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The Black Angels Interview 2011
(Werkstatt, Köln, February 22, 2011)Cologne Ehrenfeld, February 22. A supposedly unremarkable suburb, supermarkets, fast food restaurants, a karate school. And right next to a beverage store there’s a door, which leads you into tonight’s venue, Cologne’s Werkstatt, where, just like two years and some months ago, the last Black Angels show took place. Taking my jacket to the cloakroom I’m confronted with a guy pointing a finger to his lips going ‘Sshhhh!’ as there’s a TV interview going on in the cellar and thus you can tell that there has been some development concerning press interest in the meantime of these two gigs. Some minutes later I’m invited into the band’s bus (or ‘nightliner’ – hey, I’m told that’s what we Europeans call it), where I meet a cheerful Kyle Hunt, keyboarder, bassist and percussionist, who invites me to the bus’s homey back, or, as he calls it ‘our lounge’, being the closest thing to a living room you can get while on tour. While I’m adjusting my things Christian Bland, guitarist/vocalist, enters and joins us in our cosy circle. After chatting about how the tour has been going and about German audiences we start our talk about the recent Black Angels album Phosphene Dream and an interesting mix of such things as producer psychology, ghosts, religion, vinyl and, last but not least, the quest for sanity.Well, the first thing I’d like to know is: Phosphene Dream’s the name of your new or recent album. What gave you the idea for the title?Christian: One of Alex’s dad’s friends was at a coffee shop and there was some kid that was doing these drawings that were like kaleidoscopic, crazy-looking. His friend went up and said ‘Wow, these are really interesting drawings, what are these things?’ And the kid said ‘These are my phosphene dreams.’ And it stuck in the friend’s memory and he told Alex’s dad and then Alex’s dad bought www.phosphenedream.com, because he liked it so much. And then he told Alex about the name and then one day Alex... Nate and I were finishing a song and when we got done Alex said ‘That song is called Phosphene Dream right there.’ And I was like ‘What?? What was that?’ And then he explained that phosphene is actually a chemical in all of our eyes and it’s seeing light without light being present. If you ever stare up at the sun and close your eyes and then press you kind of see geometric shapes.Kyle: Or at night, the little shapes you can see.Christian:(affirmatively) Hm. Those are phosphenes.Ah yes, or like those little flies you can sometimes see... Interesting. So how old was that kid? Do you know?Christian: I think he was like upper teenager, 18-, 19-year-old kid.I heard or rather read that this album was the first time that you were working with a producer (Dave Sardy), is that right?Christian: Yep.So, to what extent did your work on this album differ from the other ones?Christian: Well, I think most of the songs we had created in Texas before we ever went out to LA...Kyle: There were at least the skeletons. We had 43 tracks, give or take, rough shells, skeletons of songs. And then he said he’s doing ten.Oops.Kyle: Yeah, and then he said he’s doing ten, you know? ‘We’re doing ten!’ So we had to go from... I think, even before we did pre-production in California with the producer... Had he sorted anything out yet?Christian: (thinking) Hmmm...Kyle: It was more like we had presorted all the stuff and he said like...Christian: ‘Bring it all!’Kyle: ‘Bring it all! Let’s hammer through all of these.’ And so, you know... The way our band works is... Luckily we’re not a four-piece, ‘cause we would never make any decisions. There would always be a tie, two and two.Like, democracy not working here...Kyle: (laughs) Yeah, we’re a five-piece and there’s always... There’s either everyone is really into something or there’s like an occassional swing. The occassional swing vote has to happen. But he told us we’re too democratic. And we are. We can feel very strongly about an idea. And then if two other people, you know, three other people disagree, then the idea can disappear. So it was killer to have him say ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa! What? Where are you going behind the drum set?’ Or, you know ‘Why aren’t you playing this?’ Someone we all respected and wouldn’t just immediately be like ‘Noo, noo...this is how it...’, you know? ‘Cause we tend to be that way, when we’re in. When we’re trying to write. You hear it one way. So it’s good to have a voice that’s like either helpful or critical in a good way, you know. Or critical in a bad way. Then it still changes the way you feel about what you’re doing. So it’s good.I can imagine that if you’ve got 43 songs and he’s like ‘Okay, we’ll take this and the rest is just going down the bin’ or whatever, that it’s a bit like parting from your kid or something like that, so maybe very strong ideas you want to cling on to?Kyle: Yeah, but it was also helpful, though, because having so many in the reserves... when we got down to the core of making each one better there was like ‘Hey, we’ll borrow that section from that other one and then put it into this’ and then that makes the song the song. So it wasn’t all a loss on the ones that didn’t make it. And some of those we’ll go back to, I’m sure, and revisit and finish. It’s just that when you work with a particular producer who’s got his thing, which is that he’s doing ten songs and that he’s picking the ten, he’s going to pick the ten he likes the best, that he’s most into.So maybe another producer might really like the other ones or we’d developed the other ones on our own and then there’s another record, an EP or whatever.Alright, so you still have more songs you can come back to later on. Well, during our last interview you, Christian, told me a ghost story, because I was asking about Directions To See A Ghost, have you ever seen a ghost, something like that. Now, on the recent album Haunting at 1300 McKinley – is that about another ghost story? Does it refer to a real place?Christian: Yeah. That’s the band house, that’s where we moved into to start the band.Aaaah, I see!Christian: Yeah, and it was haunted.Aahh, now you’re telling me the ghost story again... (Christian laughs). Yeah, come on, I’m curious!Christian: Well, I never lived there. And Kyle didn’t live there, too.Kyle: Yeah, I’m married, I have a kid...Christian: But I had to practise there. And we had lots of parties there.Kyle: Yeaaahh...Christian: It was a wiiild house...Kyle: Weird shit.Christian: The feeling that I got when... usually when nobody else was home. If I was washing clothes in the laundry room, which is right next to the big practice room that we had, I would just get this feeling of terror whenever I was in there. It was colder in there than in the rest of the house for some reason. And I’d just get that feeling on my neck, like, a buzz, a kind of tingle, like there was something in there and I would just not wanna be in there. And then I’d randomly hear like a tambourine ‘Sshh, sshh’ shake in the practice room and nobody was in there. So, we thought it was a little girl. And that’s what the song is about. Haunting at 1300.So that’s the ‘red dame’ you refer to in the song?Christian:Uh huuuh...Haaah... You always give me the creeps with those stories, actually.(Christian laughs.)Yeah, it’s the same effect like once you’re alone somewhere and it’s dark, then those things come up in your mind again. Christian:(laughs) Yeah, you know you’re vulnerable when you’re alone so they creep you out.It’s like the feeling you just described.Christian: Yeah, it’s strange, this tingling in your neck, as if someone were near.Yeah, as if someone would grab you from behind any second. So did you do any research on this? I mean, is it an old house? A very old one?Christian: It was built in the early 70s.Kyle: A 70s house, kind of in a bad part of town.Christian: And I think it’s right next to a burial ground. In Texas, at least in the neighbourhood I grew up in, in Seabrook, Texas, there would be houses built and then a blank, open lot, like, why didn’t they ever build a house on that spot, too, because there’s one on this side and that side and everywhere else. That’s because of Indian burial grounds. They wouldn’t have build on that plot of land, because there were Indians buried underneath. There were arrowheads you could find, also some artefacts.But there was one of these open fields/house everywhere, like, we had our house, then the next-door neighbour, then a big, huge open vacant lot with a big oak tree in the middle of it. They just didn’t build on that for some reason. And my theory is, maybe that was an Indian burial ground.So when some of the houses were built they found some artefacts and then they...Kyle: And they didn’t want Poltergeist to happen again, so...Well, the album as such follows a very spiritual approach, I think. For example, in Yellow Elevator there’s this very interesting part, which goes ‘I understand that I exist in the between, of what was and what will be in those blurry vision scenes, that appear but pass us by and for a moment get you high, till you find your way back down. Become the truth you’ve found.’It sounds very spiritual to me. How do you come up with these things? Do you talk to gurus or something?Christian: (laughs) Well, actually Nate wrote that entire song. I guess he just came to a real awakening or something.Kyle: Yeah, it’s pretty dark, though, too. It’s kind of grim, like, ‘Stack up all the heads’... wheeee...Christian: A very grim view.Kyle: It’s focused for sure, though. Yeah, that’s his own journey, you might ask him about that one. Where he was at that point when he wrote it. I don’t know...Yeah, it just sounds to me like, somebody has been thinking about something a lot and then, as you said, this real awakening, this seeing things clearly at once.Kyle: If I remember correctly, when we were in the studio, in California, in pre-production...Christian: It’s when he was finishing up the lyrics, probably?Kyle: And he had that (humming the melody of said part) all the time going on in his head. Literally going the whole time. All of the time. I guess for him that’s like his smile.Christian: His anthem? (laughs)Kyle: (laughs) Yeah, his anthem. Alright, I’m not gonna speak for him, but a dark place where that, the repetition of that idea, kept him awake...Christian: Yellow Elevator, too, that was one of the songs where... There was another song called The Endless Comedown that was gonna be another song on the album, but then we had the idea that we mash Yellow Elevator into that. And The Enless Come Down is the (sings) ‘Now I can see how the seasons all repeat...’. That part.But I remember he did not wanna mash the two.Kyle: (laughs) Yeah.Christian: It was our position because I think The Endless Comedown Part... It was important to him. It was where he was in his life at that point. But it ended up being rather pretty sweet.Kyle: It works on the record for sure.Definitely. Another example would be True Believers, which is filled with religious imagery all over the place. So to what extent does religion influence you in writing?Christian: Well, I mean... Every member in the band, their parents were all involved in religion. My dad’s a preacher, his (pointing at Kyle) dad’s a missionary.Kyle: Yes, I was raised catholic, too, so...Christian: So, religion, I guess, left its mark on each of us to who we are today and it still affects me.Kyle: And it’s hugely relevant just as an idea.Christian: In the United States it’s huge.Kyle: Just, like now, it’s like in Egypt. It’s a hotbed of controversy and conversation. Obviously there’s not a direct correlation to any specific religion within the song, but...Christian: It’s more about maybe this is right, maybe that is right...Kyle: Yeah, it’s saying who is right and who is wrong, which is... Basically everyone in the band, our biggest problem with organized religion is everyone thinking they’re right.Christian: Close-minded...Kyle: Everything ‘This is how it has to be’... Even within our own families, I’m sure, we see it, I see it with my dad.Christian: Mine, too.Kyle: But, it’s like, ‘Okay, just because that’s what you decided you’re doing makes it the right thing. You know that you’re right, because that’s what you’re doing.’ You know, it’s like I like these shoes, because I bought them and I’m wearing them. But does it necessarily mean that these are the coolest shoes ever? That they’re the right shoes for you? I think that was a bad analogy, though.(Christian laughs.)That’s what I was thinking, if you’re talking to your dad and you’re gonna compare religion to shoes...whoa, whoa, whoa....(Both laugh loudly.)Christian: Haha, yeah, like a dirty pair of shoes...Kyle: Yeah, I try and not talk religion with him. We scoot around it, it doesn’t go well when we try and discuss it.Now, a very stark contrast to this context and the rest of the album, at least as I see it, is Telephone. Well, I like the song very much, but seeing it within the context of these other songs, I don’t really think it fits the album.Christian: It does, though. Because the meaning of the song is probably not what you think it is. It’s about religion. It’s about God not answering. It’s about me, my problem with the religion and thinking, like, that you’re gonna get an answer and if you pray for something it doesn’t happen, though.Well, I did some research in connection to the video, because I was thinking ‘Okay, what’s that video about, anyway? What are they doing there?’ And then, looking for the English word for the game you’re playing in the video, I realized that what you’re doing is the Telephone Game and then I googled that and finally understood the World War I connection there, with the person wearing the helmet and the trenchcoat and this little message hidden there (‘Send three and fourpiece, we’re going to a dance.’). Really, I was like sitting in front of my computer and pressing stop, stop, stop (both laugh loudly), because I was trying to decipher that message.Christian: I think that’s the trick of the song, it sounds like a nice, little (singing guitar riff)...Like a 60s-Austin-Powers-dancing song...Christian: Yeah!Kyle: But it was also created in California.Christian: Yeah. At the very day that Nate reached the pinnacle of The Endless Comedown. (laughs)Kyle: Yeah, exactly. And it was also in that recording studio. Our producer, Dave Sardy, was like ‘No, no, no! That’s waaay too slow!’ And Christian was like ‘Man!’Christian: Yeah, it went like (imitates the riff, but a very slow version of it). And he was like ‘It. Needs. To. Have. More. Pop!’(Kyle delves right into the fast version.)Kyle: So we were in the studio and Christian was like ‘Ah, eh, nooo! I can’t even play the riff that fast!’ (both laugh) ‘This is way too fast! This is way too fast!’ And so he (Dave Sardy) tried to pull some psychology thing on us. ‘Okay, fine then, I guess, you know, we shouldn’t be working on this right now, you know...’ He pulled his producer thing. And I was like ‘Dude, come on, let’s finish this record. Let’s do this.’, you know.But, yeah, so obviously the song was recorded in California. It’s a little sunnier, a little happier, more upbeat, but the feel, in a way... And we had the producer telling us ‘NO! Play it this fast! Do this, do this!’ (hammering the fast rhythm on the table) So, it came out, I think it fits on the record. But definitely, when we first started putting it into sets, I had a hard time with where it would go, cause I felt like it was really weird, like right in the middle? So we had to strategically plant it in the set. But, yeah, we’ve got it figured out now pretty good, yeah.So do you think that people watching the Letterman show, for instance, got that? That there’s something hidden behind this?Christian: No, I think they just think that it’s a boyfriend/girlfriend song. And, you know, that’s fine, if that’s what they think. But... I wrote it and I know what it means. (laughs) And that’s not what it means.And that’s the most important thing! By the way, did you get any more feedback, I mean, it’s a big thing, I think, to be on the Letterman show, isn’t it? So did you get more feedback of the sort ‘Oh, yeah, I saw this band on the Letterman show the other day, they were great!’, that sort of thing?Kyle: For sure. My email blew up and my Facebook blew up from people who I didn’t even know have my Facebook. Or my email. Family members. Cousins. Step-parents. Aunts, uncles, everybody just was like (imitating fast typing) ‘Saw you on Letterman! It was amazing!’ And then other friends, like James from MGMT, he was watching it and he wrote me and he was like ‘This translated really well.’ Even our musician friends who watched, they said ‘Man, that really sounded amazing!’. Because, sometimes those late night shows, they don’t get the mix right. It’s just the bands are really nervous because it’s just not the right... You film it during the day. You film it like what? Around five? Five thirty? So, you’re in there, you have three run-throughs and then you go away for three hours and all the gear disappears and then you go back and within five minutes they get everything out, tune up, get ready and like ‘You’re on! There’s Dave, right there, holding your record! So and that’s where The Beatles first played in America.Christian: Yeah, that was pretty cool.Kyle: Yeah, so, it was quite a surreal, amazing experience.Ha, I’ve got a Beatles-related question, that would fit perfectly now. (Both laugh.) You were also playing on a rooftop in Manhattan. I’ve watched those videos and I liked them very much, like, with this great atmosphere, the sun going down in the background and everything. Did that get you into a Beatles kind of feeling? To be playing on a rooftop?Christian: Wow... Kyle: Yeah, like the last Beatles performance was the Apple rooftop thing...Christian: (just realising the connection) Yeah, it kind of was like that. (laughs)Kyle: It was like playing in the middle of Gotham, you know. It was like ‘Here we are!’ It was totally random. It was cool, playing on top of Billboard magazine.Christian: It was cool, like people screaming out of a window from way across the way. They’d be like ‘Whooaa, The Black Angeeels!’Kyle: Yeah, random, they were like ‘Look, he does not work for us, we didn’t put him up there to do that.’ (laughs)Like “Here, you’ll get five bucks if you get up there and yell ‘The Black Angeeels!!!’” (Both laugh.)Kyle: Yeah, this was weird, it was like the day after our show, right? It was the last thing we had to do before we left New York.Christian: Was it the day after David Letterman?Kyle: Yeah, I think so, something like that. And we had done a ton of press and promo that week and we were just ragged and like ‘Uurgh’ and got up there. And then luckily it looks and sounds as amazing as it does, for sure. ‘Cause when we were in the middle of doing it we were just kind of like ‘Well, let’s get it over with!’ And me on the harmonium like ‘Whaaa...’.Like, too much fresh air...Kyle: (laughs) Urgh, it’s still light out! A little overcast, too. But I didn’t really, like, at that moment think of the Beatles rooftop thing. But if we ever got the chance to do a rooftop thing full live, man, that would be so cool.Christian: I actually haven’t even watched it yet.Kyle: You haven’t seen the Billboard stuff?!Christian: I have seen clips, but...Kyle: Man, it came out really... it looks really good.Christian: Ah, I just don’t like watching...Kyle: Yeah, I watch a little to see how the audio and the video is and then it’s like ‘Okay, cool’.Anyway, it’s a great atmosphere, very picturesque, you kind of want to grab a beer, sit down there, relaxing, listening to you.Kyle: Yeah, it was a great experience to get to do that. That week was a whirlwind of stuff. Looking back on it now you can see the joy. First it’s being in the middle and then just being like ushered around, like ‘You gotta be here, you gotta be here!’ being at two or three promos that day. We played in Rolling Stone magazine’s foyer, we did this magazine, weird, like, conference room, where it was like two acoustic guitars and the shakers. And that was weird... And that was it, that was really strange. (Christian laughs.)There’s good press and promo. Luckily, that one was a really good one that a lot of people get to see.Talking about songs getting on the album or not, one of the bonus tracks is Ronettes, I think it’s quite an old song, isn’t it? Why did you decide, well, not to put it on the record, but to publish it as a bonus track?Christian: Well, we wanted it to be on the record, but Dave said ‘Ten songs’. So we didn’t get to really dive back into doing that one. And then it just became a b-side.Kyle: And then when we signed with Blue Horizon they said that they wanted six?Christian: Six b-sides... which we’re actually, in April, putting out on vinyl, we’re releasing a 10 inch that has all the b-sides from Phosphene Dream, it’s called Phosgene Nightmare.Whoa! Great!Christian: (smiling) Exclusive information! No one else knows...Kyle: I didn’t even know that yet. (Both laugh.)When is it coming out?Christian: April 16, which is record store day. Aaand, we’re also releasing another thing on that day. It’s two EPs called Another Nice Pair. Those are the two EPs we did with Light In The Attic, which was the label on the first two albums. But this will be the first time that it’s out on vinyl. The a-side being the first EP and the b-side the Black Angel Exit EP. That’s available on CD right now and we have copies, but never available on vinyl. It’ll be red vinyl. And the other one is white vinyl.Saving up some money here... (Both laugh). Well, I just kind of started on my vinyl collection.Kyle: You’re in the right direction if you’ve started one.Christian: Yeaahh... That’s the way to go. Bigger artwork.Kyle: Bigger artwork, it sounds better, it looks cooler, you have to physically flip it.Christian: Yeah, extra exercise!You have to take your time, it’s really like something you do very consciously, listening to vinyl. You have to sit down, it’s not like you’re listening to it on your computer, checking your mail, you have to get up and turn it around. It’s a totally different experience.Christian: Engaging...And the sound, I think, is very different. If that makes any sense...Christian: Yeah, well, all that hissing and popping, for me it’s one of the reasons I love vinyl.Kyle: Yeah, on the next record I wanna try that technique to after you finish your mix and everything to master, like to literally dub it to vinyl and then the vinyl master is what gets manufactured onto CD.Christian: Hmm, oh, that’s cool!Kyle: Then you’ve got... in theory you’re still gonna hear...Christian: ... the vinyl sound...Kyle: You’re gonna hear a digital data bit, you’re gonna hear the record sound. That’s what they did with the Arcade Fire’s last record. They went straight to vinyl. So even the digital sounds like vinyl.Now one more thing about your album: River of Blood. Is that a battle scene we’re at?Christian: I think it is...Kyle: In my head it is...Christian: ... 1800s... Civil War battlefield. (Somebody’s referring back to that ghost story again...)Aaahh...Christian: (laughs) No.Kyle: It’s a general who is leading his troops into battle...(All of a sudden Alex appears out of nowhere and listening to what we’re talking about he joins in the conversation.)Christian: Here’s Alex, he can tell you! River of Blood, what?Kyle: It’s a general leading his troops into battle, knowing that...Alex: ... knowing that the army is going to get slaughtered and killed.Kyle: And they’re all gonna die.Alex: And they’re all gonna die. But, given orders from up above everybody follows the leader into battle.Christian: Christian soldiers, marching into war. (laughs)Bad thing to do... (Christian laughs and Alex disappears again.) So what about Melanie’s Melody? Why Melanie? And, hey, we’ve got a ballad-kind of song here...Christian: Well, that song was written all by Alex. And, I can maybe try to give hints about it...Hints are good.Christian: ... but I don’t know who Melanie is. But I think that it could possibly be a song for his niece. His sister had a baby and her name’s Madeleine. ‘Melanie’ is kind of close... So, I don’t know... it could be a song for her. I really like that song, I think it’s cool. That was another one that we really wanted to be on the album, not a b-side.Kyle: Yeah, we thought that would be a new dimension to our sound, that it would kind of open up things... more melodic.Christian: It reminds me of The Zombies, kind of. The Zombies, you know? But, it’s a cool tune. We haven’t been playing it live, because we haven’t had much time to practise.Kyle: Yeah, I used a Rhodes piano in the studio for that and it’s hard to fake it on another instrument. Even our transistor organs, they’re a little more abrasive and gritty, you know, like (imitating hammering on a piano, kind of). So, I think someday, if, you know, we keep playing bigger places like we’re doing than eventually we’ll be able to bring a Rhodes and have that for Ronettes. We used the Rhodes on Ronettes and for Melanie’s Melody.So I was just thinking, like I said, that it was a kind of different approach, a bit like a ballad and that works for you as well, so I thought it’s a really good one.Kyle: Thanks. So Alex is... when he writes on the guitar a lot of it comes out like that. It’s really different and really cool.Now, coming to an end, I read this quote... I think it was on your Facebook. ‘It is this quest for pure sanity that forms the basis of The Black Angels.’ Does this still apply to you?Christian: Yeah. But that was written by Tommy Hall, from 13th Floor Elevators. On the first 13th Floor Elevators album he wrote this whole thing about... he starts out with ‘Since Aristotle mankind has organized his thoughts vertically instead of horizontally’. And he goes into that whole thing. So we just took that and put it like ‘This is what The Black Angels do’, because 13th Floor Elevators are our heroes. Being from Austin we’re trying to continue the legacy that they started, which is ‘Open up your mind and let everything come through’.So the quest is still going on?Christian: Ohh, the quest will continue. And one day, when we find the answer, we’ll let you know.You can call me up then.(Both laugh.)Kyle: Ah, that’s all a sham, you know. You know there’ll never be an answer. Maybe we’ll die without an answer.
The Black Angels Interview 2011