Photo credit Briana Purser
Q&A with the Black Angels
Fender News checked in with Alex Maas and Kyle Hunt of the Black Angels during this week’s South by Southwest Music Fest in Austin, Texas. These psychedelic rockers shared some tips on how to survive the SXSW craze and details about their upcoming album.
FN: You guys live here in this lovely Austin city so what’s it like when the rest of the world invades it for SXSW?
KH: It’s like rock ‘n’ roll aliens landed and took over the whole entire town. It’s kind of fun. If you don’t get overwhelmed and stressed out and just realize that it’s going to be maddening and plan weeks ahead to make yourself know that it’s going to be maddening, then it’s fun. It’s just hanging out, and friends come in from all over. Like, my friends just walked by from Violent Soho. They’re an Australian band we’ve toured with before. You see old friends; make new friends. Drink lots of beer and play lots of music. If you keep that in mind and let it be fun, then it’s fun.
AM: Well, I like SXSW. But a lot of people in Austin—they can’t go to the same bars; they can’t drive down the same streets. People get poked with poles. People are loading gear all over the city, and it’s madness, really. I mean, there are 4,000 bands that play this thing—that’s crazy. Your town gets kind of taken over. And the worst thing about it is, like, “Oh man, I’ve been coming to this one club for ten years, and now all of a sudden I don’t know anybody here at all.” So that’s kind of a bummer, you know. But it’s good for the city. There’s just a lot happening in Austin. And as much as everybody complains and bitches about SXSW, it’s so good for the local economy. How can you be a hater against it?
FN: You guys live in some kind of 60s-style mansion?
AM: Well, that’s kind of a tale—a tall tale. We used to live on the east side, and on the east side you can get really cheap property. And so we got this house … when we moved in, it was like shag carpet everywhere. It was totally like a porn house, or something. But we actually moved down south, and we live in an eight-bedroom home. A lot of us live there, so everybody pays next to nothing in rent. And it’s pretty amazing—like, pretty much, a good community vibe at our house.
KH: Everyone lives in the house but me. I live in an apartment with my wife and baby. And Nate lives in California right now. So it’s like Animal House. It’s crazy.
FN: What does it turn into during SXSW? How many people do you have staying there?
AM: Yeah, we never turn people down if they need a place to stay. Unless you just got out of jail. But we’ll probably have 20 or so people stay with us this year; 20 to 30 depending …
FN: Do people bring rafts to sleep on?
AM: Yeah, well there’s a raft in our backyard right now. Funny that you mention that—we have a raft that we blew up, and people sleep on that. We encourage people to sleep in tents and outside. If the weather stays kind of cool it’ll be easy for people to do that. We just make our house open for our friends who are coming into town.
FN: Does living together create a constant jam songwriting session?
AM: Sometimes. Sometimes we go a month without writing together, but we’re always writing individually, and so we always have stuff to bring to the table whenever we’re ready to rehearse. There’s never a shortage of ideas or sounds or anything like that. It’s really fun living with everybody—you’re always on the same page; you’re eating the same things; you’re breathing the same air (laughs)—that sounds terrible, but it’s nice. It’s cool.
FN: Any bands you guys are really looking forward to seeing at SXSW?
KH: I have been in Austin since ’97, so now I have a rule where I don’t look to see who’s playing. The bands in the showcases we’re playing—I’m looking for just Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. They’re booked by our same booking agency, Billions. But honestly, other than that, I have no idea who’s playing, and I think I’ll go with the flow. I’ll gravitate where my friends are going and what I hear through the grapevine. It’s more fun that way. That way, if you miss something you don’t get disappointed, and if you see something new you’ve never heard of, you get really surprised.
I used to go through the whole schedule and circle everything, but then you realize that four of your favorite bands are all playing at the same time all over the town. So a good out-of-towner tip is to rent a bicycle and buy a lock. And then you can go anywhere you want to. And you can get there way faster than in a car.
FN: What attracted you guys to psychedelic rock in the first place? We know you all ripped your name from a Velvet Underground song so they are clearly influential for your band, but how did you fall into that vein?
AM: We were big fans of the Beatles and the Velvet Underground, and we were into the experimentation of what they did. I grew up listening to a lot of, like, world music and trance music, and all kinds of stuff. We knew the sound that we wanted, but we didn’t know really how to write songs.
So in the beginning, we had this certain sound that Fender allowed us to have (laughs). It’s like, you plug into a Fender Twin amp, and you turn the reverb on eight, and all of a sudden you have a psychedelic band. I mean really, you add a pedal or two to it …
And so we just wanted to create music that moved us and that made us feel, and that’s kind of what happened. I’ve said it before, but if the music doesn’t give us chills, it probably won’t be worth playing outside our practice space. So if we’re in the practice space and we’re playing, and we’re like, “Oh, this is it—this is the sound,” then we’ll kind of try to make a song out of it.
FN: You guys are about to put out a new album. What can you tell us?
AM: Yeah we are. We just finished our record. We worked on it in L.A.; we worked with a guy named Dave Sardy, and he produced the record. It’s gonna be out in July, hopefully. That’s what we’re shooting for right now. And yeah, it’s a new direction, kind of. We have evolved since the last two records. I really like the record, I mean, obviously.
FN: So how is it different? Is it still psychedelic?
AM: Yeah, it’s still psychedelic; it still has the Black Angels sound. I think it’s gonna reach more people. The songs are a little bit shorter. Live we can stretch songs out for as long as we want. But I think it’s got a more of a pop sensibility, but it still has a Black Angels sound to it. That’s kind of how I’d describe it. It’s just a good progression from our last couple of things, which are more sludgy. It still has all the elements of our last record, but in a tighter package. I think it’s better songwriting, personally
KH: I would say for people that are familiar with our first record, the third record is more accessible like the first record, but more adventurous like the second record. So, we kind of took more of a traditional song form on the new stuff, but also stretched ourselves—we’re doing some more up-tempo songs; shorter songs. Most songs are shorter, because we used a producer, and a producer’s job is to help you hone it in within three minutes and 30 seconds, or four and a half. We come from the Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan and the Doors, and they all had long, eight-minute songs; six-minute songs. The Velvet Underground—their songs are simple and pretty and not tons of changes, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s the drone and repetition so we had to learn how to get that hypnotic sound within a three-and-a-half-minute thing where it’s exciting and explosive, and still has some song form that can hopefully push us past the underground into … I mean, by no means are we underground; we do well touring all over. But just get us to where you can turn on the radio and hear the Black Angels on a normal station that’s not a college station and more of a mainstream station.
FN: How do you get that drone in a three-and-a-half-minute song?
KH: We used a lot of keyboards. In the recording process there was tons of keyboard parts; layering; thick repetition and stuff. And just a lot of intensity. A lot of fuzz boxes. Fuzz, reverb and lots of vintage keyboards. Dave Sardy brought down all kinds of cool stuff for us in the process. We had a handful of great guitars and amplifiers and pedals and keyboards to choose from, so it was great. We used mostly our stuff to keep the sound like us, but then with overdubs it’s like you’re adding the flavor. That’s like the spices, for a cook. So we just added all kinds of crazy spices to it.
FN: Is there a name for the new album yet?
KH: I believe it’s gonna be called Phosphene Dream, which is the name of one of the songs on the album.
Oh, and we just launched our new website on Wednesday. It’s been a few years coming. We wanted to do it before this third record came out. It’s www.theblackangels.com. We lucked out and got our name.
FN: Any favorites from the new album you will be playing at SXSW?
AM: Um, a favorite … well, we’re playing this song called “Bad Vibrations” and another songs called “Haunting at 1300,” which is 1300 McKinley where we used to live, in that house that you were referring to. And while we were living there, Christian (Bland; guitar, bass and drums) and Stephanie (Bailey; drums, percussion and bass) saw apparitions at the place. I didn’t see anything.
FN: Were they sober?
AM: I don’t know (laughs). You gotta ask them. But that story about it being haunted was told a lot in interviews and so I ended up writing lyrics for the idea of the song. Christian and I sat down and just … it’s one of those songs that just kind of came together. We wrote it in, like, 15 minutes. It’s one of those things like when you’re sitting down and drawing, and it’s, “OK, well here it is—here’s the drawing.” Well, that’s kind of what happened with this thing. We’re going to be playing that one. It’s like a short, sweet, kind of ’50s-sounding song.