The Black Angels Breathe New Life into Psych Rock
Austin Reverb Lovers Make S.B. Tour Stop on Thursday, April 12
“In life, everything is cyclical; everything has patterns,” Alex Maas tells me. As the frontman for Austin psych-rock outfit The Black Angels, Maas would know. At 30 years old, Maas has amassed a wealth of knowledge about the history of psychedelic rock, from its start with fellow Austinites the 13th Floor Elevators in the mid 1960s to its genre-bending modern-day purveyors. Better still, he’s got a band that lives up to its lineage. Named after a Velvet Underground cut, “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” the band evokes the spirit and vibe of their psych forefathers. With a heady and ominous mix of reverb, drone, and paranoia, and Maas’s heavily echoed vocals and ominous deliveries, the Angels conjure images of late-night drives through the desert (mood enhancers optional). Since forming in 2004, the band has made it their mission to keep the spirit of psych alive by way of their annual Austin Psych Fest. Now in its fifth year — and spread over three days — the event draws acts and fans from all over the world and showcases psychedelic music as a diverse and ever-evolving genre.
This Thursday, April 12, The Black Angels hit S.B. for a show at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club. Recently, I chatted with Maas about the past, present, and future of psych rock.
You guys have Coachella, as well as your own Austin Psych Fest, coming up. Can you tell me a little about this year’s setup? This year, we have over 60 bands involved. It’s kind of a dream come true. I never thought it would be this big. I know each year I say that, but it gets bigger every year, and people keep showing up, so we’re going to keep doing it.
And you guys hand select the bands? Yeah. We started this group called The Reverberation Appreciation Society, and we all collectively pick the bands, choose the venue, pick the dates. It’s strategically placed around Coachella so that bands can route their tours and hit the festival.
It’s a really varied lineup; everyone from The Black Lips to you guys to Brian Jonestown Massacre. The psych genre is all over the place. There’s surf psychedelic music and there’s hip-hop and trip-hop and electronic music that’s psychedelic. Garage is the most traditional, ’60s-style psychedelic music, but then there’s the modern stuff, and then you have stuff like Tinariwen. It’s kind of hard to put a country band on the bill, but if they’re really odd and it works, then we’ll do it. I could hear Ween playing their Mollusk record.
What was the Austin psych scene like when The Black Angels got started? A lot of people don’t know this, but psychedelic rock ’n’ roll started in Austin with the 13th Floor Elevators. They coined the term, but there were other bands like Bubble Puppy and the Golden Dawn and Texas bike bands like Red Crayola that came up in that same era. Then in the ’70s and ’80s, the whole Stevie Ray Vaughan blues element kind of took over the town, and it still exists today. When we formed, there weren’t tons of psychedelic bands in Austin — at least none that were really pulling from the ’60s and bringing in the modern element. It’s been really awesome to see the genre grow and take on all different kinds of forms. We’re at the point where you can add the word “psych” to any kind of music genre and make your own genre. It’s kind of a joke, but you can make the genre expand as wide as you want.
What do you attribute to the psych rock resurgence? I don’t know. I think in life, everything is cyclical; everything has cyclical patterns. The time is now for this type of music to come back. Then we’ll have an ice age, and we’ll all be dead, then we’ll start all over again. [Laughs.]
And you guys are working on a new record. Can you tell me anything about it yet? Yeah, we’ve been in the studio since January — Kyle, Stephanie, Christian, and myself — just tracking for the new record. We have about 18 to 19 songs, and 12 are ready to be recorded, then we have another six or seven or eight ideas just floating around. The songs all sound completely different from each other, which is pretty interesting — there’s no real musical theme at this point. They all still sound like The Black Angels, but we’re trying to push ourselves and do stuff we’ve never done before. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges, to try to evolve as a band as we evolve as people.
Your last album, Phosphene Dream, featured a lot of more succinct songwriting. Is that carrying over to the new stuff? It’s hard to say. There are elements of all three of our records [in the new songs], but also elements that haven’t been explored yet and things that we were working on before that are coming out in these songs. It’s a really wide range. I think the last record, and the recent stuff we’ve been doing, is just a setup for The Black Angels to really do whatever we want. We’ve made all these different records, and I think that we’re just going to try to take new directions and just go with them and not really focus on specific styles. There’s a feel to these records, but you don’t really know until it’s done. It’s kind of like making a documentary — you don’t always know what the story is until you finish filming.
The Black Angels play a 21+ show at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Thursday, April 12, at 8 p.m. Call 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com for info.