Riotous Southern punks Black Lips on their new album and other folk tales from the road

Riotous Southern punks Black Lips on their new album and other folk tales from the road

Stories from Under The Rainbow — We caught up with Black Lips bassist Jared Swilley during on of the worst ice storms in the history of Atlanta.

Can anything stop the Black Lips? For fifteen years now, they’ve reigned supreme as garage rock’s own clown princes of debauchery. Emerging like something out of Harmony Korine’s most fevered imaginings around the turn of the millennium, the Atlanta, Georgia, band’s roughneck mix of punk, rock and soul connected with bad kids the world over, and yet there’s a sensitivity and intelligence about the group that often goes unremarked upon.

In 2012, the band – currently comprised of founding members Cole Alexander (guitar and vocals) and Jared Swilley (bass) along with original drummer Joe Bradley and guitarist Ian Saint Pé (who joined in 2004) – toured parts of the middle east affected by the Arab Spring, a move which might’ve seemed like a cheap grab for publicity in the hands of some but, with the ’Lips, came off as brave and touching. “We just want to learn as much from the cultures that we experience as they can, hopefully, learn from us,” drummer Joe Bradley said at the time. “We just wanna get them movin’.”

The Black Lips’ rep for onstage buffoonery remains undiminished despite the fact that every member is now on the pipe-and-slippers side of thirty, but interviews reveal a group paradoxically out of step with the image they so gleefully embrace. With new album Underneath The Rainbow – their seventh in total and the first in three years – due in March, we spoke to founding member and bassist Jared Swilley about his southern roots, soul connections and making Ryan Gosling throw up.

Hi Jared. How are you?
Ah man, you just got me at the right time. We just woke up to one of the worst ice storms in the history of the state. Obama declared a state of emergency yesterday, it’s insane. I went to the grocery store two days ago with the announcement, it was like a two-hour queue just to pay. But it’s kind of fun ’cos it’s all weird and apocalyptic, and everyone’s gonna be indoors drinking for the next couple of days.

We hear you’ve been developing a ‘smell machine’ for your live shows, how will that work?
Years ago I was dating this girl whose brother-in-law sold scents to, like, meat factories or shops like Wal-Mart or the US military. He sold scents to change people’s reactions or how they were feeling, and I thought that was a crazy thing that I would wanna incorporate into a live show. We’re still working on the technology but we want it to change with every song — we have one song called ‘Dumpster Diving’ which we’d like to give a garbage essence, and there’s another one called ‘Drugs’, which we could give a marijuana smell. They actually manufacture moon scent which I think is ridiculous because nobody knows what the moon smells like. They also have a synthetic female hormone smell that we used in Texas at this outdoor festival, which actually made Ryan Gosling throw up! Cole threw up too and I felt kinda ill, I guess we made it a little too potent.

So what does the new album smell like?
Well we’ve kind of given it a musky, manly smell. It’s an aged, peaty musk, maybe like a nice Scotch or something. Like a fatherly figure almost, but also kinda drunk sometimes.

You called the record Underneath the Rainbow, was there a specific connection you were trying to make there?
We actually wanted to call it ‘Dark Side Of The Rainbow’, but then after a few Google searches I found out that’s a thing where you play Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon alongside the The Wizard of Oz film, and I didn’t want any miscommunication going on. We like to leave things up to interpretation. Like now with all the gay marriage stuff going on, maybe some people will think years down the line that we were true pioneers in the field of human rights, we were warriors for social justice.

It’s up to individual states whether they allow gay marriage in the US, right?
There are I think eleven states now [it’s actually seventeen, plus the district of Columbia] that recognise gay marriage. Georgia will I believe be one of the last, right after Alabama and Mississippi. But it’s falling really fast. It’s like during the civil rights era with the Jim Crow segregation laws, instead of having a giant protest about it, they would do things in Atlanta like desegregate the libraries because no one would care about that, and then after that they’d say, ‘Well, we may as well desegregate the post offices,” stuff like that, and then the dominoes start to fall fast.

Politicians are too afraid to make a stance on it but they wait until they can see the public perception. And I think two years from now everyone’s gonna look back on the gay marriage thing and laugh and be like, ‘Why was that such a big deal?’ My dad’s trying to get married right now, but unfortunately he’s in Georgia and he wants to wait until the law’s passed there. But the south’s a different country. I mean, we were a different country.

The new record sounds rootsier than the last, and it got me wondering to what extent you identify as a Southern band?
It actually means a lot to me. If you were to ask me where I’m from I would say the South, I consider myself a Southerner before I consider myself an American.

Do many people feel like that where you’re from?
Not as much in Atlanta or Nashville ’cos there’re a lot of Yankees here, but other places definitely. We have more of a regional culture — the rest of American culture is more like TV culture, or media culture. It’s just a different set of values and customs, and that goes for black and white. Maybe there’s an inferiority complex going on here because we are kind of the butt of jokes for the rest of the country, especially in the North East, but the thing is in the South we invented popular music. Blues and country, gospel, soul and jazz, it all came from here because you had impoverished European immigrants mixing with Caribbean and African slaves. You were getting the poorest people in the world and the most downtrodden people in an agrarian society, coming together with their own folk music and mixing, and that’s why it’s so interesting. Like, rock’n’roll came from white hillbilly music, Irish folk music and West African slave chants.

How has that cultural mix shaped Black Lips’ identity as a group of musicians?
Well, like most punk bands we thought of ourselves as outcasts growing up. But then you come from a region where everyone’s an outcast, and it kinda gives you this mentality where you really have to stick together with your people, ’cos you’re an alien to everyone else. There’s a lot of musical tradition here — I grew up onstage singing in the church, my dad was a preacher and pretty much all my family plays music.

You wrote a really nice tribute on Facebook to another Atlanta performer, 1960s soul man The Mighty Hannibal, who died earlier this year. You two were good friends I believe? Was there anything specifically he was able to teach you as a musician?
Oh, he taught me so much! He was like, ‘You’re not a musician!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah I am,’ and he was like, ‘No, you’re an entertainer. Musicians are the ones that arrange a record or engineer it, you’re here to put on a show, to entertain people, because they pay money for it.’ I talked to him about twelve hours before he died, he was asking me to hook him up with Cee-Lo and OutKast ’cos he was moving back to Atlanta and he had some projects in mind. And he was blind and seventy-six years old! But I mean, he’s another Southern figure because he was one of the first guys to play the Chitlin’ Circuit [a string of venues in the South where they had African American performers and integrated crowds during the age of racial segregation], and he had one of the first integrated bands, which was very unusual back then. He got blacklisted from a lot of radio stations and it killed his career because he got in with the Nation of Islam and started hanging out with Black Panthers. But he grew up just down the street from where I grew up.

I heard you wanted Phil Spector to produce the new record, how would that have even worked [he’s currently in jail for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson]?
Actually you just call the prison he’s at. Getting in touch with him is really easy. He produced a record for his wife while he was in prison. It sounded like a cool idea on paper, but when you get down to it they only allow maybe thirty minutes tops on the phone every day, so it would have been a logistical nightmare.

Did you manage to get the request through?

And he said what, exactly?
I’m not sure, that was another Cole thing. Actually on the previous record he got in contact with Charles Manson about writing some lyrics for us, but I think he got a bit spooked at some point and didn’t want to do it. Which I’m kinda glad about because I mean, he’s crazy, he’s done some nasty things. The thing is with Phil Spector, I’m a super fan of his, but I don’t wanna glorify someone for something horrible they did.

You worked with Patrick Carney of The Black Keys on some songs which appear on the new record, how did that come about?
We actually played a show in Mexico City with The Black Keys and a bunch of other bands. We were all partying in a hotel, and Patrick offered to produce some songs, and it just worked itself out. Patrick just has this thing where he’ll say, ‘Oh that’s a great song guys, why don’t we do this and they’ll play it on the radio?’ This is why Black Keys are one of the biggest bands in the States. But unfortunately there’s a lot of censorship here, so a lot of our songs are immediately omitted from radio play. We don’t even use cuss words! There’s one song we can’t get on radio ’cos we say, “Sucking milk from a titty,” which is insane ’cos that’s like a key building block to life! I’m standing on my front porch right now and there’s literally ice falling from the sky!

That doesn’t sound good. I can’t even imagine what that looks like, to be honest.
It looks weird. There’s this tree in my yard that really wants to fall on my house. It’s global chaos. Something’s not right.

You got [legendary rock snapper] Mick Rock to shoot the cover for your new record, what was it like trading war stories with him?
Oh man, he had a treasure trove of ’em. Usually a photographer’s taking pictures of you, but he was the star of that shoot. This is a typical Mick Rock photo, it’s like [does surprisingly credible cockney accent], ‘Look at me you facking cunt, look at me you facking cunt! You look like a rent boy, you’ve been up your mother’s arse! Okay now I’m done.’ It was literally twelve hours of getting called a cunt, a cocksucker and a rent boy. But it was hilarious and insane and we got it all on video. One thing he did tell me, I asked him if Mick Jagger and Bowie were really gay, and he was like, ‘Mate, one thing you’ve got to understand, if you wanted to get the birds [in the 1960s/1970s], you had to act like a bit of a puff.’”