9 October 2017

IN CONVERSATION WITH THE BLACK ANGELS

The Black Angels talk new record Death Song, what music means to them, the rough patch the Levitation festivals have been through, and the biggest lesson they have learnt over their 13-year career.

Photography by Eleonora C. Collini

No other band has contributed to the last decade’s revival of psych-rock as much as The Black Angels have. For the Austin five-piece, psychedelic music is a cult, to the point of creating a psych festival that has served as a model for others of the same genre (which have been springing up like mushrooms in recent years) and founding a label to try and support new psych bands. 

After a four-year break, their fifth full-length Death Song came out last April, once again gracing us with the band's trademark sound made of ‘70s-inspired melodies, reverb harmonies and pulverizing rhythms. 

I caught up with frontman Alex Maas and guitarist Christian bland to have a chat on what music means to them, the rough patch the Levitation festivals have been through over the last couple of years, and the biggest lesson they have learnt since they started making music thirteen years ago.

How do you think the new record has been received?
Alex: Pretty well, I think. Better than the last record for sure, as there seem to be more people coming to the shows. It is very hard to judge from inside, all that we have is seeing how many people come to the shows, as we try not to read reviews.

Death Song is probably your most political album to date. Do you see your music more like a means of observation or a way to deliver a message to try and change things?
Alex: Both. We are mirror to what we see and the world around us, but at the same time music can be a chance to deliver a message if you have one. When we write lyrics we try not to be too preachy and to write in doublespeak. People who are listening to our songs can choose their own adventure and ear what they want, whether it’s a love song or a protest song and so on.

What other form of art other than music do you think has the strongest influence on people?
Christian: None, just music [laughs]. Graphic Design, which I also do, is probably the second most powerful art after music.
Alex: I think movies are very influential and very educational too. Everything is art….. A book can be art, a conversation between people can be art, anything.

One of the recurring themes in your lyrics is observing that we all have an obsession, something we want to achieve at all costs and we would do anything, even horrible things to get. Have you ever experienced that kind of obsession?
Alex: Yes, there are a lot of things you can believe in and fight for, whether it is a relationship, a band, your family, an idea, basic rights like the ones that are still taken off American women right now, which is pretty fucked up… anything you stand for.

Has your writing process changed much over the years?
Christian: No, it’s pretty much still the same. I usually come up with a riff, then we start writing words to it and then refine them together.

Do you usually improvise or deliberately sit down to write music?
Alex: There is a lot of melody and lyrics improvisation. We usually have a riff and try to improvise what kind of melody would go with it and what lyrical content could describe the sound in that room. It’s probably a backwards approach as the music comes first, and then the lyrics tell the story of what the sound sounds like.

Do you ever write the lyrics first?
Alex: Yes, sometimes I do a bit of free writing at home and find a line that could fit right here and there. I have a notebook that I always carry with me, but generally, we tend to write the music first.

Have you started working on any new material yet?
Christian: Yes, we have basically a new record almost done. We wrote forty songs for Death Song, so once we are done with this tour, we are going to start working on those songs that haven’t made it to the new record.

How did your deal with Partisan Records come about?
Alex: Tim [Putnam], one of the founders of Partisan Records is a good friend with our manager, and he wanted to sign us a long time ago, but our manager wasn't sure as he was after someone bigger. Then it turned out that lots of the people we were originally signed with at Blue Horizons had left and started working for Tim, so it was a sort of reunion on one hand. We are getting along with Tim very well too, as he believes in the new record, is really passionate about what he does, and not full of bullshit, he just tells us the truth.

How was working with producer Phil Ek?
Christian: He was like a sixth band member. We didn’t do much post-production afterwards, as this time it was all about getting the sound right, the first pedal correct and everything from the get-go, but I would definitely work with him again.
Alex: He is a total master. What Christian means is that we recorded everything in that moment, how we thought it should be, so whenever was the time to mix the song we just pushed the faders up and everything was there already. When we started working with Phil, the songs structure didn't change much because we had spent four years writing, but sonically they changed quite a bit and that was probably the best thing about working with Phil. We also needed a prospective, as we had forty songs and just didn't know what to do with them.

Did you find it difficult to choose what songs to put on the record given how much material you had?
There were around eight or nine songs we all immediately agreed on, and then there were around four or five debatable ones. So we just voted democratically as we always do. That is probably why we are still a band, because it’s not just one person making all the decisions, though there are people definitely speaking louder than others.

The Levitation Festivals have had a couple of rough years as first you had to cancel in Austin due to weather conditions last year, then this year neither Austin nor Vancouver and Chicago happened. Was it mainly a money reason?
Alex: Yes, we had lost so much money that we couldn't afford to take the same risk this year. We had to start all over from zero, and as we are still scared, next year the Festival will be back in Austin, but we are going to do it in the city, in a lot of venues, more like we were doing originally, SXSW style. But Angiers still happened this year and on the Saturday we actually sold out.

And what about your label, The Reverberation Appreciation Society?
Alex: We are looking at re-structuring that too, as after the festival got cancelled in 2016 we had to freeze everything, which is unfortunate for a lot of bands. I think if we carry on with that everything has to be done in a smarter way, with a lot of more people involved. It is just four of us at the moment, instead of ten-plus people, which is what a label needs. We will need to have an in-house marketing person, someone for social media, someone to just answer emails, someone in charge of the distribution and so on.

How do you think the psych music scene has evolved over the years?
Christian: Our festivals grew from 700 people in 2008 to 10000 in 2015people, so I guess that is the indication of the interest in psych -rock. I think it’s continuing to grow, but I am not really sure what direction it is taking, as sometimes it can be a little corny [laughs]

Yeah, to me the events are getting bigger and bigger, but I can’t think of any cool new psych bands….
Alex: Yes, I probably shouldn't say that, but I know people should be looking in new countries, like Thailand, Uganda, to find new cool bands. I think the deeper you dig the more cool bands you find. There are a lot of great bands in Israel, Japan, and Australia obviously.

At some point you were considering doing a Psych Fest in Australia too, right?
Christian: Yeah, in Melbourne, but in order to start a festival somewhere, someone has to come forward. So please, if someone in Australia would love to come forward we would really like to do one there!

The Black Angels have been together for thirteen years now. Looking back at your career what is the biggest lesson you have learnt?
Alex: Stay positive. The only thing that keeps me sane is the thought that things are going to get better. A lot of horrible things happen, so you just have to have blind faith that things are going to work out and have a lot of positivity. Also, another thing I have learnt, is that you need to understand all the facets of the music business, which is something festivals have helped us do, as people don’t realise the amount of work that is behind them.

If you could go back in time, is there anything you would like to have done differently?
Christian: I don’t know… I think we made all the right decisions! I am really happy with where we are right now. Personally, I could have stopped after opening for BRMC. I was going to all their shows and gave them our CDs, because I was just so obsessed with them, and then two years later we were opening for them……
Alex: We have a great management that have always believed in us and in general we have been so lucky along the way, so I would be afraid to change history as maybe we wouldn't have the same luck the second time around.

Originally published on London in Stereo

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29 September 2017

THE NATIONAL at EVENTIM APOLLO

Photos of  The National's Hammersmith Apollo (London) Residency this week









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24 September 2017

THE BLACK ANGELS at O2 KENTISH TOWN FORUM

Photos of The Black Angels amazing show at at O2 Forum Kentish Town last Friday!







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19 September 2017

PHOTOS: DIRTY FENCES at SHACKLEWELL ARMS

Photos of Dirty Fences show at Shacklewell Arms, London. The Brooklyn's band combines the meaty riffs of Redd Kross and Johnny Thunders with the catchy melodies of The Ramones, giving it their own twist. Her third album, Goodbye Love is out on 27th October via Greenway Records.









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8 September 2017

IN CONVERSATION with ZOLA JESUS

Photography by Eleonora C. Collini


Known for her futuristic look and for combining noise-punk with alternative pop, often adding electronical, classical, industrial and goth to the mix, Zola Jesus has been one of the most creative and experimental musicians of the last decade.

After the more polished textures and the almost poppy melodies of 2014’s Taiga, for her 6th album Okovi, the American singer-songwriter goes back to the fierce immediacy and the gothic atmospheres of her early work. Written in her native Wisconsin forests, where she recently moved back to, the album is a beautiful, and profound meditation on loss and reconciliation, following a number of personal tragedies in Zola’s life over the years. 

I caught up with her to discuss the making of the new album, going back to her first label Sacred Bones, David Lynch and returning to the woods. 

Stylistically, Okovi is quite a departure from your previous record Taiga as it represents a return to your early work, but at the same time it is also a step forward. Was that a conscious decision?
I didn’t really think about that, I just intuitively felt that I needed to make a record that was cathartic, more atmospheric and had different shapes of the difficult journey I had been doing for the last couple of years.

What was the biggest difference in terms of writing and recording with Taiga and your other previous albums?
This time, I really tried not to second-guess myself like I had done for my past couple of records, just letting the songs fall out and not trying to change them too much. With Taiga, I just wanted more to do the things the right way, I wanted it to feel like an established process, but with Okovi, it was much more intuitive and much more based on feelings than on the brain. This time, I just tried to turn the brain off.

You used the guitar for the first time on this record. Are there any other particular instruments featuring on the record that you hadn’t used before?
No, the biggest difference is the guitar, which appears throughout the whole record, and then string quartets, but I had used those before. 

Did your long-time collaborator Alex DeGroot produce this album too?
We co-produced it. I produced the bulk of the record, as I produced and wrote at the same time, and then at the end I brought Alex in to tidy it up and make it feel cohesive. He is very technical and just brings a different side to the music.

The new record also features contributions from WIFE, cellist Shannon Kennedy and percussionist Ted Byrnes. Will any of them be touring with you as well? 
No, they just helped me for the record. For this tour, Alex [DeGroot] will be playing guitar, and Louise Woodward viola.

Lyrically, Okovi is a dark album that explores the themes of death and the loss of your loved ones. Did that come from a personal experience?
Yes, it did. The songs were written during a very difficult period for myself and those around me, and I was selfishly using the songs for myself, to work through things. I also used some of the songs to communicate with the people I care about, as I felt that was the only way to reach them. For that reason, a lot of the songs on the record feel very fragile.

The new video for “Exhumed” reflects those dark thoughts too. How involved did you get in the making?
I always get very involved. It was just me and the director Jacqueline Castel together. We established the concept together, then she came out to my land in Wisconsin and we just ran around and shot it.

“Okovi” is a Slavic word for “shakles”. In general, do you think you are chained more to material things or impalpable things like death and love?
If anything, I think I am more chained to emotional things and my mind, rather than material things. It is more inner things that I sometimes feel I am imprisoned by.

What prompted you to go back to your original label Sacred Bones?
Just before this record came out I missed working with them, so I felt it was the right thing to do. Mute Records [who released Taiga] was fantastic, but for this record I just wanted to work with people I knew very well.

On the 8th September, Sacred Bones will also release a Stridulum LP, which collects the previously released Stridulum and Valusia EPs (both from 2010) together as one volume. What made you decide to re-release them at the same time as the new album?
I think it just worked that way. We wanted to re-release Stridulum because it has been quite a few years now and it is still an important record to a lot of people.

You've talked about your musical and literary influences many times before, but when was the last time that visual art had a strong impact on your work?
When I was making this record I was very inspired by the work of the visual artist Jesse Draxler, and I would print out his images and place them on my wall in the studio. So when I came to the album art, I contacted him and asked him to do it. So that is a full circle.

You have collaborated with David Lynch and John Carpenter in the past. What influence have they had on your music?
 think their vision is individually very singular and very environmental, because when you watch their movies you feel immersed in them and that is very inspiring to me. I like the idea of allowing people to dip into something they normally wouldn't.

Have you watched the new Twin Peaks series by the way?
Yes, and it is very good.

How does your strong visual presentation and your somehow futuristic style relate to your music?
It is all part of the same impulse. The music that I make is coming from an idea, a world that I want to explore, and also the clothes that I wear, the way I move, the house I live in, everything is part of that. I am very sensitive to environments, so I like having control on them as much as possible

You recently moved back to the North Wisconsin woods where you are originally from. Where do you see yourself in 10 years, still living there or back in a city?
I will be there forever. I see myself isolating more and more probably.

Last year you headlined the Melbourne Music Week singing along a string quartet, as you had previously done at the Guggenheim. Is it something you think you are going to explore any further in the future?
Yes, I love strings, I love classical instruments and I am really inspired by the idea of maybe one day writing up something. I just like to explore the classical world and take the bits that I like from it and leave the rest, but it feels like my world as well, just a different part of it.

I think this was the longest gap you had had in between records. What were you up to over the past 3 years, apart from working on Okovi?
I was pretty depressed at the beginning, so I wasn’t writing very much. I was watching movies, reading books, then I moved back to Wisconsin, started building my house, but mostly I was just trying to give myself time to live, because you write an album, then you tour and you forget you are a human being, you become a gipsy in a way, so it has been important to me to give myself more time to live outside of the music.

Okovi is out on 8th September via Sacred Bones

Originally published on London in Stereo

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22 August 2017

PHOTOS: LAUREL & REWS

Photos of Laurel and Rews at House of Vans last week.

LAUREL




REWS






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13 August 2017

PHOTOS: SKATING POLLY at SEBRIGHT ARMS


Photos of Skating Polly at Sebright Arms last Friday





HANDS OF GRETEL



A VOID



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9 August 2017

JUANITA STEIN at THOUSAND ISLAND

Photos of Howling Bells frontwoman Juanita Stein playing solo at Thousand Island (The Garage) London last week. 








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8 August 2017

PHOTOS: VISIONS FESTIVAL

Photos of Visions Festival at The London Fields Brewhouse and Space Studios Courtyard, London.

ZEBRA KATZ




HELADO NEGRO



DENZEL HIMSELF


MARIE DAVIDSON


BILLIE MAILS


BABA ALI






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