Black Angels Psych Fest 2013- John Boydston

The Black Angels

Scraping Chunks From the Bells:
The Black Angels Are the Best Part of the Trip

The Black Angels are reliable purveyors of a modern rethink of ’60s psychedelia. The Austin group’s updated approach is a kind of tribal psych, heavy on droning, hypnotic and irresistible tunes. The group is poised to release Death Song, its fifth (or sixth) album – we’ll explain that in a moment – and is heading out on the road in support of that record. I spoke with the Black Angels’ Christian Bland in mid-March.

It’s been almost exactly four years between the release of Indigo Meadow and Death Song. What has the band been up to in the intervening time period?

“We’ve been playing one-off shows every now and then; mostly in the U.S. and a little bit in Europe. But mainly over the past four years we’ve just been writing a lot. We started writing this new record in 2014; it’s been marinating for a while. We had about 40 or so songs, and over the four-year period we whittled it down to the songs that we thought were the best, and put them on the record.”

It’s been a fairly regular practice that not long after you release an album you follow it up with an EP or a non-album single. Not to get too ahead of ourselves – since Death Song isn’t out ‘til April 21 – but since you have so much material, do you think you’ll release an EP or non-album single soon?

“I think we’ll probably skip the EP and just jump right to another LP, because we have enough songs already. We already have about 10 songs ready to go.”

Clear Lake Forest came out in mid-2014; it’s classified as an EP, but if you compare it to some of the records that came out in the 1960s, it’s as long as an album. Was there a reason for marketing it as an EP instead of the band’s next album?

“I like to view it as a full length because it is about 30 minutes long. But for some reason – from a marketing perspective – they call it an EP. But between you and me, it’s an LP.”

In what ways do you think that Death Song differs from previous Black Angels albums?

“I think the songs had a little bit longer time to marinate and we crafted them more, more so maybe than Indigo Meadow. There was a lot of time put into this record and I think – I hope, but I don’t know – this record kind of hearkens back to the old sound like Passover. But then there’s other songs like “Half Believing” that are kind of a new sound for us. So we’re trying to push our sound further, too.”

With its very explicit reference to the Velvet Underground, the album title Death Song is a pretty obvious one. What led to using it now, and why didn’t you do that before?

“We had a different album title in mind. We have a publishing company called Black Angels Death Song Publishing. And the original title was going to be Death Song Publishing Company. And then we thought, oh, let’s just shorten it to Death Song and then when people say ‘the Black Angels’ Death Song,’ they’re saying the name of the song that we actually got our name from.”

The cover graphics of Death Song are very much a piece with that of the first three albums, which makes Indigo Meadow’s cover art stand out as very different. Can or should someone read any kind of significance into that?

“Well, I designed all the album covers … “

Then you would know!

“If you line all of them up, from Passover to Directions to See a Ghost to Phosphene Dream, then my thinking is that Indigo Meadow sits in the middle of those and the faces are looking to the past and to the future. And since the next one – to my mind – is Clear Lake Forest, it sort of mirrors Phosphene Dream’s design, and then the cover art for Death Song kind of mirrors the circular design of Directions To See A Ghost, so the next one will kind of have a design similar to Passover. My thinking was that you line all of them up, then it becomes one piece. Indigo Meadow is the middle piece where the faces are looking forwards and backwards.”

To what degree did you road-test any of the Death Song material in front of audiences before recording it?

“We were playing about four of the songs on the road the last few years. We played ‘I Dreamt’ for a really long time. ‘Hunt Me Down,’ played that out for a while. ‘Currency’ we did a little bit. But the others … Alex came into the studio with some ideas like ‘Estimate,’ so those were fleshed out more so in the studio. And then Dave Garcia – our newest member who joined us in 2013 – wrote the last song on the record. ‘Life Song’ was the first song that he brought to the table. Dave is of the same mind as all of us, so it’s been great having him.”

When you’re developing an arrangement in the studio, how much thought is given to being able to re-create the song in the context of the live show?

“Like I was saying, we got many of the Death Song songs down before we ever entered the studio. We had them down so we could play them live. That way, when we went into the studio we could record it all together. We laid down a foundation all together; we’d all be playing our instruments and Alex would sing a ‘scratch’ vocal. And then I’d go back and play some more guitar, organ or whatever. We might add Mellotron or something like that on it afterward. But for the most part, the songs are already pretty well laid out before going in the studio.”

Do you get a sense that there is some intangible advantage in playing together in the studio as opposed to everybody recording their parts separately and then flying everything together?

“We’ve always preferred to be a unit; that’s the best way. We just to do it as a group. Our live shows are important to us, so we want the recording to sound like a live show.”

People often remark upon this about Black Angels: everyone in the band plays multiple instruments. Over time, have you discovered that a particular line-up – say, you on bass instead of guitar – creates a specific sonic characteristic or personality that’s distinctly different from other configurations? And if you have, do you consciously use that when you’re putting songs together?

“I think so. Yeah, you can tell that most on the second record, Directions to See a Ghost, as there are two songs that I play drums on, and they have a totally different feel. I played drums and Stephanie [Bailey] played bass. But then when we went in to make Phosphene Dream, Dave Sardy was said, ‘When you’re recording, you should stick to the instrument you’re the most efficient at.’ That kind of went against what we were doing on Directions, and since then, Stephanie has pretty much remained on drums. We all still switch up; I’ll play bass on songs or organ on some, but Stephanie pretty much for the most part just stays behind the kit.

“But there is definitely a different feel when we switch. On this last album, we got a Mellotron and I’ve been playing that a lot on all the songs, so I tried to put the guitar down for this record and play more Mellotron.”

 The Black Angels have never been what one would call a commercially-minded group. That said, a few years back Alex told me that “Telephone” off Phosphene Dream was a conscious attempt to reach a wider audience. Would you agree, and if so, to what degree was that successful?

“Yeah, I guess so. I remember we recorded that in Los Angeles at Sunset Sound. We were all staying in a house together and I ordered a Rickenbacker 12 string. It was delivered to our house and right when I started playing it, that riff just came out. It was as if it was in the guitar and just needed to be let out. But the original way that that song sounded was slow; then when we went in and Dave Sardy started to produce, he was like, ‘I wanna speed it up!’ Y’know, I prefer things slow and molasses-y. But he sped it up, and that did make it more poppy. It’s funny: it’s so poppy that it’s my parents’ favorite song. And we’re not going in that direction.”

Way back in 2008 you guys worked with the 13th Floor Elevators’ Roky Erickson. At that time there were persistent rumors of an impending studio release, but nothing really materialized beyond the single “Thank God For Civilization.” When I interviewed Alex Maas in 2014, he told me that he still had hopes of releasing more from the sessions you did with Roky. Can you tell me a little bit about why it didn’t work out?

“We were given demos of Roky’s songs, and we chose our favorite ones. We recorded about 11 of his songs. We did all the music to those songs; that’s done. And our thought was that Roky would come in and sing on them, but he didn’t really remember the songs. We had done ‘Thank God…’ and we did another song called ‘Bo Diddley is a Headhunter’ …”

Right, the B-side of the single …

“Yeah. And Roky had a hard time even just singing ‘Bo Diddley is a Headhunter.’ And that’s the only line in the song. It just seemed like it was going to be too hard of a process for him to remember our songs. Later, this other band Okkervil River ended up recording some stuff with him; I’m not sure why they decided to go down that path instead of a path with the Black Angels. We were really hoping to make it like a 13th Floor Elevators record; we were going to have an electric jug on it. We might put that stuff out sometime on our own.

“I’ve done this sometimes: I’ll record a song in an hour; it just comes out of me, and I won’t really remember how to play it a month later. So I’m sure he just had a burst of creativity, came up with a song and recorded it. And maybe that’s the only time he ever played it.”

When I last spoke with Alex, the band was still relying as much as possible on vintage gear for live shows. Vox Continental and Jaguar combo organs; that kind of thing. Is that still true, and how important is that to the band’s aesthetic do you think?

“Yeah, we still do. And I think it’s very important. In my opinion, that old gear sounds better; most of it was hand-wired, and there’s more of a human element to it. Newer things are made in a factory, and the quality is poor. Most all of our stuff is old, but we combine old with new; that’s the whole idea of the Black Angels, of course. Our favorite genre of music is sixties rock ‘n’ roll; we use that kind of gear but bring it into the modern era.”

Your album credits sometimes list an instrument called a “drone machine.” What exactly is that: a modified Farfisa or Rheem keyboard? Or is it something else?

“That’s something we just made up!”

You and Alex are prime movers of the Reverberation Appreciation Society which created the Austin Psych Fest, now called Levitation. When you began that endeavor, did you ever expect it to expand and become as successful as it has been?

“No, no way. It’s gone beyond anything that I could have imagined. In 2015 there were about 10,000 people. The first year we started it, in 2008, we had about 700 people. So for it to go all the way to 10,000 in less than 10 years was pretty shocking.”

And it’s moved to other cities as well; there’s one in France …

“Yeah, so it’s in France, Chicago and Vancouver. Now we’re trying to expand it into other cities. Australia may be the next move. But you know, we have to get it under control in Austin first, after last year’s debacle. Because of the weather, we had to cancel everything. And we had to take a year off.”

You were involved in events at this year’s South by Southwest. I’m reading more and more about long-time attendees deciding to quit going, because they say it has gotten so big and lost some of its original identity. And people always seem to remark about the giant Doritos vending machine stage as a symptom of where things had been heading. What are your thoughts on SXSW overall?

“South By Southwest is kind of what helped to get us seen, so we started something back in 2005 and that’s how we got connected with our first label, Light in the Attic Records. So SXSW worked its magic for us. But now it’s out of control; it’s crazy. There are just so many, so many people around now; it’s just way, way, way bigger than it was when we first started. And it’s become very corporate now where it used to be kind of local and off-scene. It has definitely had a corporate takeover.

“It’s still a fun time now – it’s the beginning of Spring – but it can be very stressful. We used to play three times a day at SXSW; we were able to drive across town and do that. But it’s just impossible now. You can’t drive anywhere downtown now; they block the streets off. It’s just madness.”

So how have you managed to keep Levitation from falling into the corporate trap while growing it?

“That’s a fine line that we have to walk. I feel like we did a pretty good job with that, we mainly had local sponsors. We did have some corporate beer companies. Our main thing is that we always wanted to have full control of the aesthetics of the festival, and be able to book the bands that we wanted to book, do all the art. So that’s one reason why we’re having to take a year off, because of the financial trouble that we got in because of having to cancel the festival. Now, if we were to have big corporate sponsors, then that might not have been a problem. But moving forward, we want to keep it as within our group as possible, and not sell out to whomever. We want sponsors that line up with our views and values for our festival.”

…Like Doritos.

“Yeah, Doritos would be a great brand! Pringles, maybe. Hahaha!!”

Photo by John Boydston.