Alex Maas, The Black Angels

Peruse the interviews with songwriters on this site, and you'll find that many of them are also illustrators.  There seems to be a connection between songwriting and visual artistry.  And nowhere is this most evident in Alex Maas, the singer and songwriter for The Black Angels, whose latest album Phosphene Dream was released in September on Blue Horizon Records.

You see, music and images are inextricably linked for Maas.  When he plays music, images race through his mind.  Every time. It's the music that stimulates those images.  And from these images come the lyrics. I have simplified the process here, but what makes this interview unique is the ephemeral quality of Maas's creative process: ultimately, we know not whence the inspiration comes.  And it's not something Maas is interested in knowing, because he wants to retain that "magical quality" of the process. But he is always looking for new triggers, and he's found one in an unlikely place: cooking.

Have you ever had any other creative endeavors besides songwriting?

I started off drawing.  I drew all through high school and took some classes in college; I was one of the students who sat in the back all day and drew.  It's my other huge passion, and I like to draw people's faces. 

I've always related imagery to sound.  Our limbic systems are connected to our ears, so it makes sense how I perceive sound and create images when sound hits my ear. That's how our imaginations are formed, through our limbic system.  So a lot of times I'll be writing music, and the sounds create images that I just describe, as if I am scoring a movie.  Whatever I see in that moment, I just write about what I see in my head. 

No one has ever given me a scientific answer why so many songwriters are illustrators as well.  How do you think being a visual artist makes you a better songwriter?  It sounds like you write about those images in your mind.

Exactly.  I didn't know exactly why until I researched and learned that the limbic system is near your ear, and that's where your imagination and a lot of your memories come from. That's why whenever you hear a song, you get nostalgic thinking about the memories it evokes. It's why your memories and sound are linked so closely.

A lot of the novelists I've talked to mention that their books start with a single image.  Not with a plot, but with one image.  Is that also how you work? 

That's exactly how I work.  The music comes first, then from the music comes the image.  After that, the image reveals itself in more detail and I get a better description. 

So the music guides the topic.

I would say about 80% of the time. Sometimes I'll be walking down the street and three words will just pop into my head and I'll just go from there.  Obviously, in that case the music comes after the lyrics.  Most of the time, though, the music creates the image. I wouldn't say that's the correct way to do it, but it seems like the most organic, because my subconscious drives whatever it is I was going to write about anyway: whatever I was thinking about, whatever I was going through, whatever was going on in the world.  All those things go into creating that image. 

It has been hard to get into the zone of being a writer.  I never was a writer.  Even in English classes, I enjoyed reading, but writing was always hard for me.  That's why sound is so helpful.

How deliberate is your writing process?  Do you carve out time to write?

I've never wanted to push it, because I've always felt those ideas come from a special place.  But I also don't want to be lazy about it.  Other artists say that they just wait around until inspiration strikes, but I can't really do that.  In the beginning, I was more patient.  Over time, I've tried to have other triggers that help jump start my writing process.

Like what?

Reading, conversation, and other outside influences.  In the beginning, it was about how I saw the world and its imagery.  Now I can get inspired by even a good meal.  I've always been the type of person who only writes when it comes to me, and only recently have I tried to be more active in writing.  I am trying to find other triggers, like I said.

But it would seem that if you force it, you might write bad songs.

You are so right, and that's why it's such a delicate process. I never want to force it and lose that magical thing that happens. It comes and goes, but I do worry a lot about losing it.

photo by Courtney Chavanell

photo by Courtney Chavanell

The bottom line, though, is that it's your job.  Writing songs is what makes you money.

True. I had a dry spell during a four month period when we just got done with our record. I was done with writing music.  Then all of the sudden this great opportunity fell in our lap.  James Lavelle from the band U.N.K.L.E. wanted to collaborate.  We had five days to make a song for the movie Twilight the Eclipse. He sent me the basic drum and bass line, and I just lit a candle in my room, set the lights down low, and listened probably for an hour on repeat until it came to me. 

But again, that's where the sound helps me.  Music is so easy for me to draw images from.  I had tons of images in my mind while listening. It was a vampire movie, but I didn't want to have all these creepy things going on and I didn't want to speak openly about vampires, so I just started speaking in tongues, the sounds running through my head as the music played over and over.  And I found a new beat and responded to that. Then from that some lyrics came, with this weird mumbo-jumbo. 

So we sent him this song that was part gibberish, part words, and he loved it.   We turned that whole thing around in three days.  I knew that this was great exposure and money for the band, and that was definitely an inspiration. We worked like hell.

I have never seen any of those vampire movies, so it was nice to put my own images in and not be influenced by what the movies are about.  Again, I was motivated by sound and not by any preconceived notions of the plot.  So, on the spot, it's nice to know I can get it done.  It's not as organic, but if you have a deadline you might not always be super-spiritual about it.  It's hard to do that when you are being pushed by extrinsic factors. 

Take me through your typical writing process, if you have one.

I pick up the guitar or bass usually. I start with simple one or two chord notes back and forth, something really hypnotic to set the mood and tempo.  Then whatever variation of the notes I am hitting, sometimes I start hearing melodies in my head.  The melodies come first and the lyrics come absolutely last in those situations. 

It's always been difficult for me to sit down and say that I am going to write a song about a pair of jeans or something like that.  It's too contrived. So I start playing something repetitive, and once I hear that melody, the image comes.  And the melody is almost completely hand in hand with the image.  It's like I am seeing and hearing it at the same time.  The only way to describe it is like hearing a score while watching a movie.  It's instantaneous, like when you hear a violin during a movie during a death scene. 

So the music affects the content of the lyrics, right?

Yes. I think about how I am feeling, what I've been going through.  When I wrote the first record, we were thinking about a lot of outside influences, things like fear and the instability and chaos of the world.  We were invading a country for no reason, and we had little trust in our leader.  Those were the images coming from the music, and the lyrics were about something we were caring about at the time. 

For example, I'd picture myself in the Persian Gulf or Vietnam. floating down the Namkong in 1968, and the images just poured forth.  I'll often put myself in a year and location, then see what comes about. Or we might put ourselves in a spy movie with the music that comes with those types of movies, and from that we might get that creeping haunting vocal melody. 

There's always one or two lines from images that really move me.  And I know that those lines have to be in the song.  So I'll go back over with those lines and I'll try to focus on what angle I should attack it from when writing.

Are the images and feelings always linked?

If they aren't, I try to make them.  Take the line "The bomb looked beautiful too/Always drifting down on you." And then I'll have a completely different line with a phrase that doesn't have anything to do with it, but because it was so powerful when it hit me, I try to connect them. 

It sounds like lyrics come pretty easy for you.

The words come easy, but I am so critical of how they sound poetically that it's hard for me to feel like it's complete.  Once you start fine tuning everything and putting more thought into it, the process becomes less organic.  That's why I am interested in the triggers.  It's one of my goals in life, not just as a songwriter but as a person: how to be inspired by life.  Finding the little things that make you appreciate everything.

How is cooking one of those triggers?

So much effort goes into cooking a meal, even cooking for yourself.  It's this thing you've been doing for hours, and in the end there's a payoff.  Eating good food is just inspiring to me.  I am not sure why.  I am not a foodie, but I love food and trying different foods and cheeses from different regions. 

Do you have any literary inspirations?

A lot.  When I first started writing, I was reading a lot of westerns.  The cowboy and indian thing was very intriguing to me.  I've also always been into transcendental writers who were seeking inspiration through nature, who believed in divine moments of inspiration out of the blue.  I've always been trying to mimic that creative process.  I grew up on a plant nursery with exotic animals.  And my father was an antiques collector.  My parents were huge inspirations.  I have so many memories of being in nature and being surrounded by all these strange objects. 

I like some of the Beatnik writers because of the detail.  I wouldn't consider myself a good writer, but I consider myself a writer who is coming from a delicate magical place, where you don't know where it is coming from.

It seems like you would be a fan of the Romantic poets.

I got into Keats a lot in college. And I recently read Delta of Venus: Erotica by Anais Nin, Henry Miller's wife.  It was so good.  I was inspired by that.  It's kind of raunchy but the whole story is fascinating.  The early erotica was all written by men, and she was one of the first women to do that. 

How much do you tinker with a song once it's written?  Or do you think that the first draft should largely be left alone?

I love that idea, but I have come to see the collaborative process as a good one.  I usually get my girlfriend to give me feedback on what I've written.  I'd like to think that the first take is always the best, but it's like throwing darts at a dartboard blindfolded.  Not even knowing what you're throwing at, you can't assume that the first throw is the best.  I am ok with rearranging. And freewriting is amazing.  It's a great way to get stuff out of my head and onto paper.   I feel like I should break my writing into smaller spurts instead of long chunks.  My writing would be more intense that way.

How do you know when a song is done?

Songs always change.  Even at the last minute, I'm adding lines or afterthoughts like a melody or chant.  And I am always having auditory hallucinations during a show.  I might hear something on the spot that I throw in, like an improv melody or chant. In the beginning of our songwriting, we let our songs go forever.  But this time, Dave Sardy helped us trim the fat, to find the song within a song.  We thought more about the listeners' attention span and what they would like to hear.  I've come to realize that many minds on a project can be powerful.