From Austin To Bristol: A conversation with The Black Angels

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I’m sitting upstairs at the Trinity Centre in Bristol. It’s about two hours before the doors open and a sold-out crowd will be making their way in. Myself and all five members of The Black Angels have been exploring the converted church, mostly out of curiosity but also to find a quiet space to talk whilst the raucous A Place To Bury Strangers complete their sound check.

It’s raining outside, and we get chatting about Bristol, a city that they’ve been to a couple of times before. The band have just finished their sound check and have some time to kill. “I think we are going to go across the street later to the music shop,” guitarist Jake Garcia tells me. The shop they’re talking about is Electric Ladyland, a vintage music shop split across three floors. It’s rammed with 70s Marshall amps and Burns guitars, with little regard for order. It’s an interesting place and one where the Austin, Texas psych giants will fit in.

The band formed back in 2004, drawing inspiration from The Velvet Underground and 13th Floor Elevators. Since then have put out five studio LPs. Their sound is what defines them; it’s a dark, brooding and ethereal, and has developed in an impressive and positive way since their debut record Passover. “I think we’ve become much tighter knit,” vocalist Alex Maas tells me. “We’ve become closer friends and hopefully that translates in the development of the records.” He pauses before continuing with a laugh, “we still all like each other, so that’s good!” But a close bond doesn’t make producing a record any easier. In fact, if anything, it’s made it harder. “I don’t think it ever gets easier,” Alex admits, “we question the songs a lot.” Sitting next to Alex is Jake who takes on multiple roles playing, guitars, bass and sometimes just a tambourine. He chips in, “I think we always want to make a record that tops the last one. You kinda have to do it personally first.”

Lyrically, The Black Angels are just as interesting as they are sonically. The first time you hear their records some of its meaning will, doubtlessly, escape you. What sounds like a simple love song may not be as vulnerable as it first seems. “We like that, we’ve always been intrigued by writing like that, and a lot of our favourite bands have written like that.” It’s certainly a conscious writing approach from the band, and Alex admits that their music can be viewed in different ways. “I think it’s a really clever way of writing, and it’s fun.” Jake’s take on writing is that it’s great to be true to yourself, which as musicians can certainly be hard at times. “You can have really honest, hidden moments that are very personal, but somebody else hears something different.” Jake tells me. Ultimately, they agree that their music is open to interpretation and that’s an important aspect of their creative process.

Topics such as politics and war are often a grey area in music as bands are often either outspoken or silent about it, but for The Black Angels they want to touch deeper than just the surface of what’s on their mind. We discuss their platform as artists with an international reach and if they feel like they should be using it as a way of speaking out about global issues. “I would never tell an artist what you write about, that’s part of the creative freedom,” Alex tells me, reflecting on his lyricism. “Is it someone’s civic duty to talk about these topics? Yeah, I guess it’s everyone’s duty, not just artists.” I’m curious if they feel that other bands should be using their platform to challenge social issues, but Alex says that everyone should be more vocal, not just artists. “We try not to preach too much,” he states as Jake and Christian Bland, one of the band’s guitarists who has just joined us, nod in agreement. “We try to encourage people to think for themselves.”

In 2008, The Black Angels announced that they would be doing a string of dates with Roky Erickson of the legendary 13th Floor Elevators, playing as his backing band. Erickson has had a rough past, battling with severe mental health issues which resulted in him receiving involuntary electroconvulsive therapy.

In 1974, he created a new band, and since then has been playing on and off. There was a notable creative decline in his career at one point, but after getting back into music it was announced The Black Angels would be playing as his band after they met Erickson’s manager at SXSW. I’m talking to Alex, Christian and Jake about this not so much to hear about their experience, but to discuss music and song writing as a therapeutic exercise. “When we were touring with Roky we would ask him about a song that he had written and he didn’t have much clarity or insight to the song,” Alex tells me. “After we played a show we would talk to him again, ask him the same question, and everything would be really clear to him.” I found this fascinating. The idea that just playing his music allowed him to open up and remember more about his music.

After they agreed to play with Roky they had to learn material that he had never released before, but also had to play the original 13th Floor Elevators songs, especially from the first record. “It was interesting actually,” Alex remembers. “Christian and Nate [Ryan, former guitarist for The Black Angels] retaught Roky a lot of the songs he wrote in our house because he didn’t remember them.” Whilst teaching Roky his songs they become clearer to him and his memories of writing them and what they were about would come back to him. This is, in Alex’s words, a testament to how music can be therapeutic. “Naturally we were going to have our own take on the songs we taught him, but we would try and play the Elevators stuff like the Elevators would play it.”

The band’s hometown, Austin, is home to a diverse music scene and its roots are rich in alternative and psychedelic music. “Most bands migrate there,” Christian says. “It’s sort of the creative point of Texas.” Alex agrees with this, adding that Austin is a liberal and open minded place.  There’s certainly an influence from the outsider population, evidenced by how many great bands are around. “It creates a great community though, people coming in from California, New York, wherever,” Jake chips in. “Also, the food is great!”.

Along with the great community, Alex admits that it creates a strong competition. “It makes people really step up,” he says talking about the quality of music coming from the city. “People know that you need to tour, and a lot of bands are getting in the mindset of that.” Despite there being such a rich culture of music, Alex mentions that the thing he misses most is that big bands no longer play Austin as much because they stick to one of the few large festivals that city holds. As an outsider to Austin I’ve always seen it as being a home to psychedelic music, but we dip into the subject of psych and its evolvement from the early days.

Psychedelic as a genre has, especially in recent years, become such a wide term. It’s constantly developing, which makes it one of the best music subcultures around right now. There are bands now that are considered psychedelic that maybe once wouldn’t have fit into the genre. “It’s all in the eyes of the beholder”, Alex thinks. “It’s definitely incorporated other genres now, like surf for example.”

As a touring band they all admit that they have seen a rise in the psychedelic scene. Alex was already aware of the Bristol Psych Fest, which is run by local psych label Stolen Body Records, but he finds the rise of small festivals and communities a really important part of the genre. “It creates a great community of free thinkers and open minded people and I think that’s a testament to show the strength and creativity that this culture has to offer.” The Black Angels run their own festival in Austin, now named Levitation Fest, which has seen the likes of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Tame Impala, Warpaint and The Warlocks to name a few.  Alex has nothing but positivity for the people working to create a local community and speaking about Levitation Fest he says “everybody gets together and everybody knows each other, and it’s great.”

It’s just a few hours now until The Black Angels headline Bristol and there is certainly an expectation for them to provide something stunning. When seeing them in the past summer at Primavera Sound they combined beautiful psychedelic visuals with their deep and ethereal tones and it hit more than just the audience’s ears. As a band they’ve never been ones to stray away from experimenting with lights and visuals to trigger other senses when watching. On this tour they are collaborating with visual artist Bob Mustachio (The Mustachio Light Show) to add another dimension to their set. “The collaboration definitely affects our show,” Alex admits. “We’ve known Bob for ten years, he’s like another member of the band. We get together before each tour and talk about exactly what we want to do, production wise.” They have always experimented with visuals, dating back to when they started. “Having the visual aspect alongside the music just makes it a full sensory experience.” Jake describes it as enhancing the audience’s other senses. “We like to create our own world wherever we go,” Christian adds. “We want to immerse people. Some bands have make up or uniforms, you know, and we have Bob.” There’s a laugh around that statement but what they say is very much true. The band’s visuals and Bob Mustachio’s work does create a whole new dimension to the live performances that sticks with you. “There’s more to life than just music,” Alex pauses. “Obviously it’s really important to you, and us, but there’s other ingredients to life than music, and that’s what makes life beautiful.”

It seems like a fitting way to end our conversation, as the sun begins to set behind the large stain glass window. The Black Angels have proved to be more than just what is heard on record, pushing boundaries with live shows and creating something that’s bigger than just music. Christian is totally right when he says they create their own world. Speaking to them for the past half hour I feel like they’ve given me a true insight into what they’re about, and the ever growing and touring world of The Black Angels is certainly something that inspires many people. They are helping set the way for the genre and making a large statement within the global psych community. Without a doubt they are deserving of the respect they get as artists, and as we part ways, the main thing I can think about, which is an exciting thought, is how they can continue to push the boundaries of what they do over the next few years.

Words and photo by Nathan McLaren-Stewart.