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The Black Angels

The Black Angels

Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Thursday 13th June, 2013 9:44AM

American psych-rock band The Black Angels released their fifth studio album, Indigo Meadow, in April and are heading to New Zealand for the very first time next week to play it live. UTR caught up with front man Alex Maas while he was in the studio working on a film score, to discuss the latest record and their other projects, Austin Psych Fest and the Reverberation Appreciation Society. Head over here to buy tickets to the Auckland and Wellington Black Angels shows.

Hey Alex, how are you? What are you up to at the moment?

I’m actually in the studio working away, that’s why I missed your call - sorry! We’ve had about a week and a half off in Austin which has gone by super fast. I can’t believe we’re getting ready to come out there already, it’s crazy.

What are you doing in the studio at the moment?

My friend and I got commissioned to work on a score for a documentary about this woman named LaDonna Harris, who was a civil rights activist in the sixties and seventies. She was basically one of the first Native American woman to marry into Congress and she created a lot of social change and raised a lot of issues that hadn’t been addressed. It’s a really cool documentary and when we started to work on this project we started to realise how impactful music can be over a text or storyline: It can add so much emotion to it.

Have you worked on films before or is this the first one?

I’ve worked on stuff like this before but I’ve never truly been in charge of an entire score. I’ve done scenes but this is something different because it’s the entire documentary, it’s keeping me busy. It’s a different approach to anything I’ve worked on because I can see instantly whether the music works with visual or not, and you just move on and try something else if it doesn’t work.

It must feel like quite a big responsibility because that subject matter is so heavy and the music arguably sets the tone of a film.

Yeah totally. Especially because we’re trying to do something that references the Native American but we’re not Native American. You want to keep it in this tribal world without it crossing this line of sounding like you’re copying something or it sounding kitschy. You always have to have your radar on, looking out for that.

On top of that you recently released a new album Indigo Meadow. Tell me about the writing process for that album.

It was more of a collaborative record than ever before. We wrote the songs at the beginning of last year – it’s crazy to think it took that long to put a record out. We’re constantly writng licks and different melodies, and we'll record them on our phone or carry a recording device around in case something comes to us. We typically write 30 or 40 song ideas that make it to the next level of maybe becoming a song. Then we hash out lyrical content based on how the song makes us feel. Mostly the music comes first and then the lyrical content describes the scenario in which the music exists: it’s almost like a score for a text. A lot of time the lyrics will provide the picture of how the song feels to us.

The lyrics on this album are quite political, particularly in relation to the song ‘Don’t Play With Guns’ that seems to reference gun control. Is this a fair statement?

As far as gun control is concerned I’m never one to tell people what they can and can’t do and I’m not even sure if our government should have that power or not. One of the things we’ve always done is write about the things that are important to us and we use the pop form to deliver a message, and that message can be blank or meaningful or be a dream that we had. A lot of times songs are dreamt up, whether it be a lyrical idea or sonic idea, based around concern for the human condition and I think that’s something that naturally comes through in most art. We never set out to be this political band but we have chosen to talk about some things.

Looking at the album as a finished body of work, is there a theme that weaves its way through the entire album?

Again, when we write we’re just documenting. At the end we piece them all together and ask “What makes sense here?” It’s like a documentary, you’re filming a whole bunch of stuff based around a princple. For example, you might film a salamander for a year because you’re attracted to the colour of the salamander. But then you realise that there are all these ecological issues going on around the salamander, affecting the salamander’s life and that becomes the documentary: it’s the story behind the story. It’s the broader context for the story, and the focus changes to something larger than the original concept. Whenever we’re writing music I think that happens with us: it’s one of those things in which you’re documenting and you’re working out what songs fit together and they become part of this bigger puzzle.

Sonically, was there anything you went into it wanting to do or change up compared to your ealier work, or is it a more organic process than that?

I think it’s definitely organic. Each of our records has a different feel to it, we encourage ourselves to grow. What you want to see is somebody evolve. I think from record to record we always sound like The Black Angels but we never say “we’re going to make a record that sounds like x or y”. I’m not sure if we could write that way because it puts so much pressure on achieving something. It’s hard enough to make a record in general and if you have a concept or a particular goal that would make it much harder. Our concept or goal is discovered at the end. That being said there are certain factors that give us the Black Angels sound.

You guys have released several albums and been a band for a long time. Has your process or approach changed over the years?

On the last two records more specifically we’ve been able to distill the songs in a lot more consice manner. We've realised that we don’t need to drag a part on for five minutes to get the point across. I don't always have time to listen to 18 minute songs and I don’t think other people do either. I appreciate a Beatles song and a Buddy Holly song and they're sometimes two minutes long, sand I can listen to them over and over again and appreciate them every time.

You guys are based in Austin which is a profound music-oriented city. Tell me about being a band in Austin.

We’ll start on a big picture which is that there are tonnes of different genres in Austin: we claim we’re a diverse music city and we strive to be that. I think for starters the community is very supportive of people who are putting their energy into making something, no matter what is it. If it’s a restaurant or bar or band people support those individuals who are doing something creative with their time, so in that respect if you’re a hip hop band or a country band you get respect back from the community for being a worker. It’s also very supportive of all of the events that happen here. Austin City Limits, SxSW, Austin Psych Fest there are so many festivals that allow bands to play and bands from outside to visit Austin.

In our specific genre it’s definitely growing here pretty quickly. It’s really interesting to see from when we first started to now and the whole community is just growing exponentially. It’s lovely because everyone is supportive of everyone else.

You guys are a big part of the Austin Psych Fest yes?

Yeah we started the festival and then took on different partners to make it happen. We’ve been doing the festival for six years and I describe this festival as a baby. You start off and you’re like “we’ll just make a festival” like “we’re going to have a baby”. In the first year you learn to feed and nurture the baby and support it and love it, and then the second and third year the baby starts turning into a child and takes on a personality of its own, and then in the fourth and fifth and sixth year it’s turning into a mini adult and it’s telling you that it wants to be outside, and it wants to go camping, and it wants more space. At this point we’re at the stage where we’re just the parents of this festival ushering it wherever it wants to go. If it wants Australian bands to come over we’ll make that happen. We ask it what it wants and it tell us. Obviously it’s not a person but we treat it a little bit like that: we feed this thing and support it until it takes on a life of its own and that is exactly what’s happened.

It must be satisfying to watch the growth of the festival over the years.

Yeah we’re very thankful for the whole thing. It’s a great thing to be a par of and the idea came out of thin air and now it’s a thing which is crazy.

You’re also involved in the Reverberation Appreciation Society?

Yeah well the R.A.S is the society we formed to throw Austin Psych Fest so it’s actually the brain behind Austin Psych Fest and it also has a hand in the record label side of things. The record label was started for our friends who didn’t have an outlet to get their music out there and it’s to help facilitate people who we believe in. Again we're just kind of seeing how it grows and what it wants to become. It’s been really interesting to help these people get their music out there. It’s obviously not something that makes a lot of money, it obviously just pays for itself. There are not a lot of peple in the music business on the record side who are making a lot of money and it’s not the goal to make lots of money off of our friends. Everything we do is super fair. It’s the same with the music festival in that if it was our goal to make a lot of money from it we would have stopped doing it after the first year, and we would have stopped again after last year. It’s a labour of love but at the same time it has to pay for itself.

You’re coming to New Zealand for the first time ever as a band. Have you ever been yourself?

No I’ve been exposed to it through those guys that have that funny music show…

...Flight of the Conchords?

Yeah, that was my first real exposure to it from a community level. I’ve always known about New Zealand and that it’s a beautiful place. I grew up around nature so New Zealand was always on my bucket list. It’s a pretty amazing opportunity that we get to go there with the band. I haven’t played music my entire life but I started playing music in my early twenties for real and I’m so grateful and thankful of the path that we’ve gone down: it’s a dream, really. We’re very grateful and lucky to be in the situation we are in.


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