Cover Story: The year of the Black Lips
On the verge of mainstream success, the Black Lips do it their way. But must they grow up to be taken seriously?
It’s sometime after noon on the third day of Austin’s see-and-be-seen music conference, South by Southwest, and the morning haze still hasn’t burned off. That suits the scenesters gathered in the courtyard of Club de Ville just fine. Odds are, they’re hungover and nursing the club’s free-but-warm beer. There’s a good chance they aren’t ready to deal with full daylight. And they’re about to come face to face — possibly for the first time, in which case they might be a tad unprepared — with the Atlanta spectacle known as the Black Lips.
This is not the Black Lips’ usual crowd. SXSW draws a mix of hipper-than-thou label reps, publicists and other industry types, along with a smattering of diehard indie fans. Not all of them are accustomed to such onstage eccentricities as streaming urine, splattering blood and projectile vomiting, especially so early in the day. Unlike the crowd that will assemble five days later at the Earl in East Atlanta, the front-row revelers in Austin don’t think to don safety goggles to protect against the possible onslaught of Black Lips bodily fluids.
The Black Lips are four boys from Atlanta – three of whom met at Dunwoody High School – who play woozy, boozy, slightly discomfiting and wildly infectious garage-rock. They’ve been compared to the Troggs, the Stooges, the Cramps, the Kinks, the early Stones, “the Beatles as a rough-edged garage band,” and “a brain-damaged version of the Exploding Hearts.” But it’s their live show, not the four albums they’ve released in five years, that’s got people talking.
Rolling Stone has described the group as “one of the best live bands in America.” The magazine also listed the Black Lips as one of five not-to-miss acts at SXSW, out of the 1,400 bands that performed. And because the Black Lips played 11 shows there in three days (quite possibly a SXSW record), missing the band would have been a willful oversight. The Black Lips’ momentum was so remarkable, in fact, that on the day of the Club de Ville show, the New York Times followed the band around Austin to chronicle what the newspaper described as the “hardest working band at SXSW.”
Even before the Black Lips hooked up with the Times on March 16, the media adoration was apparent. Singer/guitarist Cole Alexander, wearing his ubiquitous green ski cap, stopped for breakfast tacos at an eastside joint popular among Austin locals. One patron picked up the daily Austin American-Statesman and marveled at how Alexander’s picture was on the front page. “A feast for the eyes, as well as the ears,” the headline read.
The Black Lips’ stage presence typically revolves around the painfully adorable Alexander, a baby-voiced and mop-headed waif who’s been known to disrobe and play his instrument with his, um, instrument. Sinewy and charismatic singer/bassist Jared Swilley finds himself in the occasional onstage wrestling match with fellow band members. Joe Bradley has pounded on a literally flaming drum kit. And Ian Brown has gushed blood all over his guitar (he swears it doesn’t hurt) and has played with lit firecrackers stuck in his frets and his gold-toothed mouth.
Somehow, this behavior has the widespread effect of endearing the band to its audience.
“I think that’s the reason why you go see it live, so you can see it fucked up and raw,” says Reggie Cunningham, aka Mr. Move, a notoriously debaucherous former Atlanta musician who now lives in New York and is among the Club de Ville crowd. “If a song gets fucked up because somebody goes crazy, nobody’s going to complain.”
The Black Lips’ performance at Club de Ville ends up being decidedly tasteful – at least by Black Lips standards. Alexander spits in the air and catches the loog a few times, but he throws up only once, discretely, off the side of the stage. None of the boys make out with each other (though two of them will at their next gig, the second of the day’s five). They don’t beat the shit out of each other, either. And there’s no trace of blood or urine, leaving the show’s final tally of bodily fluids at a mere two.
Given the composition of the audience and the mainstream buzz surrounding the band, the more straight-ahead approach is likely intentional. It might be time for the Black Lips to back off the stunts, at least for a moment.
“It’s nice to see – not necessarily a stripped-down show – but to see the music hold up for itself,” says Atlanta musician Titus Brown, who plays with All the Saints and is also in the Club de Ville audience. “The Black Lips are amazing songwriters, so it’s awesome to see the crowd responding to that.”
The SXSW experience has made one thing clear: The Black Lips are navigating the delicate balance between underground renown and mainstream saturation, trying to maintain indie cred while seeking wider adoration. They’re the type of band that would sooner tip the scales toward credibility over fame.
Of course, the Black Lips would rather have both.
ADAM SHORE, general manager for New York-based Vice Records, stumbled onto the Black Lips in late 2005 at a small underground club in Brooklyn called Magnetic Field. Shore had come to the club to see another act, the King Khan & BBQ Show. But it was the Black Lips with whom he fell in love.
Shore knew the band was on to something when, at the end of its set, the audience ran for the doors; the crowd had mistaken the Black Lips’ use of fireworks with an accidental explosion.
“They startled the shit out of us,” Shore says. And Vice is not a bunch that startles easily. The record label is connected to the irreverent music and culture magazine of the same name, which has published articles offering tips for shacking up with Muslims and giving better blowjobs.
Vice soon signed the Black Lips. Because Shore believed the band’s three prior albums – Self-Titled, We Did Not Know the Forest Spirit Made the Flowers Grow and Let It Bloom – were peppered with great, underheard songs, the label decided to release a live album, Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo. It was recorded last summer in front of a tequila-drunk crowd in Tijuana, and the audience turned concertgoing into a contact sport. Fans in various states of undress – including a masturbating redhead – rolled around on the stage while band members fought off the intrusion with their instruments. And they didn’t skip a beat.
But it was another 2006 show, at New York’s venerable Mercury Lounge, that would go down in Black Lips infamy.
Matt Saturday, a Brooklyn-based blogger, writes that the Black Lips, opening for the hugely popular Australian heavy-metal band Wolfmother, played a set of “killer rock ‘n’ roll” – and then refused to stop, even after the sound guy cut the mics.
“What happened next,” Saturday recalls, “will go down as the craziest thing I have ever seen at a show.”
He and others, including Shore, watched as Alexander started urinating on the stage. “And then it gets good,” Saturday writes. “He gets up, grabs his dick, aims it towards his face and starts pissing in his own mouth! To top it all off, he then spits his pissy saliva all over the goddamn crowd.”
After the show, some members of the audience lined up to shake Alexander’s “piss-soaked” hand, according to Saturday, who notes that iconic New York shock-rocker GG Allin, known for acts such as performing naked and rolling in excrement, “would have been proud.”
As a result of the night’s events, the Black Lips were banned from the Mercury Lounge and two other major New York clubs, Bowery Ballroom and Hammerstein Ballroom. Of course, the mystique surrounding them would only continue to grow – to the point that, a year later, the band would be forgiven. On March 26, the Black Lips not only played Bowery Ballroom, but they sold out the 550-seat venue in advance.
In Shore’s estimation, however, the dynamic of the Black Lips is changing. “When everyone’s expecting you to be so crazy on stage, you can’t keep doing that or you won’t have a show left,” he says. “I think they’ve made a conscious decision to scale back and just focus on their songs.”
But can the Black Lips really be tamed? And more importantly, should they be?
In January, L.A.-based music webzine www.losanjealous.com wrote of the band: “You are so enthralled by the live show and the records, that you think you want to hang with them, maybe invite them over for beers. But then you wise up (read: sober up) and think better of it. They just might end up wrecking your pad and soiling themselves and your sofa.”
From stories such as these, the Black Lips have emerged as unruly rock ‘n’ roll heathens. Is it true they can’t be trusted? If so, is it even logical to think they can rein in the chaos? To shed light on the Black Lips myth, there’s one obvious, and perhaps dangerous, thing to do: Invite them over for dinner.
THE BLACK Lips show up at my house promptly at 8 p.m. It’s been a rough few days. SXSW wrapped up the prior Saturday. The band played Houston Sunday night, followed by New Orleans Monday and Jackson, Miss., Tuesday. They left Jackson at 8 a.m. Wednesday morning to come home — but only for one night. And it wasn’t exactly a night of rest. The band would play a sold-out show at the Earl before heading on a tour of 11 cities in 13 days.
Basically, this is the only time to get some face time with the Black Lips. And they’re probably in need of a good meal, too.
Between bites of hummus, tabbouleh and eggplant stew (when asked the day before if they had any requests, the drummer suggested Mediterranean), the band methodically dismantles the stereotypes about its rock ‘n’ roll ways.
The Black Lips politely carry themselves through dinner and graciously speak of their tiresome misadventures. Tour manager Travis Flagel (wearing a GG Allin T-shirt, appropriately enough) dips in and out of the discussion to field calls from club managers. The conversation quickly drifts from the band’s teenage indiscretions growing up in Dunwoody (Alexander and Swilley once had a private investigator, hired by a friend’s mom, follow them to see if they were corrupting a fellow 16-year-old), to the long line of charismatic preachers from whom Swilley descended (his dad is the head of a Pentecostal megachurch), to Bradley’s recollection of an infamous Athens 40 Watt show (he tried to set his drums aflame, which led to the Black Lips being banned from the club, albeit temporarily), to the story behind guitarist Brown’s gold grill (he bought the $460 fronts, which he brushes daily, with his student-loan money).
Brown, the newest and oldest member of the band (he tells everyone he’s 24, though according to his MySpace page, he’s 29), was the eventual replacement for Ben Eberbaugh, who was killed in 2002 by a woman driving the wrong way on Ga. 400. Eberbaugh’s death came shortly before the Black Lips were supposed to set out on their first tour, and it would take the band more than two years to find a permanent lead guitarist.
Brown recalls crossing paths with Alexander, Swilley and Bradley soon after he’d moved to Atlanta from New Orleans and had taken a job at Junkman’s Daughter in Little Five Points.
“I met these high school kids who wore tight blue jeans and blue-jean jackets. It worked out perfectly. I would outfit them with beer and cartons of cigs.”
“You warped our minds,” Alexander says.
The Black Lips formed seven years ago, when the band’s founding members were too young for driver’s licenses. From those drunken early days, the Black Lips managed to retain a valuable lesson: If you puke, piss and bloody yourself or each other, the people will come. Even before they knew how to play their instruments, the Black Lips’ shows, usually staged at the old 513 Club on Edgewood Avenue, would sell out.
“My mom would drop us off up the street,” Alexander recalls, “so we’d look cool walking up.”
As they got a little older, Alexander says, the antics – originally the unintended consequence of too much booze and too little stomach – changed. The Black Lips figured out how to channel the chaos. That was valuable lesson No. 2: Tailor the onstage craziness to the crowd. “Now we can turn it on at the right time if we need to,” Alexander says.
The one exception is Alexander’s vomiting. It’s basically uncontrollable, the product of really bad indigestion. He says it used to embarrass him, but then he found a way to work his uncomfortable condition into his performance.
Brown sums it up this way: “I think being an entertainer is almost more important than being a musician. I mean, Little Richard is good. But he also puts on a show. The ones that really make it are entertainers. And I do believe we’re entertainers.”
Tonight’s show at the Earl will be one with minimal gross-out factor. That may be because, as Swilley announces mid-dinner, “The bishop’s coming tonight.” The bishop is Swilley’s father, Jim Earl Swilley, the leader of Conyers’ monolithic Church in the Now. His congregation is a somewhat liberal one, operating under the motto, “Real people experiencing the real God in the real world.” Change the “God” to “rock ‘n’ roll,” and the concept could just as well apply to the Black Lips.
“My family, they’ve been on the road forever, preaching,” Swilley says, echoing his own experience as a musician.
By the dinner’s end, no one breaks anything. (Well, Alexander does break a wineglass, a total accident, and makes up for it by apologizing profusely and then helping carry in the dishes.) The house is left intact. The couch remains unsoiled.
And the Black Lips, it turns out, are perfect gentlemen.
IF IT SEEMS as if the Black Lips might have gotten as far as they have on their charm, think again. True, they have an uncanny ability to endear themselves to those who see past their sometimes disgusting facade. The secret to their ascent, however, isn’t their ability to work their fans — and their engineers and their label reps — but, simply, to work.
Rob del Bueno, who in 2002 recorded the band’s first album at his Atlanta studio, Zero Return, recalls how the Black Lips asked him for favor after favor in the face of adversity – and how he happily indulged them, because he appreciated the band’s work ethic.
First they needed to borrow his studio gear for the recording session after their own stuff got wrecked. Then they had to interrupt the session because they’d booked a show at the Earl, opening for Brian Jonestown Massacre. At that point, they asked if they could borrow the studio’s equipment for the gig – including a vintage Ludwig drum kit.
“And then Cole’s like, ‘Well, OK, thanks,’” del Bueno says, “‘but we don’t have a car. Do you think you could drive us to the show?’”
Not only did del Bueno drive them; he then had to postpone the session. That’s because Swilley, on his way home from the gig, flipped over his bike’s handlebars, landed on his face, and had to be taken to the hospital. When he finally made it back to del Bueno’s studio, he had to finish recording vocals with his faced wrapped in bandages.
“At the time,” del Bueno says, “they were a train wreck.”
There was another, more tragic delay. The album, which was being released by L.A.-based label Bomp!, was postponed because of Eberbaugh’s death.
“The question was, what the fuck’s going to happen with this band?” del Bueno recalls thinking. “They’ve got this tour booked. It looks like they’re finally getting some momentum. They’ve got this Bomp! deal. And then, whamo. But they stuck with it.”
Monty Buckles, who filmed the Black Lips’ first video, “Fad,” closely followed their progress from the time they started releasing 7-inches in late 2001. The first time he met them, after he helped the band land a 2003 gig in L.A., “they looked like tiny little kids,” he says. They were in fact teenagers at the time. And the club wouldn’t let them inside until it was time to play.
“They had cartoonishly shitty, junky equipment,” Buckles says. “Everything was so small and so fucked up. Tiny little speakers. Really crappy guitars.”
But to Buckles, the Black Lips’ performance was amazing. And there was something unique about them off the stage, too.
“If you’re around them, you instantly feel paternal,” Buckles says. “Especially with Cole. You just want to pat his head all the time.”
Like more established indie-rock bands, the Black Lips culled their original songs from a ’60s garage-rock template. But Buckles believes the Black Lips were writing better songs than their counterparts – even if they hadn’t quite mastered how to play their instruments.
Buckles was convinced of the band’s talent and kept dragging his friends to Black Lips shows, even after a fight would break out on stage, or the four band members would be “playing different songs at once.” Then things started to change.
At a show in Oakland, Calif., at what Buckles calls a “yuppie-ish sports bar,” a guy who clearly wasn’t your usual Black Lips fan was standing in the front row. Alexander took a big gulp of beer and spewed it all over him. After the show, Buckles noticed the guy buying the band’s CD.
Buckles later invited the Black Lips to stay with him in L.A., after he pooled enough resources to film the video. They’d been touring relentlessly. They were broke. And, according to Buckles, they were “completely unflappable.” It’s a common adjective people offer when describing the band.
They were so unflappable, in fact, that when they ran out of cash, they turned to other food sources. “Here’s this band that’s so great, and they’re eating out of Dumpsters,” Buckles recalls. “It’s easy to make fun of, but the first time I found out about it, I was just really sad.”
A few visits to L.A. later, the Black Lips’ luck had turned. They were booked to play a West Coast tour with Buckles’ band, the Lamps, and the Dirt Bombs. It was around that time that Buckles realized he no longer had to drag his friends to Black Lips shows. By then, people were approaching him on the street, saying “I can’t believe your band is going to play with the Black Lips!”
He took that as a compliment.
“Nothing would make me happier than if the Black Lips became the biggest band in the world,” Buckles says. “It would be the funniest ‘Cribs’ episode ever.”
IN SEPTEMBER, the Black Lips will release their fifth album — the band’s first studio recording after signing to Vice Records. Vice is hardly the kind of label to push for a more radio-friendly product, and the fact that the Black Lips produced the album themselves is testament to the fact that the label trusts their artistic judgment.
The Black Lips don’t exactly face the pressure to conform. But it will be interesting to see if the band can hold on to its gritty aesthetic while reaching for the success of label-mates such as celebrated British MC the Streets and indie-rock phenoms Bloc Party.
Will the new album be able to capture the Black Lips in a way the live shows traditionally haven’t – by emphasizing the songs? And will the band be able to sell out bigger and bigger venues while selling records on an equally grand scale?
If so, will the Black Lips help cure Atlanta’s underappreciated rock ‘n’ roll scene of its long-running plague?
“With the first record contract we signed, they were saying, ‘You have got to get out of Atlanta or you’ll get sucked into the Atlanta syndrome,’” Swilley says, “which is that Atlanta bands really go nowhere.”
But the band stayed. And along with avant-rockers Deerhunter and coolly stylized Snowden, the Black Lips are the biggest thing to happen to Atlanta indie rock in years.
“If one thing blows up, then everybody’s going to run out and try to find the next big thing from the same exact place, whether that’s Seattle or New York or London or Atlanta,” says All the Saints’ Titus Brown. “People don’t realize that it’s not all Southern rock. It’s not all hip-hop. It’s not all country. There’s actually some crazy stuff going on down here.”
Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox, who first saw the Black Lips at the Drunken Unicorn when he was in his late teens and who’s since formed a close personal and professional friendship with the band, says the Black Lips and Deerhunter draw from a similar background and search for a similar sound.
“Every time I watch the Black Lips, I’m like, ‘This is exactly what I want music to sound like,’” Cox says. “And with my band, it’s more like, ‘This is how music comes out of me.’ We have the same aesthetic desire to investigate older sounds and crackling things.”
Justin McNeight, an engineer at the Living Room, the Atlanta studio where the Black Lips recorded their new album in February, can attest that the sound of the record is consistent with the Black Lips’ past recordings – to a point.
“Cole insisted on using a completely broken amplifier for one of his tracks,” McNeight says. “The sound is dying out and crackling and disappearing from time to time. I don’t want to say they were fearful of sounding too clean or well-produced, but they definitely wanted to grime it up.”
But there are some differences between the old Black Lips and the new. McNeight and Shore both say there’s a maturation going on, and it’s obvious the Black Lips have grown more comfortable with their craft.
“I wouldn’t say it’s rough, but it’s cleaner,” Shore says of the new album. “On the other records, if you just kind of peel away a lot of the haze and fuzz, there are really good songs underneath. On this album, you don’t have to peel quite as hard.”
Buckles believes the Black Lips are capable of an ascent as great as that of the White Stripes. Both bands built strong stage personas early on. Both write gritty yet memorable songs. And neither appears to be particularly willing to package itself for mass consumption.
“If you objectively look at the cold, hard economics of it, they are young,” Buckles says of the Black Lips. “They’re photogenic. They work really hard. And they write catchy songs. But also, their recordings aren’t completely clean and don’t sound comparable to other stuff on the radio – to their credit.”
Basically, the Black Lips are the type of band the mainstream needs to build cred – and not vice versa.
“Every once in a while, when people are just so fed up,” Buckles says, “some breath of fresh air will come around and just blow everybody away.”
And if the air isn’t fresh, per se – if it smells faintly of blood, sweat, urine and vomit – then all the better. Because that means the Black Lips have finally arrived.