Black Lips: The Road Warriors

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Black Lips, shot for SPIN's July 2011 cover by Ture Lillegraven
WRITTEN BY
Steve Kandell

Or,How to Succeed in (the Music) Business Without (Looking Like You're) Really Trying (and While Occasionally Peeing in Your Best Friend's Mouth).

The Black Lips clean up just fine. Infamous for their love of scatological mischief and global misadventures as much as for their scuzzy garage-punk -- like the Monkees, only with more ketamine binges and indecent exposure -- one could be forgiven for thinking that dinner at Keens, a tony, centuries-old Manhattan steak house, on a rainy April night might result in, at the least, the ornate ceiling covered in mint jelly. And that's fine by them. Because if you're shortsighted enough to mistake their casual hedonism as barbaric or their urinating into their own or one another's mouths onstage as anything less than gestures of brotherhood, then they have you right where they want you -- underestimating them.

"You've got to be smart if you want to be stupid," says guitarist Cole Alexander, 29.

"We're professional amateurs," adds drummer Joe Bradley, 27.

Grammy-brandishing Mark Ronson may have produced nine of its 16 tracks, but to say that Arabia Mountain, the sixth album from these Atlanta-based road dogs, is destined for crossover glory is probably folly. The cause for gout-inducing celebration tonight is that it doesn't need to be -- after spending nine months a year for the past decade humping across the country and into corners of the globe no Western rock group had previously thought to grace, the Black Lips are in fact the very model of the modern working band. (Name another American indie act that considers Sardinia a regular tour stop.) All four members trade off lead vocals and write to maximize productivity, and they are proud to serve as golden reminders that when it comes to making dreams come true, that whole "stay in school, say no to drugs" thing is kinda bullshit.

"The way I always looked at it," drawls guitarist Ian St. Pe, 33, ordering the first of several bottles of Malbec, "is that if you don't have a fallback, you can't fall back. The Rolling Stones put out 14 albums between 1964 and 1969 -- how bad do you want it? Musicians are the guys who sell us strings. Entertainers are the ones who are ?legendary, and we're entertainers."

Alexander's voice rises. "When Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo woke up in the morning, do you think they said, 'We want to stay in Spain and Italy'?"

"Hell no!" amens St. Pe.

"People might break their neck at our shows," Alexander says, and he means this as a point of pride, that rock shows should be immersive at all costs. "When you pee on a crowd, you're giving them your essence."

"But we ain't fuckin' puppets," says St. Pe, wagging a finger. "You're not going to see that every night."

Alexander points across the table: "Does he have strings on his arms? You have to feel it.If we don't have to pee, how are we gonna pee on those motherfuckers?"

"I pay taxes, I have a nice home," says bassist Jared Swilley, 28. "But I will pee on you maybe once in a while."Alexander nods. "It's about balance."

The banter may be as much a part of the shtick as the hijinks, but that doesn't mean it's not heartfelt or thrilling -- Chuck Berry's duck walk wasn't ad hoc either. It's one thing to risk life and limb and sanity crammed together in a fetid van for nine months a year. They travel light, with only a stouthearted tour manager in tow, and forego tour buses because of party-pooping 2:30 a.m. curfews; their concession to luxury is to spring for hotels rather than crash on floors. But commitment to Black Lips-ness is a 365-days-a-year thing, and their danger-baiting esprit de corps, which extends to an appreciation of exotic gastronomy, almost killed Ronson when they were in New York recording the album. (NB: The Black Lips have happily feasted on maggots, but St. Pe just tried lobster for the first time three months ago.)

"We ate calf's liver sashimi at a Japanese restaurant I won't name," says Swilley. "We all got sick, but Mark had a 105-degree fever."

"Two degrees more, you get brain damage," says Alexander. "We had to call his mom and rush him to the hospital. We feel we get nutrients from weird foods -- the Chinese are really into it. Then we were trying to finish this record, shitting and vomiting and singing." (Alexander in particular is playing with fire -- his notorious acid reflux has led to puke-related mishaps onstage and, very nearly, while getting his picture taken for the cover of this magazine.)

The arrival of the giant platter of raw oysters could not have been better timed. Alexander shrugs. "You only live once, man."
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Continue read Black Lips' July 2011 cover story on page 2 >>

The gentrifying Cabbagetown neighborhood of Atlanta is 30 miles from the conservative suburb of Dunwoody, Georgia, where Cole Alexander, Jared Swilley, and Joe Bradley were raised. It is two weeks after the visit to New York -- May 1 to be exact, the day after the death of Osama bin Laden -- and the Black Lips are sitting on the porch outside Swilley's modest yellow row house, two blocks from the one Alexander owns. The mood is light, the sun is out, the beer is flowing, it's nearly afternoon.

The band's white van, inside which they spend an unholy percentage of their lives, is parked out front, packed with gear, a toy bubble machine, a case of beer, and a tattered copy of In the Country of Baseball, the biography of Dock Ellis, who pitched a no-hitter on acid in 1970. They drove into town from Baton Rouge last night and leave for Europe in two days; this may be their longest stretch of downtime until October, provided September's planned tour of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt doesn't fall apart. The hope is that this goodwill excursion to seldom-rocked lands ends better than their 2009 tour of India, which was cut short after an onstage, intraband make-out session led to rioting and a premature escort to the border. The band's primary objective has always been adventure -- by this measure of success, they already are the Rolling Stones.

"If our government can't do good diplomacy, then we'll take it upon ourselves," Alexander had said over dinner in New York. "The people in the street, they're young, too, they want the same things we want."

Now Alexander is squinting at his phone to watch video that purportedly shows Kate Middleton dancing onstage with a few dozen others at a Black Lips gig in 2006. The footage is too dark to offer conclusive evidence of the new princess in wilder days, and Alexander is skeptical. But given that her uncle is in Venom, is it really that implausible?"I bet she's not allowed to listen to us now, though," he says.

The Black Lips know about defying family tradition. Bradley grew up singing in his church choir and was playing piano and French horn by age 13. Swilley's father, Jim, is a megachurch pastor in Atlanta who last year came out to his congregation, and his aunts and uncles were in a popular '60s gospel group called the Swilley Family Singers. (The Black Lips indulged the retro-rock and religion connection in the Almighty Defenders, their 2009 one-off with fellow garage-rock purists King Khan and Mark Sultan, playing revival-like shows in full priests' robes.)

Swilley and Alexander were kicked out of high school for infractions including, but not limited to, threatening to shoot classmates and telling a teacher, "I'm trying to get into your pants, bitch!" respectively, and just generally scaring the shit out of twitchy parents post-Columbine. They formed the band with Bradley and original guitarist Ben Eberbaugh (who died in a car crash in 2002), released their self-titled debut on Bomp! in 2003, and have barely been home since, finally quitting their day jobs in 2005. The band signed to Vice before 2007's breakthrough Good Bad Not Evil, forging a perfect marriage ?between a band that loves to do weird shit in weird locales and a company that loves filming people doing weird shit in weird locales.

A lot of diem is being carpe'd, but the thrills aren't just for thrills' sake. There's a plan, to the degree such a thing is even possible. "We want to get our shitty punk rock music to as many people as possible," says Swilley. Continue read Black Lips' July 2011 cover story on Page 3 >>

The decision to hire Ronson, after largely self-producing five albums, is not as tied to that strategy as one might think -- 2009's 200 Million Thousand may have been considered a slight letdown, selling 12,000 copies, less than half as much as its predecessor -- but the man who made Amy Winehouse and remade Duran Duran was originally just going to produce a song or two until everyone decided to keep going. Bradley cops to some initial ambivalence about a couple of his drum parts, but the band's burrs remain intact, as does its humor: "Spidey's Curse" imagines Peter Parker as a molestation victim, while "Modern Art" believably essays the experience of tripping balls at a museum.

"My first thought was, 'Is this gonna be like sixth-grade homeroom?'?" recalls Ronson. "Like some indie version of Punk'd with a bucket of shit dumping on my head when I walk in? But just because there's antics doesn't mean there's not a work ethic. They're the quintessential punk-garage band of the past ten years -- they run it like a family operation. Those things build your mythology and make you a band that people want to be a part of. And even if the last album didn't quite follow up on the success of Good Bad Not Evil, it doesn't matter. If they didn't have a lot of history behind them, they would have been destroyed by one bad album -- most bands are."

It's no surprise that the band the Black Lips identify with most is the Ramones -- addled cartoon-punk misfits with Brill Building hearts whose commercial impact at home belied their lasting influence and rabid international following. "They were like the Beatles in South America," marvels Swilley. "I guess we're like them in that we had a gradual rise, and we'll never have a hit, and we have a fan base that's dedicated. I don't mean to toot our own horn, but over the past six years, there's been a lot of bands that sound like us -- we're a reference point now."

But while the Ramones were on a major label and were actively trying to get on the radio, the Black Lips are able to cultivate an audience without any external pressures. "We wouldn't have been able to function when labels were god," Swilley says. "We're a product of the Internet age. We have good taste, and I want that to wash down like a babbling brook. We know the kids we want to reach out to and we tap that vein."

Tapping that vein, in 2011 parlance, means not being precious about the means by which your music reaches the masses. Good Bad's "Veni Vidi Vici" is in a Tanqueray commercial and (500) Days of Summer. American Eagle wanted to rewrite their ode to juvenile delinquency, "Bad Kids," as the family-friendly, Weird Al–worthy "Rad Kids." (Before: "Six F's / On my report card??/ Smoke cigs / In the bathroom stall / Spray paint??/ A penis on the wall." After: "Six A's / On my report card / Blow bubbles / In the schoolyard / Go draw / All my favorite things.") The offer was tempting, for comedy's sake, but they declined.

"I wouldn't give something to, like, the Ku Klux Klan," says Swilley. "But as long as someone wants our song as written, sure. The only people who are uptight about selling out are affluent white kids."

"Bad Kids" isn't just the Black Lips' best-known song, it's their mission statement: They're proud of their misspent youth and broken homes, and prouder yet that they now out-earn family members who may have once questioned the sustainability of their career choice. "Emo bands are bummed when their parents split up, but we love it," says Alexander. "Instead of fucking my dad, my mom was hanging out with me."

The Black Lips' show at Manhattan's 1,500-?capacity Webster Hall is one long incident of glorious vandalism. In front of a white bedsheet crudely spray-painted with the band's name and a flower (if Black Lips, Inc. has overhead, it's not spent on stage design) and a cadre of associates firing roll upon roll of toilet paper into the audience, the vibe is frisky from minute one. (The band hopes to someday utilize a scent machine that will fill venues with song-specific aromas, such as rotting trash for Arabia Mountain's honky-tonky "Dumpster Dive," but until that technology is perfected, cleaning out Costco's paper goods aisle will suffice.) Fans storm the stage from all sides throughout the set, beers are swallowed and thrown, and about an hour in, Alexander smashes his only guitar to the ground in a manner that Pete Townshend would find too rough, then hurls the shards into the crowd. There is no encore.

If these indeed are our nation's ambassadors, debauched Southern-gentlemen proxies sent abroad to spread the message of peace and goodwill and shamelessness through reckless abandon, then good for us. Make a mess, not war. And if the current idiosyncrasies of the music industry help render this strain of diplomacy not just viable but vital, then bring on the collapse. After all, it was a highly respected, leather-clad late-20th-century philosopher-diplomat who said it best: Today your love, tomorrow the world.

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