Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Eleven Questions with The Black Angels by Thomas Crone

Over the past decade, I’ve seen The Black Angels more than any other touring group coming through St. Louis. A nod, then, to Vintage Vinyl’s Jim Utz for tipping me to them originally. On his recommendation, I walked into the group’s first show in St. Louis, during their very first song of the night; the light show was pulsating and the room a bit past half-full, but Off Broadway’s dancefloor  was packed. I didn’t know a single hook by the Austin group when walking in, but I left the club that evening with a bit of merch, including their stunning debut album, Passover. Most definitely, more than one fan was converted that night.

Since then, three more albums and a couple of EPs have been released, commercials and soundtracks have prominently featured the group and some lineup changes have occurred. Through all of it, the band’s regularly hit St. Louis on a variety of tours, setting up one-night engagements at the Duck Room and the Old Rock House, as well as booking live appearances at KDHX. And they’re returning to St. Louis for a special gig on Saturday, February 1, sharing the stage with psych legend Roky Erickson, as part of The Firebird’s fifth anniversary show. (Tickets are $25 and available at

Once, when the group was recording a live set at KDHX, I was in-studio, hosting the old Silver Tray program. The band’s vocalist, Alex Maas, caught me near the coffee pot, asking about nearby restaurants. I bored him with a comprehensive listing of every dining spot on South Grand, completely unaware that I was, you know, talking to Alex Maas of The Black Angels. I won’t count that as a dorky mis-step and certainly not my first interview with the group.

That honor goes to what follows. Guitarist Christian Bland was kind enough to drop back a line on some quickly-developed Q’s for the maiden voyage of Eleven’s new “Eleven Questions” joint.

1. What were the relationships between various members of the group and Roky Erickson prior this tour, i.e., to what degree did any Black Angels personally know him before this run of shows?

No one knew Roky personally until we toured with him in 2008 down the west coast for five shows. We got to know him at the practices we had for the tour. We wanted to play more 13th Floor Elevator songs than he’d been performing live, so we had the goal of playing the first five songs from the Psychedelic Sounds album. He told us he hadn’t played “Rollercoaster,” “Reverberation” and “Don’t Fall Down” in over 30 years. So we invited him to our house and Nate and I sat down with him and relearned those songs on acoustic guitars. We got to know Roky during those sessions. We’d take “Dr. Pepper breaks” and he’d tell us about the old days with the Elevators.

2. For those of us who don't go online and track playlists and the like, can you give a sense of what songs are being regularly spotted into setlists these days?

We just play a mix off of each of our albums. It’s different every night.

3. St. Louis seems to be a regular landing pad for the group. Are we just an easy place to route through, or do you really feel the love when coming through St. Louis?

It seems like we have a good fan base in St. Louis, so it makes sense for us to stop in every now and then to let ‘em know we’re still out and about making music and that we dig the city because they seem to dig us.

4. Along the same lines, are there St. Louis shows that stand out, whether at Off Broadway, Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, the Old Rock House? Or are ours a big, amorphous blend of "St. Louis shows?”

I particularly remember the Duck Room show because I’m such a huge Chuck Berry fan. It was awesome to play where Chuck Berry plays.

5. As a group that's had the occasional lineup change, to what degree does a lineup shift stimulate or energize a group?

A group is like one functioning entity, so anytime someone joins or leaves there’s a shift in the creative union. We brought Jake (Garcia) into the group to stimulate and energize the creativity that was forfeited when Nate (Ryan) was asked to leave the band. Jakes’s done a great job; he’s an amazing guitar player, and fellow lefty. I can finally share guitars with someone.

6. What's it like having a song selected for a major ad campaign, television show or movie soundtrack? Any interesting anecdotes come from those experiences? 

It’s validation to my mom and dad that I’m actually making a living playing music. When they see something on TV that has one of our songs they get excited, the same way as when they saw us play on Letterman or Conan O’Brien. It’s my proof that I’m not just sitting in Austin living in la la land.

7. And without asking numbers relating to the previous question, what good things come from licensing a song?

I think the biggest thing is that more people who wouldn’t normally hear our music get to hear it. It allows for more folks to discover us.

8. Are there any unreleased sessions out there, ones that fans might look forward to in coming months or years? Any Daytrotters? Any remixes? Even any bootlegs that have caught the band's attention?

There’s tons of stuff online that you can find if you search deep enough from radio shows, and live recordings people have made at shows.

9. What's being listened to on the tour bus/van these days? What's being read? What YouTube channel offerings are getting passed around within the group?

I’ve been listening to Jacco Gardner. I listen to Piper at the Gates of Dawn almost daily. The Fugs, Public Nuisance’s Gotta Survive album, Tomorrows Tulips’ Experimental Jelly, Traffic’s Heaven Is in Your Mind, Holy Wave, and Clinic’s Free Reign II. I’ve been reading David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger, The Story of the Kinks by Nick Hasted, and I just bought Going Clear by Lawrence Wright.

10. Having been to Austin more than any other city, but not having been in the last seven years, what have I missed out on in the People's Republic?

East Austin’s exploding. I live on East 6th and it changes every day. New restaurants, new shops, and new venues pop up weekly. We’re opening a Reverberation Appreciation Society Records shop on East 7th. We’ll sell records along with guitars and effects. You should come by next time you’re down our way.

11. And another, last, personal question. I'm a jerk fan. If I wanna say "hi" and not be a drag, not be a bother, what's the best way for a fan to give greetings and salutations before/after a gig, without interfering with your vibe and/or need to pack the hell up for the next city? In effect, how do you want to deal with us at gigs?

I’m sure I’ll be wandering around before hand, you can just come up to me and I’ll tell you to leave me alone... just kidding! We’ll grab a drink and discuss your topic of choice.

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