It got big because of the porn. Because of porn we needed bigger servers, there was advertising money making it bigger; so from the get-go you understand why the internet is so big, because this is what people are doing with the time and the power that they have. And people can do whatever the fuck they want - it's not for me or you to say what people can do - but we should analyse it. What are people doing with the power they have? Then take that and apply it to music. And there's escapism in music already. So if you have escapism in music it's really easy to stay there lyrically, and just talk about things that maybe don't have a message. You can still have people talking about things that are important to them, but that aren't necessarily important to your standard, or mine. But those people survive. They list with the storm and they're still breathing at the end of the day. And it's almost like the people that do have the message are the ones that die off. That's not always the case, but from a musical evolutionary standpoint, a lot of people don't want to hear some harsh reality and some truth, because their music is escapism. It's no longer a tribe passing down information about where to fish in the jungle, and how to fish, and what medicines to eat. It's now truly escapism, and people keep it there.  

But at the same time, you can change two or three lyrics in a love song and all of a sudden you're talking about the power that a government has over an individual. Or it used to be a love song, and now it's about gun control. So it's about context. It's not about tricky writing or clever writing; it's about allowing it to be viewed from many different perspectives. And if you can get the peoples' attention and then get over a message, it can be the best of both worlds. You look at bands like the Beatles, often one of their songs was like, the children viewed it as a protest song but their parents might think of it as a love song, or think it was talking about something entirely different.

So there's ways to write - and we're not the best at it, at all - but there's ways to not be so in your face with some things, and turn people away from your music who are afraid to deal with real issues, and there's a way to be very blunt and say 'This is what's fucking happening in our world, and what are you doing about it, what am I doing about it, what are we, co-operatively together, doing about these issues?' And what are the issues? The issues that I think are important might not be important to anybody else, and at the end of the day, I'm fine with that. I'm fine with us being what we are, whether it be overtly political or completely escapist, because you have to have both of those things in this world. Otherwise, you just have fear.

The Black Angels' Indigo Meadow is out now. For more, visit their website. The band play the following dates in the UK over the coming week:

25th - Brighton, The Haunt
26th - London, Elektrowerkz
27th - London, Rough Trade East
28th - Glastonbury Festival, Worthy Farm