In a new series of content, TreePeople is interviewing artists that are actively trying to bring people into the environmental movement through their art. This series includes musicians, visual artists, poets and more.
Since 2004, Austin Texas’ The Black Angels have staked their claim as being one of the most exciting and forward thinking bands in rock and roll. Their blend of driving rhythms and hypnotic psychedelia have won them acclaim and catapulted them into the spotlight—and festival stages worldwide. TreePeople recently caught up with Alex Maas, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist in the band, to discuss their environmentally charged new song “El Jardin” off of the band’s sixth full length album Wilderness of Mirrors, due out September 16, 2022 on Partisan Records.
Tell me about “El Jardin.” How did the song come about and how did the video tie into that?
We threw a bunch of ideas around and Ramiro [Verdooren] in the band said maybe [the song] could be about the environment because that was a thing that we hadn’t touched up on. One of the things that we never want to do as a band is to be too preachy. I feel like if you’re too preachy people turn the other way and don’t listen to you. We were trying to find a way to have this story be told from mother nature’s perspective. I know it’s been done before, but I hadn’t heard a song specifically from mother nature’s perspective, like “Why are you doing this to me? You have a choice. Why are you killing me?” We have the choice to, as the lyrics say, build [nature] up or rip [nature] apart… I personally like songs that you [start to] understand the third or fourth time through. You write the catchy melody or the catchy hook, and that’s just the lure to get people to rethink what they’re doing and to really question who’s in charge.
The original idea, and this didn’t quite make the video, was that these billionaires owned the last four or five percent of the world’s forests. We wanted to tie that into what’s going on now with virtual reality. The concept was to put a kid in the future who has never ever seen nature before… never experienced because they’re living in this Mad Max world… and they find this VR headset and their mind is blown with this download of information of what [used to exist]. It’s such a mental overload that [the kid] starts glitching out because of the intensity of what they see and the beauty of what they see. What we were trying to create was a stark dystopian future and then show how beautiful the world is right now.
We walk through life and there’s so much beauty around us and we don’t realize how lucky we are. If you really start to think about it, it becomes overwhelming and just super sad but that’s just the nature of humanity, isn’t it? You don’t miss something until it’s gone. You don’t miss your partner until you’re gone for two weeks, you don’t miss breakfast tacos until you move out of Texas. I didn’t think I was going to be a musician. Music, nature and my sense of spirituality are so intertwined that I can’t tell them apart. Being in nature, hearing those sounds and seeing that beauty is one of the most incredible things you can do. It really beats anything… It beats any Leonard Cohen song… there’s something so pure, so untouched and so raw that it blows my mind. I had this idea on tour, and I still want to do this, to do a coffee table book called The Prettiest Tree I’ve Ever Seen. I’ve traveled a lot and seen so many amazing trees—old forests in Brazil, huge cypress trees and redwoods that are thousands of years old. It would be 30 or 40 trees that I’ve come across in my life that made a connection. I always pin them on Google Maps so I can go back to them. There’s one in Ventura [California] in the middle of this park and it’s this huge eucalyptus tree and it’s just gorgeous… stunning, massive, massive roots. I look at trees and I think of wisdom. There’s this book The Secret Life of Plants and it makes the case that trees and plants have some sort of spirit and a soul; when you come across something like that that’s so beautiful, it’s hard to not believe that that’s a possibility. Ya know, some people go out there and they don’t get it but we can’t shame those people. If you’re going out there to seek beauty, you’ll find it.
When you think about your connection with nature, where did that start?
I’m from a little city called Seabrook which is in-between Galveston and Houston. It’s near the water, kind of a sea-faring community. My grandfather started a little nursery in the 50’s and my dad took over the nursery and made it a destination… this jungle-y 14 acre piece of property that was super tropical, super lush, filled with trees and nature. It’s the first place I fell in love with nature and plants. [As a kid] I would be walking barefoot through this nursery looking at all the different species and all the different varieties of plants. I felt the morphology of the leaves and was just like, “wow.” I saw everything through such a macro lens and I still do. That was my first connection with nature, music and spirituality. My parents had speakers [with music playing] throughout the nursery and it was then that I made the connection. Whether you like it or not, when you’re like six years old and you hear Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” while walking through a nursery you’re like “wow I just walked into something that’s magical.”
What’s driving you to speak out about environmental issues and use your voice to advocate for a greener world?
Let’s keep in mind that I’m a father now. I have two kids and I want them to enjoy the wilderness and I want them to be able to enjoy the things that I did when I was growing up. The other part of it is that my eyes are open to the deforestation. We’re losing these keystone plants, insects and animals… and that’s not what people are paying attention to. It’s important that the people who give a [expletive] about this are having these conversations and for me personally that artists who do have a platform use it and continue to talk about it.