Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Black Angels – Interview with Christian Bland

Christian Bland of psychedelic rockers The Black Angels is not one to complain about the pressures and drag of being a touring musician. As we speak he’s excited to be gearing up for a flight to Spain, which will see his band playing Primavera Sound festival for the first time. Though, until now, strangers to Spain, The Black Angels are no strangers to festivals. Hailing from Austin, Texas – home of the annual industry showcase South By Southwest – The Black Angels have played, amongst others, no less than two All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and SXSW. It’s unsurprising really, given the natural association of the festival psyche and psychedelic music in general, but Bland puts the band’s natural leanings to festival stages down to a commonality of mind between musicians and audience.
“It’s great because they’re big gatherings,” he says. “When you have a big gathering of like-minded people it makes it all the more powerful. All Tomorrow’s Parties, they’re really awesome, something we’re really in to. We played at the one in Camber Sands England, which is like a beach holiday place that’s abandoned the rest of the year, and we played the one in Kutsher’s in upper-state New York, which is an old country club and straight out of The Twilight Zone.”
In moving from Florida to Austin in 2002, Bland set himself the task of finding the right people, in what he believed to be the right place, to form and band. Initially hooking up with childhood friend Alex Maas, the pair experimented with upwards of thirty local musicians over two years before discovering Stephanie Bailey. With the benefits of hindsight, the process obviously paid dividends, but Bland maintains that he had faith in the quality of the town to relinquish the players he was looking for eventually. “After living here for about two months I got in touch with Alex,” Bland continues. “We’d grown up together since I was about 11, so we’d done all sorts of creative stuff but never played music together. It was two years before we finally found Stephanie and once she joined it really started to take off.
“There’s a band playing every night of the week here so when we’re home we’re always goin’ downtown and checking out friend’s bands. There’s a real good thing happening here right now. There’s a lot of music that’s up my alley right here in Austin. SXSW has a major influence. When our friend’s bands come down for SXSW they always say, man we’re movin’ to Austin. They get the bug.”
With access to a huge range of local and international artists in Austin every March, Bland decided it would make sense to hold a celebration of the psychedelic acts that were visiting. Thus a new festival, Psych Fest Austin, was spawned and, as Bland explains, what started as an excuse to hang out with their touring friends and other like-minded musicians rapidly grew into a three-day extravaganza of all things psychedelic. “It’s continually grown,” he says. “We started Psych Fest the weekend before SXSW in March 2008. The idea was first to see which of our friend’s bands were coming for SXSW and ask them if they could come a couple of days early and play at our festival. The first one was just a Saturday then the next year it grew into three days. We’ve started to fly bands in who are leaving before SXSW. This last year we did it at this old abandoned power plant here in Austin and it was really awesome. It was maybe double the capacity of the last year. It’s just been a gathering of all of our friends and is really one of my favourite times of year these days.”
Bland credits his initial interest in psychedelic music with his first experience of hearing the space-age ‘60s-inspired jams of Brian Jonestown Massacre. “Once I discovered them,” he continues, “it opened doors to discovering bands like The Warlocks or Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – they were the centre point for where it started for me. I started playing guitar when I was like 21or something and they just inspired me. My Mum and Dad listened to the oldies stations when I was young and that’s the music I fell in love with. So when I heard Brian Jonestown Massacre, they sounded like that old stuff in the modern day and I just thought man I wanna be a part of that.”
Sharing a stage with BJM’s Anton Newcombe in 2006 was an obvious highlight for a band that have, through extensive touring and festival appearances, been allowed to rub shoulders with many of their heroes and contemporaries. In playing as the backing band in 2008 For legendary psych God Roky Erikson though, The Black Angels were to not only able to fulfil a dream of backing one of the band’s biggest influences, but also play an integral role in Erikson revisiting a painful yet incredibly productive and influential period of his life. “One of the reasons I wanted to move to Austin was [Erikson’s former band] the 13th Floor Elevators,” Bland continues. “Getting to play with him was surreal, it was crazy. Alex and I had seen him play a couple of times around Austin and after we saw him we’d say, man I wish he’d just played a couple more 13th Floor Elevators songs. So when we got to back him as a band our goal was to get him to do the first five songs off their first album.”
Bland explains that though Erikson would regularly perform some of these songs, they figured the others were too painful for him to revisit. What they discovered when practising with Erikson prior to their shows, were far more pragmatic reasons for him avoiding the material. “I didn’t know if he’d like to revisit that time of his life because it was rough,” Bland continues. “That was when they were taking all the LSD and he got caught with one marijuana joint and they were gonna throw him in jail for a long time, like five years, or he could go to the mental institute for like two years. So he went to the metal institute and they gave him electro-shock therapy. It really screwed him up. It’s crazy, for one joint, what a waste.
“We realised that the reason he didn’t do [the songs] was that he didn’t remember how to play them. So we invited him over to our house and Nate Ryan and I would sit down with an acoustic guitar, a music stand and the words in front of him and re-teach him his songs. It was pretty challenging at first because he was so frustrated that he couldn’t remember the songs but he just kept plugging away at it. We knew that in the recesses of his mind he must’ve known them because he’s sung them hundreds of times. Eventually it just started to click and he was playing them and lo and behold we got to do the first five songs of the album while we were playing with him in his backing band.”

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