There’s a nostalgic element to the term “psych-rock” that harkens back to the tie-dyed, patchouli-scented dorm rooms that spun the records of The Doors, Jefferson Airplane and Velvet Underground. Calling something “psychedelic” invokes a sort of free-love, tripped-out aesthetic that recalls the ’60s and the pioneering days of rock ’n’ roll. Psych-rock as a subgenre has fallen out of the mainstream in recent decades, but a cadre of bands, led by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Black Mountain, Clinic and Austin quartet The Black Angels, continues to carry the torch, breathing fresh air into the sound pioneered by the music’s forebearers while respecting the legacy of the past.
The Black Angels — lead singer/multi-instrumentalist Alex Maas, guitarist Christian Bland, drummer Stephanie Bailey, keyboardist Kyle Hunt — formed in 2004. The band’s following has steadily grown since then, and the group plays shows all over the world. In 2008, the band created the Austin Psych Fest, and the festival, now in its sixth year, has become a vanguard of psychrock music.
Indigo Meadow, the band’s fourth album, came out in April. Fuzz-drenched, bass-heavy guitar and sparse keyboard lines create lysergic atmospheres in the album’s tracks, and reverb-heavy vocals and marching drums complete the psychedelic ambience. The album’s opening track, “Indigo Meadow,” lays a groundwork of several main riffs and then twists and distorts them as the song progresses, creating an unpredictable, almost unnerving sound as Maas sings, “Be strong / I wish that you were / your aching eyes are not my concern.”
Many of the album’s lyrics are political, yet not overtly so; it’s hard not to think of mass shootings while listening to “Don’t Play With Guns,” the band’s relentless single from the album, though the song’s lyrics are more allegorical than obvious. “Broken Soldier” explores the traumas of war from the perspective of a PTSD-inflicted soldier, with trauma-heavy lyrics like “I want to be able to close my eyes with you.”
Boulder Weekly caught up with Maas after the band played a set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and Maas talked about how the band makes music.
Boulder Weekly: How’s New Orleans for a rock band like you guys? Is it a friendly audience?
Alex Maas: Yeah. It was a friendly audience. I mean, we played an afterparty for Jazz Fest, which is a big festival out here. Yo La Tengo played; they are a fucking amazing band. But it was cool, you know. My assumption is that everybody that came to the show is probably completely classically trained and are way better musicians than anybody in our band. It’s kind of like the assumption. We just get up there and do whatever, you know, but it’s kind of funny.
What songs from the new record do you look forward to playing most on these dates?
You know, the song “Iron Colors” is like a completely different direction that takes the listener on a journey, so anytime you can do that, I always vote for those songs on the set lists. … Those types of songs that take you on a journey, on a mission, are always fun to play. I like playing all of them, man. They’re all fun. It’s always fun for a musician. We toured Phosphene Dream for two years. So anytime we have a new song to freak out on — some new thing — it’s exciting. We’re telling a new story. … I like to play them all; it’s like trying to pick a favorite child.
You guys have written some fairly political songs. How do you set out to bridge the political world into your musical creations?
I think it goes back to how you define yourself as a musician, an artist or whatever you call yourself, about what you do with the power that you have, the platform that you have. I don’t like to sit around and tell bands what they should sing about. Or sometimes I don’t even know what they’re singing about. I mean, I love Radiohead and I love Clinic, but I can never understand anything they’re saying. But I love it. There is definitely something spiritual for me. It’s healing. Therapeutic. But on the same token, if you can do something positive with the power that you have, the platform, it’s an important thing for us. But within that it’s also fun to write a sappy love song that has multiple different meanings.
And lyrically, crafting a song is always the hardest part for me. The music just exists, the music part comes right out. But the lyrics explain, or sometimes define or give detail to what’s happening sonically and where we are, you know. Whether we are, like, in the 1930s, 1830s. One thing we like to do is put ourselves in a situation like … what year is it? What kind of world are we in? OK, go. Parameters you can stay within.
We are in the Ottoman Empire, and what would be happening during the fall of the Ottoman Empire? What drum sound would be happening during that moment? There wouldn’t be an ’80s synth instrument going on, but you might have this drum beat. [Maas vocally demonstrates a drumbeat.] Each song is different.
So what are some of these musical settings that you go to on Indigo Meadow?
Well, it could be in the desert, it could be in the mountains. … It could be in some weird space in your mind. It doesn’t have to be a physical place; it could be just a spiritual place. I think that’s what music does for us. You hear a bass line and you instantly want a drum beat and you’re just in this space which creates a vibe, a physical vibe that your mind just latches onto. And you try to stay around that; you don’t do some guitar wankery, Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar riff around that. Unless you’re going for that. Whatever is best for the song.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a musician?
I would probably be a private investigator. Like a spy or something. I always wanted to be a baseball player. I don’t think that is going to happen. But a private investigator could be really fun.
Private eye or a rock star. Those are two pretty cool professions.
So I half-joke about how we are “music therapists.” So if we weren’t music therapists and not musicians, then it would be fun to get my hands dirty more. To work also in the environmental field.
Who is the therapy for? You call yourself a music therapist. Is the therapy for you, or is it for your listeners?
For everybody. … It’s probably a selfish thing in the beginning. It made us feel good. It feels good to play music. It’s a cheap way to get your kicks. It’s kind of how we started because it’s a nice outlet.
The Black Angels play the Boulder Theater on Friday, May 10. Hanni El Khatib and Wall of Death open. Doors at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance, $23 day of show. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.