Interview The Black Angels: ‘Who Wouldn’t Want To Work With Thom Yorke?’

Alex and Christian give us the lowdown.

Not all bands start life as an overnight sensation, and it increasingly seems that those who don’t are the only ones who enjoy any kind of longevity, The Black Angels being a perfect example. Formed way back in 2005, they’ve been burrowing into our sub-conscious and growing ever since, to the point that they get chosen for festival closing parties and almost everyone knows who they are – not bad for five music lovers from Austin, Texas. Polite and gracious to a tee, and in spite of their hectic schedule, singer Alex Maas and guitarist Christian Bland were happy to give DIY the lowdown on hype, leaving your comfort zone, and what “balledelic” might sound like.

So, the last time we met, we were drinking whisky in your hotel room at 5am after you’d supported The Black Keys on your first trip to Europe. Now you’re closing festivals. These five years must’ve been a bit of a roller coaster?
Alex: Yeah, that was a really crazy night! I can’t really believe it all to be honest, its nuts. We never thought we’d get to this point – that was the goal obviously – but it was such a big dream. Time has just gone by so fast as we’ve been so busy playing shows and working at it, not that it’s really “work” though… we’re very fortunate.

You’re a “growing” band, in that you’ve toured extensively and built up a loyal fan base – is it better growing organically like that than landing in a blaze of hype as the “next big thing”?
Christian: It’s better to try and lay some kind of foundation, you know, its longer lasting. There are all these bands who are hugely popular all of a sudden but then forgotten about after six months, and we never wanted that to happen to us.
Alex: We want to be playing music for a long time, and we want to be in this band for a long time. The first people who started coming to our shows were these 50 and 60 year old men who’d lived through the Sixties, and they’d bring their wives. Our management used to worry and tell us “You need to get younger fans!” but I think those initial fans helped spread the message to a new generation. To be honest, most of them were probably record store owners or something, so they could push bands they thought were interesting, and our fans have generally gotten younger and younger… perhaps our youngest fan is now 28!

Since you’ve been getting more and more successful, do you have some kind of grand scheme you’re following, like a plan of where you want to be?
Christian: We wanna take it as far as we can. Our management has a strategy as far as touring goes, and when to return to various parts of the world… but we really don’t.
Alex: The plan always changes too. We’ll get things brought to us, or stuff comes up, and we need to decide if it feels right or not. We’re definitely not gonna do something we don’t want to do, or that we think won’t help us, but we’re now more open minded about things that are beneficial to us, like having a song on a TV show or a movie. In the beginning, we were a lot more hesitant to do that.
Christian: We’ve realised that being exposed to a bigger audience can only help us achieve what we want to achieve.

I guess what counts a success has also changed though. Before, it used to be all about album sales, but now touring, merchandising, and licensing are just as important.
Alex: Exactly, and people need to realise that the kind of success that used to be possible isn’t really gonna happen anymore. I was watching a music documentary the other day, I forget what it was exactly, but this guy was going “Yeah, sadly the record only sold two million copies; it was a bit of a failure” and I’m thinking “Two million copies!” I didn’t even know there were two million people who still bought albums! A hundred thousand seems a more likely number.

You followed Odd Future Wolf Gang last night… that was an interesting set.
Christian: It was! It was pretty strange. I only caught the last twenty minutes or so.
Alex: I heard bits of it, like where they covered Wu Tang. It’s hip hop with attitude, and it was super bass-ey. There was a lot of low end, so I couldn’t really make out a lot of it from backstage.

What was it like back there after the stage invasion? Chaos?
Alex: Yeah, they created this mob mentality thing by inviting loads of people to invade the stage, and I really don’t think security were ready or prepared for that. They just retreated to the dressing rooms and tried to make sure people got no further.
Christian: We couldn’t even get back to the dressing room, they thought we’d been on stage and were just fans, so we had to wait while it all calmed down. Crazy.

You’ve done a few collaborations before, and Kyle has said that you’d love to work with Thom Yorke at some point. What did you make of ‘The King Of Limbs’?
Alex: I’ve listened to five or six songs from it, and I think they are amazing. I haven’t really sat down with it and let it marinate, but they’re awesome. It’s weird though, coz when Kyle said that you think “Who wouldn’t want to work with Thom Yorke?” but I’m not sure it will ever happen.

I think his stuff and yours would be quite an interesting fit.
Christian: Totally! I would love it.
Alex: Yeah, but how realistic an expectation that is is another matter entirely… maybe if we plant the seed, the idea might grow.

How instrumental was Dave Sardy in stripping back your sound a little? ‘Phosphene Dream’ is definitely a little more mellow and melodic than your previous stuff.
Alex: He definitely steered us towards that. He tried to get us out of comfort zone, in a good way, and got us to do things we normally wouldn’t have tried. And one of those things was trying to find the song within the song, to really focus on the important parts. We had a track on our last album which was eighteen minutes and went in several different directions, whereas if Dave had gotten his hands on it, it would’ve been down to eight or something. It was really great working with him; he was really influential and just an all-round good guy to work with. He’s super smart, fun, and knows a lot about music, recording and what doesn’t work. I should also add that if we hadn’t liked an idea, it wouldn’t be on the record – so everything that’s on there we’re really pleased with.

So are you planning to repeat the experience with another distinctive producer for the next album, to perhaps push you in another different direction?
Christian: Well, we’ve been talking about Richard Gottehrer, or maybe Sune from The Raveonettes. Those two collaborate all the time and could maybe do it together.
Alex: We’d also happily work with Dave again, we had such a great time. That is, if he’d be willing to put up with us again!

I could totally see you collaborating with The Raveonettes – with Sharin’s voice and that whole dark, swirling, reverb thing they have, that could be pretty interesting…
Christian: In July, we’re going to NYC for a festival, and we might work with Richard and Sune on a song or two, so we’ll see what happens.
Alex: A duet would be awesome, it’d be so cool to try. We could come up with a new genre for it; maybe “Balladelic.”

Do you still think that people are “mindless” about the music they listen to, in that they don’t care about the quality of the recording, or the effort that got put into getting it right?
Alex: I think that’s a problem with the whole world. People just generally take the information that’s given to them, they don’t actively seek out new or different information, and if you define an intellectual person, it’s a person who actively does that. So an intellectual music lover would constantly be looking out for new or interesting material, or something challenging, instead of everything being spoon fed to them. Of course, it’s different if a friend or someone you know recommends something… but yeah, it’s definitely a problem. Then again, it’s not my problem to solve, what can I do? It comes down to people just being generally apathetic. I suppose at least the fact that we’re talking about it might make a difference.

Next year sees the fifth anniversary of Austin Psych Fest, which you founded. Anything special planned?
Christian: It’s been amazing, every year it’s grown. As it’s the fifth we’re gonna try to get all the bands we’ve been trying to book since the first year, but for whatever reason couldn’t get. Bands like Clinic, who’d be really cool, or The Brian Jonestown Massacre, who we really love. Maybe even the Jesus & Mary Chain. But it’s a huge amount of work putting it on, and we need to hire more people. There are four of us really, but one guy has been doing 90% of the work as we’re always on the road.
Alex: This year has been really long, what with the record coming out and all, and its kinda the first year where we’re gone for so long. But as Christian says, we’ve realised we need more help. We’re gonna be calling all our friends for help cos we want this one to be extra special. It’s gonna hopefully be the best yet.

The Black Angels will be touring the UK later in the year, check here for dates and tickets.

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