TIDBIT: The Black Angels made their fifth album, Death Song, with producer Phil Ek, whose credits include Built to Spill, Father John Misty, Mudhoney, and the Fleet Foxes.
You have a reverence for the tones used to forge classic psych-rock. How do you paint with those colors without getting tunnel vision? Where do you draw the line concerning the use of modern gear, like DSP stuff—especially effects?
Bland: Well, they made things way better back then! And a lot of “new” effects are just revamped versions of old effects.
Hunt: To the base of your question, I don’t think “retro” or “classic” are really terms that I associate with our music. We really go for timeless and futuristic, and the vintage stuff just works well for that goal.
With the advances made in DSP tech over the last few years, there’s got to be some digital stuff that turns you on to some degree?
Bland: Oh, totally. I’ve dug very hard into anything that emulates a Binson Echorec. Literally any pedal that tries to mimic that, I’ve bought. My favorite so far is the Boonar, made by a Croatian company called Dawner Prince Electronics. It’s amazing, and it nails the multi-head sound of an actual Binson. It has a lot of output and sounds really fat. I have two: one for guitar and one for my Mellotron. We like the Gurus’ Echosex and have several of them between us, which are great and we use a lot. We find it does the warm, dark/long thing really well, rather than the multi-head vibe. I also have a Fulltone TTE, and the Gurus sounds almost exactly like it to my ears.
Was there any gear that was particularly integral to crafting the sounds on Death Song?
Hunt: We have a real deal Binson Echorec that played a huge role in recording the album, and there’s quite a story behind how we got it.
Bland: So, I’m on my second Fulltone Tube Tape Echo. The first one I sold in Ireland to get a discount on a real Binson Echorec at a shop. I got $500 off the Echorec for the TTE and I paid another $1,500 for the Echorec. The very next day, the Echorec broke at our show in Manchester. We went to Paris for the next show and we took it to someone local to fix it, and were told it would be sorted out by the end of the day, and it ended up sitting there for an entire year—and it was never fixed! We retrieved it eventually from Paris and I brought it to Austin Vintage Guitars, and it was there for three weeks until they finally said they had no clue what to do. So—finally—we flew to Los Angeles and took it to our friend, who has a company called Acid Fuzz, and he pulled it off and fixed the thing!
Hunt: We’re all huge fans of the things EarthQuaker Devices makes, too. Jamie Stillman from EQD has been very much in our corner for a very long time, and we love that company and their pedals.
For those that don’t necessarily buy into the cult of vintage gear, could you explain what makes it worth all that trouble?
Bland: Well, for starters, a lot of the components in old gear just don’t even exist anymore, and I find an honest difference in the sonic quality of vintage gear. It’s just impossible to get that out of most modern gear.
Hunt: It’s just such a difference in the three-dimensional quality of the sound—especially in effects. But more importantly, there’s a real difference between the way a real Roland Space Echo or an Echoplex reacts to the way you hit things and your playing dynamics, compared to DSP, which is so often just an on/off response. It gives you something tangible to vibe off of as a player, and it’s just so much more inspiring in that sense.
For a band with several left-handed players that share an affinity for vintage gear, I imagine it’s pretty difficult finding old left-handed guitars?
Bland: Yeah, no kidding! All I can do is find them on eBay these days. If you hit a guitar shop, all you’re going to find is a Stratocaster or a Les Paul, and god knows we don’t want those! [Laughs.]
The band travels with a ton of guitars. Is that due to different tunings or different sonic qualities?
Hunt: I have two solidbody Fenders: a Jazzmaster and a Jaguar. I use the Jag for standard tuning and the Jazzmaster is my dropped-D guitar, and I have a 1972 Fender Jazz Bass that I grab for the songs I play bass on live.
Bland: I like to use the guitars I actually recorded the songs with for those songs live, because I really do want the parts live to sound as close as possible to the record. The main guitar I used is a Rickenbacker 345, but I also used a Gretsch Country Gentleman, a ’60s-style Gibson SG reissue, and a black Fender Esquire that looks just like the one Syd Barrett used. I’m something of a Rickenbacker connoisseur. My most recent acquisition is the black ’64-style Rickenbacker 12-string like the one George Harrison used for a long time. It’s an early ’90s reissue and I just love it!
Fuzz is an integral part of the band’s sound, and the selection of fuzz pedals available these days is endless. Which do you guys gravitate toward?
Hunt: For Jake, he digs Big Muff-style and Mosrite Fuzzrite-style pedals. There’s a guy that custom builds them for him in Spain who calls his company ThunderTomate. He names them stuff like “Muffin Man” and “Bender Tomato,” and Jake also loves the original Boss Hyper Fuzz, which is Boss’ version of the Univox Super-Fuzz circuit and does everything from loud, clean boost to a super-scooped My Bloody Valentine vibe to a mid-heavy ’60s fuzz. Jake also likes the Shin-Ei Companion fuzz a lot.
Bland: I like old Fuzz Faces, and I’ve gotten into the Analog Man Sun Face stuff—especially the NKT275 germanium variant. I also use Analog Man’s Peppermint Fuzz, which is the big, raunchy sounding fuzz I use, and I also have a Sun Face BC 108, which is like the blue Fuzz Face David Gilmour used on Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii.
Hunt: We all agree on how much we like the Mosrite Fuzzrite. Various versions of that circuit are all over the record. I have an original Fuzzrite and I have a really great clone made by Toetags Electronics, out of Montreal. I’m also a big fan of the Creepy Fingers stuff, which is made by Brad Davis from the band Fu Manchu.
I have a vintage Shaftesbury Duo Fuzz, which is the Rose Morris version of the Univox Super-Fuzz, and when I got it, one of the transistors was broken. I went in myself to try to fix it and made it worse. I was really upset, because I spent $600 on this super-rare pedal, but I plugged it in and it was twice as loud, less fuzzy and more overdrive-y. What happened was those two transistors lifted from the board and it was just a whole new thing! I contacted Brad Davis and he immediately told me the broken/lifted transistor thing is actually a known modification for the vintage ones. So, I had him make me a new, reliable clone of the vintage one with that transistor lift modification on a switch, and it takes AC power and is functional for the road.