The Black Angels' Alex Maas on DMT, St. Louis and lots more


  • Alexandra Valenti

The Black Angels has reached the point of royalty among today's lysergic rock outfits. In between relentless touring and putting out killer albums and EPs, the Austin five-piece started Austin Psych Fest, now in it's fourth year. For its third full length, 2010's Phosphene Dream, the band recorded in L.A. with super producer Dave Sardy (Holy Fuck, Oasis, LCD Soundsystem), but the sun-drenched metropolis had little to do with the poppier excursions on the album--that debt is entirely owed to the psychedelic drug DMT. The band members were reading DMT: The Spirit Molecule when they were writing and recording. The album title alludes to the optic phenomena of seeing stars. Morose themes still prevail on tracks like "River of Blood" and "Yellow Elevator #2," but uplifted instrumentation and tighter songwriting temper their melancholic proclivities with a significant dose of pop. We caught up with frontman Alex Maas to talk psych, St. Louis, and the crisis of America.

What's up in Canada today?

It's actually sunny and beautiful right now, kind of awesome. We're heading to Montreal, this is the fourth or fifth time we've played there.

Do you like the city?

I do like the city, it's kind of interesting. We do well in France, we don't do that well in Montreal; there's a disconnect there. Everyone speaks French there. There's some kind of art disconnect with the people of Montreal in general, I think. We do okay there, it's not one of our biggest cities, but it's always fun.

What size club do you play in Montreal?

I think we're doing 500 there tonight or something like that? We're opened up for bands there that have been in bigger places. But it's not like playing New York or Austin or anything.

You guys were coming to St. Louis with some regularity for a while, but you haven't been back since 2007. Is there any particular reason?

It's probably just routing, or it just makes sense. Whenever you're routing a tour, there are a lot of things that go into it. Whether it's out of the way or we happen to be coming St. Louis for a Sunday night or a a Monday, only 20 people will show up and we'll lose money. I'm not saying that's what happened, I don't know why we haven't been back. We used to play there a lot. What was the name of the place I used to play there? I would know the name if you told me. I used to play there a long time ago. It was a really smoky place.

Creepy Crawl? Mississippi Nights? Blueberry Hill Duck Room?

The Duck Room, yeah, I think that's what it was. Actually, we've kind of played all over the place, but I always enjoy playing St. Louis. We have a couple friends who live in St. Louis who have bands. They're always asking us to come back through, and I'm actually glad we're playing St. Louis this time. I think it's a really pretty city. There's a lot of big, empty red brick buildings that could be turned into a studio or a venue--there's so much potential there. I think it's really pretty.

The rent here is about half what it is in Austin, and we've been saying St. Louis is on the brink for years.

Totally. That's what I thought the very first time I went there, the very first show I played in St. Louis. I was like, wow, why isn't that like, something? So much potential, so many empty warehouses. The architecture down there is beautiful, and I love the barbeque.

So, did you guys do DMT with Dave Sardy when you were recording Phosphene Dream?

No, I don't think he dove in there. [laughs] I don't think he did any, not that I'm aware of.

Was there sort of a washing of the hands and then a sacramental DMT rite before you recorded?

Definitely, definitely, there were things like that [laughs]. I think it's just a little known bit of magic that's in the world I think that people should know about. It's kind of amazing. It's a natural thing, DMT is in everything. It's in you, it's in plants, the older the plant is, the more prehistoric it is, the larger quantity of DMT is in the plant. I could be wrong on that, but I think that's what I read. It kind of makes you think about religion and how religion got started, and the fact that DMT is released into you bloodstream when you die. You have a religious experience, sort of huddle and your entire life flashes before your eyes. You see kaleidoscopic, heavenly sort of things...yeah. Um. Anyways. I think people should know about it. It could be used as medicine for people just like Prozac, but it's natural, it won't make you commit suicide. There are so many natural things on this earth that could help change lives, and help change people's perspectives for the better. I'm not advocating DMT use every day or anything like that, but we're just kind of on the verge of realizing what it does for people.

Do you have any theories about what it might be, say the animus of the universe or something like that?

Yeah, maybe, I mean, they call it the spirit molecule, or it's a spirit molecule. Maybe it's one of the most minute pieces of life that exists in everything. You can somehow extract this pure element of life. And you know, Mayans and people in South America are still using a lot of the stuff. Well, the Mayans are no longer here, but lots of South American tribes. I think the therapeutic properties that it holds, they're relatively untapped. People have been doing it forever, it's probably one of the oldest psychedelic drugs in the world. Have you ever done it before? No, I haven't.

You should come to Austin. There's no reason not to. It's one of those towns that's obviously an oasis in the Bible Belt. Texas is pretty conservative, but Austin's obviously a free thinking, liberal town--it's progressive. It's also a great place to eat food. It's a great place for entrepreneurs, for young people who want to have a little cupcake shop or a popcorn stand that's called, like, Pop that Coochie or something--I'm not even joking, all these ideas lift off the ground, and you're like, 'That really works?' There are a lot of these little places, and people in Austin are all about supporting local business. The people make the city cool, not just the idea of it, or the beautiful town itself, it's the people who try to make it cool. That's one thing that really helps the city.

Where's your local haunt in Austin?

My favorite place, if it's not at home, I like to go to Green Hills, it's this nature trail, there are a couple nature preserves. If I'm going to go out and see something pretty, I'll do that. East Austin, there are a lot of quiet little bars popping up all over. I don't know how old you are, you sound like you're about my age.

I'm 25.

Yeah, so it's people our age who are starting bars down there. They're just going in with this business idea, they get loans and they go and make a cool little bar on the east side, a little hole in the wall. These sweet little places are popping up all over the east side of the city. Whenever I'm back there I think, whoa, what's that place? I've been going to this place called the The Liberty Bar lately; they've got really good food too.

When you guys are on the road, what do you do for food? Do you just go by recommendations?

Totally, totally, we go on recommendations. It's gotta be the right person, but that's how you find out about everything. That's how you find out about good music, movies, food, books. We also do, like, Internet search engines, Urbanspoon, and this one application; you can shake your phone and it comes up with a random place near you. It's like a magic 8 ball thing--like, St. Louis Ribs, right down the street.

My friends and I used to waste hours with that app. We'd be like, no, I don't feel like that. Shake it again.

Dig it. You just have to go with it. We'll get good recommendations, but recently it's been kind of ridiculous, if we've been back to a place like Montreal or Toronto a few times, local restaurant owners come and be like, 'We love your music! You should come by before or after the show if you have time.' Sometimes we can do it and sometimes we can't, but when we can, it's always amazing. These people are listening to our music, and listening to music to get them through their day. So when they ask us to come, it's obviously an honor.

Okay, next question.

Yes, I am a Cardinals fan [laughs].

Alright, who is your favorite player?

It used to be Pujols. Is he still playing for St. Louis? I think he might be. I used to like Mark McGuire, even though he was like, steroid guy? He was always one of my favorite baseball players. The fact that he was on steroids, I'm like, well, it's a performance enhancing drug, and you're putting eleven and twelve-year-old children on Ritalin and Adderall and you won't let Mark McGuire use performance enhancing drugs to make the game of baseball ten times better? I don't know, I have my theories on that. Like I said, I don't think drugs are for everybody, but they sure make baseball more interesting.

I was reading an Adderall forum recently, and this mom was talking about her four year old kid who was taking five milligrams a day.

Wow, are you fucking kidding?! It's not your mom is it?

Oh god no.

Wow, that's fucking crazy. I've taken that stuff before and it's kind of insane. It's amphetamine salts, the government makes it and gives it to children. Instead of getting to the fucking problem, like your kid is eating too much sugar in school, your kid isn't getting the right developmental skills in the first five years of their life and that's why they're slow, or they're eating too much fruit with fertilizer. Instead of getting to the problem, we're constantly, constantly digging ourselves into deeper, darker holes. It's like putting a piece of masking tape over a problem.

And those problems become chasms under the masking tape.

Exactly! So weird.

Speaking of crazy, it seems like everyone's got apocalypse on the brain lately. Chernobyl-level warnings in Japan, dead dolphins in the gulf, if the world were ending, how would you celebrate it, or not?

First of all, I don't think it's coming to an end. I think humans are capable of withstanding anything, I think that we're capable of surviving everything, but it might not be everybody. I have so much faith in the human mind. How would I celebrate it? With my friends and family. If I knew that it was going to happen for sure, go get a whole bunch of barbeque and fried shrimp and oysters, and just have a giant party with my family and my friends.

So you said once that people are generally mindless about the music they listen to. Do you think that's a result of the Internet Age or is there a larger societal issue at play?

Definitely, definitely, definitely, a larger societal issue. The Internet is the antithesis of that. It's where you actively go to research information. When I said that American are mindless, it's not a negative thing. It's just kind of a sad reality. It's a negative outlook, but it's not our fault. We've been brought up being force-fed things that people tell us are good for us. I know that's how society progresses and how information is spread. The way I'd like to see it, is people using the Internet to educate themselves through information. Finding new music, finding new ways to live a better life. That's the intelligent way, there's so much amazing information on there. That being said, not to be a hypocrite, I use those avenues to make money. If people aren't buying records, then I'm going to infiltrate the system and try to get more people to be aware of music like ours. Exposure can change popular music. We hold a music festival every year called Austin Psych Fest, we research on the Internet and we've met tons of amazing artists on the road and through friends and just through word of mouth. That's our opportunity gather all these people to Austin and just have a big party. There's a way to play both sides of the coin. Think about pop music in the 50's and 60's, it was amazing. It was undeniably soulful and good and great. And somewhere along the line, it lost that. If psychedelic music was the new pop music, I think it could change the way people think. That's a totally farfetched theory that I haven't put a whole bunch of thought into, but it's a possibility. If you're talking about money all the time and bling and cars, or if you're talking about helping humanity.

Do you think psychedelic music is becoming more accessible to the general population?

I think more people are appreciating it more for what it is, and not thinking about this big drug culture behind it that's given it a bad name. When people hear "psychedelic music" they think about hippies. That's not it at all, that's actually jam band music. All the things that people consider psychedelic aren't. Like, grandmas playing banjos in yellow bikinis is psychedelic. I think more people are accepting this music as something based in another place. I don't even know where it's coming from. There's a cyclical pattern that happened in the 60's, and it's happening again. It's interesting to watch, and it's interesting to be a part of it.

There's something so yearning, questioning really, about it that I don't find in other music.

It's a little bit less obvious I think, and less easy to understand. There's a yearning search for truth about it, an exploration. The journey that people get taken on is what's attractive about it.

Who are you most excited to have at PsychFest this year?

There's this band called Cold Sun. I think I'm most excited to see them.

What are you listening to that we aren't?

I'm listening to Huun-Huur-Tu.

What are they like?

You should check them out. It's Mongolian music.

Do you hate talking to journalists most of the time?

It depends, it depends what kind of questions they're asking or how engaging they are. It totally depends. I've really enjoyed this conversation, and I've really not enjoyed other ones. Sometimes I talk to somebody who just kind of, I don't know, they're begging questions...sometimes it just doesn't work. It's like meeting someone at a bar, I find you interesting and I can talk to you for a while or I can't. But I've enjoyed talking to you.

Is there a place in the world where you've never been that you feel a connection to?

Yeah. Mongolia. [laughs] I don't know why, I've watched a lot of movies on it and it just seems like a really peaceful, pretty place. All the colors and the clothes they wear are super cool to me. They live really simple lives, they live in these little huts with beautiful ornate rugs. Yeah, I think the East.

If your band was a culture-bound disorder, which one would it be?

A culture-bound disorder? I don't know, I guess I don't understand the question.

A culture-bound disorder is like, a folk illness that's culture-specific, like Navajo ghost sickness or there's one Eastern culture where the men are afraid that women are stealing their genitalia, and that's a diagnosed disorder.

Awesome. [laughs] We're kind of a group of people who sort of can't function in society in general. Most of us would have a hard time working anywhere else or doing anything else. I don't know, I might need to come back to that one. You name it and I'll just go with it. I trust your opinion.

Last new record you bought, last used record you bought?

Last used record I bought was for my sister, it was an Angela Lansbury record. She's totally into Angela Lansbury. The last new record I bought was Wall of Death, I bought it over in Europe. We were touring with them and I bought a record off them.


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