Austin’s Black Angels—from left to right, Alex Maas, Jake Garcia, Christian Bland, Kyle Hunt (on wall), and Stephanie Bailey—carry a torch first lit in their hometown by Roky Erickson’s 13th Floor Elevators.
Photo by Sandy Carson
While most music fans think of fiery blues heroes when considering Austin’s contributions to guitar, that Texas city once served as a cradle of psychedelic rock, most notably birthing Roky Erickson’s genre-defining cadre, the 13th Floor Elevators. Many music aficionados contend the Elevators played a role in defining psych rock equal to that of the bands emerging from San Francisco in the mid-’60s.
Today another Austin band, the Black Angels, is upholding the torch. Besides defining its own vision of psychedelic rock during the past 13 years, the group—which takes its name from a Velvet Underground song—spent time as Erikson’s backing band and has been chiefly responsible for curating the genre’s premier annual festival, which was known as Austin Psych Fest before being rechristened Levitation. Their sound recalls and respects all that was great about early psych, but is ultimately twisted into something unique—carrying the genre into the future without failing to revere its past.
With their fifth album, Death Song, the Black Angels again display an uncanny ability to delve deeper into creating timelessly imaginative, dynamic, and transportive rock ’n’ roll. The band calls Death Song the purest representation of its sound to date. The album is a masterclass in building mood and atmosphere: a rollicking, ethereal work that juts seamlessly from ambling organ-combo meditations to ecstatic, fuzz-addled guitar rave-ups. And the band spared nothing when it came to shaping an absolutely killer palette of guitar tones, dragging literally hundreds of pedals from Austin to do overdubs with producer Phil Ek in Seattle.
The four men in the band’s frontline—Alex Maas, Christian Bland, Kyle Hunt, and Jake Garcia—swap between instruments live and in the studio while Stephanie Bailey commands the drum kit. They share bass, guitar, and various keys between them, but guitar is the bedrock of the Black Angels’ sound. Sharing a penchant for esoteric vintage gear, an addiction to fuzz pedals, and a commitment to authentic tape echoes, Bland, Hunt, Maas, and Garcia all bring unique playing styles to the table. However, the squad approaches its guitar work as a weaving together of parts for the greater good of songs.
When PG met with Maas, Bland, and Hunt during a tour stop in Brooklyn, Bland was fawning over a vintage Silvertone acoustic he’d recently purchased and Maas was tinkering with the band’s harmonium. The conversation that ensued touched on everything from the Black Angels’ writing process to referencing the sounds of the past without getting stuck in it to, of course, the joys and maladies of collecting and maintaining old effects and rare guitars.
With so many band members, is there a go-to songwriting process for Black Angels? Christian Bland: Most of our songs are guitar-based and begin on guitar. We all bring stuff in.
Alex Maas: But it’s a riff first kind of thing, no matter where the riff comes from, and it’s often a melodic idea.
Having three guitarists can make for a very complicated dance. Do you have defined roles, or try to play to your individual strengths?
Bland: We switch it up all the time and try to do whatever’s best for the song.
Kyle Hunt: It works itself out, usually. I think “I’d Kill for Her” is the only specifically three-guitar song on this record, and everybody’s part fits within the song in a way that forms the whole, rather than standing out.
Maas: Everybody plays to their strengths. If somebody’s got a lead guitar part that only they can play, then they play it. If someone has some Sterling Morrison kind of rhythm guitar sound or their own vibe, it’s of course theirs to play. But it’s always what’s best for the song. Our strengths as players usually inform that.
If you had to define your strengths as players, who brings what to the table within the Black Angels?
Bland: I like writing riffs and phrases, in the classic sense.
Hunt: We call Jake the sponge and the kaleidoscope. He adds a lot of color. And I consider myself, guitar-wise, the glue or the gel between everyone. I add the bits that tie it together.
How does the band work with three guitarists and keep things uncluttered or overly dense, obviously other than when density is the goal?
[Everyone shouts.] Dynamics!
Hunt: Dynamics are the key and working with negative space is important. Also, trying not to kill the melody. We really try to enhance it and build a wall around it with support parts.
Maas: Really knowing when to be quiet and loud, and exaggerating those moments. That’s the thing we always go for collectively as a band.
Hunt: I also do a lot of work supporting the low-end foundation of songs as a guitarist. Thickening up bass parts is an important part of my playing. A lot of Jake’s guitar parts weave and dance around Alex’s vocals.
Maas: And vice-versa: A lot of my vocal parts are informed by Jake’s guitar parts. That part of the creative process is very back-and-forth. I’ll get inspired by a melody one of them is dicking around with, and it’ll spark something else.
Bland: Or the third voice!
Maas: We experience the third voice a lot as a band, which is when we’re writing and someone will go, “Are you guys hearing that?” And no one knows where it’s coming from, but we all stop and go, “Who’s playing that?!” And it’s become a real part of our process: mining things from the third voice.