The Black Angels’ latest album ‘Death Song’ is nothing short of brilliant. Lyrically and sonically intelligent, the album is one of the best to come out in 2017. Currently on the European stretch of their tour, we caught up with lead singer Alex Maas to find out more.
The new album feels like a masterpiece, tell us a bit about the concept behind it?
Well, I don’t know if I would describe it as a masterpiece because that’s a pretty big adjective. We’ve been a band for a while and really just wanted to do something different but still sound like the Black Angels. I think with having a bit of time off and being able to really focus on the record has made it really natural; let’s say that in a way it wrote itself. At the end of the day the music itself sonically was dictating what the lyrical content was going to be. I think we just wanted to make the best record that we could. Originally we were going to work with Unkle and Toydrum, people who we’d done a lot of production with.
Then obviously Phil Ek stepped in?
Yeah so it turns out something fell through at the last moment and we weren’t able to work with them. The story is that that exact night Phil was about to eat with his fiancé and the Black Angels came on the radio at the restaurant, and his fiancé says how come we haven’t worked with Black Angels before? The very next day his manager calls our manager and asks if we’re interested in working with them. It was an insane serendipitive destiny that was just given to us. It made so much sense. From that point on we knew this record was going to be pretty special. In the beginning we had forty plus songs we were trying to choose from, so it was really difficult to sit back and narrow it down.
That must have been quite a brutal process?
Yeah, there were certain songs that I was in love with and others not so much, we had to make it all work. Everybody has their favourites right? I think the lyrical content dictated what was going to make it to the record. Overall just how the songs make you feel, for example, ‘Half Believing’ even without the lyrics I still wanted it to get to record just because it sounded huge. The concept was just to make a focussed record and to get our shit together. I don’t know if we had put this record out three years ago whether people would have paid much attention to it but now people for the most part are digging it. I’m kind of in a place where I put music out there and it’s done. Whatever people think of it that’s what they think of it. If we as a band like it we release it.
Tracks like ‘Currency’ feel politically driven, was that an ambition for you guys?
The concept of how money works has always been a mystery to me. When I was in school you were forced to take economic classes in college and I never quite understood how money came to be and have this value. When we started writing the lyrics for ‘Currency’ three or four years ago it was just basically a study and we were just posing a lot of questions. It sounds elementary when I talk about it now but I think some of the most simple songs can evolve to be the best. I think in twenty years and our national debt and how our government leverages that debt to make us work harder it’s just such a sham. It’s all smoke and mirrors and its interesting how the world revolves around this unit of money.
Tell us about what the recording process was like?
My memories are vague because in a way it happened so quickly. Things fell through with the guys from Toydrum and literally within a month or so Phil flew down from Seattle. We’d never met him before, we’d talked to him on the phone and he seemed like he understood us. So, he flies to Austin and we’re just praying we get along with him. Imagine you’re painting a piece of art and you have some random person come and paint it with you and you’ve never met him before and this is supposed to dictate the rest of your career. It’s a very crazy situation. We flew him down and had drinks with him not too far from the studio and we all just hit it off. He’s such a personable guy. I think most producers if they’re good take on many roles; they’re psychologists, engineers, thinking people, problem solvers. From the get go he totally got us. Even still then you don’t know how it’s going to be in the studio; everyone has their little quirks. We use tape which takes a lot more time because you need to get the right take. It’s a more human recording.
So where did you lay it all down then?
We went to all of the studios in Austin and did all of the basic tracking, we were there for about a month. Phil had never been to the studio before, he had been working out of Seattle for twenty six or so years and we wanted him to be comfortable when he was mixing the record. We didn’t want to take him completely out of his element and bring him to the heart of Texas. After we did the basic tracking we took about a month off and then we loaded up a big truck full of our things and we drove out to Seattle. We went to where he’s comfortable and that’s when we started mixing and doing some overdubs. We finished the record in Seattle and it was great to see him in his own zone.
The lyrics spike out from the record. The line ‘Rip back your scalp as you cry’ is particularly graphic…
That one in particular, had to have the gory imagery otherwise the point wouldn’t get across. That was the penultimate of the story line and it was what these people went through. It’s history and it’s real. The imagery is vivid in it and it’s kind of scary but it’s a reality. Hearing you say it back to me gives me goosebumps a little bit… I guess that means we got the point across there.
Yeah the lyrics do hit home…
I think going back and reviewing the lyrics you aren’t sure if it is going to make sense just to me or just to you or a five year old or an 85 year old? We’re never sure how people are going to interpret the song. We try to write in double or triple speak. Some of my favourite songs are the ones where you’re not sure if it’s a love song or if it’s about war or coming to terms with death or are they all the same thing? We spend a lot of time on our lyrics, every word and every pronunciation of each word is important. We just want to be believable and to make people feel something whether that’s love or fear.
We’re excited for the show in Bristol, how does the album translate into the live environment?
I think I’m more emotionally moved by this record than I have ever been on any record. For me personally performing these songs is unlike any other feeling I’ve ever had musically. It feels honest and sad. There’s moments of hope and that confusion of hope and devastation run into one stream and that stream we swim up and down every night. That to me is a hard thing to do, it’s emotionally taxing; I have to go to that moment in my mind and sing it. It’s not a happy thing and I get emotional. Sometimes I can be crying while singing the songs. To be moved by art like that is the apex of art. That is so special to me. I think the crowd gets it. I feel like people are having a really good response to this record. In reality it doesn’t really matter what they think because what it does to me is so therapeutic that it translates to me in a very spiritual way. I can only hope that it translates to the audience and that they’re feeling the same thing I am when I’m up there.
Catch The Black Angels at Bristol’s Trinity Centre September 27th.
Check out ‘Half Believing’ from The Black Angels’ latest album ‘Death Song’ here: