There are plenty of bands out there playing psych music or garage rock – more than since the heyday of the Sixties you could argue – but there are few as instantly recognisable as the Texan quartet of The Black Angels.
Since 2006’s debut album Passover Alex Maas, Christian Bland, Stephanie Bailey and Kyle Hunt have been providing us with dark, intense psychedelic experiences that rather than being trippy excursions, pack a real garage punch. Whether it’s the politicised viscera of that first record, the controlled, acid-fried stomp of sophomore effort Directions to See a Ghost or the surprisingly clear-headed grooves of Phosphene Dream, there’s a certain aesthetic that marks each down as being quintessentially a Black Angels record. It could be the vocal incantations of singer Maas, the locked-in keyboard drones or the solid, unwavering percussion… it’s probably all of this, but there’s also the clear passion for the genre that really makes it count. While acts like The Warlocks and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club fade from memory, The Black Angels continue to go strong.
The band dropped its fourth album Indigo Meadow this month and it’s probably their best record to date. Lean, mean and focused, recorded as a four-piece following the departure of bassist Nate Ryan, it’s the sound of The Black Angels completely in the zone and sounding better than ever. There’s even a playful tone – heard already on lead single ‘Don’t Play with Guns – that’s maybe not been present before. We were lucky enough to speak to singer Alex Maas about the new record while he was at home in Austin, Texas, and we found a man who, while happy to discuss his band and the new album, was more than willing to expand on his love of psychedelic music.
Given the band are Austin natives, how could I not begin by asking about their SXSW experience in 2013? Maas reveals that they don’t play quite as much as they used to: “Yeah we played a couple of shows… a couple of strategic shows! Six or seven years ago we played like, nine or ten times, so we just cut it down this year, and it was really fun.” And was it a chance to play Indigo Meadow to a home crowd and road test the new tunes? “We played a lot of the new record, kind of trying to cut our teeth a little, and the festival was a great time to do it,” he says. “It was fun; we worked out some kinks and saw how people reacted to the songs for the very first time.”
I suggest that Indigo Meadow is the sound of The Black Angels honed, focused and lean – did this come from stripping down to a four-piece prior to recording? “I dunno, I think it’s just the evolution of the band,” counters Maas. “I mean, it still sounds like The Black Angels but I think ‘focused’ is an appropriate way to put it. You know, it’s like shooting a documentary film – you don’t know how it’s going to turn out until after you get done with all the footage. You get back and you’re like ‘oh, there’s a new story here, what makes sense out of all this, what songs am I gonna pull out?’ So we did that: we documented loads of songs, took all the different perspectives and made a record.” And there also seems to have been a clinical element to the recording, as Maas reveals some stuff didn’t make the cut: “We have songs that didn’t make it; for us, we wanted to keep the record under 44/45 minutes. We didn’t want to lose fidelity, it had to be greater than that – the quality gets squashed [otherwise]”
For this recording, the band returned to Texas after recording Phosphene Dream in Los Angeles with Dave Sardy. This time around, the chose John Congleton as producer, but I want to know if place plays a big part in how a Black Angels record feels? Maas says it does, to some extent: “Yeah, I think it does. Again, I don’t think it’s something you go into realising or thinking. It’s like shooting the documentary, you don’t say ‘oh I think this has a Texas feel to it’ but I definitely think it’s a product of the environment and that comes into the record and the recording process.” Perhaps a bigger influence was the time available to the band. Recorded over the course of a year, Indigo Meadow isn’t an album constructed on the road, and I think that shows in just how good a record it is: “One thing that was interesting about this record was that we had a lot of time to do it,” reveals Maas. “We took a musical alchemist approach: we took all the songs down to the studio and we were able to, like, do whatever we wanted, after we tracked them. We had tons of time to go and explore sounds and that sonic alchemy – it’s good to have the time to do that, and we made a very ‘free’ record.” So is writing on the road something to avoid? “I think a lot of ideas come out on the road, but it’s hard to fully realise them. We’re always writing, all the time, and it’s a total collaboration between the four of us… it’s beautiful.”