Black Angels' Alex Maas: Up close and personal with Roky Erickson

To listen to the Austin-based Black Angels’ latest album, “Indigo Meadow,” is to be enveloped in a velvety fog the color of deep space and crackling with fuzzy static, transmissions from another place and time, the signal bending and twisting in thick layers of psychedelic reverb until you may not be sure what the message is.

A song such as “Don’t Play With Guns,” written days before the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., may be an ode to the calculating power of a woman, but it has also gained Internet traction as a cautionary metaphor for the evils of guns.

“The concept of someone being manipulated and controlled … that idea can be translated in a 100 different ways,” says Black Angels vocalist and bassist Alex Maas, from the band’s tour bus during a stop in Washington, D.C.

“I don’t think the government should come and take everybody’s weapons,” says Maas, who grew up in suburban Houston, where learning how to handle a gun was a tradition. “But we have a huge mental health concern in this country. That’s the issue.”

Since their 2004 debut, the Black Angels, who will play Grand Central in Miami on Tuesday, have faithfully channeled the experimental garage-rock sound of such 1960s bands as Moby Grape, the Electric Prunes and the Velvet Underground. The liner notes from the band’s first album, “Passover,” includes a passage from Edvard Munch: “Illness, insanity, and death are the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.”

But in a special category of influences are their fellow Texans, the 13th Floor Elevators, the groundbreaking Austin band led by the mercurial Roky Erickson that has achieved an almost mythic status nearly 50 years after it helped define psychedelic rock.

Erickson began his well-publicized battle with mental illness, including repeated psychiatric hospital incarcerations and shock therapy, at the height of his popularity with the Elevators’ 1966 hit “You’re Gonna Miss Me” (later the title of a 2005 documentary about him). His struggle continued even after his solo career took off with a new band and the sci-fi rock heard on another influential hit, 1974’s “Two-Headed Dog.”

About 2005, after effective medical treatment and medication, Erickson began to make his way back into the business, and it was a short time later that the Black Angels (Maas, guitarist Christian Bland, drummer Stephanie Bailey and keyboard player Kyle Hunt) were asked by Erickson’s management to be his backing band.

Maas says elation quickly gave way to frustration over what might have been: Erickson could not remember any of his 13th Floor Elevators originals, Maas says.

“Songs like ‘Don’t Fall Down,’ songs that he hadn’t played in 40 years, he didn’t remember how they went. He didn’t remember writing them. He couldn’t remember anything. That’s what happens when you go to a mental institution and they put electricity through your brain,” Maas says, with some anger. “Texas is great for killing people in confinement … and they’re great for shocking the f--- out of people’s minds until they’re just numb.”

Erickson relearned the songs, and is now on tour with the Black Angels, no longer his backup band. In fact, it’s likely that Erickson will perform first on Tuesday night.

“I’m not going to lie. It sounds backward to me, too,” says Maas, who believes concerns about Erickson’s age and health are driving the decision by the booking agent that both acts share. “But it works out. He gets up there and plays as long as he wants to play, and then we go.”

Maas says that while Erickson’s health is much improved over the past few years, he regrets that the psychedelic rock legend has had to weather bus and RV trips through the recent record snowstorms along the East Coast. Their arrival in South Florida will be welcome, he says.

“Here’s some interesting trivia,” Maas says. “His first single, in 1968 or 1966 or whenever it came out, sold more copies in Miami than in any other city. Look it up: ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me.’"

IF YOU GO
The Black Angels and Roky Erickson perform at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25, at Grand Central (697 N. Miami Ave., Miami). Tickets: $22. Call 305-377-2277, or go to  GrandCentralMiami.com.

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