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It was probably inevitable that Alex Maas ended up in a band heavily inspired by a 1960s music icon. He grew up on his family's 14-acre plant nursery in the small Texas town of Seabrook, which his dad turned into what he calls "this interesting nursery-antique art collective." Maas elaborates: "He would sell Indian artifacts and pottery from the Ottoman Empire. He brought in a lot of animals—it was almost a petting zoo for a while."
Music was a big part of his young life as well: "Growing up, my parents would play anything from Native American music to Enya, and musicians would perform in the nursery on the weekend." His musical development continued in an unexpected direction, and at age 14 he performed Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" in a talent show. You can assume the gathered teachers and parents were not at all made uncomfortable by the sight of a pubescent boy singing Reed's plainspoken lyrics about gender transformation.
At least it was a hit with his family.
"My sister heard me sing that and said, 'If you like this song, you will love the Velvet Underground.' " Maas had not yet heard of Lou Reed's beyond-pioneering, adjective-defying group. "And I listened to The Velvet Underground & Nico record and I went, 'Fuck. This is insane. This is so much more dark and ominous than the Beatles.'
"They were patient and they were simple, and they had this woman who had this androgynous voice, it was just really amazing and ominous," Maas, on the phone from Austin, continues with a spacey, lightly Southern drawl. "And at the same time, it had this grit to it that I was just blown away by. As a teenager, I just wanted to know what they were doing, how they were making that sound. What were they thinking?"
He spent his teen years studying the Velvets and their influences and contemporaries, from John Cale collaborator and avant-garde video artist Tony Conrad to minimalist composer La Monte Young to Texas's own psychedelic pioneers the 13th Floor Elevators. There was also some Doors fandom in there. (It happens.)
The extensive research left a mark and eventually Maas formed the Black Angels, named in honor of one of the Velvets' more sonically and lyrically lacerating songs. Just for good measure, the Angels' logo features a black-and-white image of Underground vocalist Nico, and Maas casually refers to drummer Stephanie Bailey as a Moe Tucker–type minimalist who "just plays a cool beat for the song because her ego was left at the door." Also, the catchiest song on their new album, Phosphene Dream? It's called "Sunday Afternoon."
It's understandable if this all seems a bit much to you, but let the record show that from Rancid to the Game, fanboy devotion has midwifed plenty of fantastic music. And the Black Angels never feel like they're pretending to be a bunch of gritty New York artistes trying, sort of, to hold on to their souls in a degraded world of drugs and boredom. Instead, they come off as psychedelic students joyfully swirling around in the '60-'70s art-rock curriculum, nailing woozy uplift and burnout guitar mud in equal measure. The Black Angels don't have the attitude or lived-it background (it's hard to imagine Lou Reed ever getting audibly geeked over Rolling Stone leather-jacket enthusiast David Fricke catching an early gig), but they have enough audible glee in their downer vibes to usually avoid coming across as overly studied.
Maas left the nursery to attend Texas State University, which is located about 20 minutes south of Austin. Upon arriving in the Texas capital, he discovered that not only is seemingly everyone in that city in a band, but they all seem to be in multiple bands. "[Austin's saturation] made it hard for us to find someone who is dedicated and speaks the same musical language," he notes. It also made it a real bitch to get anyone to come see their shows, since the town's nightly roster of live music was stuffed with everyone and their brother, and occasionally the Butthole Surfers.
He did find a group of musicians "who will sacrifice their amazing musicianship for the song's sake," and they released their debut, Passover, on Seattle label Light in the Attic in 2006. (The current lineup includes Maas, Bailey, guitarist/organist Christian Bland, and multi-instrumentalists Nate Ryan and Kyle Hunt.) It won rave reviews, but the follow-up, Directions to See a Ghost, got dinged for too many aimless psych jams.
For last year's Phosphene Dream, the Angels worked with Oasis/Slayer producer Dave Sardy to tighten up. "We realized that people's attention spans don't allow for an 18-minute-long song," Maas says. "When we were writing this last album, we talked about writing the songs not only from our perspective, but also thinking about the listener." Dream became the most user-friendly version of their blissful drone, and it helped them earn a bigger home.
Blue Horizon was a blues-and-folk-oriented British record label in the 1960s that was recently relaunched by legendary A&R man Seymour Stein and producer Richard Gottehrer. "To me, psychedelic and blues go together, and the early days of Blue Horizon is from that period of late '60s/middle '70s before punk hit. It just made sense," says Gottehrer. "I was looking for an artist that would hit the image of the label but, at the same time, had a fanbase."
The Black Angels have slowly built up that fanbase through nonstop touring and a reputation for feedback-soaked, feel-it-in-your-chest gigs. (Song placements in Californication and a Target commercial also helped.) It took some time—and shows where "one person would clap and a couple booed and some people would start screaming for the headliner"—but this weekend the band headlines the Village Voice's 4Knots festival, and is in the middle of planning the fifth edition of their annual Austin Psych Fest. Last year's installment brought in more than 50 artists, including Atlas Sound and Austin legend Roky Erickson.
The festival is born out of love—for psychedelia, Austin, and Maas's favorite bands—but the legendarily cranky Reed might be happy to know that discussion of its inner workings revealed some cracks in Maas's laid-back mood. (Helping bands book shows on the way to and from the festival is a real time drain, apparently.) "One thing we've learned is that it's a pain in the ass to throw a music festival. It's a lot of work, and it's a lot of the ugly side of the music business," says Maas with a sigh. Not exactly a classic Lou Reed takedown, but given the circumstances, it'll do just fine.