Fifty-eight bands from around the world play Austin Psych Fest 4 April 29–May 1. Michael Hall sits down with festival founders the Black Angels and rejuvenated psychedelic godfather Roky Erickson.
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Not many rock ’n’ roll kids get to meet, much less play with, their elders. The Rolling Stones were lucky to jam with Muddy Waters. Bob Dylan, guitar in hand, beat a path to Woody Guthrie’s hospital door. And in 2008, Alex Maas and Christian Bland, the singer and lead guitarist, respectively, of the modern psychedelic band the Black Angels, got to meet and play with Roky Erickson, who sang and played guitar in the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, the country’s first psychedelic band, formed in Austin in 1965.
46 years later, the Black Angels host its fourth-annual Psych Fest, this year at the Seaholm Power Plant in Austin. Sunday night’s co-headliner? Roky Erickson. Senior Editor Michael Hall talked with Erickson, Maas, and Bland about the past and present of psychedelic rock, as well as their collaborations. Erickson, who reemerged ten years ago in better mental health, was his usual inscrutable self, opening up as the interview rolled along. At one point, when the Angels talked about how influential the Elevators were, Erickson let out a loud, long yawn, and everyone suppressed a smile. For all the talk about the glories of the past, Roky would much rather live in the present
It’s 2011. Why is psychedelic music still so popular?
Alex Maas: There are a lot of similarities between now and the sixties. A lot of cyclical patterns are kind of repeating themselves, showing we haven’t learned much from history. That has a lot to do with the music being made.
Christian Bland: Sixties psychedelic rock was such a creative time for music. People are recognizing that now and wanting to bring that into a modern context.
Roky, when the Elevators were playing psychedelic music, you were total outlaws. Cops were following you, taking your amps out and opening them up looking for drugs. Could you possibly have foreseen, 45 years later, that there would be a three-day psychedelic music fest in Austin with more than fifty bands?
Roky Erickson: Well, I hadn’t thought about it, but I’ve heard about it before. Have you heard about it? It’s news to you. A new one on you!
Maas: We’ve been trying to get Roky to play the festival for a while. It’s never worked out. Last year he was playing somewhere else. One of the things we try to do is bring bands from the sixties and have them play. This year we have Cold Sun. [At Psych Fest 2], the Seeds—Sky Saxon’s band.
Bland: The reason he moved to Austin, where he passed away [in June 2009], was Psych Fest. He loved Austin so much he stayed.
You guys met when the Angels played Roky’s SXSW Ice Cream Social a few years ago?
Maas: I believe the original connection was through one of our guitarist Nate’s friends. She knew Troy Campbell [Roky’s road manager]. They knew we were huge Roky Erickson fans. Roky’s manager, Darren Hill, called us and said, “Do you want to be Roky’s backing band?” We said, “Yeah, totally.” We didn’t even need to think about that one. We’d been listening to his music for years. This is a dream come true for Christian and me, to be playing with Roky.
You did some shows on the West Coast. The El Rey show in Los Angeles was released last year on a DVD called Night of the Vampire. Do you remember that show, Roky?
Erickson: Uh, I’m trying to think. I think I can remember a little about it.
Maas: It was California—the Halloween show we played together.
Bland: A couple of people ran up onstage.
Somebody came up and grabbed you from behind and hugged you. It was pretty great.
Erickson: Oh, yeah, I don’t know about that, that sounds pretty weird. Thank you for saying something about it, but I don’t remember too much about it.
Maas: This guy jumped up onstage. Afterward, I asked Roky how he was doing, and he said, “It was kind of like a sea of Paul Drummonds that came up onstage.” Paul Drummond was the guy who wrote Eye Mind, the history of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators. He wears a lot of striped shirts, and that guy had a striped shirt on. That was Halloween—Night of the Vampire.
Erickson: Oh, boy!
On the DVD, you look completely at ease playing with these guys—really happy, you guys are joking. I remember times in the past where you didn’t look very comfortable onstage.
Erickson: Yeah, well, I try to take it easy. It’s something somebody could explain to me. I always like to take it easy. That’s what the Elevators always did.
Your voice sounds really good too.
Erickson: Well, thank you.
Your guitar playing, you seem more comfortable than you have been for a long time. Are you happier these days?
Erickson: I guess you could say that. Most of the time I’ve been messing around. Sightseeing, stuff like that, you know. Trying to see scenic, interesting places, stuff like that.
Have you been writing songs?
Erickson: I have been thinking about it, drawing pictures too. I have Time Warner, and I try to relax a lot and watch television a lot and everything. I really enjoy that. Listen to the radio.
Bland: [Erickson’s son] Jegar was telling me you’ve been playing the piano a lot at home.
Erickson: Yes, I do. I like that a lot.
What do you play on the piano?
Erickson: I like the hymnal, you know. And I like a lot of songs that people think of. I have these songs, like “Yankee Doodle,” but they’re as hard as “Moonlight Sonata” and stuff that the radio plays.
Some of the best songs you’ve written were inspired by watching horror movies.
Erickson: That’s right. I do like those horror movies. I like them in 3-D too.
Maas: What’s your favorite horror movie?
Erickson: I like—horror movies are the same way—it has to have guidance, people have to choose them for you. I like I Walked with a Zombie and stuff like that.
Maas: Did you ever see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?
Erickson: I went to see that at the same time I went to see Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Many of your songs are either these sweet Buddy Holly–ish love songs or these raw rock songs. You did that record with Okkervil River last year, True Love Cast Out All Evil, which was full of the sweet songs. Then you do stuff with these guys, and it’s the aggressive rock ’n’ roll thing.
Erickson: Yeah, well, thank you. Yeah, we play few and far between and have a good time and everything.
Maas: We got introduced to some of Roky’s old songs as well. Christian and I were both blown away by those songs he had written that no one had heard before that record with Okkervil came out.
Bland: Darren Hill had given us some rare Roky songs that had never been released. And we recorded some, and I hope one day Roky can come sing on them.
Erickson: Hey, yeah!
Maas: He came into the studio one day, and we tried some stuff. We didn’t have a lot of time, we were in between tours.
Bland: We did that one song, “Bo Diddley’s a Head Hunter.”
Erickson: That’s great—that’s a hard one. I like that one.
Maas: That’s the song we opened up with every night on tour. A Bo Diddley beat and Roky sings, “Bo Diddley’s a Head Hunter”! Super-cool song.
What is it about the Elevators that moves you guys so much?
Bland: Nothing like that was being created at that point in Texas, and it was really far out compared to what everyone else was doing. For me, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators started psychedelic rock ’n’ roll, then spread it west to SF. Everything about them—the message they had, the effects they used, the far out reverb and echo, Roky’s voice. Unbelievable.
That’s one reason I moved to Austin to get the Black Angels going with Alex, because of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.
Maas: They were so ahead of their time. It sounds like it came from a certain time, but it’s timeless in the sense that people will be listening to it for a long time. Just like with Buddy Holly—they were doing something no one else was doing. It’s kind of amazing what they did and how many people they inspired
Alex, you played the jug, which Tommy Hall made such a signature part of the Elevators’ sound, on a few songs. How was that?
Maas: It was fun. It was really difficult. I remember feeling light-headed afterward. Just hold the mic up to the jug and start making a sound into it.
Roky, you probably hadn’t heard it in a while. Did you miss it?
Erickson: I never did figure out why he [Hall] played that. He just said he liked to do it. He found one that was empty and seemed to be sanitary enough.