It’s safe to say that The Black Angels are the kings of the contemporary psychedelic music scene. Curators of the Austin Psych Festival for now six consecutive years, founders of The Reverberation Appreciation Society, in less than a decade they’ve managed to resurrect the spirit of the late ‘60s-early ‘70s psychedelia, incorporating new sonorities, and creating a distinctive, unique style.
Following the success of Phosphene Dream (QRO review), their fourth album Indigo Meadow came out on Blue Horizon on April 2nd. Before embarking on their U.S. promotional tour, frontman Alex Maas took time to chat with QRO Mag and discuss the new record, their bassist’s departure and the future of the Austin Psych Fest.
QRO: Do you want to talk about the album’s production?
Alex Maas: Yeah, we basically started working on it at the very beginning of 2012. We wrote around 30 songs. Then John Congleton, the producer, came down for a week or so and we had a brainstorm, discussed how we wanted to do the album, what songs to record and how he could add his touch. Then we collectively picked about 17 songs, and that was very difficult because it’s like picking from your own children.
After the recording in August-September 2012, it was then easier, kinda obvious to choose which songs to put on the album and in what order. And we were out there at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, TX in West Texas, which is a beautiful property, like an oasis in the desert, at the border with Mexico, with no distractions.
Before going to the studio we were just rehearsing the songs because we didn’t want to waste time in the studio on the structure of the songs. Unlike the other albums, we had an exact idea of what to record, which was quicker.
QRO: What new or unconventional instruments were used in the recording?
AM: We’ve been interested in transistor organs from the ‘60s, so for instance we used a Gibson organ, then different types of keyboards, harmonium, celeste, cymbals, flutes, a viola… Most of them are really not traditional instruments so we tried to get the best from each one, which was really fun. And sometimes for instance when we were working the correct sound with the organ, then we were trying to transfer that sound to the guitar or even vocal melody. It was really worthy, the idea of doing the melody out in the most appropriate way for the song, rather than just coming up with, ‘Oh it has to be organ, it has to be bass guitar.’
QRO: Do you want to talk about Nate Ryan’s departure? Did he take part in the writing and/or recording process of Indigo Meadow at all?
AM: We basically parted ways before the last record was written. We just started seeing things differently. Christian [Bland], Nate and I were once part of a band named The Viet Minh who used to play in downtown Austin a lot, and we wrote this song called “Always, Never”. We then rewrote it with The Black Angels and the song was going to be on the last record but for some reason it didn’t make it and we thought we’d put it on this new album. On Indigo Meadow there is a track called “Always Maybe”, which is similar, it has the same vibe, guitar riffs and structure, though it was changed quite a bit as the original song was written in 2008.
QRO: Your U.S. tour is starting on April 4th. Will you be touring as a four-piece or will Rishi Dhir or someone else perform with you?
AM: Yes we’re touring as a five-piece with Rishi mainly on guitar. Elephant Stone, his cool band from Montreal (QRO album review) are also opening for us for all April dates. We needed to tour as five-piece because of the way the songs on the new album were conceived.
And there is also this cool guy we have known for a while, Jake Garcia who is in a ‘60s garage band from Austin, The Ripe, and used to be in Forever Changes, a Love cover band. He is probably a better musician than any of us in the band as he has lots of technical skills, and he’s also a good songwriter. So we are pretty excited about this new touring lineup.
QRO: You said that you guys wrote around 30 new songs and recorded 17, but only 13 feature on the album. What will happen with the remainder?
AM: The other songs we recorded will be released as B-sides. We have these extra tunes that will probably come out when our fans will get tired of the new album. [laughs]
QRO: The Record Store Day EPs you released in between Phosphene Dream and Indigo meadow were somehow less psychedelic and more slow-paced and acoustic. Maybe with the only exception of “Holland”, the new record is still quite fast-paced and psychedelic. Were you considering a change of direction and did the songs you didn’t end up including on the new album have more that kind of vibe?
AM: I think it’s more than we like doing different things. We’d played a few shows with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (QRO live review) and we sort of based those songs around their sound. We did that EP in between. The songs on the Watch Out Boy/I’d Rather Be Lonely 7” have a dark kind of feel and they are more acoustic. All three of them, especially “I’d Rather Be Lonely” changed from the original idea, which was going to be more just acoustic guitar and vocals only, without any reverb. But then for some reason we thought we should change that. We actually recorded it three or four times, and each time it turned out completely different.
We just like exploring different sides of our musical taste; we don’t like to be bound to just one specific style. We always incorporate different influences. Growing up in Houston you are exposed to a lot of different kinds of music from country to folk, and today there is still a lot of interesting stuff out there. So sometimes we just like drawing from different styles and make our own one, that’s what it’s all about.
QRO: Do you have anything planned for Record Store Day this year?
AM: No, sort of nothing this year. Indigo Meadow’s release is just too close to Record Store Day, being the latter on April 20th, so basically the new album is going to be our RSD release this year. [laughs] We’re probably going to do some in-store performance, but that’s it.
QRO: Is it true that “Don’t Play With Guns” was penned just days before last year’s mass shooting in Colorado?
AM: Yes it was. It started with a slightly different connotation, then the meaning took a life of its own. And people interpreted slightly differently as I think I write in a way that allows people to choose their own adventure. With painting you can have different meanings, as painting is more abstract. In songs because you have words and sound, if you just make a song about your opinion, there are messages that I think you have to deliver, you have to be able to do that.
QRO: This is the second album you’ve released on Blue Horizon. How would you describe your relationship with them in comparison with the one you had with Light In the Attic?
AM: That’s a good question. I would say that we have a very similar relationship, except that with Blue Horizon we are the only touring band on the label. [laughs] There are actually other bands we are trying to catch the attention of the label for.
With Light In the Attic we also had that reissue of our first two EPs recently. They are mainly a reissue label; they’ve reissued material from people like Kris Kristofferson, Karen Dalton and many more. They were giving us a hand in the beginning, as Passover was the first contemporary LP they released. And they were sort of doing us a favour when they reissued that early stuff. So we still have a great relationship with those guys. It was their 10th anniversary last year and I did that cover of Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” with other artists, so the relationship we have with them is still pretty good.
And our relationship with Blue Horizon is very similar, though they are older than the Light In The Attic entourage. Richard [Gottehrer] and Seymour [Stein] are like mentors. They’ve been in the music industry for such a long time that we’re getting a lot from their experience. We are very happy with what they’re doing and their experience is definitely important for us when releasing new records.
QRO: You had that Instagram contest where your fans had to submit their own interpretation of Indigo Meadow, and some of the photos were used as artwork for the advance album premiere on Pitchfork. Were you happy with what people submitted?
AM: Yeah it was very interesting to see people that listen to our music trying to give their own interpretation. A lot of great stuff came out of it. I think 13-14 photos were chosen. Everybody picked their six, then we chose our favourites from there. It was fun to see people’s interpretation of our music and of a song they hadn’t listened to yet and of what they think it might be. That just somehow adds value to the song.
QRO: And what does “Indigo Meadow” mean to you?
AM: I was trying to picture the beauty in a single field of grass, how the sun can soften the grass, then if you can see how unique and beautiful this is in its simplicity… if you can see the beauty of that glow and diving into it. And the beauty of all that is truthful in my head. I pictured “Indigo Meadow” being a field of beautiful flowers, a field of bluebonnet, which is the Texas state flower. I was trying to figure out what makes you happy, as people see beauty, happiness in different things. And that idea of “Indigo Meadow” being a bluebonnet field, that image of the grass being indigo when the sun is at its peak is beautiful and joyful to me.
QRO: At the end of April the sixth edition of the Austin Psych Festival is taking place (QRO Festival Guide). When you started six years ago were you expecting such a success?
AM: Not at all. Basically we just started the festival with the idea of getting people of the same city together, and that was more difficult than it sounds because it was around a style of music, which had never been done or tried before. Then the festival has grown, and got really related to the core of the psych music scene. And the two things started to grow together, not necessarily in the same way, not necessarily in a related way. So the festival has grown because the psych music scene got bigger and also because at the beginning it was like a trial for us, we were like, ‘Let’s try,’ ‘cause we didn’t know much about it and we were just mentioning things and see if they could work. By the second and third year we started to talk more about things and how we wanted the festival to have a personality. And this year we tried to push it in the direction we really wanted it to go. If you are interested in nature, you just push your interests in nature, if you are interested in baseball, you’ve got a baseball club. [laughs] So we pushed the festival in the direction not only we, but also the fans, the people we were talking to and appreciate that kind of music, wanted to be. Now there are a bunch of awesome bands playing it. So it has grown so much also thanks to the fans and the musicians that have taken part in it.
QRO: Last November, in an interview at the Harvest Festival in Sydney (QRO Harvest Festival Melbourne recap) you said that this year there would also be a Melbourne Psych Festival. But I don’t think I have heard anything about it since then. Is it still going to happen?
AM: There are still a few things that are not ready for this year yet, as we were looking at a couple of venues that then fell through for the time frame we were considering, so we are now going to push that idea into the future so that will probably be at the beginning of the following year. But we’re trying to plan things for that at the Austin Psych Festival this month.
And then after that we are also going to do the Austin/Angers Festival at the end of September. We’ve got people that have been promoting it, and we are going to start to look into that properly soon. It will be a small festival, this year is not going to be a big thing, maybe it will get bigger in the second, third year. But that will just be the first step out of Texas.
We are still very excited about being in Melbourne, but unfortunately not this year, as we are still planning things and we want to do it right. In Australia there has been an amazing response to our music, and the culture over there is just awesome. But like I said, there are still lots of things we have to do. We still have to choose the location, which is the hardest thing about it.
QRO: Will the Halloween shows that took place in NYC in 2011 see the light of day as a DVD or album or both?
AM: We recorded the whole thing. Sorry, right now I can’t remember if people were filming it or not. [laughs] I know there is the audio of it, but the video I honestly don’t remember. I know the audio recording of it does exist, as it’s something we have been working on, but I’m not too sure what we are going to do with that. I’d like to see something happening out of it though.
QRO: You just announced a couple of European dates. Are there any definite plans for a proper tour yet?
AM: Yeah definitely. After the U.S. tour we’re going to Australia and then doing some festivals. Then yeah we’re going to tour Europe a bit later. This time we actually want to go to Eastern Europe too. We have never been there and it’s something we are definitely considering at the moment. So please if you have any tips do send them along. [laughs]