The Black Angels have been a major highlight in the contemporary psych scene. In fact, they are one the most refreshing psych bands around. They’ve always excelled at catching people’s attention but their most recent album, Death Song, is way more than just a cool collection of songs with delicious, weird, and heavy sounds. A record about America, a record about the human race and probably their most accomplished work, sonically but most importantly lyrically. Frontman Alex Maas was kind enough to talk us about the amazing Death Song.
Your new album was written and recorded in large part during the recent election cycle. I imagine that sort of environment ends up influencing what you do, even if not consciously. Have you found that to be true with Death Song?
Yeah. I was speaking on this earlier, but yeah I think whether you’ve meant to or not, whether it is consciously or subconsciously, things come out in our art… lyrically it has been seemingly a snapshot of how we see the world, our how I see it. You know, the world from our view.
Talking about how the environment can influence and impact creation… The colours on the cover seem to come from a very deliberate choice.
I think Christian [Bland, guitar/organ] would probably explain it better, but… yeah, red, white, and blue. [laughs] To me it looks like an old bubble gum. Obviously it’s the colours of our flag. Our records are always pretty deliberate with the colours and the graphics. Christian designs the records. He makes great artwork. I really like what he does.
Would it be fair to say that this record is about America?
I think that is fair. I never thought about that specifically but I think that’s a fair assessment of the greed, and pollution in the current state of where we are now in America. It’s kind of twisted. There’s a big knot and no one seems to know how to untie the knot or even where to begin. There’s no bi-party communication between the parties and the government, and communications between couples. Real relationships are screwy… I would say, yeah it’s a reflection of how we see America.
I read that you had forty songs to choose from for this album. I’m interested in knowing how the selection process is and how it has changed throughout the years for The Black Angels?
It’s very democratic now. We vote on everything kind of – what song should be on the record, what’s the coolest sounding fuzz, etc. It always comes down to majority decision. We’ve always tried to have that as a basis for our band, where everybody is heard and everybody gets a chance to say what they think or what they feel about the record. That hasn’t change a whole lot, if anything it has strengthen in recent years. As we are getting older and better at communicating with each other, I think we are better at communicating how we feel about a record, song, or idea.
Are you considering the possibility to release a double album in the future? I mean, you write so much material on a regular basis.
We considered making a double album for this one but then we just decided not to. Again, that went back to what people… if that would be beneficial to our band or not. Would people get it or would it be more chaotic and all over the place? Could we release twenty songs or would it be more digestible a small amount of songs so that people can look at and grasp? Only time will tell if it was or not the right move, but I still stand behind the decision.
Is it true that Tim Putnam, one of the owners of Partisan Records, pushed you lyrically?
Yeah. We’ve bounced ideas off of each other and we both kind of realized that this record definitely had to be an important record for us and for people who care about where the world is going.
I thought it to be curious because people tend to be sensitive about that sort of things, especially with lyrics.
Oh, for sure. Definitely! That definitely happens and I don’t know if I could have that conversation eight years ago. But again, I’m more open minded and hopefully a better communicator than I was back then. [laughs] For me lyrics are always the hard part. Melodies and the sounds are the easy things to do. It’s easy to create noise but the actual lyrical content, for me, has always been more challenging and more difficult. It was good to have someone else, with an outside perspective, to bounce ideas with.
“There are a lot of threads that weave this record together, I feel, and make songs completely different from each other from one perspective and from other perspective they might seem similar to something else.”
Are “Currency” and “I’d Kill For Her” about two different things?
Yeah, I think they are about two different things. I listen to this record and I see this threads that are similar through each song. Whether is about relationships, trust, love, and how those are occurring with our relationships with ourselves and our governments, and how it communicates with people. There are a lot of threads that weave this record together, I feel, and make songs completely different from each other from one perspective and from other perspective they might seem similar to something else.
I was asking it because it’s funny how these two could easily be about the same subject.
Yeah, they could. And they probably are… and again, they could be about something entirely different. I think in terms of writing it’s interesting to write in double speak or triple speak when something means more than one or two things. To intentionally do that is very difficult but sometimes you do it without knowing it.
I couldn’t help asking, there’s a lot of death and brutality on your lyrics. Did you notice that when you were writing the lyrics?
I do to a certain degree. There’s a lot death and mortality in everyday life, so I don’t know which I see more. I see more life than I see death, but they are equal and they surround us all the time. They’re both unique in their own way, they’re both powerful things life and death. I see as much life as death in the record. Not to be super cliché, yin and yang, but I think it’s kind of hard to see one and not see the other. I think it’s ok to talk about death just as it is ok to talk about life. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m a broken-down, hopeless individual. Most of times we sing about these things that we don’t understand or we’re trying to understand. I think that’s what we do in music.
I have to say, I admire your courage for writing the “Comanche Moon” lyrics. Where that does come from? What made you want to tackle that particular subject?
I think we’ve always been infatuated with Native American culture, the western expansion, and Native American music in particular and how they tell stories. And how they tell stories from generation to generation. Where you go to get water, how you should treat your neighbours, and all these simple songs that were used to teach and educate. In the Native American they would write something called a “Death Song” in times of fear, terror, and tyranny. They would be encouraged to chant these songs as they become scared. These songs helped some of these tribes to get through hard times. That’s kind of how I look at this record. Me speaking on a culture I’m apart of is risky because I don’t know exactly what they think but I’m also able to speak from the other perspective and say how wrong these people were treated, I can empathize with people. Music can break those lines where everybody can empathize and speak on a topic they were not 100% involved in.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how Americans having this tendency to ignore and actively forget the past in relation with the natives, which I tend to believe it makes the problems with xenophobia and patriotism grow stronger.
You’re right. When you forget history, where you come from, and how you got to where you are, and how your country got to where it is… it can be dangerous. It does create this weird patriotism that’s almost false in a way. But patriotism can be a good thing, obviously.
It can, but most of the times patriotism is used for evil and not for good. To be honest what some people call patriotism, it’s not even patriotism. We should we invent another word for it because patriotism doesn’t mean that you have to love your country and hate everyone else. That’s not patriotism.
Exactly. That’s the problem. We see that in America, obviously. That same patriotism is what led us to where we are now, today, with our current leader.
Your debut album, Passover, is eleven years old. Two more years to become a teenager and kick your ass. You did some shows to celebrate Passover’s tenth anniversary. How did it feel to enter in “retrospect mode”, sort of speak?
Wow, that’s crazy. It made me feel old. [laughs] I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe ten years have gone by.” It’s just interesting to see how quickly time goes. It was fun to play the entire record, like we did back in the day. And we would do it again with any record. I like when certain festivals curate their sets or their bands and they ask them to play records from their back catalogues. The experience, I think it’s as interesting for the artist as it is for the people hearing it, because you’re reliving those things that you went through and you can even remember when you were when you felt those things. It’s very interesting.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but Death Song seems to mark the first time you’ve worked with Phil Ek. How was that experience like and how does it compare with past experiences (John Congleton, Dave Sardy, and Erik Wofford)?
It was great. The experience was incredible. He has so much more experience than us – he’s been making records for 27 years. To be able to go into the studio with somebody with that amount of experience, you’re just trying to soak up as much knowledge as you can. It was interesting to see him work and to see his methods. Not every single one of his methods align with ours but that’s the whole point of making music, is about open communication and trying new ideas… hopefully they listen to you and try your ideas. [laughs] Most of the songs were kind of structurally already in place before we went into the studio with Phil, but obviously things change and evolve when you’re in the studio. But I just really love how he approached getting the right take, the right performance. It was so interesting to see someone that has so much patience to go through something like 20 takes of a specific guitar solo… as us talking it through with him. We would discuss every little detail. Those conversations were really fun to have.