The Black Angels: chatting with Alex Maas
I'm convinced The Black Angels, a psychedelic indie rock band from Austin, Texas, will put on a couple of must-see shows this week. The band plays its first New Zealand shows - Wellington, tomorrow, Bodega and then Auckland, Thursday, June 20, The Studio (see how many you can squeeze in there this week, eh?)
The band has also released a fantastic new album, Indigo Meadow.
Last week I spoke with Alex Maas, head Angel.
"We're really excited about coming to New Zealand - not just for the music, I'm hoping to get a chance to look around at some of the fantastic plant life you have there. I'll be checking out what I can - we're really pumped about getting all the way down there - it's a long way".
So the usual sort of start to an interview...and I ask about the Austin scene - it seems the city has a lot to offer musically outside the cliché idea of bar-room blues-rockers.
"Well the music scene in Austin is a bit like the plant life in New Zealand", Maas says with just a slight laugh. "There are just so many different genres, it's a city that is full of creative people and some really great bands. Our goal, which I'm very proud to say we've achieved - thus far - is to just keep afloat, to keep going. I mean, to be financially successful you have to get out and about, around the city, around the state, you have to work up and down the country and - if you can - around the world. You certainly can't be financially successful and have any sort of assurance by just playing at the local bar. Not anymore anyway. That sort of assurance is long gone in this game - but fortunately for us we've never wanted to be pop stars, we're not trying to have a hit, the money we make just goes back into the band. It's reinvested so we've just been very lucky to keep going, to keep building. I mean it's a long way to New Zealand and Australia, it costs a lot - you know I could buy a car for what it's gonna cost me to get down there, probably! My credit card is max'd but we're excited. You have to try this. You have to do it if you can".
The leap of faith feels right too for Maas given the band aligns itself with groups like Wooden Shjips, Moon Duo and Black Lips, "and they've all been down to New Zealand, right? We hear stories - these bands return and tell us that they've played there, they loved it, the crowds loved them and it's heartening. It makes you want to go, you have to try this. You have to keep going and sometimes that means going a long, long way. Well, good."
"The other thing", he continues, well on a roll, "is that there's just no competition - no competitiveness - for us, for all those bands I mentioned. Well, I guess I shouldn't speak for them, but I feel that that's the case. We all want each other to succeed and we're really pleased for any little victory, there's no", a pause. Another pause. And then, with emphasis, "...there's no jealousy. That's what I've come to really appreciate from our little scene - if it is a scene - it's that idea of community, music as community. We are all pitching in, our fans are pitching in. It's a leap of faith to come to a show, it is very flattering to have people appreciate what you do and you can take that to heart and let it get in your head and blow you out or you can do something constructive with it, you can channel that energy and do the best you can; put on great shows, write the best songs you can and work really hard. We're a band that works hard; we've worked really hard to do what we do".
The Black Angels formed in 2004, taking their name from The Velvet Underground's tune, The Black Angel's Death Song. For Maas there hasn't so much been a focus on the 1960s ("we do reference the past, I guess, well, people say we do - but to us it's just the music we make") but he does, when ever-so-gently pushed, acknowledge an affinity for that era; or if not exactly a kinship still some form of fascination. "You know, I think what it is for me, what I come back to, there's great music across all decades but there was just so much soulfulness there and it was like a super-creative period, particularly those last few years of the 1960s".
I suggest that War On Holiday from the new album has something of the feel of Pink Floyd's Lucifer Sam to it.
"Wow, sure, yeah - I can hear that now. Yep. See that's what's great about talking to people who have listened to the record, they hear things in it that we maybe didn't - but I can see that sure. I don't know that the psychedelic tag we have around our music is quite so obvious now, not that I'm trying to hide from it or deny it but we've evolved, I think with each album there's a move - and I think we sound contemporary too and often people use psychedelic as a way to date bands; that doesn't always need to be the case".
Indigo Meadow builds, particularly, on the band's 2010 album, Phosphene Dream. That album, the band's third, saw their status elevated, Maas says they started to really "get noticed" on the back of that record and "there was a good momentum going on into this album from there". But that momentum also saw the band's bass player leave; Black Angels reduced now to a four-piece with Maas taking on the bass duties for the new album.
"Indigo is definitely a more collaborative album - we actually shared things around a lot, there was some instrument swapping and we'd approach the instruments differently, approaching songs from different angles too and talking more around how the parts might fit together but I think with Indigo it's really important to mention that we did have a fifth member in producer, John Congleton. His touch is all over this record and he is a really important part of the record, very much like fifth band member. And there was a sixth band member too - and that's the audience. Which might seem funny to say before they'd heard the record, but we thought - very much - about this record, or tried to think about it at least, from an audience perspective. Our audience has been very good to us and we don't want to let them down so we tried to make something that is what the audience would want. That might seem an obvious thing to say but it was really on our minds with this album".
The Black Angels have built up a solid reputation from gigging relentlessly, polishing each new record to improve on the last and sticking at it. "We've been here for nearly 10 years", Maas says, sounding very enthusiastic. "We're really grateful, I mean we just played the smallest bars and the smallest crowds and you never think you're going to get above and beyond that, but at the same time you're trying, you know. You're just working away and hoping you can do something else. You can't survive playing the same small bars all the time but you have to get better and offer the right stuff to play in bigger places, to bigger audiences, tour internationally.
A key moment in the band's career was working with Roky Erikson of The 13th Floor Elevators.
"Well that was a really special thing - but I'm not going to lie, that tour was tough. We were called in to work with Roky and in some cases we had to teach him his own songs, and Roky is great, he has something very special but it required a lot to get through that tour. But as far as a moment goes - yeah, you're on stage with a hero right there, someone whose music has meant so much so that was really amazing."
The new album fills up a lot of the band's current setlist but, Maas adds, "we'll be doing plenty of stuff from the other records too. We're playing a lot of this new album live, we like it, we think the songs sound good live, it's been getting good responses, but hey, we know that there are people in New Zealand more familiar with the material from the other records so we'll be playing plenty of that too. Absolutely".
Are you a Black Angels fan? Will you be going to one of the gigs? Are you tempted? I think they'll put on a great show - I love the band's music and am really settled in with the latest record particularly. (Click here to read my review of Indigo Meadow).
Do you have favourite songs from The Black Angels? Or a favourite album or EP? Do you rate the band? Or are you interested in checking them out now? Or have you not been impressed with their music at all?
You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts.