DIYNJ – The Black Angels: Alex Maas Talks SXSW, Levitation and the Birds and Bees Tour

    Ok, I’ll admit it, I was pretty nervous before interviewing Alex Maas, lead singer of the Black Angels. Throughout the last decade, their seminal albums — Passover, Phosphene Dream and Indigo Meadow — have been in constant rotation in my CD player, on my iPod and on my iPhone. And just recently, I had been really getting into a vinyl copy of their latest album, Death Song, which they released in 2017. But I knew nothing about the actual band. I mean, I knew absolutely nothing. In this current age of instantly accessible information, I somehow never looked any further into the members of the Black Angels than the pictures that my mind conjured up while spacing out to their records.

    Maybe that’s what it was like for kids in the ‘70s listening to Pink Floyd and having no clue what the band looked like. The only thing was, I was not a kid in the ‘70s, I was a grown man in 2018 who was surprised when Alex Maas agreed to an interview request, and then even more surprised by my own ignorance in regards to the members of the Black Angels.

    So DIYNJ suddenly became Do It Myself New Jersey and I began furiously researching Alex Maas, the Black Angels and the whole damn psyche scene. And with the help of some good friends and the good ‘ole interwebs, I felt confident that I had come to know more about Alex Maas than just my belief that his song, “Young Men Dead” on 2006’s Passover may just be the greatest album opener since “Immigrant Song” kicked off Led Zeppelin III in 1970.

    All my newfound knowledge on the Black Angels actually made me even more nervous because my interpretation of Alex Maas was now that of an artist who was not interested in interviews, he had been there and done that and now it’s all about the music, man. And really, who could blame him? The guy has been asked about the Black Angels’ connection to the Velvet Underground’s “The Black Angel’s Death Song” on a daily basis for nearly 15 years. I made a note to myself not to mention the Velvet Underground.

    My strategy must have worked. Mr. Maas was as passionate in talking about the psychedelic music scene as he was fired up when talking about the current administrations. He was an open book about his recent challenges with the Levitation festival and his struggles with having a soapbox to stand on as a musician. He was generous with knowledge gained from the road and I have never heard anyone so jazzed up about Cambodian street music. From my conversation with him, it is evident that this expectant father’s excitement for life carries over to all of his projects which include The Birds and Bees Tour that teams the Black Angels with the Black Lips and the Mustachio Light Show for what promises to be series of mind-blowing attacks on the senses.

So I figured we should just jump right into the deep stuff…I’ve noticed in most performances, interviews and photo shoots that you are usually rocking a hat that is tilted, a bit off center and pulled down very low. Is this a fashion statement or is it more strategic to frame your face and showy off your best side for the camera?

    I guess it’s just all of it. Maybe I just don’t want people to see my eyes. Hmm, it’s just something I have always just done. I will do it until I am told I can’t do it anymore and then I’ll have to figure out something else.

Ok, thanks for putting up with that. Let’s talk about the Black Angels upcoming tour, which pairs you with the Black Lips and is billed as “Together at Last, The Birds & Bees Tour.” Have you wanted to work with the Black Lips for a while or is this just tongue in cheek because of the similarity among band names?

    We have known the Black Lips forever; our paths have crossed a bunch of times. We have had them at our music fest. a few times too. Touring with them is something we have always wanted to do. I joke around with them that it was something that they secretly wanted to do because it was something we secretly wanted to do. We have toured with Black Keys, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and Black Mountain so it just made sense to tour with the Black Lips. We all run in the same circles.

The shows will be highlighted, literally, by the Mustachio Light Show. Can you tell us more about what that is and what it will add to the stage show?

    Bob Mustachio is the drummer for the Warlocks — everyone should check them out. Bob also creates these really cool light shows. We get together with him and we create content with some cool, old analog stuff. It’s really neat looking. The Black Angels have always thought that lights and projections were integral to our shows. We feel as if we are paying homage to the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and the old Fillmore stuff. Early Syd Barret-era Pink Floyd was just so cool because their projections added another dimension to the show, you didn’t just have to stare at the band.

    And it works for us because we are not super flashy. I enjoy watching bands that have that element and that do it well. When Christian and I first started writing music, we would put on Apocalypse Now and write to the film, so we have always had a visual element to go along with our audio creations.
I hear the music and see the images, and the images help me tell the story of what the song is about. One minute it sounds like we are in a jungle, then it sounds like we are floating down river, and then we are in outer space. Image and music just go hand in hand for us.

You are one of the curators of the Levitation festival, which seemed to be gaining momentum each year since its inception. But in 2016, the event faced a natural disaster and you took a year off from the fest. to regroup and rebuild. The fest is returning this year, what was it like having to start at square one again?

    Yeah, we took a huge hit in 2016 when we had to cancel the festival, and we lost a lot of money. We weren’t even sure if we could do it anymore. It was frightening being in the red by more money than I could imagine. We had two options: we could file for bankruptcy and not pay any of our friends — so that was not an option at all — or we could build it back up from square one, which is what we are doing now and it’s not an easy thing to do. People have been extremely patient with us. It’s been a hard journey to get back to where we are at this year.

    We can’t afford to take many risks this time, so that’s one of the reason we are back in the city, to cut down on production. And we are also bringing it back to the city because there are all these really cool venues that make Austin what it is. These venues have all helped the psyche scene grow. I like this move back to the city for a lot of reasons but mainly because it should help give back and it brings money back to the city.

The Black Angels have long been a mainstay on the festival circuit, are you able to enjoy yourself and catch a few sets from your favorite bands or it is all work at this point?

    We definitely check out other bands. That is one of the best things to do at a festival, is to use it to benchmark other festivals, like that’s cool, look at the floating-space-ball-antigravity-chamber or check out some crazy new band from North Africa. There’s a lot of note-taking going on when we play other festivals. There is a lot of work but there is always time to sneak off and check out something like a Vietnamese street band. We always try to incorporate some play in when we go to any fests. I won’t lie though, there is a lot of work that we have to put in too.

Speaking of the festival circuit, the Black Angels have become synonymous with SXSW. You guys are Austin’s favorite sons but I see you will be touring Australia when SXSW commences. That’s quite a commute home. Will you be back in time?

    We land back in Austin on March 13 and I will be hanging at SXSW for a few days before I have to get ready for the tour.
Rumor has it you might have a few surprise SXSW gigs with your new psyche-supergroup, MEIN. Sounds like you are a busy guy. What has the experience of being a part of MEIN been like for you?

    MEIN means “me” or “my” in German, but the English definition is the “essence of what you are about.” So that is why we chose that name. It has been a really fun project. We had a bunch of rehearsals recently for a couple shows we are going to do at SXSW.  We have a bunch of killer musicians in this band, Rishi (Dhir) from the Elephant Stone, Tom (Furse) from the Horrors and John-Mark (Lapham) from the Earlies and some other really great musicians that are helping put this thing together.

    This is a project that I have been working on for four years. The album is finally coming out on April 6. I am so happy about this record and really stoked on it. It’s industrial, electronic, psyche, weird ambient music that is just dark, and that’s why I like it! I am having a baby on July 7 so I am trying to fill my world up as much as possible before that happens. So I’ll be pretty busy after that, at least for the next 18 years.

Congrats! And speaking of family…you have compared being in the Black Angels to being in a great marriage and you still gush about sharing magic moments on stage with your bandmates. That seemed particularly cool to me being that the Black Angels have been together for about 15 years now. What wisdom can you impart to bands just starting out?

    If you are making music for money then you are doing it for the wrong reason. It should be about how your art is effecting other people and about if you are happy with what you are doing. That’s where the value is. Anything that I have gained from my experiences with the band can be applied to everyday life, like for instance, communication. Communication is huge. Question how you are communicating. Are you not saying what you feel? Are you being passive- aggressive? Are you beating around the bush? Are you pushing things under the rug until they pile up and blow up?

    When you are in a band you a married to all of the members. You live with them, you shower with them, and you drink out of the same fucking bowl that they sometimes pee in. That marriage is absolutely real. I encourage people that are starting bands to move in with each other first, see if you even like each other. Do they push your buttons? Do they have buttons that you do not want to push?

You have stated that things you listen to usually filter into your music so what are you filtering in these days?

    I have been listening to a lot of music from the Southeast Pacific Islands, a lot of Vietnamese folk music, and music from Thailand and Mongolia. That music has been an infatuation of mine for like the last six years. It’s all good, whether it’s from the ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s and even modern day Cambodian street music is so good. A guy will have a bicycle with a snare drum on it and will be singing in to a PA with a shitload of delay on it. They create instruments and play mind-blowing blues in their native tongue. That area makes some of the most interesting music. Tell everybody about it! Get on YouTube and start going down the wormhole.

The Black Angels have been openly political at times. And while Death Song was written before the rise of Trump, the songs on the album are very timely, to say the least…

    It’s a poisonous, cancerous world that we are living in. Who is in charge? This child of a president that we have, and his little buddies have no clue how to run a nation. I am not saying that I do either, but there are people 100 percent more qualified than they are. The people running the FDA are the same people running Coca Cola and they telling us that it’s ok to have 70 grams of sugar a day? And of course, there are people that actually need some of the pharmaceuticals that are out there but the things that are being approved just to make a profit are so maddening to me and just pisses me off. It should enrage and infuriate everyone. I can only say so much until I sound like a preacher, so the best thing I can do is to encourage others to speak the truth and to search for the truth.

Like much of the Back Angel’s catalogue, there’s a duality to Death Song, where a spotlight gets put on the many things that divide us, but there is also a sense of hope that everyone can eventually come together. I was wondering if you could talk more about the concept of music being utilized as coping strategy.

    Being a musician to me is more about therapy and not so much about entertainment. Maybe people are entertained by it but to me, music is therapeutic. Music helps me to face fears, to face reality, music forces me to look in the mirror and see if I am wearing my hat or not, and if I remembered to wear pants and then to ask myself if any of that even matters.  Music can help us talk about what we are afraid of in the world.

    Over-glorifications and idolizing of musicians and songs can be a dangerous thing but it can also be a powerful thing. People like John Lennon have changed the world with their music and I love that part. So there is a certain responsibility there, but musicians and artists are no different than anyone else. I create something and I put it out there in front of the word and someone will come along and say to me, “Who gives a shit what you have to say?” And I do struggle with that, but it all comes back to, if I am loving the music that I am making, then nothing else matters. That may sound selfish but it’s very true.

Obviously, much has been made about the use of psychedelics and other substances in the “psyche scene,” but do you ever think that having that drug-tag takes away from the scene that you have worked so hard to cultivate?

    Psychedelic music embodies a lot of different sounds. Psyche music is in Wu-Tang. Psychedelic music is in street music in Cambodia where they don’t even know what that word means. Psychedelic music is in Patsy Cline and in Portishead. Psychedelic music was first started in a cave over 2000 years ago when someone was banging on a piece of dinosaur leather or whatever they had. They were banging drums and telling stories on how to survive. They were inspired by nature. That sound was driving their spirit and that spirit was driving their sound. It all gets intertwined where no one knows who is in control of what and that to me is the essence of psychedelic music.

    We changed the name from Austin Psyche Fest to Levitation because we started seeing all these psyche fests popping up everywhere and we wanted to separate ourselves from that and because we want to incorporate all types of music. We wanted Willie Nelson on our stage and we wanted to flash a whole bunch of lights at him. Now everyone throws the word psyche on a band in hopes of selling an extra 20 records, but at the end of the day, I am into really good music that is believable, that’s what psychedelic music is about. 

    The music is way up there on the list, but the most important thing to come out of this “psychedelic scene” is the culture. A culture that is supportive of the music and supportive of each other. Psyche music was all leading to something else. It’s not about drugs, it’s about a community of open-minded people with open eyes and open hearts that are actively seeking information and seeking the truth.
Thanks for your time, Alex. I can’t believe I made it through the whole interview without making a reference to the Black Angels connection to the Velvet Underground. Oh, damnit, I guess I just did it right there, huh?

Yeah, so anyways, I have go get ready for practice now but it’s been great talking to you.

The Black Angels play White Eagle Music Hall in Jersey City, NJ on April 7.