I don't think I can reiterate enough what a bunch of awesomely friendly, down to earth, talented people The Black Angels are. Many bands have tried to resurrect the spirit of the 60s psychedelia, but only a few have managed to succeed as well as this fabulous (now) four-piece from Texas.
What makes them so special is the fact that they've incorporated various types of psychedelic sonorities, creating their own distinctive sound without ever sounding formulaic. Their secret lies in taking the whole business quite seriously to the point of creating a record label and curating a Psych festival in their hometown Austin, which in six years has grown so much that a French and Australian version will take place soon.
Following the success of Phosphene Dream, their fourth album Indigo Meadow came out on Blue Horizon on April 2nd, and they have been touring the States and Australia ever since. I got to hang out with them and have a lovely chat with guitarist and co-songwriter Christian Bland when they played a couple of awesome shows in London, before heading to Glastonbury.
How do you think Indigo Meadow has been received in comparison with your previous albums?
So far, on our US tour we've seen more people coming to our shows than ever before. So to me that means that the new album has been received pretty well. It also seems that most reviewers liked it. The only negative review I can think of was Pitchfork. But for instance Uncut and Mojo here wrote pretty good reviews. So yeah I guess it has been received pretty well.
Looking back at it, is there anything you would change?
No, I don't think so. Everything that is on it just caught the period on which it was recorded. So it is what it was and we are happy with it, the way it is (laughs).
I know you recorded a few extra songs that you then decided not to include on the album. Are you planning to release an EP or something anytime soon?
I don't know. There are two options. On our last album we had extra songs that ended up on a 10-inch we released, but this time I like the three songs that didn't make it to Indigo Meadow so much that I almost want them to be on the next album. It was really hard to vote. We basically voted democratically and only thirteen of the songs we recorded passed. But the ones that didn't are actually just as cool.
One in particular, called 'Linda Is Gone' is very Velvet Underground and I really wanted it to be on this album as it kinda reminds me of (our first LP) Passover, as it's a longer song, around eight minutes.
Yeah the new album is the one with the most tracks which are also generally shorter than usual.
Yes, unfortunately sometimes financial reasons dictate what songs can make it on the record. As if we had ended up including all the tracks we recorded then it would have been a double album, which costs more. So I don't know, either we will release a three-song 10-inch EP or those songs will make it on the next record.
How does your writing process work? Is it a collective effort?
A lot of times I'll come up with a guitar riff and then we will build around that. Alex (Maas) writes a lot of the vocals and I sometimes help him too. I sometimes write the lyrics entirely and Alex will sing them, like on 'Telephone' and 'Sunday Afternoon' on Phosphene Dream. But sometimes it's more that we all just start playing together. Directions to See a Ghost was a lot like that as we were all living in the same house, except Kyle (Hunt), so we had a practice space in our house and we could just go down when we wanted. So it really depends on the album and song.
Can you tell us about your side projects The UFO Club (with Danny Lee Blackwell of Night Beats) and Christian Bland & the Revelators? At the moment you only seem to play in Texas, right?
Yeah, with the UFO Club we actually played in Rome once as the Night Beats were touring with us at that time and the Black Angels didn't want to go back on stage for the encore, so the UFO Club played three songs instead. But apart from that we only play in Austin as Danny Lee lives in Seattle so the only time we can play together is when the Night Beats come to Austin. Eventually we may tour in the States but so far it hasn't happened yet.
And my other project, Christian Bland & the Revelators is also just an Austin thing at the moment. It basically started because the Black Angels don't play in Austin that much anymore, maybe once or twice a year, but the Revelators are just giving me the opportunity of playing whenever I want. At the beginning of the year we actually opened for Cat Power, which was very cool. My friend is in that band and they just needed someone to open for them, so we played with them in Dallas and Austin, maybe Houston too, sorry I can't remember.
Both The UFO Club and Christian Bland & the Revelators are on the Reverberation Appreciation Society label that you and Alex co-founded. Could you foresee the label release any Black Angels albums in the future?
Maybe. That would be cool, I'd like to do that. At the moment we are with Blue Horizon and they've been amazing. But it'd be cool, maybe we could work something up in the contract. With the first two albums we were with Light in the Attic, and now I'm not sure but I think it's a ten-year deal or something. But when the ten years is up then maybe it would be cool to release The Black Angels' records on the Reverberation Appreciation Society.
Having a label is something I had always wanted to do and that sort of came naturally out of the Austin Psych Fest, because there were bands that we wanted to play with us and they were not on a label, so we decided to start a record label. And at the moment we are doing good, I think we have something like fifteen releases right now. The most recent ones are Wall of Death which are from Paris, Elephant Stone, and the Cult of Dom Keller that are from here, the UK. So we are expanding, as the first couple of albums were just by bands from Texas.
How do you think the psych music scene has evolved since the first Austin Psych Festival?
Looking back at the early 2000s there were Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Brian Jonestown Massacre and Clinic. Those are actually the bands that inspired us to start playing. There is definitely a pyschedelic community and I like to think that the Psych Festival helped it somehow. We started touring properly in 2005 and the first Psych Festival was in 2008, so by then we had met quite a few bands we were touring with. So as we were meeting all these bands we just thought 'why don't we just invite all these people to Austin and have a psychedelic party?'. And that's how it started. At the beginning we were just doing it the weekend before South by Southwest because all these bands were already coming through. So we were sort of piggybacking on it. But then by the third year we were already flying bands just for the festival, bands that weren't staying for SXSW.
So the third year we moved it to April and started doing our own thing. Next year we will actually do it in May. We were trying to do it the weekend after Coachella, but now there is this Moogfest in North Carolina with similar bands, so for next year we pushed it to the first weekend of May, and it will be in the same location as last year which is this awesome place called Carson Creek Ranch on the Colorado river, in the middle of Texas nature. The lady that owns the land said "hey guys you can use this." After changing location every year, finally that part of the process has been taken out!
Last time I spoke to Alex, he was telling me that your plans for the Melbourne Psych Festival had been postponed till next year but you were also working on an Angers Music Festival. Can you give us an update on that?
Yeah the Angers Music Festival is actually happening at the end of September when we come back over here. As for the Melbourne Psych Festival, it will happen in 2014 and it will probably start the same way of the Austin Psych Festival, which the first year was originally just one day and with bands mainly from Austin, and maybe from Dallas and Houston but it was just a Texas thing. So it will probably be Australian bands and maybe a couple of bands from outside.
You were planning to release an album with Roky Erickson and I think you also recorded some songs for that. Is there any news on it?
When we were touring with him in 2008 the management sent us sixteen rare Roky's tracks that had never been released. We listened to all of them and chose ten of our favourites and we ended up recording those ten with Erik Wofford, the same guy we recorded our first two albums with. We recorded them at the same place, we did all the tracks, we even sang scratch vocals on the songs, then sent them back and Roky only had to comment on those and sing. Then I really don't know what happened. There was this other band, Okkervil River, that had the same idea we had and ended up recording some of the same songs. I think they did three of the tracks we also chose.
They basically ended up being chosen to record with Roky, and I don't know why. So our recorded stuff is just there collecting dust and maybe one day will be released. It would be really sweet to have Roky to sing on any of those. He didn't even remember lots of those tracks. The coolest song was one that we recorded in a similar way to that Nat King Cole version of 'Unforgettable' where he's duetting with his daughter. We did the same thing on this song I now don't remember the name of, where we recorded the backing tracks and we left his own vocals from the 60s, so his vocals are basically going over the new stuff. I think it's called 'Thank God for Civilisation'. That's a really cool song and I hope some day it sees the light of the day. Who knows, maybe in fifteen years (laughs) .
You also collaborated with UNKLE. Is there any other artist you'd like to collaborate with?
Oh yeah lots of them. On top of my head Jonny Greenwood, Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft, Noel Gallagher…
Yeah I like him, I've always liked Oasis.
I don't know... I have always been a Blur fan so…
Oh, I would totally like to collaborate with Damon Albarn too! Speaking of whom… Blur are actually playing a festival with us soon, so maybe I should have a word with him (laughs). Then Moon Duo, Wooden Shjips, Psychic Hills. And Clinic would be awesome too. I have never met them, though they have played at Psych Fest a few times. It's four of us but it's basically Rob Fitzpatrick taking the lead role, he does 90% of all the stuff, he is the guy booking the bands etc. We give him our wish list but he is the one that pushes things to happen.
Do you usually get to choose the bands that open for you?
Yes now we do, as we have a bit more power. Though to be honest sometimes we have to play with bands that don't sound like us at all. But yeah usually our management sends us a few bands to listen to and we either say "yeah we like that" or "no, I really don't like that" (laughs).
You have been touring with two new members, Jake (Garcia) and Rishi (Dhir). Will they be full time Black Angels in the future?
Jake at the moment is our full time guy, yeah. He has a very good ear and the same taste in music as us, so I think he will probably record the next album with us. Rishi was just our tour guy for 2012 during the transition after we got rid of Nate (Ryan). And he was perfect as we had known him for a long time and he knew all our stuff. But he was just temporary, though I can see him record stuff with us in the future, adding some sitar or something.
But neither Nate nor Rishi participate to the recording of Indigo Meadow, right?
No, it was just the four of us. Rishi only recorded 'Deer-Ree-Shee' on Directions to See a Ghost.
How important is the interaction with fans for you?
I try to reply to as many messages as I can on Facebook. I also try to do a lot of Facebook posts so that people know what we are doing. But I don't check the message board anymore these days, though I used to. I heard it's a bit quiet so maybe I should, to stir things up a little (laughs).
What have you been listening to?
Temples from UK. I just got to see them play live at the Best Kept Secret in the Netherlands a couple of days ago after being a fan of theirs for a while, since I got an issue of Mojo magazine last December or January with early Pink Floyd on the cover. There was this article about new psych releases and they were mentioning Temples so I decided to check them out. And then I realised I actually knew the drummer, Sam Toms, as he used to be in another cool psych band, The Koolaid Electric Company.
Also there is this other awesome band called The Mallard, from the San Francisco area, which are on the same label as The Fresh & Onlys. They have an early Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett kinda sound, which has always been a major influence for me. I like to constantly discover new bands. Listening to music is what inspires me to create new music.
What else inspires you?
I read a lot of books. I like history books. Right now I have been reading about World War One, this book called 'Unknown Soldiers'. For some reason military history intrigues me a lot, US civil war is intriguing to me and recently WWI. Everybody seems to only talk about WWII but WWI is the most atrocious, it was the first war with a heavy use of machine guns and there were lots of mass killings. This book has three characters and it's centered around the letters that these guys, a British soldier, a German soldier and a US pilot, were writing home. These guys were killed but we don't know who they were, they were just unknown soldiers though we have the letters they wrote to their families. We don't even know where they were killed which is crazy.
And I also like 'Alice in the Wonderland', it has always been one of my favourite books. I enjoy all that kind of stuff. And I like reading biographies, mainly music biographies too.
And movies of course. I recently saw 'Django Unchained' on the plane. It was brilliant!
And what about Art?
I do graphic design. I did Advertising at College and got a Minor in Graphic Design, then I went to the University of Texas in Austin and got a Master in Advertising.
Do you still have your design company, Bland Design?
Yeah I did all the artwork for The Black Angels' albums. On the last one I actually collaborated with Matt Cliff who did the drawings. The other ones are more just optical art, but this time I wanted something different, like a new chapter. I also sometimes do posters for other bands, always music stuff I am into. Graphic design is such a long process, a long back and forth between people and that's what deters me. With the Black Angels is just easier as it's always "Ok guys, this is it" (laughs), whereas with other bands you need to seek for approval. Graphic design is just a different creative process.
I didn't start playing guitar till I was 20, in my junior year at Florida State University. I had broken my ankle and I couldn't do much for a while, so I just started learning guitar. I started playing it on my own. Every ingredient came together at the perfect time, really. I grew up in Texas but then when I went to Florida State University, my family moved to Georgia, so when I was home for Summer I wasn't able to hang out with friends and I was just bored out of my mind, so I needed something to fill the time. There was this cool library near our house in Georgia where I found this VHS tape to teach you how to play the guitar, so I pretty much figured out things from there.
The wave of sound created by the Black Angels' fuzzy guitars, dramatic arrangements, retro keyboards and spacey vocals is a pretty mind-blowing experience especially live. So if you haven't seen them play yet make sure to head down to one of their upcoming UK shows in September:
- Cockpit, Leeds on the13th September
- Classic Grand, Glasgow on the 14th
- Manchester Gorilla, Manchester on the 17th
- Electric Ballroom, London on the 18th