Acid tales of Roky Erickson with Texas’ number one psych band.



“We like to encourage people to rethink preconceived notions, to question authority and I think that’s what we encourage on every album: Mind expansion.”

You guessed it; Black Angels are a psychedelic band. As with most progressive ideas springing from the lets-get-naked bit of the last century, psychedelia is pretty hard to pin-down, button-up and quantify. Trying to define psychedelic music becomes like the experience of listening to it; understanding tends to split last minute and spin away like an acid visual – it’s mercurial and that’s probably why we like it. You know when you’re hearing it though, and here it is. The Black Angels are, for want of a less awful expression, the real deal. Three albums in (latest ‘Phosphene Dream’ is out this month), they’ve achieved a cultish, leftfield stature reminiscent of their contemporaries and recent L&Q pin-ups Wooden Shjips.

Two of them, frontman Alex Maas and guitarist Christian Bland, are backstage at the West End’s Borderline, sheltering from the surprise summer rain. The band hail from Texas, making them geographic (as well as musical) descendants of psych Gods 13th Floor Elevators, a band that sonically stands apart from Californian analogues. Is there something special about Texan bands?

“Someone asked this the other day,” says Christian “‘why do so many psychedelic bands come out of Texas?’ I think the reason 13th Floor Elevators came out of Austin in 1965/66 was because it was very conservative. I think as an exact backlash against the conservative nature of Texas, there’s this freak-out of weirdoes… to even things out. Nature, I think, evens itself out.”

“Totally,” chips in Alex. “I think we have a Texas kind of style, y’know, if there is one. Texas psychedelic music particularly… seems like Elevators were a lot grittier than any, like, Southern rock band… but then you can’t compare them to anything really.”

This admiration for Tommy Hall and Roky Erickson’s band received its karmic reward when Alex and Christian’s troupe were asked to be Erikson’s backing musicians for a West Coast tour in 2008. For those who don’t know of the man in question, he is, along with anyone from that band that didn’t die horribly, an archetypal acid casualty. The lyrics and the manifesto-like scrawls on their first album were deadly serious – they believed in a lysergically-accessed ‘other place’ and they never fully returned.

“Tommy Hall, was just…,” Christian searches for the rest of his sentence. “He thought LSD was the answer; opening everyone’s mind and letting everything come through, being able to see beyond race and everything that causes divisions as humans. But, looking back on that period, we see that LSD is, you know, a good…” They both laugh. “…within reason, a good thing. Like, used as a sacrament it can help open your mind,” he continues “but they took it at every show. People like Syd Barrett, Tommy Hall, and Roky Erickson… used in excess like they were doing, it’s very bad, it just causes you to go too far out of your mind and not be able to come back to reality.”

Touring with an idol that’s psychologically damaged must have given rise to some internal conflictions, what was he like?

“Kind of quiet,” says Alex. “I think he’s pretty reserved, freaked-out a little bit by things happening, you know, confused. One thing we noticed is that when we played the music, he had these moments of clarity and then once you got off stage he’d start drifting-off.”

“Our experience with him was interesting,” picks-up Christian. “Alex and I had seen him play beforehand and the band that backed him was more clean blues, you know, not really psychedelic, not lending itself to the 13th Floor Elevators’ grittiness. He always does ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ and ‘Splash One’, but our goal was to do the first five on the first album. The very first practice, we started out and played ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ with him and that was unreal ‘cause he still has those screams down.” Christian does his best impression of the Erickson yowl. “Then we tried to do ‘Reverberation’, and he got real like, ‘huh, I don’t remember this one… how about we try something else, here?’ And next practice we tried to do the same thing and he’d just be like ‘ahh, I don’t remember this one.’ So finally we invited him over to our house and we re-taught him the songs on acoustic guitar with the words printed-out and the chords so he could look along. We did that probably for two weeks, twice a week and one electric practice a week, practicing his solo stuff.”

Eventually, it worked and they got to live-out their fantasy of practically being their heroes. At which point, you have to question whether this is all old hat. Umpteen psych revivals on, the medium continues to reinvent itself for each generation, sticking as it does so to elements that crystallized in the late sixties. In the question ‘What is it about psych that lends itself to revivalism?’, there’s a tacit request for them to defend their use of a form more than half a century old.

“I think because it’s progressive,” says Christian. “Imagine listening to the radio in the fifties, compared to right now. All that totally influenced the rock and roll players in the sixties, so there was an explosion of creativity. I think that was a creative renaissance and anyone who can see that and draw from that is in the right direction – I mean, the best band ever, The Beatles, came out in the sixties.”

“What you could also call psychedelic music,” adds Alex “is just like this spiritual kind of thing, like this witchcraft music from North Africa and Kenya. Old folk music from old villages, that stuff’s the most psychedelic stuff there is! It’s been there probably for hundreds, thousands of years, but it’s just like a heartbeat.”

“Yeah, Heartbeat music!”

While psychedelia and their propensity to enjoy it might be timeless, their heads are turned to the present-day. Their 2006 debut ‘Passover’ was not only a dark, Velvets-influenced fuzz-out but also a strident anti-war document from the Bush era; unlike the majority of new bands, their music is politically eloquent and impassioned. War is a recurrent theme. Where did all the protest music go?

“They [today’s songwriters] are probably afraid,” says Christian “afraid that they’re gonna strike a nerve, you know? That people are not going to like what they say… or maybe they just don’t care, maybe they don’t know enough about it too. Also, [media conglomerate] Clear Channel kind of rules the radio waves. If you say something that’s controversial, it’s not going to be played, it won’t get advertisements… I don’t even know how to take Clear Channel down… it’s so powerful. There’s somebody way up the top that’s calling the shots, or who knows? Maybe some CEO’s daughter likes this stuff so… that’s the stuff were playing! I think there are people still definitely doing political music; I just don’t think it’s being played to the masses. If we were to get a huge record deal and use that money to try and take down…” Christian looses his thread.

“The other thing,’ picks up Alex “is using the enemy against itself. We picked that up from Anton [Newcombe, of course]. Anton says that in Battle, you use the enemy against itself, you know, its strength.”

By Edgar Smith


Originally published in issue 21 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. September 2010

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