The southpaw guitarists in this Austin band are pushing psych rock into the future with their new album, Death Song. (And they use a truckload of vintage gear.)
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.
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.
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.