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Friday, October 29, 2010

Black Angels - Alex Maas Interview

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Alex Maas is the perennially dour, perennially be-hatted singer and de facto frontman of Austin's Black Angels, a band with a sound that intimates that the group is a democracy in its thunderous, echoing pursuits, most recently represented by their third full-length, Phosphene Dream, out on the revitalized Blue Horizon imprint. Smack dab in the middle of The Dropout Boogie Tour with erstwhile retro-leaning Canadian heads Black Mountain, Maas kindly took a few moments to answer a few questions, via the magic of email, concerning Roky Erickson's indie rock comeback record, recording in Los Angeles, Austin's weirdness and last but not least, was nice enough to indulge my ongoing fascination/troubling preoccupation with Black Mountain's Amber Webber.

So, I just wanted to start out by saying that, about two years ago, you guys playing with Roky Erickson turned out to be one of my first live show reviews; I'd sent you a note on MySpace, I believe - I never thought I'd get to see one of my heroes, much less with a band doing the Elevators stuff justice. Have you heard Roky's record with Okkervil River? Your thoughts?

I have heard parts of it. We actually recorded a few of the same songs of Roky's but came from more of a '60s/Elevators angle rather than the Americana angle. They both are good though. We would love to release our versions one day if Roky's team lets us.

Speaking of the 13th Floor Elevators, is that a jug I hear on "Sunday Afternoon?"
Yes - we brought the jug with us to L.A. and slid it [in] on a track or two.

How do you even play one- is there a way to control pitch?
Basically you just control the pitch with your voice. I have made similar noises with an apple.

Recording the new Phosphene Dream, you'd worked with someone other than Erik Wofford, who'd recorded your previous LPs; how different was it to be working with a marquee producer like Dave Sardy?
It was great actually to work with a modern-day George Martin. His ideas were keen and his oracle mind was motivating and encouraging. We enjoyed the freedom we had with Erik as we recorded the first two LPs; Wofford is a great person to work with and he told us later that Sardy was one who he looked for inspiration to as well.

And recording in Hollywood?
For me, it was just another place. I wasn't really affected that much [by] being in California. We had been there several times before and honestly didn't have much time to play with the local yeggs [sic] while we were out there. It was get-up-and-go to the studio 'til one AM, then wake up at 10 AM and do the same thing. We went there to work. We didn't blow a bunch of studio time surfing on that trip. Next time, yes.

The new record, to me, sounds like the work of a reinvigorated band, or one interested in a different direction. Was there an effort to scale back on some of the immense reverb, an effort to tighten up songs?
Yes, we wanted to only use the meaty parts of the bacon. Then, we chemically change the bacon to tofu and back again only leaving the fatty part of the bacon this time. This delicacy was then rolled up and smoked by Dave; his exhaled breath was taken in by us. Held for 30 seconds and then released. This processes continued until we had 10 tracks. Phosphene Dream.

One of my favorite moments on the new record is during "Bad Vibrations," when there's a thunderous jolt of noise, and Stephanie kicks into a quicker tempo. What is that noise?
One of our engineers shot the amp, actually, and that's the sound it made. No kidding.

The last time I'd seen you guys, you had a projector going, showing looped images of '60s-era Olympic Games and other footage of by-gone days. Was this all 'found' material?
Some of it was, yes; some was borrowed. We search the net for it. EBay, etc.

Growing up in the '90s, Seattle was obviously the coolest place in the world for a kid living across the country, in the 'burbs. Now living here, I see that I didn't have to grow up here to see it's changed quite a bit from what I'd perceived it was.

Is Austin changing?
Yes, it's constantly changing. Keeping up with technology, music, food...humanitarian factors. It's up to the people of Austin to keep it cool/weird. I think they are doing a decent job. At the moment, it seems that it is the restaurant capital of the world.

With societal ennui being as prevalent as it is in America currently, I think a lot of folks are tuning out news about overseas conflicts or other potentially enraging, serious political analysis. Do you guys ever experience that psychic fatigue when performing a song like "The First Vietnamese War," which is one of your biggest tunes?
Yes, we always feel psychic fatigue. Always.

Are you guys excited to tour with Black Mountain?
Hell yes - we have wanted to tour with them for a while. Time is right, I guess.

What's Amber Webber like? She's always seemed to me like she's entirely too cool for the entire room whenever I've seen them play. Are you guys having local talent open up?
She has always been nice to me. It is just a two-band bill this tour. This seems like a bill built on two bands whose sounds are built on bad trips. (laughs) Our sound [is] built on societal traps.

What should I be listening to that I'm probably not?
Balkan music and Turkish psych. I have been only listening to Mongolian folk music lately.

by Chris Middleman of Spectrum Culture.

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