Words by Andrew Ryan Fetter
Since 2004, The Black Angels have been one of the biggest names in modern psychedelic rock. Alex Maas, the band’s frontman, has tried to make the sound synonymous with the band’s location, Austin TX. Not only making great sounds with his main project, but also founding the Reverberation Appreciation Society and Levitation festival (where you can stream live performances of many great psych rock acts). After recently becoming a father, Alex used the inspiration he felt in this new chapter in life to write his first solo record, Luca (named for his son). And although Luca predates the pandemic, according to Maas, the themes that inspired it ring as true as they did when they were first composed.
Off Shelf: So I guess we’ll start the way I’ve been starting most interviews lately by asking how have you been this past year with everything that’s happened?
Alex Maas: That’s a good question [laughs]. For the most part, I’ve been good. Financially it’s just been a total bummer like everybody else has been dealing with, and this industry has been a real game changer, it’s really sucked. But, some good things have come out of this too. I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time with my family, really got to work on that. And having a ton of time with my son. I can’t see a lot of other situations where that would have happened. The downside of that is no income. So it’s been a bit of a struggle to navigate through that.
On the other hand, before, during and after the pandemic, for the rest of my life really, I’ll be in the studio recording. So in terms of my day to day before this happened, not a whole lot has changed. I wasn’t someone that went out all the time. I mean, going out to restaurants and spending way more money than I probably should have, right?
But, I’ve just been focusing on music. I’m in a songwriting groove, I’ve been finishing up a new Black Angels record and my solo record was done right before the pandemic hit. We were actually just finishing tracking that Black Angels record last March and then found out that SXSW had been cancelled and that’s essentially half of our income for the year just gone. Starting working on another band called Mien along with Tom [Furse] from The Horrors, Rishi Dihr who is the live sitar player for The Black Angels and is also in Elephant Stone and also John-Mark [Lapham] from this band called Old Fire. So a big reason why I’ve been doing so much writing is I’m a new parent so I’ve just been really inspired. But also because I’ve just been at home more so that’s where my focus has been.
All of that to say [laughs] is my life hasn’t changed that much, just touring a lot less and seeing people outside of my immediate family a lot less. And just trying to navigate that and keep going.
OS: Did it seem odd putting a record out with everything that had been going on?
AM: Oh yeah, for sure. It felt weird putting a record out at this time but I didn’t want to wait. For selfish reasons honestly. But also, it just felt so fresh to me and new sounding. I was touching on things soundwise that I hadn’t before. I didn’t want someone else to put out a record that was close to this one. That’s just my own personal weirdness with it. I just wanted to get it out into the world, pandemic or not. But, it’s been picking up a lot of steam from other music writers and listeners. I really like this record. I didn’t know if anyone else was going to though. I went through moments early on where I didn’t. That’s something common with creative people though. You just have these moments where you’re thinking “what the heck is this?” At the end of it though, I was really happy with it. It just felt fresh and honest.
Also because my son had just been born. So if I had waited to release it, like a year or two, it wouldn’t have felt as relevant to my story. It would have been relevant because it’s about home and there are themes that would ring true regardless of when it was released. But that’s just how I try to write in general. Wondering how this would be received 20-30 years ago and how it will be received 20-30 years in the future.
OS: Yeah, it’s interesting you say that because I’ve shown a lot of people The Black Angels’ music and many people immediately ask if this is a band that’s been around for years and years or is it something new. So it seems like that’s intentional, which I think is what most bands should do, right?
AM: Well, you can set out to do that but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen, right? I’m just really happy with the record overall and it came out exactly the way I wanted it to. I’ve found a bunch of different avenues to play it online as well. I just recorded a live concert of this record and I’m going to release it on the Levitation streaming platform. We’ve worked with bands like Oh Sees, Frankie And The Witch Fingers, Dead Meadow and the like. Part of it was recorded in this 100+ year old opera house in this small town in Texas called Bastrop and the other was recorded in another old building on Main Street in the same city. It just felt so good, the mood and vibe in those places just fit the music on the record so well. There will be some songs on there that aren’t on the record, so people will get a chance to hear some music they haven’t heard yet.
OS: As a parent myself, a lot of the record really resonated with me. I mean, my kids are teenagers so it’s a little different. But there were so many moments that put me in the same spot that I imagine you were in. The song “Special” in particular really hit home for me.
AM: I think if you’re a parent you can easily “get” the record. You understand what I’m talking about. And that song is so close to me. I remember just holding Luca and singing that to him as a lullaby. It never even occurred to me that it would be on a record. But just being really emotional and projecting like a self-fulfilled prophecy on him. Thinking things like “what are you? Who are you going to be?” And the same with “500 Dreams”, I feel like both of those songs in particular just really sum it all up, “I’ll have no control over who you become as a person, but I’m just ready for it and I just feel so lucky to be here with you right now.” And even now when I play it I get emotional and can get right back to that moment when I was writing it. You get those same raw feelings. And I’ve been able to do that for a while with The Black Angels too. I think that’s part of why musicians struggle with mental health issues because you’re just jumping back and forth to different times in your life when you had all these different feelings.
OS: Yeah, I can’t imagine what it’s like jumping back and forth through different eras and emotions. I wonder how being as vulnerable as you were on this record affected you?
AM: It was comforting having those feelings and allowing myself to be vulnerable. We always talk about music being therapeutic and healing. I can’t think of another time in the last ten years where that has been more true than now. And writing this record, I was just writing down my thoughts, my fears about being a parent. I’m glad I captured that when it happened. It’s such a weird thing to capture for one thing, and then also want to share it with people. It’s bizarre, you know? Being a musician is a really bizarre thing in general, but I think there’s something I was having an honest conversation with myself and anyone else who wanted to listen. And it will find the people it needs to find.
OS: Well and as you address on the record the feelings you had around being a new parent and the uncertainty of the kind of person he’s going to be, we’ve now seen this huge shift in how the world is. With the pandemic and the election, did some of those feelings start to ring even more true as recent events played out?
AM: Yeah definitely. I mean, it was all written and finished before any of this happened. But then, all your worst nightmares start glaring at you in the face. And it’s the end of the world. Being in The Black Angels I feel like I’ve prepared myself for these moments. I’ve joked around about it saying I was mentally ready for it because the world has always been hanging by a string. Everything is so delicate and fragile. And when this all happened it wasn’t an “I told you so” moment but it just made sense and I was able to get into action mode immediately, making sure the family is safe and taking all the right precautions, doing research and figuring out how to survive. As humans we’re pretty good on our feet and we’re still alive because of our ingenuity and ability to adapt. I think that has a lot to do with the survivalist mentality kicking in and me seeing this as a bump in the road. Yes, it’s a huge disastrous bump and it just so happened to come in one of the worst administrations in the country. It was a perfect storm, all the right ingredients for this terrible thing to happen.
OS: I think there’s something to be said, if nothing else, for having adults in charge again. So even if you’re cautiously optimistic there’s some good that’s come of it, right?
AM: Oh yeah. When I was watching Biden’s acceptance speech, my wife and I looked at each other and it felt like…. you don’t realize how much of a nightmare you’re in until you wake up from it. You just kind of forgot how shitty it was until we got away from it. As a human and as an artist my expectations of people have always been low. And I know part of that is a defense mechanism so I don’t get let down. I remain cautiously hopeful. But I’m bizarrely hopeful which I think has kept me going. I’m certainly thankful that I have music to play. I know so many people have lost their jobs and the livelihoods but I’m seeing all these great stories of people who are discovering new things that they can do and that’s a beautiful thing. I feel like we’re going to come out of this. I can taste the end of this. It’s so close.