Jake Garcia channels some intensity through a Fender Jaguar reissue. “We call Jake the sponge and the kaleidoscope,” says Kyle Hunt. “He adds a lot of color.” Photo by Jordi Vidal
Tremolo effects are also a huge part of the band’s guitar sound. Are they typically amp-based or are you using pedals?
Hunt: Both. We all have EarthQuaker Hummingbirds, but we also use the onboard trem on a Fender Twin as well as the Boss TR-2. I use the new Hummingbird that can take an expression pedal, and you hear that at the end of “I Dreamt”—the part that slithers around.
Bland: There’s also some Vox Repeat Percussion on the album, which is that super staccato, pulsating trem sound.
I love the bass sounds on the album—particularly on “I Dreamt.” What was the setup for getting those cool bass sounds?
Hunt: We used an Ampeg B-15 flip-top and an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail for most of them.
Maas: Jake played that bass riff and it’s his own take on a demo I sent the band that’s a very cool twist on the original idea. I love the way that tone came out, too. It was a left-handed Fender Jazz Bass and it has a little overdrive on it, and it gives me an early Can or Silver Apples vibe. Our process for bass was we’d try everything when tracking and then pick at the end.
Hunt: So, we’d track with a DI into a Neve console, the B-15 flip-top, and an SVT—all together. And there was a Fender Twin in there, too. The strings sound like flats, but they’re actually just old, dead roundwounds. My rule of thumb with my ’72 Jazz Bass is don’t replace the strings until they break, because the old ones always sound better to us. We tried to get a deeper sound with flatwounds on “Life Song,” and they actually sounded brighter than the dead roundwounds I already had on the bass.
Could you detail the battery of amps used to track guitars?
Bland: There’s a ton of stuff, but mainly Fender Twins, and we also had a ’66 Fender Princeton Reverb that belongs to Kyle that we used a lot. We also used my vintage Selmer piggyback a bunch, and these solid-state Vox PathFinder amps, which just break up in this great, archaic way. Alex actually sings through them a lot.
Hunt: Surprisingly, a lot of the guitar is a hot-rodded ’90s Fender ’65 Twin reissue that has 75-watt Celestions in it and a three-spring reverb tank. The day before we were about to leave to record, I stumbled over this mystery Satellite brand amp head at Austin Vintage Guitars. I wrote Adam Grimm from Satellite and asked about it because it’s just so good, and he said it was a prototype clone of a Silvertone 1484 and that he had only made the one. So that amp through the Twin’s 75-watt Celestions is the guitar tones on “I’d Kill for Her” and a lot of other big-sounding spots on the record. It’s really trashy and rad.
It’s really cool how deep you guys are willing to dig into your tonal palette.
Hunt: Oh, no doubt! We shipped something like 1,500 pounds of equipment up to Seattle just to do overdubs.
Maas: We know how important guitar tones are, and on this record we really focused on getting the tone first so there wasn’t a lot of post-production, because we would get the sound we wanted from the start—which saves a lot of time. But more importantly, it really makes you focus on your performance. There are infinite possibilities sonically, and the way those tones affect your performance is a big thing!
Hunt: There were literally a couple hundred pedals piled up in the corner of the studio, which can seem overwhelming. The beauty of having 10 versions of a type of pedal that we all already have opinions about and experience with is that the trial and error is a quick process, because we all know immediately when it’s the right choice. We all know the variations and what they do, and we typically agree on what to go for when chasing a particular sound, so finding the right one was usually a 10-minute, trial-and-error process, and then it’d click in a unanimous way. Phil Ek also uses, like, four mics per amp and gives you submixes of that, and you can do a lot with those options.
Our experience with Ek was exactly the reason you hire a producer. His passion for the project and the fidelity he managed to achieve while retaining our sound was really everything we were after. It’s the cleanest, purest version of what we do that I think we’ve ever done. I think it’s a truly pure representation of the band.
Throughout the band’s discography, you’ve continued to grow and explore different facets of songwriting without sacrificing your distinct sonic personality. What’s the key to that?
Maas: The key is just keeping your radar on and always questioning your parts—always checking in with yourself about whether or not that’s the right part, or that’s the right tone. If we were to make a record way different than what people expect from us, it’d still sound like us because it’s still us. I learned to try and approach it as an outsider.
Hunt: Death Song to me feels like the least smoke and mirrors. There’s no reverb on the submix to get that big psychedelic mess we love. It’s all us. The first time I heard a playback of the masters, I thought, “This sounds just like us, exactly, playing together.” It’s a more deliberate record. Everything is played with intent; we didn’t waste parts.
Maas: When you listen to the record, it has its moments and it has something for everybody, but it’s not a deliberately tripped-out, psych-specific record. It’s about the melodies and supporting them more than making something trippy sounding. You can’t set out to make timeless music, but you can hope that what you’re doing is timeless.
Do you concern yourself with actively avoiding the guitar clichés of the genre?
Maas: Of course, we don’t want to be a character study of someone else’s work—regardless of how important that work was. Though we obviously pay some homage to some of our favorite bands. “Linda’s Gone” from the last album has a total Velvet Underground vibe, but that’s a huge part of where we come from as a band.
Bland: And it’s just fun to play that way, and if it’s fun, do it again! Stephanie is really good about keeping us honest and calling us out on parts sounding too much like other bands.
Hunt: You can do pastiche and it’s going to sound like pastiche, but if you really focus on borrowing and adding your own spin to things, adding in your element—that’s the music and art I really love and something we strive to for. It’s got a lot to do with how you borrow it.
In this live performance for radio, the Black Angels play it sweet, dark, and heavy—underpinning Alex Maas’ tenor vocals with the dark throb of Kyle Hunt’s bass lines, while Christian Bland stretches out on his Gibson SG and Jake Garcia provides cascading color.