Fuzz Fanatics: In conversation with The Black Angels
Before The Black Angels’ show in Vienna, Austria, I sat down with Christian Bland, Ramiro Verdooren, and Stephanie Bailey to discuss gear, creative influences, and life in a rock n’ roll band.
The band have truly mastered their own sound, channeling an uncanny mix of vintage psych, (Syd Barrett, Jefferson Airplane), shoegaze, (The Jesus and Mary Chain) as well as taking obvious influence from their contemporaries Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and All Them Witches. The opening riff of one of my favorite tracks, ‘Evil Things,’ from their 2015 album ‘Indigo Meadow,’ draws immediate connections to something out of an early Black Sabbath release. Make no mistake, these guys can get heavy. Throw into the mix Mass’ uncanny similarity to Grace Slick’s voice, and you’ve got a psychedelic stew of garage rock, blues, and a heavy helping of dark reverb which plunges into something dark, primal, and unpredictably thrilling.
“We want it to sound as close as possible to how we play live”
Christian it’s a pleasure to be talking with you!
Christian Bland: Nice to be talking with you!
Let’s cut straight to the chase. ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’ came out a few months ago last September. Are you proud of how the new album sounds? How did the album come into creation?
Christian Bland: Very proud! We started at the end of 2019 and the songs pretty much started after ‘Death Song’ came out in 2017. We started writing in the middle of that year, so some songs that could’ve been on ‘Death Song’ ended up being on ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’. We started recording it in Austin at the end of 2019 thinking it would come out in the middle of 2020, but then when Covid hit, plans changed. The silver lining of Covid is that the album got to marinate more and it became pretty much an album and a half. We had about 30 songs and we were going to whittle it down to about 10 and put it out in mid 2020. But because of Covid there’s an extra 5 songs on there that we were able to finish. It’s the longest time between albums for us. 5 years.
How did the band approach the recording process?
We took our time with it, it was in Austin and we got to approach it in a Sgt. Peppersy kinda way. We took our time in the studio and didn’t rush anything. We always come in with the songs prior, we don’t write them in the studio. We create them prior and record them live, because we want it to sound as close as possible to how we play live.
And where did the title for the album come from?
Christian Bland: The ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’ title came from a book that I found during Covid, “The CIA book of Trickery and Deception”. It was a book that was declassified in the 90’s and it talked about how the CIA would use magicians in the 40’s and 50’s. Using sleight of hand to put pills into drinks and other weird things. In that book it said that the early days CIA – post WWII time period was like a ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’. And that just created a visual in my mind of walking into a forest, but it’s made of mirrors. You can’t know what’s up from down, left from right, like a funhouse. Madness!
How have the shows been so far? And is there a noticeable difference from the crowds in Europe vs. the crowds back home?
Christian Bland: There definitely is. I feel like people here are more into rock n roll and guitar based music and they just get into it more. I’ve often thought about it. In the United States we’re from Texas so it’s not that exotic when you’re touring cross country. But since we’ve traveled 5000 miles here, maybe it’s a little bit more exotic and special for people to be seeing an American band playing rock n roll. It’s definitely a noticeable difference. In bigger cities on the west coast like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, they’re really into it. In New York too, in the creative centers people really like it. We played in Birmingham, Alabama to about 200 people and here there’s 1500 people going nuts! But those 200 people in Alabama are a concentrated group and they love it.
The Black Angels are also one of those bands that tours a lot in countries that don’t get much music.
Christian Bland: Vienna is as Far East as we’ve ever been! These next three shows in Vienna, Prague and Warsaw are the first time we’ve ventured into Eastern Europe. We’re really excited!
What do you guys listen to on the road? Is it like in the movies where everyone is constantly fighting over what’s on the speakers?
Christian Bland: Everyone just listens to their own iPod
iPod, whoah that’s a throwback!
Christian Bland: Hahaha! Usually when we’re on the bus we’re just sleeping. There’s not much hanging out except for after the show and usually after the show we hang out with the fans. We each have our individual bunks and it’s great because in Europe the buses are double decker! You’ve got the sleeping quarters upstairs, with a hangout area in the front and back, and downstairs is the kitchen and the seating area.
How does the band spend their free days? Do you hit the town?
Christian Bland: We just went to a super cool record shop in Grenoble, you can find the most amazing records that you just can’t find in the US. An exciting discovery I made the other day: I love Captain Beefheart’s ‘Safe as Milk,’ and I didn’t realize that there was any in-between to ‘Trout Mask Replica’ (which I don’t like). The album is called ‘Strictly Personal’ which was recorded right after ‘Safe as Milk,’ and it sounds just like ‘Safe as Milk’. That weirdo, electric blues, Howlin’ Wolf type of style. Another thing that I just discovered is ‘Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London’. It’s a video of Pink Floyd playing somewhere in England with a 20 minute version of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’. There’s also this band called “Twice as Much”. They’re kind of like the British Everly Brothers. They harmonize together in a really cool baroque pop style. There’s so much 60’s psychedelic stuff that you can uncover that’s good. Almost everyday I find something new! It’s my favorite time period, and I feel like there was a total creative revolution in the 60s. And that’s what The Black Angels try to do, we try to tap into that and bring that 60s psychedelic mindset into the present.
I totally agree. There was such a creative renaissance not only in music and art, but also in the way people think. Interesting Segway, because you also design the posters for the band. How do you make those? What are your inspirations for that? Are they made analogue or digitally? They look great!
Christian Bland: It’s been fun! I went to school and studied graphic design and advertising and It’s been nice to be able to use that for the band.
All of a sudden a guy in a red fisherman’s beanie walks into the room and says hello with a friendly smile. It’s Ramiro, The Black Angels’ newest member and mellotron/harmonica extraordinaire. “I’ll just join out of camaraderie!” he says, and hops onto the weathered black leather couch. Before you know it, Stephanie walks in too. Unexpected and somewhat chaotic? Yes. Awesome? Also yes.
Stephanie, who inspires you as a drummer?
Stephanie Bailey: No one.
There’s a huge male presence in rock n roll, on drums you’ve got Meg White, Moe Tucker, Leah Shapiro of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Who inspires you musically?
Stephanie Bailey: Musically? Well, I would say that life inspires me. I think that most drummers I grew up listening to influenced me in one way or another, but I think it’s the deflective sonic feeling and emotion that comes out in drumming that has inspired me, not necessarily a certain drummer. I don’t have a favorite drummer. A little bit of everyone.
What’s your favorite place you’ve ever played?
Stephanie Bailey: Paris!
We get some photos and Stephanie leaves. Christian and Ramiro are still hanging around.
Let’s backtrack a little. What kind of music did you guys grow up with and what was the first song that you ever learned?
Christian Bland: I grew up with “Oldies 94.5 KLDE Houston Texas”. We moved to Houston when I was 7 and when my parents were in the car they’d always play the oldies stations. So I’d always be hearing Buddy Holly, The Ronettes, Everly Brothers, and The Beatles. I went under the stairs one day into our storage room and found all of my dad’s records. ‘Sgt. Peppers’ popped out at me just because of the cover, and I just thought it was amazing! All of these people’s faces! ‘Sgt. Pepper’ would be cranked up when my parents weren’t home, echoing through the house. Staring at that cover made me think “who are all of these people?” And that was my gateway into 1960’s culture. My dad went and bought ‘Sgt Peppers’ in 1968, not long after it had come out. Little did he know that day when he went out to the record store, but the son that he would have would have the course of his life changed by that very album. I’ve thought about that often.
Ramiro Verdooren: The first song I ever learned on guitar was either ‘And I Love Her’ by The Beatles, ‘Still the Same’ by Bob Seger, or ‘Guitar Man’ by Bread. One of the three, I can’t remember. I started taking lessons when I was 6, and I remember my teacher showed me all the oldies, including The Beatles. The only American music my dad really listened to was John Denver. He’s from Colombia and he came over to the states in the 70’s, and John Denver stuck with him. My mom liked Cat Stevens and stuff like that but like Christian, The Beatles were the first band for me.
How would you describe the sound of The Black Angels in a sentence?
Both Ramiro and Christian think for a while.
Christian Bland: “Droneadelaic Stomp n’ roll”
Ramiro Verdooren: “Reverberations being disseminated upon the population in a live situation”
Surfers talk about their search for “the perfect wave.” Have you found the perfect tone or are you still looking?
Christian Bland: There’s so many great tones!
Ramiro Verdooren: I feel like you only know it after you’ve done it. You listen to a recording and you can never get back there again. If you do achieve it I don’t think that you realize it.
Christian Bland: I know the right ingredients that will lead me to a really nice tone, and anywhere within those parameters I’m sure that it’ll sound pretty sweet. I think I’ll be able to concoct something pretty neat with my Fender Twin, Rickenbacker, echo, fuzz, and wah. It’s hard to recreate the same tone unless you take pictures of your pedals though. It’ll also sound different depending on what room you’re in too!
Ramiro Verdooren: It’s all about the context. If you get a really nasally, gnarly, capped off tone that fits really well with a certain song you can’t necessarily use that. But yeah, I’ll stand by what I said, which is if you ever get the perfect tone you wouldn’t know it until you listen to the recording a year later. Then you’re back to chasing it.
Just to dive into specifics for all the gear nerds out there, what’s on your pedalboard? Did you experiment with anything new on the album?
Christian Bland: Brett (Orrison) the guy who recorded the album does front of house sound for Jack White. So he brought us one of the Third Man Plasma Pedals.
Ramiro Verdooren: I think literally on ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’ the song, the mellotron is all fucked up and fuzzy sounding. And that’s what that is. I remember that was the day I did the guitar too and we were sitting in the room and I was playing mellotron and I think he plugged that thing in.
Mellotron through that Plasma Pedal? Ok. that is wild.
Christian Bland: For gear, I use a Fender Twin 65’ reverb amp. I really like the reverb on the amp. Both Ramiro and I use a full tone tape echo, it’s the brains of our operation. It’s like an Echoplex but a modern one that’s more reliable, because echo is crucial. Fuzz is also crucial. I think my favorite fuzz right now is the Analogman BC108 Sunface Silicon. It’s a blue fuzz face from the early 70s like Pink Floyd used at ‘Live in Pompeii’. For a wah pedal I use the V846 hand wired 1960’s model from Vox. Cream was very inspirational to me, the very liquidy wah sound from ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’. I have little accoutrements here and there but those are my main favorites.
Fer emerges from the silence of taking portraits.
“Why do you like your reverb being in the amp?”
Christian Bland: I think I prefer the real spring reverb because I love surf music. It’s very inspirational. The Ventures live in Japan 1965 album is great. The surf sound is that spring. You can shake the amp and it just makes this thunderous sound.
“We encourage you to rethink your preconceived notions, question authority, and seek alternative methods for survival.”
What is your definition of the word “psychedelic”?
Christian Bland: Opening your mind and letting everything come through. Our motto is “we encourage you to rethink your preconceived notions, question authority, and seek alternative methods for survival.” I think that’s a longer way to say psychedelic.
Ramiro Verdooren: If it tickles your brain a little bit. A brain tickle.
Speaking of which, you guys played with Roky Erickson, The Godfather of psychedelic rock. How did you meet him, what did you learn from him, and how did he help you as artists?
Christian Bland: In 2007 we were on tour in the West coast and somehow our old band member Nate Ryan met the tour manager or something. He had an annual “Roky Erickson Ice Cream Social” at the armadillo headquarters in town. Nate met him and told him that we’d love to back him. I guess prior to that, Alex and I had gone to see Roky Erickson play at ACL live and he had done like two 13th Floor Elevator songs. And we went back to the band and were like, “hey he’s cool but you only did two 13th Floor Elevator songs and we wish he did more!”. Nate took that and when he met the manager he was like “we’d love to back him but we’d also like to do more 13th Floor Elevators songs.”. And that seed was planted and grew into a phone call that we received on that west coast tour asking us to back him. We wanted to do all 13th Floor Elevator songs, and they said “we would like to do the first five songs of the ‘The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators’ and the rest of the set solo material.” We liked the solo stuff as well, but it was recorded in the 80’s and the 80’s lens tinted it. It could’ve sounded cooler if it weren’t recorded in the 80’s. So we came to a compromise. I remember the first practice, we went to our practice space and set everything up electric and started with ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’. It was a good one to start with cause he knows that one. He played it at ACL theatre and played … ‘Splash One’. So we started with that one to warm up the engines. Then we tried to do ‘Roller Coaster,’ and he got real flustered as was like (in a deep Texas accent) “hang on I really can’t remember this, it’s been about 30 years!”. At one point he’d be kind of like a child, flustered and not really there or in the moment. Then other moments he would be like your grandpa, talking about his memories touring with the Byrds and things from back then. He was between those states.
“I recorded an hour’s worth of me, Nate Ryan, and Roky Erickson together reteaching those songs to him. That recording is gonna come out some time”
I’m sure he had a lot of wisdom too. Was he comfortable playing the Elevators songs after such a long time?
Christian Bland: As a band trying to practice ‘Roller Coaster,’ ‘Reverberation,’ and ‘Don’t Fall Down,’ the ones he hadn’t played in 30 years, he couldn’t do them electrically as there was just too much going on in the room. So we invited him over to our house. Nate and I sat down with him on acoustic guitar with the lyrics printed out on a stand with the chord changes. I recorded an hour’s worth of me, Nate Ryan, and Roky Erickson together reteaching those songs to him. That recording is gonna come out some time. It’s amazing. It was like riding a bike though once we started playing. There’s so many funny little stories. We would start practicing for about 5 minutes and he’d be like “Alright! Well, I think it’s about time for a Dr. Pepper break!” So after a successful run through of the song we’d always go out and get some Dr. Pepper.
That’s awesome. Thanks again for your time guys, last word is yours.
Ramiro Verdooren: Goodnight Vienna! We’re really happy to be here. Hoping we’ll come back really soon and we’re happy to play for you guys.
Christian Bland: Turn on, tune in, and drop on by to see us! We really enjoy coming to Europe and we wish we could bring this level of excitement that the Europeans and the British have back to the United States to jumpstart the “Droneadelaic Stomp n’ roll” revolution.
Headline photo: Stephanie Bailey, Ramiro Verdooren and Christian Bland | Photo by Zach White
The Black Angels | Interview | New Album, ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’ | “Post pandemic soundtrack to, what’s real and what’s not”