Alex Maas of the Black Angels on Phosphene Dream and the band's evolving sound
In recent years, the Black Angels have deservedly been a prominent band in the psychedelic rock world. Though the act had the rare distinction of being the backing band for one of the pioneers of psychedelic rock, Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators, the music created by the Austin-based act is also rooted in hip-hop rhythms and the shimmering flow of shoegaze bands of the '90s. This, in combination with its own, distinct, dark flavor, has a thrilling sense of menace hovering in the background. We recently spoke with the outfit's cordial and thoughtful singer and multi-instrumentalist Alex Maas about the title of Phosphene Dream, the recurring image of the sniper across two of the band's albums, the evolution of the group's music across albums and Charles Manson.
Westword: Why did you call your most recent album Phosphene Dream and what about the concept of phosphenes did you find fascinating?
Alex Maas: It was just kind of fitting. The idea of light when light doesn't exist had this kind of hopeful idea, and it had a nice ring to it. It also seemed fitting for the music. I first heard the two words put together from one of my dad's friends. We had these two words that had a ring to them together two or three years before the record came out, and I told my dad about that and he said, "Wow, that's really cool and psychedelic sounding."
Then I started studying a little bit about what phosphenes are. If you push on the side of your eye you see these little things? Those are phosphenes running into your eyes. When it came time to name the record it just seemed fitting. I think the name can have different connotations and people have interpreted it different ways but basically the idea is there being light where light doesn't exist.
On Passover, you have a song called "Sniper at the Gates of Heaven" and on Phosphene Dream you have a song simply titled "The Sniper." Is there a significance to that?
Yeah. Christian [Bland] and I have long been intrigued by the idea of a sniper. It's someone who is paid to kill other people. It's very dark. People have to understand that they're doing something for the greater good or a cause or whatever. Then people decide that it's okay to take the life of another person. So it's a kind of scary idea and job, and snipers have to kind of have to be blind to any kind of repercussion or any kind of conventional moral code in a way, but then they can have their own moral code at the same time. I think watching movies and thinking about the role of the sniper there is just a very precise kill. It's interesting, strange, scary, bad and good and everything all at the same time.
Why those songs got titled that: A lot of times when we write music, we put ourselves in a situation. The music a lot of the time comes first then the lyrics come through the music; basically describing the scene. That song sounded like a killing scene, the sniper is getting ready to make his kill. I always kind of pictured that when I wrote that song. It's a strange job and a strange role. "Sniper at the Gates of Heaven" is more like the idea, if that place exists, people being shot down and considering who that person is.
Obviously it's a play on words with "Sniper at the Gates." It was just this little clever thing.
In a lot of our songs we made rules for them. One rule is that if the music sounds like you can rob a bank to it -- that's a good song. I would never do that, but to have that kind of brooding bass line that is dangerous-sounding -- if you get the chills while you're writing a song, it's a keeper, and you should keep working on it. Also, if you can put yourself in a scenario and you can envision being in a place and time within that sonic soundscape, that's a good song, too.
Several songs we've written, it's kind of been like, what would it be like to be in Cambodia in 1965 or something? What kind of drum beat would fit that scenario? What kind of bass line would be chasing behind you? So that's kind of a stepping stone, setting parameters and working within that. So maybe some '80s synth wouldn't be in that setting. It's like writing a score. Sometimes the music comes first, and the lyrics follow, and the lyrics describe the sound.
There's an interview you did with Undercover out of Australia and you said that you kind of caught up to the latest album as players, as in maybe you wrote material that was challenging for you to play as musicians. Obviously, as a musician, you make progress as an artist and you explore different things. What would you say you developed between Passover and Directions to See a Ghost?
I think we really honed in, sonically, on the low end. On Passover, there's no bass really at all. When we got to Directions to See a Ghost, we explored sound and honed in on the bass and the low end and got that nice and juicy. When I go back and listen to Passover I think, "Man, if that song just had a fat bass line it would be awesome." But you can't go back. That's what it was at the time. There's no changing notes, and albums are documenting where you are.
We wanted the second album to be slightly more dangerous and ambiguous, as well. I think it came across for better or for worse. Directions is, in my opinion, more ambiguous, and it had a grittier low end. One of the things I learned from record one to record two is something that sounds contradictory to what I just said is that we could do whatever we want. Not that there are no rules, but we can decide what those are. Songs like "Science Killer" or "Snake in the Grass" are almost hip-hop in the drum and bass lines. I really wanted it to sound blacker and not as white.
I think artists want their work to change and allow it to move on its own and take on new forms. So the second record, like the newest record, it's more about locking into that groove. That whole record had this juicy groove, and that's just where we were. We were listening to a lot of Silver Apples and hip-hop. Kool Keith, Tribe Called Quest -- they were more hip-hop than gangster rap. Growing up in Houston, I was exposed to everything from DJ Skrew all the way to Biggie and Wu-Tang. Wu-Tang was a big influence on me, whether they were sampling stuff or getting real musicians to play these amazing bass lines and piano parts. That song "C.R.E.A.M." by Wu Tang? It's just so brilliant.
I really wanted to push our sound into more of a juicy kind of thing. But you just document what's happening and then you go back and look at why you did something. Records are like a documentary. My sister makes documentaries, and she finished one, and I asked her what it was like. She said, "You don't really know until you film this whole thing and then you find the story within the footage." That's one way to make a documentary. Then there's the way Michael Moore does it, and you have a perspective and tell the story. He's exposing something, and that's fine, but his documentaries can be loaded.
Going from Directions to Phosphene, we realized we did these kind of long, brooding songs. So what we did was we had these songs that sounded kind of like stuff off Directions, and we found the song within those songs. So if we had an eighteen minute songs and considered how we could make it a three minute song. So it was a conscious effort from Directions to Phosphene was not necessarily to make it more accessible, but finding the song within the song while still sounding like the Black Angels.
I think whatever we end up doing, it'll still sound like us. I don't think even with these singles we do and these acoustic songs...you listen to the Velvet Underground, and their first record is all over the place. They had "Sunday Morning" and then went into "Venus in Furs," and all those moods that fit into the same space in some weird way, and they all worked. I really try to push our band in that kind of direction. I want to explore all kinds of music and all kinds of sounds. I think that's healthy for everybody. It's like trying all different kinds of food, you shouldn't limit yourself.
I'd like to see our band kind of evolve into something like what Radiohead did. I think I read in Paste back in the day, Thom Yorke said before Kid A and Amnesiac came out, "I don't know if you'll recognize our band right when you hear it and then you'll be like, 'Oh, that's Radiohead.'" Then that'll be like defining the new rules of the band. I see us being able to move into different genres within what we're doing.
Kool Keith with Dr. Octagonecologyst, that record is super psychedelic and undeniably amazing. By letting that term "psychedelic" be whatever you want it to be, it's so open to interpretation. That's the whole joke: I think behind the term because it can be psychedelic garage and a conversation can be psychedelic. Not to be cliché, but it's in the eye of the beholder, but it's true.
Look at Ween's 12 Golden Country Greats, a country record of psychedelic weird shit. It was really cool but they were exploring their sound, and I love that stuff. I'm not saying we would ever do that, but there's something ballsy and awesome when musicians do that. Like when Black Rebel Motorcycle Club made Howl and how it was inspired by The Everly Brothers and all things good. I love when bands do that.
So this next record will sound different from the last one. But it will also have bits and pieces of our previous records in it. It's got that groove of Directions and it's got the songwriting of Phosphene and the naiveté of Passover. But we wrote thirty or forty songs for that and we pared it down to a certain amount of songs and that was one of the hardest things to do. It's good but it can slow our creative process down. It's not a dictatorship. I think that's the right way for us.