Infatuation With Culture: An Interview with The Black Angels
The Black Angels. Photo: Alexandra Valenti
In the midst of touring their fifth studio album, Death Song, Austin band The Black Angels have found their calling as one of the most prominent psych-rock band of recent decades. With opening support from New York noise rock trio A Place to Bury Strangers, their show at White Oak Music Hall on Thursday is sure to be a loud one. Prior to the show, vocalist Alex Maas spoke to Free Press Houston about their new material, how artists can get their music heard, and the band’s powerful love of sushi.
Free Press Houston: NPR started streaming your new album Death Song before anyone. The days following its release, were you keeping up with the reviews and thoughts from the listeners?
Alex Maas: A little bit, yeah. There’s a lot of stuff we do that I try not to look at too much. There’s not much more that we could do than make a record and put it out there. We just hope that the people are moved by it someway, whether it’s positively or negatively. But from what I’ve heard, people are enjoying it, which is good. It’s out of our control now, it’s out of our hands. But I have a good feeling.
FPH: This album seems to get pretty deep and dark from the beginning, especially with the lyrics “Everyone is held hostage” in the song “Currency” and the layout of the last two songs, “Death March” and “Life Song.” What exactly is Death Song about?
Maas: Let me refer back a little to what I have been talking about: I had this infatuation with Native American culture. With a lot of those cultures, the people were encouraged to write these chants that they would recite during trials and tribulations, or fear, or panic — just torturous times. They were encouraged to write these chats from a young age for later on in life to help them get through things. These chants were called “death songs.” I think this record has a similar theme. These songs are our musical chant to get us through these insane, toxic times. In terms of a theme for the entire record, it’s hard — I’m so inside the record to pick one theme, but I would say greed and corruption, or failure of communication between us and the state and government. There are so many themes on this record, but in terms of overall — I think if you’ve listened to Passover, you can hear that infatuation with culture.
FPH: It seems like your band is one of the biggest modern touring Texas rock bands alongside Spoon, also from Austin; do you ever feel pressure thinking about that, if at all, that you are carrying a torch?
Maas: No, I think Willie Nelson does that. Honestly, in terms of carrying a torch, Spoon is very active in music, and they’ve been a great band for a long time. Maybe we’re carrying a specific torch for something, but there are bands that carrying ones that we can’t. We wear our influences on our sleeves. We’ve never been like, “Oh, we’re not into the [13th Floor] Elevators. We don’t love Clinic or the Velvet Underground.” I think it’s not fair to our fans and ourselves if we keep our influences in our pockets. The more we spread this message of modern day bands and bands from the past, and how they’ve influenced us, the more people we’ll get turned onto this kind of music. Then, the community will grow. We’ve always wanted to create a platform for like-minded people, and we try to do that in every way possible.
FPH: My first time getting to see the band was at Levitation back in 2015. Before your set, I overheard someone talking about your band, saying, “At first I thought the band was doing what the 13th Floor Elevators were doing decades ago, but then I got it!” Have you heard anything else like that in the past?
Maas: You know, I never expect anyone to understand what we’re doing, you know? We understand what we’re doing. In terms of people understanding our music, I don’t expect anyone to understand every piece of art, you know what I mean? If someone thinks that we’re ripping off the 13th Floor Elevators, I’d ask them to tell some some examples. I mean, totally, the band was amazing. If we’re information seekers, we’re going to find out what instruments and amps the band used. Just like all art, it’s derivative of something else. I mean, everyone has their own opinion, though. I can’t say if they’re right or wrong, but I feel like we’ve evolved into something, to me, at least, unique. But that’s my opinion, and it’s no more valid than anyone else’s.
FPH: Well, how was the band received during the first few years? How long did it take until you were able to break the the restraint of being a “local band”?
Maas: There’s so many bands in Austin. I don’t think we were even perceived at all. I don’t even think that was a mission. Honestly, we’re not even that perceived now. No one really knows about our band. We’re not Kendrick Lamar or U2. If you line up 100 people, maybe 1 will know who we are. So in terms of that, I still don’t know if we’re perceived at all. We’re not on a major scale radar, we don’t have these million dollar videos with hot women bouncing around in Lamborghinis. Maybe we’ll never be a band that becomes popular, but when people did start taking us seriously is when he started to hit the road. Whenever people noticed that we worked hard and played a lot of fucking shows. That’s how I determine how serious people are about what they’re doing: touring a lot out of the year and just serious about their business. They need to be passionate and believe in what they do. That’s how I judge a band.
FPH: What about Grand Theft Auto? Do you think the inclusion of “Black Grease” had spawned a group of fans that wouldn’t have known about you without it?
Maas: We’ve been doing a lot of theme deals. It’s had to have added some new fans. We’ve done other themes for television and film, so I can’t say Grand Theft Auto made our band. I’d like to say that our hard work had something to do with it! The state of the music economy is in a depression, so young musicians need to do whatever they can to get people to hear their music, whether that be doing stuff for video games or film. There are lots of ways and outlets to get people turned on to your music. But no, we were grateful to be asked to be included in something larger than ourselves. Again, I can’t really comment on what that has done for our band. I’m not sure who plays that game and if they got turned onto our song specifically. I have no idea, man.
FPH: How important is sushi to the Black Angels? I understand that the band is fueled by sushi. Where are the best spots around the country for it?
Maas: Yes, sushi is very, very important to us. That’s a funny and interesting question, because we all do love it. I find the biggest pieces and the freshest stuff in Vancouver. In Vancouver, I always feel like it’s the best. That’s some of the best sushi I ever had for the price and amount of fish you get. I have yet to find a place better, but I love it here in Texas. I mean, we’re in a band, so we don’t have an unlimited amount of money, so we try to find cheap sushi that won’t make us sick. Seattle and San Francisco have good sushi, or all across the West Coast. But Vancouver, man. I think they hands-down have some of the best sushi I’ve ever had.
FPH: Well, you are going to at the White Oak Music Hall with A Place To Bury Strangers on May 18. Are you going to be circling a sushi restaurant like Uchi while in town?
Maas: Oh, there’s Uchi, too. That place is great, but it’s very expensive. Sushi is something you eat before you go.
The Black Angels will perform at White Oak Music Hall on Thursday, May 18. Tickets are between $20-$24 and doors are at 8 pm.