Truth be told, I’ve always thought the Black Lips were a better band than they allowed themselves to be. Emerging from the dank basement of Atlanta’s indie rock scene at a time when there was very little “scene” to speak of, the band attempted to make up for a decided lack of musical knowledge and experience with pure, adrenalized rock ’n’ rebellion. Inspired by punk legends such as The Stooges, The Germs and G.G. Allin, the Black Lips became as equally well known for destructive onstage antics as they were for their distinctive brand of garage rock. Of course, the ploy ultimately worked. As word spread of their incendiary live shows, the quartet gained national attention from major outlets such as Spin, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. But still the sophomoric shenanigans continued, including fleeing a tour of India prematurely to avoid arrest in 2009.
These days, according to bassist/vocalist Jared Swilley, the band has grown more mature, reigning in its more self-destructive impulses. The ‘Lips recently finished recording their sixth studio album, Arabia Mountain, with famed producer Mark Ronson, and are preparing for the most extensive touring of their careers. I recently sat down for a chat with Swilley about the band’s early days, evolution and future ambitions.
Appetite for destruction
“I started out playing violin in elementary school,” Swilley recalls of his early interest in music. “I wanted to play that because it came close to a guitar. I always wanted to be in a band because it just seemed cool to me. I was really into music.”
By the age of 13 he had met future Black Lips singer/guitarist Cole Alexander, and the two became fast friends due to a shared interest in punk rock and skateboarding. Alexander was already notorious in their Dunwoody-area school for his outrageous rebellious antics, the likes of which eventually got both him and Swilley kicked out of high school.
“I actually got kicked out in eleventh grade,” Swilley says, “but my antics weren’t too crazy. The school just started implementing all these zero tolerance policies after the Columbine shootings. In a way, we were victims of the atmosphere at the time. It was mostly our form of rebellion because public school was really stupid and didn’t make any sense to us. That was our way of trying not to get too depressed. We always got in trouble for creative things: We did smash a lot of stuff, but it was more than petty vandalism. In the beginning we were really young and weren’t very good at our instruments, so it was almost like performance art. I thought it was slightly artistic!”
Fortunately, the rambunctious duo found a productive outlet for their testosterone-fueled energy and angst in playing rock ’n’ roll. After their first band, The Renegades, broke up, Alexander and Swilley joined forces with guitarist Ben Eberbaugh in 1999 to form the Black Lips, enlisting drummer Joe Bradley a few months later. In the beginning, musical simplicity was their driving force, in part because of their tender age and in part due to necessity: Swilley laughs as he remembers that none of them could play their instruments very well in the early days.
“Our main musical influence was Link Wray, whose song ‘Rumble’ was on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. That song just sounded so badass. We got some of his records and they’re really easy to play along with, and the tones sound real good. We also loved The Ramones. I actually learned bass by trying to play along to Ramones songs,” he admits, “because they’re pretty simple. The theatrics of The Germs and other L.A. punk bands were also a big influence on us, especially early on. Their whole aesthetic was appealing.”
But, unlike a lot of garage-rock bands, who tend to take a more purist approach to their three-chords-and-an-attitude ethos, the Black Lips’ musical interests spread far beyond the punk sound. Gospel, R&B and even hip-hop influences would eventually find their way into the band’s distinctive identity.
“We liked Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and early Beatles,” Swilley says, “and they were all ripping off black artists from the South. But the original stuff sounds a lot better. I also had a big gospel influence early on because my family is in the ministry. I was always impressed by the energy level of gospel music and R&B. I think we dug hip-hop just because of the generation we’re in. Wu-Tang always seemed like an awesome band: They were pretty psychedelic and used a lot of old R&B samples.”
So Indie It Hurts
The road from obscurity to fame tends to be riddled with obstacles for all but the luckiest bands, but the Black Lips faced more than their fair share of adversity.
For one thing, the Atlanta scene of the late ’90s and early aughts was very different from the indie-rock haven it is today: Rap-rock, punk and post-grunge alternative pop dominated the local musical landscape, leaving few like-minded groups for them to perform with. Add to that the fact that Swilley and Co. were still too young to perform in most of the city’s live music venues, and you begin to understand why he says the band suffered something of an identity crisis.
“I think it’s easier for a young band to start up these days because there’s a cohesive scene now,” Swilley says when asked how Atlanta has changed over the years. “When we started out the only place to play was the 513 Club, which was a grab bag of punk and hardcore bands, but then that place got pretty gnarly. We ended up playing the West End warehouses and a smattering of house parties around town. But it seems like there’s more of a support network now.”
The band suffered a much more personally devastating setback in December 2002, just days before a big tour was scheduled to begin. Guitarist Ben Eberbaugh was parked at a tollbooth when a drunk driver who was going the wrong way struck his car head-on. Eberbaugh was killed, but the Black Lips ultimately decided to soldier on in his memory, enlisting Ian Saint Pé to take his place. In subsequent years, the band seemed to descend into a self-destructive spiral of drugs and debauchery, becoming renowned for onstage antics involving homosexuality, indecent exposure, bodily fluids and good ol’ fashioned destruction.
For Swilley, whose father is Bishop Jim Swilley of Conyers’ massive Church In The Now, this time in the Black Lips proved something of a double-edged sword: As the band was attracting more acclaim on a national and even international level, his father was taking more heat from his congregation about his son’s controversial behavior. Jared acknowledges that his parents “had to ignore a lot of stuff,” and insists that his father is surprisingly tolerant and understanding, considering his devout religious background.
Indeed, the pastor has taken to the Internet in the past in his son’s defense. “The Black Lips began as sort of a musical version of the show Jackass, and the reputation that they developed during that time still follows them,” the pastor wrote in a 2008 blog entry. “They broke instruments, got in fistfights on stage, and supposedly acted indecently. Their audiences loved it, and they got the attention from the press that they desired. Much of what you read about in the press concerning their behavior is actually urban legend, and the majority… can be attributed solely to one rather eccentric member of the band named Cole. Here’s the bottom line: Jared is my son and I love him, unconditionally.”
The turning tide
By 2006 the band’s fortunes had begun to change. In Atlanta, a vibrant indie-rock scene started to develop organically (as shown in the documentary film We Fun: Atlanta, GA Inside Out), with acts such as Deerhunter, the Selmanaires and the Coathangers emerging as the Black Lips’ brothers and sisters in musical arms. Their collective impact began to garner attention on a national level, with Swilley and company earning features in Spin and Rolling Stone magazines. Signed to respected indie label Vice Records, the band’s 2007 appearance at the South By Southwest music festival landed a feature in The New York Times, which called them the “Hardest Working Band at SXSW.” But according to Swilley, it was a tour with Detroit-based garage-rock group The Dirtbombs that made him realize that the Black Lips had somehow become a real band.
“That’s when I thought, ‘Wow, this is my job now!’” he recalls. “I realized I hadn’t worked in four months, and that I didn’t need to anymore. The Dirtbombs’ booking agent—who also did White Stripes, Black Keys and all those bands—picked us up after that. Before then we would do one month on tour, and then one month of working to save up to go on tour.”
The overwhelmingly positive critical response to their 2007 album Good Bad Not Evil and 2009’s 200 Million Thousand led to song placements in numerous TV shows (Dirty Sexy Money) and movies (500 Days of Summer, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World), as well as performances on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. The band toured relentlessly, at one point performing over 120 shows in the U.S. and Europe over an 11-month span. And of course their onstage antics—including a quick departure from India in 2009 after a show in which Cole and Ian kissed and various appendages were graphically exposed—continued to garner headlines around the world.
But, according to Swilley, the Black Lips were getting weary of the mayhem overshadowing their music. “You just kind of grow out of it,” he says. “… It got boring, especially when we did interviews. When we came into a town, the headline would always have something to do with throwing up or peeing.”
Climb Every Mountain
These days, the Black Lips seem to be at an intriguing juncture in the their evolution, both as individuals and as a musical unit. With side projects such as the Almighty Defenders (a collaboration with part-time Atlantan King Khan), the Gaye Blades and Ghetto Cross (Alexander’s collaboration with Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox), the group’s members have found external outlets they don’t have to take quite as seriously. But for now the band seems to be stepping it up a notch with the new album, Arabia Mountain.
“There’s a lot more sonic experimentation this time around,” Swilley says. “We have a saw player on the album—this guy that plays on Broadway who’s also a composer and a concert violinist. He was telling us that he’s only one of two people in the world that has a perfect pitch on the saw. He was fascinating, and watching him do that was amazing. We’ve also got a lot of Theremin on the record, weird pianos, and trashcans for extra percussion. This is the happiest I’ve ever been with a Black Lips record upon completion. I usually hate our records when we’re done. I can’t listen to them for a long time.”
Asked what other new elements Mark Ronson (who’s worked with everyone from retro soul divas Amy Winehouse and Adele to hip-hop heavyweights Ghostface Killah and Wale) brought to the mix, Swilley continues. “He tweaked some of the arrangements, asking us to try different things here and there, and he brought in a great sax player who’s in the Dap Kings. He was also on the mixing board coaching me on the way I sing, because sometimes I get indecisive. Originally I was a little apprehensive because we’re so different, but I like that it’s not straight garage rock. It ended up being awesome.”
Also awesome was the band’s recent “Bruise Cruise,” which found them on a Caribbean cruise ship for several days, partying and performing with other bands for their biggest fans. According to Swilley, it was just the first step in the Black Lips’ most ambitious touring plans to date, which include trying to perform in Middle East, Africa and even Antarctica in an effort to play all seven continents. But for now, he’s just trying to recover from their most recent gig.
“It was so much fun,” he says, “but I’m still hurting from it! It was surreal seeing all these people on the boat with all this fake gold and marble everywhere. It was awesome and weird: Three days in the sun by the pool with good bands and fans from all over the world. I can’t believe they pulled it off! I can’t believe how many people paid to do that—it’s an expensive show. But it was great. There were no big incidents, and no one got in trouble. I’m just hurting from alcohol consumption and sunburn: I’m bright pink and have a hangover.”