Alex Maas, singer of The Black Angels, readies the release of his debut solo album, Luca, a record that brims with the hope and rejoicing of union and family. We caught up with him as he prepared to celebrate Thanksgiving to hear all about the new record, the shift in style from Black Angels and what the record means to him.
The album takes a sonic shift from the heavy psych of Black Angels and delves into a more traditional folk sound, the songs building from within to create a world where the simplicity of love and family shine through as the bonds that tie us together.
Alex Maas’ solo album, Luca, is released on the 4th of December via Basin Rock.
The new record is clearly a very different vibe from what your do with Black Angels. What were your influences for this album?
Well, I feel like influence-wise, I love all kinds of music, but I’ve always dug older folk music, old country and western music. There’s something kind of haunting about that stuff. I just picture these little desolate, barren sort of places that this stuff comes from and, obviously, like everybody else in the world, I’m a big fan of Portishead and Leonard Cohen, acts that when you put them on you’re like “I want to know where this person is coming from. I want to know what they’re feeling when they’re singing.”
It’s that feeling you get when you put it on that it’s something really believable, those kind of records. So we set out to make a record that was really honest and delicate and treat each song like that. Influence wise, I have so many. I don’t like one specific kind of music. That’s not healthy. Everything from Everly Brothers, to what I’ve always been into, Velvet Underground.
One thing I wanted to do was [focus on] the strings on this record. I really those old, simple songs with really elegant string sections that come in and lift the song a little bit. You can’t really do that with loud rock ‘n’ roll. There’s no room for it, no space. So with this record, everything’s stripped back, the vocals are up front. It’s a different approach to my songwriting. Everything’s built around the vocals and there are these peaks and valleys. Sounds like something you’d listen to on a prairie.
I see what you say with the peaks and lifts, because one of the standout tracks for me is Been Struggling, which really uses those peaks and cascades.
Yeah, totally, and 500 Dreams has these little moments when the strings come in. When you approach a song from this perspective, it can only get louder. It’s not like you’re just as loud as shit and then you have to pull things down. There’s less chemical makeup and you’re adding different molecules until you have something bigger, as opposed to starting with something bigger and taking elements apart. It seems to be easier to do it this way. You’re searching for what fits. “The song doesn’t need loud drums. What does it need? Does it need anything at all?” One thing with this record is that it was going to be an acoustic record and then I realised that these songs wanted to be bigger. I wanted it to be that way, but at the core of these songs, and most Angels’ songs, they start off as an acoustic song and you just add on it. It was a fun record to make, really exciting.
I know that with Black Angels you tend to focus on the music first and then the melody, concept and lyrics come after. Was there a change with this record? Did you begin with a concept?
I think that in terms of my songwriting, that’s just how I write. The music is the soundscape and I just find it easier to have the music. I let where I am in my life dictate what the lyrics are in combination with what the song sounds like. So it’s like, “The song sounds like a love song, like a delicate song you would sing to your child.” It’s really obvious to me. You just close your eyes, listen to the music and speak on what you see and what you see and feel. That to me is a really honest way of songwriting. It’s kind of backwards, but maybe more common than I think.
I know that some of the great songwriters write this great lyrical masterpiece and then they just add music to it. Where I am right now in my song writing, I have a hard time doing that. It’s easier for the song to tell me what it’s about. The song tells you what it wants to be, and that’s what it was like with some of the instruments. Some of the songs wanted to just be a guitar and a string section, or a melotron, but some wanted to be bigger. It takes a lot of control to not over play. It’s really fucking difficult and when you’re playing with a whole band it’s easy to get that kind of “Oh shit, everybody’s playing.” Not everybody has to be playing. It’s not necessary.
Were there any moments when you had to pull back from putting on too much?
Oh sure, absolutely. But I think that you have to go too far. Like with all art, you go beyond where you think they should be. If you don’t go beyond then you have no reference point for what’s too much and what’s not enough. Like any other recipe, you’re just kind of drawing and changing it and after a while you get the ingredients right and it tastes good.
I’m rereading Grapes Of Wrath at the moment and was listening to the album the other day at the same time. The music really fit with the imagery. Do you have any landscapes in mind when writing?
I can totally see that, the dustbowl. Yeah, I can see what you’re saying in terms of the desperation and the stark hollow feeling. Some of these songs, like What Would You Tell Your Mother, I feel like they could be placed in different time periods. That’s a really fun place to write from, when you sit behind your instrument and you’re fucking time travelling or something. It’s weird. Sometimes you just step into this character in the 1820s or 1940s and you’re just living in that, telling other people’s stories that are not your own and it’s a really fun place to be.
I think [landscapes] come hand in hand with what the narrator is seeing. Specifically with What Would You Tell Your Mother, just before the lyrics came to me it felt like a really cold autumn, autumn is changing into winter. The leaves are changing from green to golden to brown and I could definitely see the imagery of the songs. Sometimes they live in a black place, like they live in outer space. A very dark, stark, no gravity situation and some are more grounded. The opening track feels like an outer space track, moving through different dimensions.
How was the process of finding a new voice for the record because the vocals are quite different from the way you sing with Black Angels?
Yeah, so I think that for me it wasn’t that weird, because it’s how I sing. When I’m singing with the Angels, I obviously have to sing louder, but I feel that there are one or two Angels’ songs that could be on this record, Luca. Like Half Believing, Estimate, songs that kind of just demand and ask for a different vocal style. That goes down to the emotion. When I’m with the Angels, it’s a little bit more chaotic and on edge, topsy turvey, scary and menacing. I think when you strip those songs down, I think the voice matches it. When we do radio performances the voice tones down.
It is a totally different voice and emotion, but I think that, even though people haven’t heard it, I’ve been doing it for so long that to me it doesn’t sound weird, but it was really good to live in that space. It feels good to have that quiet loud thing happening. It’s attractive to me, being able to have more focus on different elements. Not more focused in general, because Black Angels really focus on what they do. It comes from a different place. I think it gives more room for more instruments when you approach a song like that, when you approach from the ground up.
The connection between the Angels and solo album are interesting. When I heard American Conquest, I thought it was a song that I could see being transformed into an Angels’ song.
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I think as a musician you have a surplus of songs and some feel that they work as a record. American Conquest definitely has the DNA of a Black Angels’ song. It’s got that brooding bassline. I played this banjo with a violin bow and it was darker. That’s probably what you’re picking up on. I would’ve probably tried to have all these on a Black Angels’ record, really, and one day I want to make a Black Angels’ record that’s more rooted in this world and I can imagine what it would sound like with all the members focusing on that. Sometimes it’s hard to achieve that because fuzz pedals are still in the room and if we took all the batteries out, it might end up sounding like this. But, if I did that, they’d probably all find out. I can definitely see Black Angels doing a record [like this], you know, how Black Rebel Motorcycle Club did Howl. I can see something like that, like Everly Brothers, rooted down to the instruments, whatever they are.
You had some of the band play on the record though.
Yeah, so Christian played on the first song. He played a little guitar part. We tried to get him on a couple of songs, but I wanted to be very specific about what we did. I didn’t want someone to vomit parts all over the record. I wanted to be very focused and archery it with a bow and arrow and shoot a specific bullseye. Jake Garcia did play a lot of bass on the record. He’s such a fucking good bass player. I played some bass and so did Bryan Richie from the Austin metal band The Sword.
I love how Stephanie plays the drums, but it was interesting for me to play with all these other percussionists. It really kind of allowed the songs to do something totally different. I wanted that. I wanted to be very specific about what they were playing. I don’t ever want to tell people what to do, but to be more focused. Playing with other percussionists was intriguing in what they brought to it. You play on the other side of the beat, a different tremolo kind of thing. It was great to play with other musicians. There were also a lot of musicians that played that didn’t end up on the record because it went too far.
I imagine that the control in a way comes from that, while you want to collaborate, you’re putting your name on the record as a solo artist.
Yeah, yeah. Not to say that there’s more at stake, but there is. Without ever actually saying that out loud, that was definitely something I was thinking. It had to have been. This is my first shot at doing something else. At the end of the day, all these songs felt really fresh, a fresh perspective on this hostile songwriting, and I say that very cautiously in the third person talking about my music. These songs could’ve been written by anyone, but how it was put together and arranged, it felt fresh. I still feel that way about the record. I haven’t gotten sick of it yet.
And you’ve named the album after your son.
Yeah, the album is named after Luca, my first child. Whenever my wife and I were thinking about what to call this record, I had no idea. How do you do that? How do you name a piece of art? And this is something I’ve been doing for a long time, but it was even more difficult because I didn’t have a lot of input from other people. My wife and I sat down and she said “What does this record mean to you?” I started saying all these things like home, what that feels like, the idea of love and how powerful the family unit is and it was such an obvious thing.
We wrote all these words out and they kept pointing towards home and the family unit. One day it just made sense to me. A lot of these songs are based around the idea of what it’s like to be a parent right now, what it’s like to bring a child into the world right now, and the fears and everything that goes into that. Is it even a good idea? At the end of the day, my wife and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of having a child. We’d done everything else, everything, and so that was this last thing. A lot of these songs, 60-70%, were written within like nine months of having Luca.
There are two or three songs, like The City and Been Struggling that were written like seven/eight years ago, but everything else is kind of rooted in this parental fear. You don’t let the fear take over because you know the beauty of having a child is bigger than that and you just let yourself fall into this role of raising a child, and it’s fucking awesome. It’s beautiful. It all came back to him and one day it was clear, this is what this record is going to be called. So many things are like this. You train for a marathon, but you never run the whole distance until the day. We’d been putting all these words on paper and it didn’t really come to me until I actually had to name the record. It just feels right. Take away the fact that it’s my son’s name and it still feels right, what it should be called.
It adds the element of innocence and a light in what you’ve previously said about living in a world where we’re feeding and eating hate all the time. A new life breaks that cycle.
It’s so obvious to me, and those things are a lot easier said than done, I think. Like a lot of things, you speak it into existence, like a self-fulfilling prophecy and speaking those realisations that you find. I know that sounds like a cliché, but it’s obvious to me. You have a child and it comes back to the idea that maybe you can help create a change and there’s hope there. That’s all you can do as a parent, try and create a perfect thing for them to grow up in. It’s impossible, but interesting because in this quarantine, what other situation would I be able to spend this much time with Luca and my family? I was a touring musician for fifteen years, so in this situation, him, my wife and I hang out all the time. It’s just awesome, it’s amazing. It’s a beautiful thing in this dark world.
It is. From the album do you have a song that stands out for you?
It’s such a hard thing to do, but if I had to choose one that is the heartbeat, the core of the album I feel like the song Special, that one for me breaks everything down. Holding your child and singing hope into their ears. Singing good will into the world. That song to me is how that song was created, just holding him. I think Madeline’s Melody is similar. It was written some years ago when my sister had her first child, and that was Special the first time. This was is the next version of it. It’s about, again, just letting go and allowing yourself to fall into love, fly towards being a parent and letting yourself be victim to everything that it is and knowing that it’s going to be a beautiful experience.
Words by Nathan Whittle. Find his Louder Than War archive here.