The fast rise and short, dramatic history of the Black Lips
Over the course of only three years, the Black Lips have endured more than most groups go through in an entire lifetime. They've been criticized as being obnoxious suburbanites, 86'd from clubs after particularly unruly shows, and they've endured the death of a bandmate — all before the group saw the release of its first CD.
"Bad things happen to us," says bassist Jared Swilley, recalling a few of the more scandalous moments during the group's legendary live performances. "We don't try to do bad things, they just happen."
The Black Lips emerged shortly after the breakup of suburban garage/punk outfit the Renegades, which featured Swilley and his Dunwoody High schoolmate, vocalist/guitarist Cole Alexander. The two reconvened with two other school friends, guitarist Ben Eberbaugh and drummer Joe Bradley. Although it was an entirely different group, the Black Lips carried on the Renegades' reputation for on-stage antics — including, among other things, fire, phalluses and a free-for-all of rock 'n' roll chaos. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. With the new group, the debauchery got pushed to entirely new levels.
Moving out of their parents' homes, Swilley, Alexander and Eberbaugh — along with a handful of other high school friends — relocated to a house near Georgia Tech they dubbed Die Slaughterhaus. Here, the group launched its own record label, Die Slaughterhaus Records, which released the group's debut vinyl single (later re-issued on Brand Name Records). The house also served as a DIY venue, not only for the Black Lips, but also for local and nationally touring punk acts. After a slew of performances and parties spiraled out of control, the house was condemned and the group relocated to East Atlanta, where it set up Die Slaughterhaus II.
The Black Lips performances evoke the spirit of Iggy Pop, Sid Vicious and G.G. Allen to some extent, though the group has no interest in being strictly a shock-rock band. However, no one in the group denies stories of certain band members urinating in their own mouths and spitting it on the crowd, or of band members dousing themselves and their instruments with lighter fluid and trying to light themselves on fire, all to riotous audience reactions. This may go over well in their own home, but taking the act to local clubs has been more tricky. The Black Lips are banned, for instance, from playing the 40 Watt in Athens, and club owners around Atlanta give an awkward pause when the group's name comes up in conversation. But there is never a lack of venues available for the group to play.
"I think we're good-bad, not evil," Swilley says. "A lot of club owners say they don't like us, but deep down, I think they do. We like to create an atmosphere of chaos at our shows. I really hate going to shows where people just stand around and don't do anything — you could do that at home with a video. If you come to see the Black Lips, we're really going to do everything we can to put on a show. And if we're going to break stuff or go nuts, we're all really careful not to damage the club's equipment. We do get into some trouble, but it's never too much trouble. I think a lot of the stories people are hearing about us are blown way out of proportion."
After a second single on the Wilmington, Del., label Electric Human Project, the Black Lips began looking for a label to release its debut full-length. On a lark, they sent a demo to famed L.A. garage/ punk label, Bomp Records, known for putting out releases by the Germs, Iggy and the Stooges, Brian Jonestown Massacre, and others. Soon, they heard from Bomp owner Greg Shaw, who quickly signed the group to a two-record deal and paid for the recording of their first full-length at Zero Return Studios.
"We sent our demo to Bomp more as a joke than anything else," says Swilley. "It's got to be my favorite label of all time. We own everything that label has ever put out, and we sent it to them just to see if we'd hear anything back. We were at a point where we thought it was a big deal to get to play shows at places like Echo Lounge, and then all of the sudden, we're on Bomp. It was great."
Just as everything seemed to be going right, things took a drastic turn for the worse. In early December of last year, the band was on the eve of releasing its Bomp debut, and three days away from going on tour. Guitarist Ben Eberbaugh was driving on Ga. 400 when a driver going the wrong way hit and killed him. In shock and grieving over the loss of their friend, the group made a hasty decision to carry out the tour as a three-piece. For the surviving members of the group, breaking up was not an option. No one in the group finds it easy to talk about Eberbaugh's death, and instead of dwelling on the tragedy, the band has made every effort to keep moving ahead.
"When Ben died, everything changed," Alexander says. "We had all come so far together and now it could all end so easily. But we decided to keep going, it's what Ben would have wanted us to do."
Bringing a sense of closure to Eberbaugh's period with the band, the group decided to compile everything it had recorded up to that point and add it to the full-length. The disc combines songs recorded at Zero Return with other material done at Radium Recordings in Athens, and more. "We wanted everything to be on there," adds Alexander. "Even the 7-inches."
The result is a mish-mash of material with varying production qualities that gives the songs a ghost-like quality and offers a glimpse of the chaos that unfolds at the group's shows.
Shortly after returning home from tour, another high school friend, Jack Hines, joined the group. Hines had been living in New York at the time of Eberbaugh's death, but returned to Atlanta and took up residence as the newest tenant at Die Slaughterhaus. Not only had Hines been a friend of the group for many years, he was, in fact, the Black Lips' original choice for guitarist. Though he had initially turned down their offer, the group felt the spot couldn't have been filled by anyone else.
"Jack plays guitar a bit differently than Ben," Swilley says. "He doesn't have the same chops. But we all grew up together and it feels natural to have him in the group. He really is the man for the job."
Says Hines, "I was a little scared at first. We had all grown up together and I loved Ben just as much as everyone else in the group. It was hard enough knowing that he isn't here anymore, and having that on my mind while I was playing his parts made it all very hard to do. And I was worried that people wouldn't respond well to me being added to the group and say things like, 'Who the hell is this asshole; why's he playing guitar for the Black Lips? He's not Ben.' But there hasn't been too much of a hazing process. I think I've been received pretty well by everyone."
With a new guitarist and a new full-length, the band is working harder than ever. Die Slaughterhaus Records is also in full swing. Over the past year, the label has churned out singles by local acts the Lids and Tabitha, and has at least a half-dozen other releases in the works.
"We're like a cult," Alexander says. "Our house is like a compound, and there's always people there working on something. The label has no real owner. It's a collective of about 15 or 20 people who pool their money and resources together when we want to put something out."
Meanwhile, the Black Lips have two U.S. tours planned in the coming months, and a second album ready to be recorded. There's also talk of Spanish label Munster Records doing a vinyl release of the group's older material, and other labels have approached the group about releasing the Bomp debut on vinyl.
"We've also been hearing that some label in Australia wants to put out a record with us and have us come down there to do an Australian tour," Bradley says. "We're not sure who the label is, but we'd love to do it."
Having already undergone a "Behind the Music" full of drama, the Black Lips are now ready for new world of possibilities.