How the Black Angels mixed Native American rhythms and angst for psychedelic bliss

“These are our death songs, because we’re chanting them in these toxic, troubled cancerous times.”

All hail the mighty kings of fuzz, those proud purveyors of ear-pummeling distortion from Austin, Texas, The Black Angels!

The good news is, The Black Angels have just expanded the scope of their fuzz-laden palette with Death Song, out today in various formats via Partisan Records. Thanks to an assist from on-the-pulse producer Phil Ek (Father John Misty, Fleet Foxes, The Shins), The Black Angels show their desire to grow, as evidenced by the vocal layering of I’d Kill for Her, the shimmery backbone of Grab as Much as You Can, and the Sonic Youth-esque thrust of I Dreamt.

But not to worry — it’s all framed with generous dollops of The Angels’ patented fuzz attack for good measure.

Death Song is very much an album of the here and now, with one of its most telling lines — “How can I explain with no voice?” — appearing at a crucial point in the final track, Life Song.

“I used to hear that all the time: ‘I would be more active, but I just don’t feel like I’m being heard,’” Black Angels bassist/vocalist Alex Maas told Digital Trends. “That’s a truth heard all throughout society — and definitely all throughout the record. This record just has so many connections to current-day America and the current-day world, whether it’s interpersonal relationships, our relationships with politicians … or our government with other governments. It’s very difficult to maintain these kinds of relationships. There’s this idea of, ‘What do I even put my faith in if I believe half of what I see, and nothing of what I hear?’ It’s unreal.”

Maas spoke with Digital Trends from his home base in Austin to discuss the way the world communicates, the band’s inherent connection with Native American rhythms, and his thoughts about the best-ever psychedelic albums.

Digital Trends: I love the way you play with atmospherics and how your mixes are often right on the edge of distortion. How do you find that right balance when you’re playing riffs that are feeding back on you to that degree? Are you conscious of, “Do we need to harness this? Is it too much over the redline?”

Alex Maas: I think you always have to have a certain kind of meter. Some people call it a bullshit meter, or some kind of taste meter. That’s one thing that’s always a constant with us — we’re always questioning everything.

We would sit down with a song like Life Song. We tried 30 pedals for where the fuzz comes in and once we found the two we liked, we went, “OK, now, do we have the right guitar?” We go through all of those factors. The choices get more and more exponential, and the combinations can get kind of crazy at that point.

But we’re a democracy, and Phil [Ek] was gracious enough to understand that and fit into our world. We’d sit around and talk about it, and work it out. We’d look at each other, shrug our shoulders, and sometimes go, “I don’t know. Well, let’s just try something else.” Once we landed on something sonically, we’d stick with it. That’s how it happened.

I like the one-two punch at the very end of the record with Death March and Life Song. They’re very complementary, though Life Song is more of a death anthem, in a way. And on Death March, you have that really interesting vocal delay going on, which makes it a great headphones track.

Yeah, I know; it totally is. That’s one of the tracks I recorded in Austin. Everything else we did in Seattle. I wanted to make it fucked-up sounding and kind of trippy, but have that balance there where you can hear what’s happening. That was a fun one where we got to go, “OK, Phil — work with this.”

It’s always hard to pick a favorite track, but I like the off-kilter vibe of I Dreamt. Special kudos to you for the brief nod to Pink Floyd’s Echoes in the middle of it.

That’s probably one of my favorites too — that one, and Grab as Much as You Can. I Dreamt was more my baby, something I had floating around for seven years. It’s taken on a lot of different sounds and a lot of different interpretations, and I was really stoked at how it came out.

It’s nice to see your songs grow like children. The original version actually has more of a Leonard Cohen type of vibe and flow to it, and the lyrics are more spoken. But I never really set out to go, “OK, now I’m going to write a Leonard Cohen type of song.” We just write something, and then it becomes a Black Angels song. Very rarely do we say, “We want to make a song sound like The Velvet Underground.” It’s more of a backwards kind of thing, where our influences eventually trickle down into it.

Those Native American chants are called death songs, because they would chant them before they died.

That’s the mark of creativity — you take your influences, put them into the cauldron, and then it becomes you.

We always wear our influences on our sleeves. We don’t leave anything in our pocket and go, “Oh! We’re the first band to ever do this! We’re the first band to ever use echo and reverb!”

By naming the album Death Song, you will bring some people directly to The Velvet Underground connection. It’s also a bit mind-blowing that The Velvet Undergound & Nico, the album that has the song the band is named after [i.e., The Black Angel’s Death Song], came out 50 years ago this March.

That’s pretty weird. It’s pretty wild, actually. The choice of the name Death Song also comes from our infatuation with Native American music. It’s been there for all of our records

And that’s the other side of the coin for Death Song. I really relate to Native American musicians. They’re not classically trained, and they’re speaking more from their spirit. Their songs are storytelling their ways of survival: Where do you fish, what time of year do you plant your crops, how do you get along with people, where do you not go?

Comanche Moon is another nice, direct connection to all of that.

In the culture, they were encouraged to create a chant in times of tribulation, trouble, and terror. And these chants would get them through hard times. The songs are called death songs because they would chant them before they died from whatever happened to them.

It was the perfect, multifaceted fit for the name of the record — not only as a nod to The Velvet Underground, but because these are our death songs. We’re chanting them in these toxic, troubled, scary, twisted, cancerous times.

In terms of some of the keyboard sounds I’m hearing on the album, are you actually using Mellotron samples, or something else?

They’re not samples, no; that’s an actual Mellotron.

Ah, that’s great. I love that.

We have Mellotron, organ, and we always use Farfisas [electronic organs], Vox Continentals and Vox Customs [amplifiers], and Korg Kaossilators [phase synthesizers]. I guess it’s a healthy-slash-unhealthy obsession we have with that kind of stuff.

Well, could there ever really be too many effects pedals?

“It’s nice to see your songs grow like children.”

That’s up to the listener, and the guy mixing the record. Hopefully, it’s at the stage of “no more,” as in, “I can’t add anymore!”

I try not to put sonic limitations on things too much. But then again, you do have to have some, so I might not be the right person to answer that question. (laughs)

I really feel like you captured the atmospherics and sense of space here, just to my liking.

One thing with this record is the sense of space, this openness, from the get-go. That’s one thing Peter got from the giddy-up — these songs deserve space, and that openness.

When I hear this record, I don’t hear, “Oh that’s a psychedelic record.” I just don’t. It definitely has its moments, but when I hear a song like I’d Kill for Her or Half Believing, I definitely don’t hear psychedelia. But this is our band, and those kind of influences trickle in anyways. Our DNA’s going to be in there.

Even our last record, Clear Lake Forest (2014) — those seven songs were some of my favorite songs I’d ever written, but it’s completely different than anything else we’ve done. It’s a little bit more chilled out, and more calm.

Put on that album’s Sunday Evening and then follow it with Sunday Morning by The Velvet Underground, and you’ve got the perfect bookends.

(laughs heartily) You do!

I also have to thank you guys for being the curators of Psych Fest in Austin, which is called Levitation now.

Oh, thank you. It’s another passion thing of ours, because we always lose money on it.

That’s gotta be tough, because you literally have to balance art and commerce there.

It’s a harsh reality. Most people don’t think those things live in the same world, but they absolutely do. We started it almost as a party and a way to bring these bands from the psychedelic community together. The selfish part of it is, I have this master list of my favorite bands, and we are all asking them to come play our party. (chuckles)

Do you still have one top “get,” the band you haven’t gotten to play it yet?

I try not to put sonic limitations on what we do. But then again, you do have to have some.

Oh yeah, there’s a bunch of them: Radiohead, Bjork, Massive Attack, Tricky, Caribou — the list goes on and on. There are so many good bands, you know? Next year will be the 50th anniversary of a lot of bands from 1968, so I’m looking forward to that.

Not to put pressure on you or anything, but if you had to pick the top psychedelic albums and bands of the last 50 years, what and who would you choose?

Oh, wow, no pressure! Um… (pauses) It’s gotta be some early [13th Floor] Elevators stuff. The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators (1966) is one of the best. Then maybe Red Krayola, and Silver Apples. Their first record [Silver Apples, 1968] was pretty tripped out, considering what they were doing. It was way ahead of its time. I don’t hear anybody even coming close to sounding like them.

One of the albums we have to add to this list for future reference is Death Song. I think The Black Angels have definitely hit a high point here.

It’s always hard to know where a new album lands. The record is getting such a good response now, and I don’t know if it would have been as good if we had put it out three years ago.

Now seems like the exact right time for it, like whenever a Husker Du noisefest album came out during the Reagan era.

Again, it’s for the people to decide. We put it out, we did it, and that’s all we can do. (chuckles)

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