Wednesday, 1 September 2010
Interview: The Black Angels
In the forthcoming September issue of the Stool Pigeon, there will be a short Q&A with The Black Angels about their new record Phosphene Dream. By me. This is possibly the best album so far this year that isn't by a hirsute, troubled homosexual from the mid-west. Their third LP is looser, less drone-based, with more harmonies and with, believe it or not, a sense of humour and positivity. The first track to appear online was 'Telephone', available for free download. Such a song is a genuine change of direction for this most soulful of psychedelic bands, proving them admirers of the lighter side of 60s rock like The Byrds, The Yardbirds, early Rolling Stones, and as they mention below, The Zombies. The darkness and thud is still there mind, they've just complemented it with some attractive dashes of colour and zeal.
The interview took place backstage at London's Borderline before they played a devastating set that night, prompting one wide-eyed, awed punter to observe, loudly, "man this is fucking brilliant" to the band's two directors of noise, singer Alex Maas and guitarist Christian Bland. It was those two who sat down with me, and below is the more or less verbatim transcription of what followed. We covered those stylistic changes, mismatched tour buddies, death and God among other things...
The new album is certainly more melodic and maybe mellower than before. Is that what you were going for?
Alex Maas: It’s definitely more melodic, and we wanted to use more vocals. Everyone can sing in the band so we wanted everyone to have their chance. As far as being more mellow, I hadn’t really thought of that but I can see the songs you’re thinking of.
Christian Bland: It’s not as freaky.
AM: And because its not as freaky I think more people can understand it, but without us losing any artistic integrity and keeping it in the psychedelic realm.
So do you think it's more accessible?
CB: I think so. It’s a way of getting some people intrigued who might not have heard us before, so they delve further in, and then on the next album we just freak them out [makes buzzzzzz noise].
What made you go and record this one in LA rather than Austin?
AM: Dave Sardy [producer] was interested in recording us. He said he wanted to make the most psychedelic record of the new millennium, and we took the bait. Once we got out there he had really good tact in how he spoke to us and was really good at motivating us and pushing our sound. He pushed us to try different things and took us out of our element to open our minds. We have new ways of looking at music now as far as writing songs goes.
CB: The new album is a lot more thought out. The second album was the band in the practice room jamming, and if something sounded good we’d be "sounds cool, that’s a song," but this one had more thinking it out – but not over-thinking, that’s horrible.
AM: There's something happening all the time.
Does Mr Sardy think he succeeded in making the best psychedelic album of the new millennium?
AM: Yeah, he really likes it. He’s really excited. I remember getting text messages at two o’clock in the morning saying "dude, I’m still listening to this record," and then at three in the morning, "man, I really like this record." We believe in it too, it’s a whole new direction.
CB: The last one was an hour and this is only thirty-five minutes. It’s unexpected... so it’s better.
The album seems less directly political in its lyrics, is it maybe more abstract in that way?
AM: Yeah, there is a political aspect to it, but not an overtly obvious one. We don’t have a song like ‘The First Vietnamese War’ on here but there are definitely elements of that like ‘River Of Blood’ and ‘Phosphene Dream’.
CB: I think each song is a metaphor for something. A song like ‘Telephone’ in a literal interpretation is about calling someone in this physical world, but it may be something more than that, like trying to pray to God and not getting answers. Something like that.
Speaking of God, spirituality has always seemed important to The Black Angels, is that still the case?
AM: Definitely. We were just saying before actually that a song has to move you first before anything else. Spirituality is huge in music, it’s where everything comes from, this ethereal, weird place in our mind or our bodies.
CB: I think music is our way to commune with the unknown, the unexplained.
How far do the new songs date back?
CB: A couple of them were actually written before Directions To See A Ghost came out, and they could have been on there, but they weren’t developed enough. In 2007-09 those other eight songs were in development, then when we laid those down we felt the other two were ready to be let loose.
AM: We brought Dave 16 or 17 songs and asked him what songs appealed to him, and he helped us narrow it down to what he felt were the strongest. We have seven extra songs we have been playing forever, including this one called ‘Ronettes’ that could have been on Passover and then on Directions To See A Ghost. We’ll release it at some point.
I guess the two songs on Phosphene Dream that date back farthest could have ended up a lot different if they had been recorded back then.
CB: Yeah, there’s actually versions of them recorded with the guy who recorded our first two albums [Erik Wofford], and they sound different to what they are on Phosphene Dream. There was a song called ‘Raindance Song’ that became 'Entrance Song' on Phosphene Dream. When we listened to it in our old studio in Austin it was so slow, but the new one has more power behind it, more energy.
AM: Which is probably good for us, because we might not have done that on our own [without Sardy]. It’s always good to see a band have variety of sound. We see songwriting in a different way now, we think of elements we didn’t think of before.
Were you listening to anything in particular between albums that changed your approach?
CB: We’d been listening to a lot of the same stuff as ever, but maybe the Zombies. I was listening to Odessey And Oracle a lot when we were in LA. To me 'Yellow Elevator' has that feel. I was listening to a lot of the earlier Zombies stuff too.
AM: A lot of Clinic.
CB: And Love.
AM: A lot of modern bands too, like A Place To Bury Strangers, Wooden Shjips, we still listen to The Warlocks all the time. There’s so much music, man.
This is the first album without Jennifer Raines on organ. Does that make any difference to how the band sounds?
CB: She wasn't actually in the band when Directions To See A Ghost was released. She was just on the liner notes because she happened to be in the studio when we were recording it in 2007. The whole story with her is that I knew her before The Black Angels ever existed. We got along because we liked the same movies and the same music, so we used to get together and have fun. Early on in the band’s career we had just four people in the band, and I thought it could be cool to have an organ added, and I had one so why not just tell Jennifer what to play and she could memorize it. So that’s how she started out in the band, us just telling her how to play.
And that’s what also led us to parting ways with her, because on three separate occasions extending from 2005 to 2007, we asked her to go and get some lessons and learn how to play, and she was like “we’ll see… my hands are too small”. We asked her a third time and six months later she still hadn’t. We had signed to Suretone by then, which was a bigger label and we were starting to get serious, moving on. All of us had stepped up our musicianship and she hadn’t, so we parted ways.
On record, it definitely made no difference. Live, it might have made a little difference because some songs have six parts, and we only have five people. But we figured out five parts that are most crucial to the core of the songs, and moved on.
I saw you guys play in Zurich earlier this year when you were supporting Wolfmother. How do you think that tour went?
AM: If ten people liked us at those shows, just ten, then we’re happy. To be honest, we were never huge Wolfmother fans and we don’t have any of their albums. But it was a good opportunity to get new fans, so we took it. As a band you don’t want to turn down those situations.
CB: It was good to play in front of a lot of people, that’s the positive side of it. But looking back, I don’t know about that tour.
AM: We haven’t been back [to Europe] yet to see how many fans we’ve got. But it’s gonna be good for us no matter what.
CB: But it was a mismatch.
AM: Oh for sure.
CB: We had a setlist that we were playing for the first three nights in England, and people in the crowd were standing around, folding their arms, talking to their friends.
AM: 16-year-old kids.
CB: So we changed out setlist to more energetic tunes and people got more into it. We had to cater to the Wolfmother crowd a little bit.
AM: It was the smart thing to do. We’re not there to lose fans, we're there to gain fans. So if we have to do a couple of things to change, then fine. But it definitely wasn’t our ideal tour. Now we know the guy [Andrew Stockdale of Wolfmother] pretty much fired his entire band and got new people to play that tour – it’s kind of shitty to not go with the people who got you to that situation. We don’t know what went on though, and its none of my business, and its up to him, but still.
If we could have gained a couple of younger fans this time around then great. I remember when we first started playing and it would just be 50- or 60-year old men - all these old record collectors would show up. All these guys from the sixties. They were our first fans. Indie record store owners. But getting a new audience is a great thing, we need to convert their minds.
So will Phosphene Dream appeal to, for example, Wolfmother fans?
AM: I think it will be more accessible to more people. Not necessarily Wolfmother fans, but it will be more accessible to people in general
CB: Anyone who has a love for 60s music should be into this.
AM: There’s still a few who won’t like it. Like huge AC/DC fans.
CB: Yeah heavy riff fans might not dig it. But jangle-rockers might.
Is there a difference in how you are received between Europe and the USA?
AM: Yeah, and between Europe and the UK. Europe is bigger.
CB: In Germany and France, they just freak out. They love it.
AM: And you come to the UK and people don’t really know how to react to your music.
CB: Although when we play these smaller shows in England, they’re always awesome. 200 or 300 come out and they are just into it. But we’re not at a level in the UK to play for more than 500. We’re still working on things in the UK.
You two have known each other since you were 12. How has your creative relationship changed over the years?
AM: I think recently we’ve probably been writing more on our own. I think that’s something that had to happen at some point, to move in different directions, then come back and bring certain ideas to the table. I think our communication has got way better than three, four, even two years ago.
CB: There are still magic moments. Sometimes if Alex is at the house when I’m at the house and he hears me playing something, he’ll come in and we’ll be inspired by the spirit and we’ll develop a whole song. That’s what happened with ‘Haunting At 1300 McKinley’, I was playing a riff and he came in and was like ‘dude!’. He started playing the drums and singing, and boom we had a song. On rare occasions that happens and the spirit leads us.
AM: You never want to force anything.
CB: We’ve never been ‘okay, we gotta write a song’.
AM: But if we had to, we’d fucking do it.
On the sleeve to Passover (2006), you quoted Edvard Munch ("Illness, insanity, and death are the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life."). Is death still a preoccupation for you guys?
CB: Yeah, it’s the only pure truth.
AM: That nothing lasts forever is the ultimate truth. It’s all about what you do now while you’re alive, what you do with the power you have. Death is always behind you, and its intriguing to us that you’re always being chased by that. It’s not morbid – it’s what makes life a beautiful thing.