Interview: Talking color with Alex Maas of the Black Angels [Music]

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The black alliance was broken last year when the Black Angels canceled their opening set for Black Mountain on the Dropout Boogie tour, but this Friday they make a welcome return to Headliners Music Hall, this time as a headlining act. Sludgy shoegazers Dead Meadow are set to open with Spindrift; expect to hear a dynamic of heavy psychedelia and low-key gypsy rock jams to build anticipation.

I caught up with guitarist/vocals man Alex Maas who suffered from a hernia on their previous tour, resulting in a few canceled shows including Louisville. Now in full health, Alex took some time with me to reflect on visual songwriting, black metal and describing the unknown.

When you combined your first two EPs for Another Nice Pair, were any of these older songs reworked in the process of compiling the release?

It was more of a compilation because those songs were limited presses off records. I think there’s only 1,000 copies of each, so for bigger distribution we thought, “okay a lot of people haven’t heard these songs. Let’s release them. ” A lot of people were asking of them.

Your style has changed since 2005 when these were released, have you also adapted this transition when you play these older songs live?

Yeah, we have. With a song, the more you play it, the better it gets. That’s my opinion. We’re playing a little differently now.

In another interview you said that your music was a way to commune with the unknown and unexplained. What exactly has that entailed for you?

For me it’s less of a communication between the two and more our descriptions of the unknown. It’s hard to communicate with the unknown if it’s unknown, right? It’s more our way of expressing these kind of mysteries. The unknown is really interesting. You don’t know what happens when you die-- not that you have to know, or that you need to know. The unknown has always been kind of a point of inspiration for us.

Do you feel like you’ve made discoveries from creating this music that moves you?

Yeah, I think we’ve definitely pushed ourselves not to sound cheesy and pushed ourselves into different realms. Whether it be a spiritual thing, or something a lot more simple than that. When we’re experimenting with different sound, I definitely think it’s a way to time travel and kind of get lost.

You’ve coincidentally toured and have been associated with bands that also use the word “black” in their name. For the Angels, what does black mean to you?

It’s the opposite of light. [Laughs] We got our name from the Velvet Underground song “The Black Angels Death Song.” As far as touring with bands with “black” in their names- The Black Keys and Black Rebel Motercycle Club being the two off the top of my head, it was really amazing to be able to tour with those bands. We’d always been big fans of them and when the opportunity presented itself to tour with these bands for the first time, I was like “wow, awesome.” Obviously with Black Mountain as well. It wasn’t until our first tour was booked that I’m like “man, we keep playing with these Black bands.”

I know! Such a weird coincidence.

Yeah, and it honestly wasn’t like “we’re only gonna tour with these bands.”

Black to me isn’t as evil as everyone thinks. I mean, half of the world is black when there’s no light. If you think it’s a bad connotation. It’s always been a darker people color throughout literature. To me it doesn’t really have that feeling.

Speaking of color—on your song “Deer Ree Shee,” is that a tambura you used for the drone?

Yes, that’s a tambura and a sitar as well.

In classical Indian music the feeling or emotion of a song is called the rasa. Would you say that you take this same approach to writing music?

Yeah. That’s a good description of the way we write music; it’s about the feeling. We used to get a lot of slack about being a band like “oh, this is too simple, or there’s only note, maybe one or two changes...”

That’s how a lot of that classical music was, though.

Yeah, and that’s not something that we sought out to do. Simple was good. It was easy to get moved by a certain mood or certain style, like the tambura or something. Like whenever you hear [plays notes on guitar], you play these strings, and you repeat them over and over, it’s almost like the instrument is breathing. And it’s breathing inspiration and life into a potential song. And the repetitive nature of that has its own loop. It’s a tone thing, like it’s living. A lot of times the music comes and then we’re just describing the images that we hear, or the images that we see. It is connected to your limbic system, which is where all your memories and images are stored. And so it makes sense to how we make music--our band specifically. A lot of times, it’s the music first and then we’re just telling the story afterward of what the music is telling us.

Right, so it’s your interpretation of the music— more visual. 

Yeah, it’s a total visual thing. Until I realized how the human body works—I was always perplexed as to how that happened—how do we write a song? People would ask us. It’s hard and different every time. [that’s what she said!] Knowing that has enabled me to go to that place and be okay feeling like “this might be nonesense, but I’m gonna say it anyway.” I make a lot of headway that way, in terms of songwriting.

Definitely, because it becomes a more natural thing and you can make it a mindstate. Which is awesome.

Yeah, and to play these songs live in front of people, you have to go back to that spot. If you don’t, you’re probably not going to be feeling it. It’s almost impossible to be into it every single time. I have a hard time with people I know seeing the same songs played over and over, so I like to keep it fresh and play a different set list every night. To me it’s more real as to where the music came from and how it’s being projected.

Do you ever get reoccurring visions of color?

Red and orange, for some reason. It’s something I’ve talked about with friends. It’s like a tinted hue of orange. I don’t know why it is or what it means, but for me those two colors...it’s almost like a sepia. A red-orange that kind of goes back and forth. I first remember seeing that when I was little, like if I was sick, everything would have this weird hue.

I know what you’re saying, like if you closed your eyes?

Yeah, it’s really tripped out. It was really strange. I remember that and I don’t know if it’s because you’re sick and your mind isn’t well--something is happening and going on in there. Whenever we’re writing music, I had that same kind of indescribable hue that hazed over. And it’s not always there, but it’s on and off.

That’s a really intense color, too.

Yeah, I remember when I was younger and had the flu, kind of hallucinating. It has a kind of eerie feeling to it. But it has a negative connotation. I think of seeing it when I was younger, and I’m like “ugh.”

We’re still on the subject of color, but moving to more rapid fire questions. I’ll give you the choice of two black things and you name your preference. Black eye vs. Black tongue?

Black eye.

Black coffee vs. black tea?

I’m a huge tea drinker, but I like black coffee. I don’t put cream in either one. 

Black cats vs black girls?

Black girls

Black metal vs. black light?

Black light

Black light? So are you a raver?

[Laughs] No, I’m not a raver. I was at a couple parties when I was a teenager, but I’m not a raver. I’ve never been into black metal. I never got big metal into it at all. If the right person turned me on to it, I’d probably be into it. I’m not a huge black light fan, but I remember being at the skating rink when I was younger and I’d wear a white shirt, and it would look so awesome.

It’s really intelligent, the music they play [in black metal].

Yeah, it’s really complex, dude.

It’s almost like a classical composition, really in-depth, or like hitting 3 notes on a scale. It never was for me. Probably didn’t have the patience or wasn’t good enough to play metal.

Yeah, for me it’s only good at the right times.

Yeah, I could totally see that.

Blackberries vs black beans?

Blackberries

You don’t like burritos?

I do. I like black beans, but I was mainly thinking of the antioxidant value the black beans have versus blackberries. Antioxidants over no antioxidants, I’m going to choose the antioxidants. Black metal and blacklight...So what’s the best time to listen to black metal?

Only when there’s a funky bass. Because if it’s not funky, it doesn’t do it for me.

It’s an isolated dichotomy. The funky bass would even out the note riffs of the black metal.

Yeah especially in jazzy progressive metal. I’m still slowly getting into the pool of metal because I’ve been avoiding it all these years.

Yeah, I hear you.

Black Sabbath vs Black Francis?

Frank Black is a really good songwriter, but I’d probably have to go with Black Sabbath. My sister always listened to the Pixies growing up, I do like them. But I have to say Sabbath.

Black Mountain vs Pink Mountaintops?

Ah shit, you had to throw that one in there. Pink Mountaintops. It has to do with the music for sure, because Black Mountain is more like metal and Pink Mountaintops is more like the Velvet Underground.

I’ll have to agree with you on the Pink Mountaintops. The electronic stuff [on Axis of Evol] definitely changes it up. It’s a nice break.

Chris Farley Black Sheep or killer Black Sheep?

Killer black sheep? I know of the one with Chris Farley, but is that a movie?

There’s one with Chris Farley and the other is about sheep that murder people.

Oh, that sounds awesome. But because I haven’t seen it, I’ll have to say [Chris Farley] Black Sheep.

The Black Angels play with Dead Meadow and Spindrift on Friday, Oct. 21 at Headliners Music Hall. Tickets available through ear-X-tacy and Etix.com. $15 adv/$17 day of show. Doors at 8PM, ages 18+ with I.D.

Photo: Flikr/DCP313

About Lara Kinne
I am an Illinois native and have enjoyed life in Louisville for four years. Currently, I'm holding a position as web editor for The Louisville Cardinal, UofL's student newspaper, in addition to contributing regularly to LEO, Louisville.com and my own website, Huevos (spanishforeggs.com). I was an assistant editor for my high school paper back in the day and have continued writing from a young age. My goal is to provide the masses with no-bull sentiments of independent music and arts. Email me: larakinne@spanishforeggs.com
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