by Tom Welsh
Occupying other dimensions with The Black Angels’ frontman, as he talks through the new sources of inspirations that led to his debut solo record
‘I feel like this record lives in its own time…’
Alex Maas has already had quite the career: The Black Angels, the band he formed in 2004, have five acclaimed studio albums of expansive psych-rock behind them; Levitation – formerly Austin Psych Fest – which the band and friends began in 2008, has expanded to holding annual sold-out events across continents; and various collaborations and side projects have cemented Maas’ legacy in the music world.
‘I feel like I’ve just started,’ enthuses Maas from his home in Texas. ‘I have that exciting feeling like when I started playing music when everything feels fresh – it feels like I’m finding music with a fresh set of eyes and ears.’
The fruits of this fervour are displayed across December’s debut solo album, Luca – at times a sprawling, cinematic affair with moments of stark beauty that hint towards the reason for this renewed vigour. Named after his son and chiefly written since the arrival of its namesake, it is a record of two halves in many ways, moving from storied soundscapes through old-time America to the picture book family moments that have brought Maas a new outlook on life and art.
‘Having our child kind of reset everything,’ explains Maas. ‘Creativity can come from all different places – this one was the obvious place. It doesn’t have to be records that inspire your records; it’s more feelings and emotions and moments that inspire.’
The moments spent with his young family, particularly in the past year of lockdown, influenced Maas to explore new musical avenues under his own name. It also gave license to let his music be a window into his own life like never before in songs like the wisdom-passing 500 Dreams and the lullaby-like highlight, Special.
‘I would sing that song to my son when he was a baby – I never thought that would be on a record at all,’ says Maas. ‘Having a lot of downtime and having this new life – I was obviously super inspired by that, and lots of songs came from that experience at home and handling a brand-new baby. Those feelings that you have in those moments, that’s sometimes all you need, and it’s great to be able to document that kind of thing – really just digging into the emotion and the essence of what makes a song.’
The downtime and the unshackled creative process – writing for the first time without a specific project or band in mind – also allowed Maas to experiment with new methods as part of his daily routine, taking cues from his intrigue into how others approach their craft and immerse themselves in their works.
‘Writers of novels – especially period pieces – they’re able to go right into that moment. They sip their morning coffee and sink into their chair and all of a sudden they’re right back into that moment,’ Maas enthuses. ‘It’s like – how fucking cool is that! One of my goals as a musician has always been to be able to find the knob of that secret radio where I can get right back into that world that no one else can hear, and kind of live in that whenever I want.’
Maas started to find this through the experimental, filmic pieces of music he was creating alongside long-time collaborator, Brett Orrison, with the lush strings, lo-fi grooves and haunting melodies providing various routes into cinematic scenes that brought a noir-like balladry to Luca, along with a fascination and fulfilment to its writer.
‘Take a song like What Would I Tell Your Mother – it’s like I was transported into this other dimension or body, and I was just freestyling this song about someone who lost their wife in the winter,’ Maas explains. ‘It was obvious to me what that song was about even though I’d never heard or seen that story, but it was all connected to nature in my mind. It was all about being there in that scenario – it was cold and the leaves were changing – and it all started with the sounds.’
Songs like the eerily creeping All Day and the oddly wistful familiarity of The City also worked to transport Maas, and in turn the listener, into a musical landscape that feels both timeless and transformative, with the blend of old and new gear and sounds bringing an ethereal quality of escapism to the record as a whole that places it apart from its peers.
‘Some of the songs sound like they were written a long time ago,’ offers Maas. ‘What Would I Tell Your Mother or The City – I feel like those songs could live in the 17 or 1800s as much as now. I don’t know how that happens – you just kinda stumble upon those things. The songs kind of live in that in-between moment – in their own time – and hopefully that means they still feel relevant tomorrow.’
Speaking to Maas, it seems obvious that he is always looking forward even when looking back. Still very much invested in The Black Angels, he has ideas of how his new methods can inform the band’s next chapter; he talks excitedly about how Levitation is adapting to the new normal and beyond with inventive and immersive streaming events; and he always returns to what this period of both reflection and new beginnings is bringing to his approach to music – and what music has always brought to him.
‘Doing a lot of self-analysation about songwriting, I kept linking it back to what I thought was beautiful about music, and the thing I’m drawn to is beautiful melodies. It’s always been that, and beautiful melodies have that timeless quality that can take you anywhere,’ explains Maas. ‘When I’m in that kind of creative mindset I feel like I’m flying – it’s one of the best gifts that music has given back to me. To be able to realise that feeling and be so appreciative of it – it’s a magical, delicate thing that I just wanna have forever.’
Alex Maas plays the Levitation Sessions on 27th March – where he will bring Luca to life alongside three brand new tracks. Check out www.levitation-austin.com for more details.
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