The Black Angels’ live setup is a ballet of sounds. With four multi-instrumentalists – Kyle Hunt, Alex Maas, Jake Garcia and Christian Bland - switching between guitar, bass and keys – oh, and additional percussion on top of Stephanie Bailey’s thunderous, trance-inducing drumming - coordinating all the instruments and dozens of effects is no simple task. After about ten years with their current lineup, countless tours, and the addition of in-ear monitors, they’ve dialed the stage plot in to a seemingly dizzying palette of sounds, which Hunt explained took years of experimenting as we chatted before their sold-out Brooklyn Steel show in April.
What seems brain-crushingly complex to the newcomer appears to make perfect sense to Hunt, a gear and effects nerd to the highest degree. As I watched their soundcheck, and then the show, I was more in awe than ever of this band who have worked so hard to create a symphony that, combined with their haunting projections and light show, creates a truly hypnotic experience. The only thing missing was a BMX bike.
Anna Blumenthal: Do you feel like guitar is your main instrument, or do you not really have a main instrument?
Kyle Hunt: I started with guitar. Actually, I asked for drums first and my parents ignored me. Santa didn't listen that year. I got the guitar at twelve, a Hondo, and a tiny Guild bass practice amp. I was so pissed because it didn't have distortion.
AB: You already knew you wanted distortion?
KH: Yeah. I told my dad, "This amp's cool, but it doesn't have distortion." And he was like, "Son, you don't want distortion. Distortion is bad, that's when things are breaking."
I was kind of pissed. I was never going to be able to play “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” 'cause it sounds awful clean. Could you imagine if “Sweet Child o’ Mine” was played clean? Good lord. Luckily, I had a friend of the family who was a rocker dude and he gave me a DOD Supra Distortion, the red one. And that was it. That was the beginning of the end.
AB: That’s so funny - I was going to ask you what was the pedal that brought you down the rabbit hole.
KH: I'd say the Supra Distortion was my first one. But honestly, the pedal that I had the most ah-ha moments with was - I know it's cliché - the Tube Screamer.
When they first reissued those, I immediately bought one, because you had only read about it. That's how it was. All of a sudden you could buy a reissue TS9. So the reissue TS9, and then one of those Experience pedals from Prescription Electronics. They were the swirly paint finish pedals from the mid-90s. He was one of the first big clone guys. And his Experience was basically the [Foxx] Tone Machine. But he added a swell feature to it. And you could dial back the fuzz and use the Tube Screamer and it was the sound that you wanted to hear in your head. You know when you find a sound and you just play guitar for like five hours? That was that. And then around fifteen I started working at the local guitar store.
AB: Where did you grow up?
KH: In Plano. It's a suburb outside of Dallas.
I started working, and as soon as I had enough money to buy a drum set, I found a used drum set that a church was selling, and I was like, "F you, dad! I'm gonna set this drumset up in the house." It was a Tama Swingstar or something. And then a friend of mine let me borrow a short scale P-Bass. And I didn't start messing around with the keyboards until graduation era. My goal was to move to Austin. This is how high my expectations were. I thought, “I'm going to go to UT.” I got an art degree. But my main goals were to go buy a Moog synthesizer and a BMX bike.
AB: Okay (laughs).
KH: That was my plan. I wanted to move away from home, get a BMX bike, and a Moog. Those were the two things that were on my list, and those were the first two things that I did. I moved down to Austin. I call it "pre-Bay," when you could still find great deals in pawn shops. I got a Micromoog first. It's the late 70s, early 80s monophonic synth. It's not as good as the Minimoog, but it has weirder features. There's a really bizarre ribbon controller on it for the pitch. It also has a great sample and hold setting.
When I moved down, Austin still had the blues-rock stigma of Stevie Ray Vaughn and the joke was like, "Oh, you play guitar?” [makes stupid laugh sound].
So I started diving into the keyboards more. I found a Fender Rhodes and a Clavinet. And then I ran those to a rack delay with modulation. And wah-wah. The wah-wah was my filter on the front end. So you could make a piano or a clavinet. Trip it out by hitting the filter and the filter sweeps would hit the delay and then modulate. It was one of those big racks, the Chandler Stereo Digital Echo. It was the first thing that I found that was supposed to be like an old tape delay, but as far as they got was one tiny switch that was barely a high-end filter, to roll in just the top off. But people still dig those. I still have mine. It's at home in the rack of the studio. And I patch it in if I want to get nostalgic. But now I can do that with a Space Spiral. It’s been a weird journey, for sure.
AB: What bands were you into that made you realize you wanted a distorted sound so early on?
KH: Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath were the first things out of my dad's record collection that I was like, “Whoa, that's what I want.”
AB: That's a cool dad.
KH: He had some good stuff. And then I got the weird trippy stuff from my mom. She had Donovan and Fleetwood Mac. She had the softer, flowery stuff. And my dad had the acid-drenched stuff. I didn't like The Beatles when I was a kid. Everybody says they loved The Beatles when they were a kid but I thought they were too soft. And then I heard “Tomorrow Never Knows” and I was a fan forever. But I was a knucklehead teenager that listened to metal - Anthrax, Primus, Slayer, Biohazard, Faith No More - those heavy, late 80s hair bands. Obviously, Nirvana changed everything for me. Because all of sudden, you didn't have to practice arpeggios (laughs). I was like, “Yes! Thank you!” And the songwriting was like The Beatles, but with shit-tons of fuzz. Fuzzy guitar was what drew me in.
The “Sweet Child o’ Mine” riff was one of the first things that I learned and annoyed everyone on my block with. I traded a broken wah-wah pedal and fifty bucks for one of those crappy early wireless things. I would put my 4x12 in my window, facing out. And I thought this was cool (laughs). I would see how far I could go and how loud I could get. I had very patient parents. The drum set though - they put their foot down on that. But I won, ‘cause I got the drum set.
AB: Are you still a drummer?
KH: I don't have the stamina that a live drummer has, but I love to play. I have an old 60s kit. When I'm home, I try to work on the studio. We're converting a two-car garage. There are a couple kits in there. I have a new C&C kit that we used on the last record. Those are all the toms. And my kick drum was the kick drum. I'm a nerd for that stuff. I've just been a sponge towards sounds. Someone traded in that kit for a Pearl drumset back in the 90s and I was like, "Oh my god, a silver sparkle 1969 Ludwig drumset. I want it!" I somehow got my boss to let me pay it off. It was one of those guitar shops that used to sell piano music and we had lesson rooms, just like your old school classic, small town music store. We had Lita Ford come do an Alvarez clinic.
KH: She had two full Crate half stacks. Her guitar showed up early and she had a piece of Clorets gum stuck to the back of the headstock. I had to re-string the guitar, 'cause she shipped it ahead to have it restrung. I'll never forget that piece of Clorets gum. I asked her, "What is that for?" And she said, "It's in case your mouth gets dry in the middle of the show." I was like, “Nasty!” An old ass piece of gum? Like, maybe you could just tape a new piece.
AB: Or you could just...
KH: Get some water?
AB: Yeah, if you have the money to send your guitar to this clinic in advance, maybe you could have someone hand you gum on stage.
KH: It was pretty funny. She did “If I Close My Eyes Forever,” the Ozzy duet, by herself, no band, at full volume with double half stacks. We just set up a big PA and those two stacks.
AB: I just read her book. It's really good. She said when she started her own band, she wanted to get really good at playing and singing and looking at the audience, not looking at her guitar, so she took all the frets off her guitar.
KH: Oh my god. That's crazy. I need to get that book. It was one of my moments as a little guitar store clerk at fifteen, sixteen. That was a big deal for us to get Lita Ford through there.
AB: That's awesome. What was the store? Is it still there?
KH: It was called Nadine's Music Manor. They moved, and I'm not sure [if it’s still there]. I went in one time when I was in college and they had one of the big Chorus Ensembles, a used original. That thing would have sat there forever. I was the one person who wanted it. I bought it immediately. I don't still have it though. It's with a friend. I traded it for an original Ram's Head Muff. My studio's called Ram's Head Recorders. If I didn't trade the Chorus Ensemble for the Big Muff, I wouldn't have my studio name.
AB: It was worth it.
KH: It was worth it. And I know where the Chorus Ensemble is. I can always go back.
AB: Do you record other bands there?
KH: I haven't recorded bands there yet. I'm still in the process of treating the space. I’m getting used to the room. We did some vocals there for the last record and some overdubs here and there. We’re building an isolation booth right now. And I want to build a vocal booth. But once I treat the ceiling and dial it in a little bit more, I will be getting bands in there, for sure.
AB: Do you produce other bands in general?
KH: I've gotten a chance to do that once. It was really fun. I produced a band from Spain called the Celestial Bums. We worked at Cacophony Recorders, where we did our first two records. I like the sound of that room.
I had Erik Wofford, who did our first two records, engineer and mix it. It took a lot of the pressure off of me to produce my first thing. When you're working with your own band, you're just one democratic voice. Going into another band's songs and saying, "Well duh, right here, you need to do something." And not getting like, "What? No, I can't change that!" That was really gratifying. I'd love to do that more, time permitting.
AB: You guys are on tour like, all the time.
KH: We do a lot of touring. And then when we're home, we're always working on new stuff. We're not the type of band that writes on the road. It's really hard. Although I'm working on that. I'm trying to dial in a little mobile ProTools rig.
I'm going to get one of those little Universal Audio boxes, so we can do a bus-powered little interface and a bus-powered drive and one plug and a mic. Of course I'll nerd out and make a small pedal board that fits in my backpack. It'll be great. You'll be able to put headphones on, plug in, play all your pedals and amp simulator. I guess you could do that with a Pod years ago. But it's just so much more evolved now. You can use a plate reverb and a Tweed Deluxe. It's crazy. My favorite place is the studio, for sure.
AB: Do you guys all write together, or do you write separately?
KH: It depends on the song. The song “Evil Things” from our last record, was a riff and, boom, everybody jumped on it and it was done in like, twenty minutes. And then the lyrics came together.
But other times, someone will present a song, but it's a really loose skeleton and then we all flesh it out together. Sometimes they take six months of beating your head against the wall, trying it ten different ways. But we've learned now to always have some microphones, not for audio quality, but just so you can capture the weird things, because you never know. You revisit a demo and you're like, "Oh wow, we didn't do that melody on the record. That's really cool."
It's a group process. I'm more of a sponge, less of a writer. I feed off of what everyone else does, try and make weird sounds around it, or glue it together. Make it all work.
AB: That's so important. It’s hard to take what someone else has done and add to it. To have someone who’s able to understand what you're doing and react to it is pretty challenging.
KH: That's always been my favorite part. Feeding off of other people's writing. I consider myself a side man, a support player. The songs I write are sometimes embarrassing and more like lullabies for my kids. They're fuzzy lullabies though. We did a song with my daughter, Harper, who is almost eleven now. When she was four, we wrote a song was called “Strawberries,” and it was basically a really thick fuzzy riff. She sang on top of it. It was killer.
AB: Do you have a recording of it?
KH: Oh yeah! “Strawberries” is in my email somewhere. I can pull it out and embarrass her.
AB: Is she a budding musician?
KH: Yeah, we jam! I got her her first guitar, a little short-scale Fender Strat that we found at a garage sale, like a little mini Squier. And she sits down behind the drums, too, and I can show her a beat and then she'll rock that beat.
AB: That’s awesome.
KH: She likes to sit at the piano and play too. She's a really good artist, as well. And the little one, she's not ready. She plays with the synthesizer sometimes, so I think she's on the edge of getting into it. She likes the Melodica and the monophonic synthesizers through a bunch of delay.
AB: So there are no clean songs in the whole Hunt family.
KH: No, it's pretty much always effects.
AB: Were you in bands before the Black Angels?
KH: Yeah, at the point when I met them, they were halfway through Passover, the first album. I was assisting at Cacophony Recorders and I had taken a bunch of my gear over there, because I had all this cool weird old stuff and Erik [Wofford] had cool weird old stuff, and I wanted to learn how to run a studio. I consider him my studio mentor.
I was like, “This band is awesome.” At the time, I was playing with a bunch of different bands. I had a band with a roommate called 1986, that was just a thick fuzzy rock band. And then I was playing with Chris Simpson from Mineral. He has a project called Zookeeper. It was really pretty orchestral type stuff, with a bunch of different instruments. And I was playing the Moog effected through a bunch of delay and getting these really weird ambient sounds. But it was frustrating. I was almost thirty and all I wanted was to be in a band that was doing something for real and get the fuck out and do it. I met these guys doing that record and they asked me if I wanted to play with them. I was like, "Hell yeah!" They said, "Okay cool, can you jam tomorrow? We're leaving for eight weeks." I'm like, "Y'all are crazy! No. When you get back, let's jam and figure it out."
AB: Jennifer Raines was on her way out, whom you replaced, right?
KH: No, I was an extra member. We were [a six-piece] for a long time. Jennifer was the keyboard player. I came in as another multi-instrumentalist, to cover bass and add extra percussion and eventually ended up bringing in the organs and keyboards.
AB: You engineered Passover?
KH: No, more assistant engineered. “Put the [Sennheiser] 421 on that.” “Go get the fast food” or “Go get the coffee.” They called it "tea boy," back in the day. It was the English term for the bitch. I didn't make a lot of decisions. I wasn't engineering. I was just happy to be learning audio signal chain other than guitar signal chains. Like where you put the EQ and the compressor and what the fuck a compressor does. I'm still trying to figure that out.
AB: It's a lot to learn.
KH: Compression is awesome, once you figure out the attack and the release and how to get it right. I got an 1176 clone recently, the Hairball Audio one. Finally I can run the line back out and then run it back in. That's how you really learn, hands-on.
You can try to do a plug-in after the fact all day long, but it's cool to actually test the hardware against the plug-in. That's where I'm at now. It’s funny, 'cause they're crossing over now and they're modeling amps as plug-ins. But you know right away, as a guitar player, if it's gonna cut the mustard or not. So it's been easy to avoid certain things. But then who's able to afford a Fairchild Compressor?
AB: What kind of software do you use in your studio?
KH: I've got ProTools. It's a native setup with a Lynx converter. I only have eight inputs. I don't need more than eight. I do drums with three mics and guitars with two mics. Then I have Universal Audio plug-ins and Soundtoys plug-ins. I think that's it. I like the Soundtoys stuff. The Universal Audio stuff is great because they model everything that you'd want to buy the hardware of. And it actually sounds pretty damn good.
I do yearn for a real console and the flexibility of that. For now, say we wanted to go record on an island somewhere or in another country, I could pull the racks out of 500 Series stuff, the converters, my laptop, my mic package and go anywhere with the setup. It's still mobile. I could really pare it down and fly somewhere with it and record. That's the beauty of the technology. More inputs would be nice. But I should feel very fancy that I have eight inputs. It's pretty damn awesome.
AB: What role do effects play in how you create music? Is it something you add later or are you using them from the start to inspire you?
KH: Most of the time, it's experimenting with sounds. I'll sit with a pile of pedals and test all the routing combinations to get fuzz before delay, delay before fuzz. Some companies are putting switches now, so you can change the order of the effects, so you don't actually patch it. But most of the time, it's experimenting with sounds, just to catalog them in my brain for future reference. It's one of those things where I always know, this sound would be cool with this sound. I would maybe grab this. Just have your reservoir of sounds. But then, sometimes you can sit down with an acoustic guitar, campfire-style, or even an unplugged electric. I've written a few things with a Wurlitzer piano. I have an old WT200 electric piano. That’s right next to the desk. It's another one of my babies that I couldn't live without.
AB: Do you write on all different instruments?
KH: Yeah, sometimes you need to change the picture that's in front of you. Sometimes open tunings are fun. Other times, the way that you can play the chords on the piano just makes sense. When accompanying someone else, maybe the guitar isn't always the best choice. It's just being open to trying different things and hoping that one of them sticks.
AB: How do you and Christian and Alex and Jake figure out how to use effects together and not overpower each other or have a muddy sound?
KH: It's also case-per-case. If it's a three-guitar song, Jake is humbuckers, I'm single coil over here with the Shift knob on the Hoof, which helps me sit nicely. I can get the mids so it sits in the mix, instead of just muddying it up with another thick, muffy-type fuzz.
Two Muffs, even with two different guitars, especially through the same amps, if they're Twins, is just like, holy shit. They just almost cancel each other out. It's like doubling. Sometimes it sounds bigger, but sometimes it just sounds mushy. I remember opening for the Black Keys and there was a gold box with three knobs with no logo on it.
AB: Oh, you were there when Jamie had just made Dan Auerbach a Hoof?
KH: It was the prototype. He had a Jordan Bosstone clone that he had made for Dan and then the Hoof prototype. I was hooked. I was like, "I gotta get one!" Mine is a weird one.
AB: You have special knobs on it.
KH: It’s the Neapolitan model. It's got the pink volume knobs. The bigger ones help for your feet to get in there. That's the only thing I would ever change, really.
Anna Blumenthal handles Sales and Artist Relations for EarthQuaker Devices. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, plays bass in Sit N Spin, DJs 60s soul and R&B at various Brooklyn bars, and has seen Cheap Trick over 30 times.