This year marks a decade since psychedelic rockers the Black Angels first formed. But like many an indie rock band, taking stock of the past isn't a priority for these Austin-based road warriors.
"Wow. I can't believe it's been 10 years," says singer/multi-instrumentalist Alex Maas. "We should do something, huh? We don't have anything planned right now. We got a 7-inch that we're releasing. It's something we recorded with [psychedelic rock icon] Roky [Erickson] in 2008. It's been shelved and we just fought to have something for the tour. We have a 12-inch for Record Store Day too. It'll be seven songs that didn't make the last record and four brand new songs."
Given that the band's hometown has spawned any number of psychedelic rock acts (ranging from the aforementioned Erickson to the Butthole Surfers), it's remarkable that the group was able to emerge and become a national act. But Maas says the group had intentions of busting out of Texas from the very beginning.
"I looked at bands like Spoon," says Maas. "Bands like that were touring and getting known in other places and playing with other people. I identified that quickly as a point where bands would be successful. You come back to Austin and hear echoes of people seeing you in Seattle and other places and you realize touring was where it was. There are bands in Austin that just don't tour. You have to put yourself out there in a blind faith kind of way to create those opportunities for yourself. There are bands that could play circles around our band but they don't get known outside of town."
The band also knew exactly what kind of music it wanted to make and intended to do something darker and more ominous than what the other psychedelic bands were recording.
"We understood what we wanted to do," Maas says. "We wanted to make dark psychedelic music and not many people were doing it in Austin at the time. You had Butthole Surfers and other bands doing psychedelic music. There weren't a lot of people doing what we were doing. We loved the Velvet Underground and the 13th Floor Elevators. Those elements were darker songs with different kind of melodies. It might be a happy melody with a dark song and that dichotomy was interesting. We were sticking to that kind of mentality. If we didn't get the chills listening to a song, it didn't make the record. If you can't rob a bank to the song, it didn't make the record."
The Black Angels quickly gained a reputation as a fierce live band. In 2008 when Erickson came out of retirement to re-launch his 13th Floor Elevators, he enlisted the band to back him. The guys were more than happy to be the bridge between the psychedelic past with the present.
"We had never been a backing band for anybody," says Maas. "We're not classically trained musicians and we're not used to playing other people's songs at all. Our style of music was just a couple of chords and a feel and groove. To learn those songs was quite a process. It was really good for us. It was very educational and playing someone else's material taught us to communicate better and watch each other more on stage to make sure we're on the same page. It wasn't the easiest thing for a lot of reasons, mainly because our musicianship wasn't able to do that kind of thing. It was cool because [Roky] literally hadn't played that stuff in 14 years."
Now, Erickson tours with his own band. He and the Angels share the bill at the Beachland this week, and it's not clear if the two groups still collaborate on a song or two.
"We're still trying to figure that out," Maas says. "I don't want to make any promises. It wouldn't be difficult to do a song or two with him."
The Angels' latest album, Indigo Meadow, is another epic effort. It opens with the shimmering title track, a tune punctuated by poltergeist-like vocals and sitar-like sounds. The band recorded it at a studio located spitting distance from the Mexican border.
"The fence backed up to the outskirts of Juarez," explains Maas. "One of the guys told us we might hear gun shots. It's on a pecan orchard. There was a studio there too. It was this weird place, but it was magical too. There could be people crossing the border. There was that element and that maybe added something to the record."
While the album isn't a huge departure, it's perhaps a bit more accessible than previous releases. "Don't Play with Guns" has a catchy chorus and "The Day" has a playfulness that hearkens back to the '60s.
"We always want to make different music," says Maas. "We want to push ourselves. When you hear Radiohead change from album to album, that's a band that doesn't have any parameters. We're not as drastic as that. That freedom is really appealing. They just believe in it. Because they believe in it, it becomes true. That's what's interesting about that band. For us, some of these songs were brand new and some were melodies we had since Passover and never really got out but really fit. You always want to evolve obviously. That's the point for this record. The next record will sound entirely different and these new songs we're releasing sound totally different too."
The song "Holland" is particularly haunting.
"I would just say that going to the Netherlands many times and seeing other people go there and talk about it is what influenced the song," Maas says. "The whole thing is that these affluent Westerners go to Holland to lose their minds. There's this other culture that's aware of that. Seems like a prowling by both parties. Like a lot of the songs we write, part of it might have been a dream or a conversation we have with someone. That's one of my favorite songs too. We played that for the whole tour in Europe and hopefully we'll play it again."
The Black Angels have played Cleveland since they began touring, and Maas fondly recalls opening for the Black Keys at the Agora Theatre several years ago. Much like the Angels, the duo was determined to break out of Ohio as soon as possible.
"We thought it was insane that those guys were so huge," he says. "I had no idea how they got so many people to their shows. It's like if you continue to do something and stay focused and hone in on it, you see more people show up to the shows. I've always looked up to those guys."