Austin five-piece The Black Angels have been creating textured psychedelic rock for over a decade now. Formed in 2004, their first album Passover came out to a wave of critical acclaim and since then, they've put out three more long players. 2013's Indigo Meadow being their most recent.
Next month (Friday 21st April) sees the release of their eagerly anticipated fifth record Death Song, and with the band also set to hit the road shortly including a headline slot at Liverpool's International Festival Of Psychedelia in September 2017 promises to be a busy year for one of the most influential outfits in the psych rock scene.
DiS caught up with founder member, songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist Alex Maas to talk about the new record, the band's legacy within the psychedelic scene and Levitation, the festival created and curated by the band themselves.
It's been four years since the last Black Angels album (Indigo Meadow in 2013). When did the writing process begin for Death Song?
Alex Maas: It probably started around the time Indigo Meadow came out. I started writing 'I Dreamt' about five years ago and it's taken on about ten different forms since then. Some of the versions are really trancey and then some are completely not Black Angels style at all. I like this version a lot. The whole band plays on it whereas the early versions are very streamlined. There are about five songs on the record that were written three years ago. They were in the pot brewing for a while. In fact, other than that and maybe 'Estimate', everything else was written in the last two to three years.
Were there any other songs written around that time which didn't make it onto the album?
Yeah. That's always the case with us. We released some of the songs that didn't make the last record on the Clear Lake Forest EP a year after Indigo Meadow came out. That's almost half an album's worth in itself. To me it doesn't really seem like four years because I'm writing all the time. So there are a bunch of songs that didn't make this record. But that's a normal situation to us. Whether they just weren't ready or not tight enough lyrically. Not as sound structurally or sonically as some of the other ones.
Will some of those songs be revisited in the future?
There are three or four of them that I really love and wanted on the record but the band's a democracy. Some of my favourites didn't make it and some of the others' favourites didn't make it. We had forty songs to choose from. We had a lot of ideas but what do you put your focus into? We went back and forth to the label several times and eventually decided this should be a shorter record as opposed to a longer one. At one point we were thinking about making a double album with twenty songs on it. But the way people listen to music right now probably wouldn't do a record of that length justice. We'd put out twenty songs and people maybe listen to three of them. People's attention spans are so short. What I'd like to do is put another record out in maybe eighteen months to two years time. We're going to be touring for the best part of a year so it would be great to have another one ready to go when we finish. I think the record has a lot of depth. You have a song like 'Currency' that's one of the heaviest pieces of music we've ever recorded then something like 'Half Believing' that's completely different. We wanted to show that kind of diversity on the record.
Songs like 'Currency' and 'Grab As Much (As You Can) are quite heavy and visceral compared to your more recent output. The majority of Death Song' reminds me your earlier albums Passover and Directions To See A Ghost_, sonically at least. Was that your intention from the outset?
Because I got so involved with making the record it's hard for me to see it how other people see it. I hear some songs off Indigo Meadow like 'Always Maybe' for example and think that could have been on Directions To See A Ghost. I find it difficult to differentiate the sounds between our records most of the time. Whether that's a bad thing I don't really know. A song like 'Currency' could definitely work on Passover. We're quite linear in the way we work, probably because we aren't technically the best musicians! Most of our favourite bands work in a similar way. They don't change a lot from record to record and neither do we. It's all about the groove and the feel. 'Grab As Much (As You Can)' is one of my favourite songs on the record. That song also has a couple of different versions but the one on the album is definitive of what it needs to sound like. That one didn't change too much from the demo to the actual record whereas a lot of the other songs did. That's why I like 'Grab As Much (As You Can)' so much. It's like when you paint something then someone paints over the top of it to make it better without changing the original painting too much. 'Grab As Much (As You Can)' didn't really change that much from the earliest conception of the record. It's got a great groove to it. For me it's perfect driving music.
'Currency' seems to be about challenging capitalism and materialistic values. Did the current political climate culminating in the election of Donald Trump have any influence on the songwriting for this record?
'Currency' was written before Donald Trump got elected. I'd like to think all of our songs would be relevant beyond a four-year term. Whether that's true or not is down to personal opinion I guess, but when I look back at something like 'Don't Play With Guns' off the last album for example, it's still quite relevant now. It's always been an important song lyrically. There are topics that will always be an issue. So a song like 'Currency' that's about money and how it's all smoke and mirrors in a way is something that's always interested the band and always interested me. The idea of questioning who's in control might have been relevant fifty years ago and might still be relevant later if we're all in the same monetary system. It's important now but could easily have been as important a hundred years ago. I try to write in a way that will be seen as being timeless and that's the difficult part. Sometimes, the harder you try to do that the more streamlined it becomes. I write about topics like on 'Comanche Moon' which is about the extension of the native Americans and having no sympathy for the white man. It's always been a problem and that's how I feel with 'Currency'. It's always been an issue, and the current political mayhem that's going on in our country right now kind of reaffirms what I believe to be true. Lyrically these are things we should just think about in general. We finished the record in late November, early December which was before Trump's inauguration and I definitely think the current situation has helped perpetuate these topics. I'd like to think they've always been topics that needed to be discussed.
'Life Song' which closes the album reminds me of Hunky Dory era David Bowie meets The Monkees' 'Porpoise Song' off the Head soundtrack and is arguably the most traditionally psychedelic song The Black Angels have ever written. What was the inspiration behind it?
I don't think we'd have written a song like that when we were making Passover. Especially with the chord changes and everything. Our newest band member Jake (Garcia, guitars) wrote that song and the first time I heard those chord changes I thought there was something very beautiful about it. The familiarity was something that drew me to it, but it also made me a little hesitant about putting it on the record. You always want to put something on a record that people may have heard before, but in a slightly different way to how they first heard it. 'Life Song' had that kind of familiarity for me. We all put our heads together when we first heard the structure of that song but none of us can take the credit apart from Jake. He really nailed it in a more dynamic way than we would have done as a band. Having Jake in the band has made us approach music in a different way. He was a big influence on this record and I think he's helped us raise our musicianship as a result of his input. It made us push the bar and think about doing something we'd never done before. Whether he felt that or not, I felt it personally.
You worked with Phil Eck who produced the last Father John Misty album for Death Song, as opposed to John Congleton who worked on the last record. What did he bring to the process and would you work with him again?
I would like to work with Phil again. He was great at getting our ideas out of us. He spent a lot of time in the studio and wanted to get as much done as possible the first time as opposed to doing it in post-production. I thought we were going to be working with Pablo Clements and James Griffith from UNKLE on this record but it didn't quite work out for a lot of reasons. Mainly due to time and because they're in Brighton and we're here in Austin. It would have been crazy for us all to go back and forth a bunch of times but I still wonder how songs like 'I Dreamt' or 'Medicine' would have sounded had they worked on the record. My whole perception of this record changed a lot after that. Imagine them doing it then imagine Phil doing it.
He wanted to do it and wanted to work with us. The day after we found out we weren't going to be working with Pablo and James, Phil called our management. He just happened to have dinner with his wife the night before and one of our songs came on so his wife asked him, "How come you've never worked with The Black Angels?" So he called our management the next day to find out what we were up to. We were a little bummed out at the time because we wanted the record to be out earlier. I hate using the word serendipitous but the serendipity of the situation was undeniable! I don't think Phil had ever worked with a psych rock band before and we'd never worked with anyone like Phil before so I was a little hesitant. But he's got a tonne of great records under his belt and if someone's been doing something for 27 years and they're still doing it, they've got to be doing something right. We had a great time working with him and I'd absolutely work with him again.
Did he have much of an influence on the direction the record took or the tracklisting?
Not really. We kind of knew which songs we wanted to make the record with. I'd say Phil had more of an input sonically rather than structurally. He's a great mixing engineer on top of just being a great mind. He just got us straightaway. By the end of making the record, I'd gone from never meeting this guy to really appreciating how great he is musically.
You've recently signed to Partisan Records. How did that come about and how do they compare with other labels you've worked with?
We've never really been signed to a label before. Light In The Attic was a reissue label and Blue Horizon was just created for Phosphene Dream then Indigo Meadow. I feel like we've never truly been on a record label. As a reissue label that doesn't have any bands on it Light In The Attic are the best. They're gold standard in my mind of what a correct label is. We were the only band on there. Blue Horizon was just Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer trying to rekindle their business relationship for Phosphene Dream, so this is actually our first record on a label ever. Without taking anything away from Light In The Attic - I still love those guys. They're like family to me - this is the first time we've ever had other bands on the same label as us. We've never had that before so it's interesting. Right now I don't know how it will turn out but they're doing a great job promoting this record. Tim Putnam who owns the label really pushed me lyrically. I don't know if I got there or not but having someone push me so hard from outside the band that's not my wife was a really helpful thing. He helped motivate me which I've never had before and it was so great to have. I'm so excited about this record. It's changed so many times but I wouldn't go back and change it now.
You're touring the States with A Place To Bury Strangers soon. How did that come about and will you be bringing the tour to the UK?
We've been friends with those guys for a long time. We've played together at festivals seven or eight times and they've always been so amazing. The live show is crazy and just keeps on getting better. And they have all the same influences as you and me. So that was kind of like a no brainer. We thought about doing something really left field and going out with a band that was completely different from us. We might still do that in the future, but for this east coast tour it made a lot of sense to take A Place To Bury Strangers with us. Primarily because we love their music. And it's cool to have that ability to be able to tour with bands you like. Sometimes you end up being stuck on tour with people you don't like and it doesn't work so I'm really excited we're going to be touring with those guys. We're coming over to the UK later in the year but I'm not sure if its going to be the same line up as I think they're also coming over at some point this year.
You're headlining Liverpool Psych Fest in September. What can we expect from the set? Will it be predominantly off the new album or a career spanning mix of all your records?
I haven't really thought about what songs we're going to play. I can't imagine the kind of discussion a band like The Brian Jonestown Massacre might have. What songs are we going to play? They were playing three hour sets years ago! I guess we'll have a better idea closer to the time, but I think we'll probably want to keep it upbeat and tripped out and maybe slightly more trancey than usual. We do have songs that we can't play during the daytime and we definitely have songs that don't work at night time! We'll definitely be playing songs off each record. It's an awesome festival and we can't wait to play it.
You're also responsible for Levitation Festival, which is taking a year off in 2017. What's the reason behind that and what can we expect in 2018?
We had to cancel last year's event and it was such a financial crush. We got hammered. We had a big insurance policy and we took some advice from people that didn't turn out to be the best. So we needed to take a year out and figure out how we're going to bounce back from this. It still sucks. It makes my stomach hurt thinking about how I had to cancel last year, how many disappointed people were there. We did everything we could to make the festival happen in terms of doing extra shows. The city really came together. It still feels like a psychedelic South By Southwest. It's just so heartbreaking. Where do we go from here to make this work? It's hard to be in a hole so deep and dig your way out. We've never done it for money. We've never made money on it. But when you lose a shitload of money it takes all the fun out of it. We were doing it for fun. That's it. And we were bringing this scene together that's growing and still is growing.
We're still seeing psych fests pop up all over the place which is great. Hopefully we can pick it back up in 2018. We have a master list of bands who might play it which is basically if you had to pick your favourite top 500 bands to play a festival, this is what it would look like! I like doing that in a selfish kind of way. The selfishness is neat. It's basically us picking which bands we'd like to come and play our party. And it's great to see people come from all over the world to support this community. It's fantastic. I want it to happen again next year and the wheels are already in motion. It's like a train. Once you've started it can't stop. If we can't do it financially then we just can't do it. That's the bottom line.
It's South By Southwest next week and The Black Angels traditionally play a few shows there every year. Are you playing this year?
Yeah, we are. We always say we're going to play zero to maybe one show then end up doing three or four. We just end up saying yes to everything! We're doing a couple of shows this year. We're playing on the Friday at 1am in a place called Mohawk. Then we're doing a show for Spotify. Do you use Spotify?
I do use Spotify
I struggle with streaming services like Spotify to be honest. 125,000 people listened to our music on Spotify in one month and we'll receive probably 40 or 50 bucks from that. Not that it's all about the money but it's nuts. Why don't these streaming companies slowly increase their subscriptions? People will pay it. I would pay it. I couldn't live without music. We're paying 150 dollars a month for cable television. I'd happily pay 200 dollars a month to use Spotify. I'd pay whatever it costs. The problem is if Spotify charged 100 dollars a month then someone else would come in underneath them and charge less so I understand why they're trying to keep it low. But if there was some kind of government regulation where these streaming companies weren't allowed to charge below a certain amount it would give more value to the music. How it is at the moment just isn't fair. I encourage all streaming companies to increase their prices all at once.
It would have to be regulated otherwise there's no guarantee an increase in prices for streaming services would lead to an increase in royalty payments for artists
That's why there needs to be government intervention. That's the only way it can work. Why wouldn't they want to increase the music economy? Even if they only did it by a single dollar think how much money that would generate. I think if they slowly do it like the cable companies did there'd be no issue. There are bands who are working as parking attendants to pay the bills. I love the idea that someone in Vietnam can listen to anything they want to without having to rely on a record shop to stock it. That's not to say we don't need more record shops because we do. But it's so great that I can listen to music that was made in 1968 on the internet. Check it out and decide whether I want to buy the record or not. But the cost of being able to do that needs to increase. At the moment it's outrageous. The people who really care about music wouldn't bat an eyelid. There's millions of us.
You did some 10th anniversary shows for Passover last year. Can we expect something similar when Directions To See A Ghost turns 10 next year?
If people ask then maybe we will. People asked us to play those Passover shows so we did. If somebody wants us to do that for Directions To See A Ghost it will be fun. That just puts into perspective how old we're all getting! Passover is eleven years old now. Where did all that time go?!? That was one of the hardest things about Levitation. We'd ask bands to play certain songs or records from a certain period in their catalogue. No offence to anything else they've done. It was just for us and our own selfish reasons. I love that kind of approach to curation at festivals. Being very specific even though we felt some people might take offence to it. It's not that we don't like anything else they've made. We just love this particular record. I think All Tomorrow's Parties may have started it? We benchmarked a lot off that festival. How cool they were and the things they did. How they popped up at these cool little venues all over the place.
Are there any artists you'd recommend Drowned In Sound and its readers should check out?
What advice would you give to new bands just starting out?
The most important piece of advice you can give somebody is to just have faith in yourself. Don't lose that blind faith your art can be heard. Also, understand the business side of art. The business side of music. In America, the education system is pretty terrible along with a lot of other things that are wrong with the country. But what astounds me is how many artists have no idea about business. I'm not saying I know everything about business either, but I honestly believe there should be a pre-requisite business course you have to take if you're an artist. Just to give you the courage and know how to even talk about business in the way that most people do. Bands need to get their hands dirty and understand what's happening in the business side of music. Get to know why you need a manager and a booking agent and a lawyer and what they do. It makes so much more sense to have someone representing you but a lot of bands are in the dark about what these people can do for them. Even if it's a friend that's acting like a manager. I know people that manage themselves as well, but having the know how not to get screwed is so important.
So many artists are of the opinion that business and art don't go together and that's just not true. But that's what everybody thinks in the beginning. I don't think anyone is born business minded. People work at it and they learn the skills. It's such a great attribute to have. Also, most bands in America tend to live with each other, and I think that's a really great thing to do because you're impregnating yourself with the idea of being in a band and whether this relationship's going to work or not. Try to surround yourself with people that are doing the same things. Finally, don't let people try to change you or who you are. If you do the magical spark that exists between you and your fellow musicians will disappear. Once someone starts meddling with what you're about it can fuck everything up.
Death Song is out on 21 April via Partisan Records. For more information on The Black Angels, visit their official website.