THE BLACK ANGELS
“Somebody Spoke, and I Went Into a (Phosphene) Dream”
The Black Angels encourage you to rethink your preconceived notions, question authority and create other methods for survival. They also know how to throw a pretty awesome party.
The Austin Psych Fest – now approaching the deployment of its fourth mind-blowing year – is a creature with an atom brain conceived and created by The Black Angels, being an effort to pay homage to the psychedelic pioneers of Austin’s past while also providing a stage for psychedelic pioneers on the ascent. Mission accomplished. If it’s tempting to describe the line-up in this fourth year (or for that matter, any other year) as “eclectic,” it also feels somewhat unnecessary – which is to say those making plans to attend the Austin Psych Fest are generally uninterested in an atmosphere that suffers from a poverty of eclecticism (read: weirdos).
Somehow, someway, in between Austin Psych Fest 3 and Austin Psych Fest 4, in between the scheduling, the planning, the procurement of permits, the printing of posters, the losing of sleep, The Black Angels also managed to release their third full-length album. The incomparable “Phosphene Dream” is a statement that continues to astound, impress, provoke questions of and provide context for a suite of songs and emotions that, after six months of repeated listening, we find ourselves returning to again and again, with new angles to explore.
George Bernard Shaw said the following: “No man ever believes that the Bible means what is says – he is always convinced it says what he means.” Considering the topics discussed, it feels like a fitting epigraph for our talk with Alex Maas of The Black Angels.
We thank Alex for his time, The Black Angels for their art, the Reverberation Appreciation Society for their mysterious underground council, and you for reading. Enjoy.
If it’s alright with you, I want to ask you a few general questions about “Phosphene Dream” in general and maybe some very specific questions about a few of the songs contained therein, if that’s cool.
So, it’s been about a year since I heard “Phosphene Dream” for the first time, when you guys played it in its entirety live at Austin Psych Fest 3, though not quite a year since its official release. I’m wondering how, if at all, your digestion of the songs has evolved in that time.
That’s a good question. We had a lot of song ideas when we went to California to make the record. We had about thirty of forty song ideas that we took to Dave Sardy, who produced the record, and we whittled that down to ten songs that we wanted on the record. We kind of structured and restructured those songs while we were in L.A., so we never really played them live until we went on tour. So they just came together in the studios, structurally, and with the harmonies and things like that. So I think we’ve taken more ownership of these songs, playing them more as a full band. So by playing these songs night after night, yeah, they do change. We play them a little bit differently, y’know, slight nuances. So we’ve digested them in that way – they’ve had time to marinate and we’ve had the time to play them more and more. It’s fun to see how the songs evolve.
So, certainly from a musical perspective, we can see how the songs may develop or be refined, from playing them live. But are there any of the songs that have taken on a different or additional emotional resonance since you’ve been playing them live? Like if a song had a paranoid vibe when you first put it together, does it ever eventually feel more paranoid? Or perhaps less paranoid?
Yeah – I’m trying to think of which songs have done that, but for me, from writing the lyrics, that sort of paranoid emotion – or whatever that emotion is – is still there. If anything, the feeling that was there originally has gotten more intense. I doubt that anything feels less intense, y’know? Because for me, lyrically, that’s really what brings the emotion – the lyrics and the melody, and some of those lyrics had been around for a long time anyway. For me – and this may just be me, so maybe this is something you want to ask the other guys when you come down here – most of feeling has held pretty true. If anything, it’s sometimes hard to play these songs, because you were in this weird little spot when you wrote the song. And you go back to that place when you play the song. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen, like, Cat Power or something, where she may just break down when she plays a certain song, just start crying. So I definitely get emotional, at least thinking about what was going on when we wrote the song, how we were feeling, what was happening, if we had gotten into an argument or something. Those things are all emotions that go into the songs, and for some reason, they hit that emotional trigger in your mind. What’s kind of interesting about the way people write and the way they hear sounds, is that your ear is connected to your limbic system, which is where your memories and your imagination is sort of stored, y’know? The sound goes into the limbic system and the image that appears may be when I wrote the song, when I listened to the song last Thursday, when I was worried about my grandmother, or maybe just a happy image of me being in Louisiana, on the swamp eating crawfish or something. So every time I hear a song, whether it’s one of our songs or not, I get an emotion that I’m drawn toward. And for some reason, those emotions never go away. It’s like revisiting a conversation and getting the same feeling of elation or frustration or whatever that feeling is. The guitars and the drums, for me, always help me create images from their sound. Those sounds together may bring up an image for me of, I don’t know, going down a river or being a Mayan in search of gold, and that might just be from the pounding of the drums. It’s strange but every time she pounds the drum like that, I picture being in the jungle or something. So it’s interesting to revisit those places night after night after night, even though we don’t play the same set every night. We like to mix it up and go to different places. I don’t know if that answers your question or …
Oh, no, totally – totally. It’s interesting, right? Like, they’ve done this research on Alzheimer’s patients, right, and they find that musical memories are different than verbal memories. And it has something to do with the fact that verbal memories are really stored in an area of the brain that is heavily impacted as Alzheimer’s develops, while music pulls from the cortical and sub-cortical areas, which aren’t as damaged by the disease. So the end result is that the music can truly trigger the ability of these Alzheimer’s patients to access memories in a way that they just wouldn’t otherwise – like, playing a Mahler symphony for an 88 year-old Alzheimer’s patient can trigger their ability to access memories that they were unable to access an hour earlier.
It’s amazing, and what you were saying that’s interesting to me is, it just demonstrates how even though you and I can be hearing the exact same thing, technically – the same melody, the same lyrics, played at the same volume – the emotional impact can be vastly different. And of course the emotion I get from hearing you sing may be completely different than the emotion you’re experiencing while singing.
Exactly. I think that stuff is so interesting. And I guess it has something to do with association and where you were and what you were doing when you hear a song. Like, where were you the first time you heard “Get Back” by The Beatles? How old were you? What was going on? Was there a smell in the air? And I think that’s why music is sort of – and I like to look at music this way – but music is really a type of therapy, just like you mention with the Alzheimer’s patients. I like to think of us as shifting from being in the music world to being in the music therapy world. Because for whatever reason the music can be used as a catalyst to make you feel a certain way. It’s either making you feel free or making you feel like you can escape, or whatever. But in essence, the music is a substance, almost like a drug. And I think that’s one of the most intriguing things about music and obviously why music is so important to people. It can absolutely affect the way they feel.
Yeah, I mean, we can all point to an example of a song that may be terribly sad, at least to somebody, but when you listen to it, it actually brightens you up, y’know?
Yeah, that’s a perfect example. I think Belle & Sebastian do a really good job of that.
Well, if you want to talk about words that paint a picture …
Yeah – oh, my God. And you really do pick up the meaning – I mean, even if he were singing in Icelandic, and you couldn’t understand the words, I still think he paints a picture strictly by the tones he’s using in his voice. Like, no matter what the actual words are saying, his vocal tones are telling another story. I think that’s really interesting.
Well, since we’re vaguely on the topic, I did want to ask you a few specific things about “Phosphene Dream.” For example, in the song “River of Blood,” I’m really interested in the shifting perspective of the song – where we go from the first verse with the safety of being “enthroned in your home” to the second verse, where we’re with a group of rebels realizing they’re “sitting ducks.”
Exactly. The song changes perspective three times, I think, from the beginning to the end. And it’s kind of a theme that you’ve heard in our other music as well, the theme of this general leading his troops kind of blindly. He knows they’re going to die – but he doesn’t tell them that. And they’re still listening to them because that’s all they know. And that’s kind of a common theme for me – I don’t know if it’s because my dad would read me these stories, like westerns and Louis L’Amour books, or because later I would enjoy reading, like, real military accounts of these experiences. And in that song, there’s kind of a continuation of that theme. So in the first verse there’s the safety, being in your home, and then you’re on the battlefield somewhere, and then on the last one, it’s just total chaos, you’re running for your life, the last couple minutes of your life. And whenever I think of battles and war stuff, I’m almost always thinking of Civil War stuff. I’m really not thinking about modern warfare at all – and not that it’s not something that’s in my mind at all, but that’s just where my mind naturally goes. I mean, I can break free of that and go all of these different directions, but that’s where I usually go. For some reason, I think old school. And it’s probably because, while we’re all into history, I just remember first learning about the Civil War battles and they were absolutely frightening, just mortifying. But as far as “River of Blood,” it’s just that back and forth, that progression, where first you’re safe in your home, and the next thing you know, you’re sitting ducks. You’re in this situation that you’re not going to get out of and …
The realization sets in.
Yeah, the realization sets in and all of the sudden – this is the picture in my head, anyway – you’re next to this red river with bodies floating all around and it is just the wrong spot to be in. And that petrifying feeling is, I think, a very common part of being in battle.
The other line in “River of Blood” that I’m really captured by is the line, “meet me by the drum.” Where does that line stem from?
“Meet me by the drum” … I’ll be very frank with you. Y’know, the song just goes back and forth, back and forth, and each time, the drum is there – boom, boom, boom. And I pictured something going back even further into civilization, with the drum symbolizing the safe place, next to the fire, where the food is passed out, where the storytellers would gather, and the best storytellers would get the best portions of meat, and be there next to the drum. And for some reason, especially in cinema, the drum is always used to build suspense. So for me, “meet me by the drum” represents this safe-unsafe spot. And when you hear that drum, then shit is about to go down, y’know? That’s kind of what I was thinking, and then to go back to the sonic representation of that, we just have that place in the song where it’s totally chaotic and everything is going crazy, and then it returns again to the drum – boom, boom, boom. And in the song, it’s kind of like we’re safe again, and that drum is sort of like a heartbeat. And of course, the drum often represents the heartbeat, and the basic element of sound. And I’m just kind of touching on my thought process here in a way that makes sense to me, but I’ve never really answered a question like that, so I hope it sort of makes sense.
No, totally. And the thing that really captured my imagination with that line, “Meet me by the drum,” is the connection between the drum and the singer, especially in Native American music. Y’know, the percussive element being often used to keep a persistent rhythm for the singer in particular – especially when the singer is singing sort of nonsense syllables, y’know? Like, non-lexical vocals, y’know?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
And I always think of that as being a consistent element of The Black Angels’ sound – not just the imagery, but the sound as well. And then drum is where we’re all going to meet, and explore out from there.
Exactly, exactly. That was probably us expressing that in a way, because it is part of our sound, and it’s a constant, as you say. And in the end, when I was re-reading the lyrics to “Phosphene,” I did feel like we were talking directly to the listener there, y’know? Along with the shifting perspectives, as you said earlier. I remember writing that song over a long period of time, and when that happens, there’s sometimes a lot of different elements that get into the song, because you’ve had so many different conversations in the meantime, read so many books, heard different tunes, whatever.
I think the title track is perhaps my favorite track on the album – though I should also say I really think the album hangs together really well as an album, as one complete statement. But the title sits right there in the middle of the album, and while it’s a very heavy song to me, it also seems to be a fairly personal song.
The lyrics at the beginning are essentially what I translate as you thinking about your life at that point – thoughts about your parents, thoughts about your sister. And then there’s the sort of dramatic part of the song – “Our President then was dead to us, Hallelujah!” And while I would assume you would prefer for everyone to come up with their own personal impression of what that means, I’d like to ask if there was perhaps a single event that led you to that line.
Yeah. Well, just to go to the “hallelujah” thing first, I always think it’s an interesting thing when you see leaders use religion as a means to conquer others. And I’m talking specifically about George Bush here, when I say “Our President then was dead to us, Hallelujah.” It definitely was a very personal song, but I think it’s the type of thing that a lot of people can relate to, thought I didn’t think too much about it until after the album was done and recorded. Y’know, the lines “Mom and dad look old again, where am I heading?” – that kind of a confused, almost paranoid expression of where your life may be heading, and am I spending enough time with my family? And then what the hell is going on with our country? Y’know, our country is being lead by these people who feed us false information and then use religion as a factor to justify it, to say, “This is OK – it’s God’s will.” That’s very fucking scary to me, a very scary thing. And I think “Phosphene Dream” is kind of – and I have to say, I don’t often think about these things until they’re brought up to me, kind of how it is now – but I do feel that song consists of these highlights of the major things I was thinking about in my life at the time. And I don’t even think I realized they were major things until they came out in the song, like, “Wow – I just said that.” Like, sometimes you may be talking to your wife or your loved ones and you’re talking about your feelings and you say something that makes you stop for a moment and say, “Wow, I didn’t realize I felt that way.”
We surprise ourselves when we express our emotions.
Right, especially about ourselves. I think it’s hard especially when we’re talking about ourselves, because it’s hardest to understand yourself. It’s easy for me to understand you, or for me to come up with an interpretation of something you’re doing and why you’re doing it – whether it’s true or not, it’s easy for me to come up with that interpretation. But it’s much harder to understand ourselves.
The line that says, “praise the bible” – do you think of that line as standing in contrast to the later line of “raise the rifle”? Or are they two sides of the same coin?
They’re kind of two sides of the same coin. But I’m not like … It’s a good question again, and I do think it’s both things – the religion is the rifle. Consider the NRA, y’know – essentially backed by people who hold popular Christian beliefs, for the most part. But you can look at it in so many different ways. But I felt those were two things that went hand-in-hand in the context, at the time. Yeah. But I do like that people can say, “So, does he mean that he likes the bible, that he praises the bible? What does he mean by that?”
Oh, yeah. On one hand it’s very succinct, short and to the point, these two sets of three words apiece – “praise the bible” and “raise the rifle.” But there’s a lot of ambiguity in there. It could be, like, “choose your weapon.” Or maybe scoff at these weapons, or …
But there’s biblical imagery all over the album, all over your music – not only the lines we’ve been discussing, but other places as well, and kind of through the entirety of “True Believers.” Do you enjoy the idea that these things can be misconstrued, misinterpreted or otherwise alternately defined?
Well, yeah. I guess to answer that question I would refer back to how The Beatles wrote music. The Beatles would write music that had so many different interpretations. For example, think of a song like [sings opening to “All You Need Is Love”], “love, love, love” – if you were to ask John Lennon, he might say, “Yeah, that was a protest song,” or “It’s about how little love there is in the world,” or “It’s about how to achieve more love in our world.” Lyrically, I really like ambiguity, because it provides for more personification on behalf of the listener. And sometimes I don’t even know what the meaning is and maybe someone else can better describe what the meaning is. Because I’m usually describing how the music makes me feel and … I mean, I’m not going to say, “George Bush then was dead to us.” I’m going to say, “The President then was dead to us” – which could have been true for the past four years, which could have been true for the past forty years, who knows? I’m never trying to be sneaky or anything like that, but it is about leaving it up to the listener, which is one of the main things about the band and our music. We encourage people to think for themselves, we encourage people to seek out truths for themselves, to always be educating themselves, and I think the writing just goes hand in hand with that. We encourage people to question authority – including us, including our authority. But in music, I’ve always liked … for example, if you were listening to The Velvet Underground, and a song like “Waiting for the Man.” Well, obviously it has drug connotations, but you can also read into it whatever you want, you can read into it perhaps Lou Reed having a slight attraction to men – it could be anything. But I think I’m just drawn to people who have come before me who’ve done that.
Thinking about “True Believers” specifically now, where you mention the falling walls of Jericho – is there anything particularly significant about the Battle of Jericho as it relates to the song?
The idea for that specific theme was that a lot of things will happen to you in your life, regardless of your religious beliefs. If you’re a devout Christian, bad things are going to happen to you. If you’re into Theravada, bad things are going to happen to you. For me, personally, I find all religions to be the same to some degree, or at least they all have commonalities. And I think religion was definitely needed in society, or at least certain areas of society, in order to reach a certain level of social evolution. And whether we still need religion or not, I don’t know, but I definitely think we’ve reached a point where social evolution can be attained largely through education, with the internet being a part of that, and the fastest, easiest way to do that, I believe. I was always fascinated by the Baha’i religion, the Baha’i faith, which took all these different parts of all these different religions and put them together in one religion, which says that all religions are equal or all religions have something good to offer us, and if we can just get past the disagreements and begin to understand that, there wouldn’t be any more religious wars. These are just abstract ideas that don’t have any concrete thought behind them – we make them concrete, humans make them concrete by their actions and their defense of their beliefs. Yet all of these people consider themselves to be true believers – they believe their religion to be the one. I could probably talk to you about this for a long time, talking about the impact of religion on society.
I could probably do the same and it’s interesting to me to see how society evolves with religion and also apart from religion, and how religion does the same, sometimes evolving along with the society, but also without, to the point where it becomes marginalized. But it always springs up! It is a constant in our lives, in our world – y’know, man’s search for “the other” or meaning or salvation or whatever, and whether we define that as Christianity, as Buddhism, as Baha’i, as whatever. But it’s all coming from a similar place. And the concept of Christianity today, in 2011, in America, is vastly different than the concept of what Christianity was in Roman times.
Yeah, exactly. I love thinking about that stuff, reading about that stuff, definitely from when I was in college, but after college as well. I don’t know if you read this book called “The Spirit Molecule”?
No, but I’ve read about it. The scientist who studied DMT, right?
Right. That was a very interesting book for me, and in some ways it points to the cause of why people look to religion, or look for religion, and the idea that DMT is produced by the pineal gland, and it’s a chemical that makes people see things and have these spiritual experiences, these near-death experiences, and the idea that DMT is produced at the time death, and we get these visions of white light and looking over your entire life, and all of these repeated patterns with religious or spiritual significance. And anyone who has done DMT knows that it does create these vivid religious experiences.
There’s another book that you would like called “The Evolution of God,” which really does just that – tracking the evolution of the concept of God through history, through the evolutions of society. It’s fascinating – and this quest for a messiah or a savior and the willingness to be subservient to that force, whether from a personal standpoint or from a purely religious standpoint, it’s a constant in society, in human behavior. So, what does that mean? We could talk about that forever.
Right, right. And it’s just, I mean … when you’re down here for Austin Psych Fest, we could just sit around and talk about this stuff the whole time.
Yeah, we might, we might.
You don’t think there’ll be too much else going on?
I think there may be too much going on, so let me end by asking you this about Austin Psych Fest 4 before I steal any more of your time. Which bands that you have not seen before are you most excited to see?
Oh, man … yeah. A lot. There are a lot of bands this year that I haven’t actually seen. I’m really looking forward to seeing Beaches, from Australia. I’m looking forward to seeing Black Ryder, who we’ve been in contact with, really since the conception of our band, before they were even really Black Ryder. I’m looking forward to seeing … oh, man. So many. God, there’s so many bands. There’s gonna be so many great bands.