Infiltrating the Mainstream: An Interview with The Black Angels

Photo: JP

It’s a Friday night in Austin, Texas and The Black Angels are wowing a huge crowd with a reverb-heavy set at Cedar St. Courtyard during SXSW 2011. It’s the last of four showcases the Austin-based psychedelic rock band would play at SXSW—a minimal number of shows compared to what they’ve done in years past.

The lights are turned down to a low red glow and people dance as if they’ve been possessed by some sort of rock n’ roll demon. Lead singer Alex Maas appears to be in a meditative trance as he belts out lyrics to songs from the group’s most recent release, Phosphene Dream.

The rest of the band appear to be equally engrossed in what they are doing. Blonde drummer, Stephanie Bailey, pounds away behind her kit, driving the music forward and swilling beer between each song. A lit cigarette dangles from Nate Ryan’s mouth as he plays the bass, falling from his lips when a song hits its breaking point and crashes over the crowd like a dark wave. He snubs it out with the toe of his boot to avoid any mishaps on stage. The Black Angels are effortlessly cool and obviously passionate all at once.

The day before this performance, I’d met up with Alex Maas (vocals, bass, guitar, keyboards) and Christian Bland (guitar, bass) after they played a mid-day show to a group of adoring fans at a bike shop called Mellow Johnny’s.  The shop, like many other retail spaces and restaurants in Austin, had been turned into a temporary venue to help house the onslaught of label showcases that had taken over the city. “It’s wild here this week, compared to other weeks,” Bland says regarding the SXSW takeover that occurs in Austin every March. He pauses before quickly reiterating that any week of the year there is live music happening somewhere in Austin.

“Austin is like an oasis in Texas. We’re surrounded by the Bible belt, it runs through a couple other states and then hits Utah,” Maas says. “I think [our isolation] lends itself to a lot of creative types who come here who want to explore different parts of life.” Maas and Bland, who are originally from Houston, both say that they felt a strong attraction to Austin early on, partially because it seemed so different from their strict and conservative upbringing. “It’s a magnet for weird people,” Maas says.

This is the band’s seventh year playing the week-long festival. In 2005, when they played their first SXSW showcase, they met Matt Sullivan, founder of Light in the Attic Records. The label would become home for the group’s early releases. The Black Angels have played SXSW every year since, although Maas and Bland both say that 2011 is mellow compared to previous years, one of which found them playing close to 13 shows in a four day period.

Although the group’s 2011 SXSW schedule may have been “mellow,” their touring schedule never is. Maas and Bland estimate they spend approximately 125 to 150 days on the road each year. A winter tour after the release of Phosphene Dream brought them to Salt Lake City last December.  Twelve days after SXSW, The Black Angels hit the road again on a spring 2011 tour that eventually brings them back through Salt Lake City on Friday, May 6 at The Urban Lounge. This time around, they’ll be playing some yet-to-be-released songs and plan to revisit some of their older material.

The older material is great live, but tracks from their third and most recent release, Phosphene Dream, seemed to shine the brightest during their performances in Austin. The album, produced by David Sardy (The Dandy Warhols, Devo and Wolfmother), is filled with songs that are shorter and played faster than the work found on Passover or Directions To See a Ghost. The album is the first on which the band worked with a producer. “For a long time we were doing slower songs, and I think one of the things we were trying to do was to explore different tempos,” says Bland regarding the direction of Phosphene Dream. “It’s fun to play a little bit quicker. It’s fun for the fans to hear songs that aren’t just mid tempo.”

Maas and Bland say that they feel the album has revealed some of their less obvious influences beyond the oft-compared Velvet Underground. “We love early Beatles, The Zombies, The Troggs. It was fun to dive into that field. There are a lot of ingredients that make The Black Angels. Different ones shine through on different songs,” Maas says. They say working with a producer helped them create more movement within the songs. “We understand that not many people want to sit down and listen to an 18-minute song,” says Maas. Although the songs on the record are shorter, in a live setting, the band will stretch their length as they see fit. “It’s fun to not play it exactly like the record,” says Bland.

Although the band’s music has recently been licensed and appeared in commercials for Target, Fable 3 and Cadillac, don’t start bitching and moaning about how they’ve sold out—it’s quite the contrary. “The idea is to infiltrate the popular culture and then turn them on to your music,” Maas says. “The White Stripes did that. The Black Keys are doing that now. A lot of bands just become the mainstream. Instead of changing your style to become [the mainstream] you just infiltrate.” The band’s willingness to have their music licensed is a combination of wanting to be heard by as many people as possible and some sound advice from The Black Keys. “One time we were talking to Pat [Carney] and he said ‘man if you ever get anything sent to you for TV—just do it. People are going to be turned on to your music,’” says Maas.

If the Internet is any indication—the infiltration tactic is working. Forums are blowing up with questions regarding the music in the aforementioned commercials. However, The Black Angels do have musical boundaries they refuse to cross. According to Maas, the army approached the band and wanted to use their music for a recruiting commercial.  For a band whose early material was heavily focused on anti-war songs—“Young Men Dead,” “First Vietnamese War” and the 18-minute long “Call to Arms”—the offer seemed like a joke. “That was the strangest thing we’ve ever gotten,” Maas says.

Bland goes on to describe a time he met a soldier on a plane who was headed back to Iraq. According to Bland, the soldier expressed that he didn’t want to go back, but that the pay was so good, it couldn’t be passed up.  “That’s how they get you. They’re paid a lot to kill. They’re contract killers in a way. I feel for the people that are there who are doing it for the money. There should be more education to keep people out of the army,” says Maas.

Commercializing and high-profile exposure aside, the band isn’t willing to sacrifice their musical integrity for money, and they realize the importance of their indie roots. In addition to their relentless touring and awe-inspiring live shows, April 16 sees the band releasing two Record Store Day exclusives.

Phosgene Nightmare, released by Blue Horizon (The Orchard offshoot that released Phosphene Dream), is a white vinyl 10” of B-sides that were recorded during the creation of Phosphene Dream.

The second exclusive RSD vinyl release, Another Nice Pair, is being put out by the band’s first label, Light in the Attic. Another Nice Pair features the band’s first two EPs, Black Angels EP and Black Angel Exit EP—one on the A-side and one on the B. It is the first time either EP will see a release on vinyl. Maas and Bland say that it’s important for them to do Record Store Day exclusives as a thank you to the record stores and fans that support them. “We support record stores—smaller home-grown stores are integral to the music economy,” says Maas. “The homegrowns seem more tapped into what’s happening underground,” says Bland.

Both releases will be available to purchase at Slowtrain, Graywhale and Randy’s on April 16 for Record Store Day.

The Black Angels will play Salt Lake City on Friday, May 6 at Urban Lounge with Sleepy Sun and they seem excited, calling Salt Lake City a crucial tour stop. “I always have a good time in Salt Lake. I remember the last two or three times were really magical,” Maas says. “It almost feels like Austin. The vibe of the club.”

“Oh it does. It feels a lot like Emo’s,” Bland says of Urban Lounge.

Come have your mind blown with The Black Angels’ layered reverb and larger-than-life show at Urban Lounge on May 6.

Photo: JP  Photo: Alexandra Valent