The Black Lips Want to Be the Next Country Music Sensation
Cole Alexander talks about tour cancellations due to coronavirus and making a progressive country record for Middle America
Although tongue and cheek, Sing in a World That’s Falling Apart, the new album by the Black Lips has gone from an ironic joke into a very real Kafkaesque nightmare because of the current pandemic.
“When hasn’t the world felt like it’s falling apart,” founding guitarist Cole Alexander tells SPIN.
As far as they’re concerned, the Black Lips are taking this pandemic day-by-day just like everyone else. “We are trying to play at as many shows as we can…even underground shows maybe…” Alexander says, anxious about shows being canceled at a frightening pace. Like most underground bands, they make their living from touring. Without money coming in, they are very anxious about what happens next.
“There’s definitely a little existential unease in the air. At the same time, I hope something good comes out of this and everyone stays healthy,” he adds.
They dabbled with country songs in the past, Sing in a World That’s Falling Apart — which is out now — is a new direction shaped by happenstance. The Lips added Canadian guitarist Jeff Clarke (in 2018), who brings a country flair, while Zumi Rosow brings a Brian Jones-esque flair for experimentation, playing different instruments like the saw, autoharp, and the echo harp harmonica. Fittingly, Alexander compares this record to the early ‘70s Rolling Stones when they began to fuse elements of rock n’ roll and country music heavily.
“I really wanted to get it out to a different audience,” Alexander says. “One of our goals was to play the Stagecoach Festival or any platform where we can be viewed by country music fans. Like Lil Nas X had that crossover hit with ‘Old Town Road’ that just goes to show that there is a lot more crossover appeal than people realize.”
While working on the album, the Black Lips would listen to Cocaine and Rhinestones, a podcast about the history of country music. They also watched Mike Judge’s Tales From The Tour Bus and Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary. They ingested every savory country music morsel they could get their hands on, learning about how technically innovative the genre was at one time.
“We were listening to Ferlin Husky, Porter Wagoner, and a few others,” Alexander says. “There was a compilation done in Atlanta by a guy named Greg Germani. He posted this compilation on WFMU’s blog called Country Fuzz Spectacular and features all these songs with fuzz guitar. At one time, country music was a more innovative music form. They used fuzz pedals before any rock band used them.”
Although country music is generally perceived as a right-wing enterprise, it’s not entirely true. With this new album, the Black Lips are trying to show their fans country music can be progressive and it doesn’t just have to be the Dixie Chicks or Eric Church.
“People see country music as this shit-kicking, right-wing thing and it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. It can be more progressive like Loretta Lynn’s song ‘The Pill.’ There is a different side of country [music] that people don’t know about,” Alexander says. “I think we would be considered super left-wing on a Dixie Chicks level and I think there is more room for that than people realize.
They aren’t raging against the machine-like, well, Rage Against the Machine, the Black Lips write about topics considered too taboo to most country music fans, sprinkling a surreal story about a closeted gay man in “Gentleman” and another about giving a 7-year-old LSD in “Hooker Jon.” Instead of trying to appeal to left-wing ideals in the punk scene, they now find themselves trying to create music that is progressive while still appealing to country music fans.
“In the punk rock world sometimes we would be criticized for not being progressive enough. I always try to work on that. But now we flipped the tables and now we are trying to reach the average middle American.”