Black Lips: How to Go Pro at Punk

Music Features Black Lips
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On Thursday at South by Southwest, in the lobby of a South Austin Embassy Suites, the Black Lips talk mostly about Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus. Kanye West and hip-hop fashion, too—the leather kilts and chainmail face masks and whatnot. “Dude, I saw A$AP Rocky at this Snoop Dogg thing in New York and he fucking had a purse and a dress,” says guitarist Cole Alexander. “I was like, ‘man, hip hop has come a long fucking way.’”

They’re also ordering dinner and planning their set for the Vice showcase they’ll play in a few hours’ time just over the river at Sixth and Red River. They just closed out Austin Psych Fest’s day party on the patio of East Austin’s Hotel Vegas, and they’re adding and subtracting from that show’s setlist. The band is still in the process of figuring out how to incorporate songs from their seventh album, Underneath the Rainbow, into their live shows. Should they play “Funny”? Yes, you should play “Funny,” I tell them. But we’re still talking about pop stars.

“I love Justin Bieber now,” says bassist Jared Swilley. “I have a completely new respect for him.”

They recently saw Bieber’s deposition video that TMZ got a hold of earlier in March, the one in which Bieber hilariously evades questions with such an over-the-top dickishness that it’s borderline endearing. “You know what I did when I was his age?” Swilley continues. “I used to break into my school and just smash shit. Everyone’s a dick at that age. When you add a billion dollars and tons of drugs and Lamborghinis…I just completely flipped on him. When I saw him on camera, I felt empathetic. I was like, ‘Okay, you’re just like I was in high school.’ Leave those kids alone. And Miley Cyrus? Tons of girls wear short shorts. Why are there 40-year-olds talking about how a 20-year-old shouldn’t show their ass? I just think it’s lame that there are 45-year-olds in their office saying, ‘Oh, I can’t believe what that girl did.’”

Alexander laments how Bieber takes himself too seriously, and the conversation becomes one of self-awareness. If Kanye doesn’t see the humor in his ridiculous interviews or wardrobe choices, should it affect how we laugh at them? Is it less okay to enjoy it all if he’s not in on the joke? “I interpret it as high comedy,” says Swilley. “The same way I look at pro wrestling and Justin Bieber’s deposition. I don’t know if they know that, but I perceive it that way.”

“Everyone interprets art in different ways,” he concludes.

We talk for a few more minutes about OutKast and other things that don’t have any direct connection to the band or their new album before they eventually head upstairs to smoke a little pinner joint and relax before the show. Guitarist Ian St. Pé disappears with his fiancé; drummer Joe Bradley lies on his bed eating almonds; Swilley has to do some legal paperwork relating to a border issue. They don’t know it now, but Alexander will get sick and Swilley will wait for him as Bradley and St. Pé head to the venue in a cab. Later the two Dunwoody, Ga., natives who have been playing music together since their early teens will walk across the Colorado River together into town, carrying their gear through the unseasonably cold Austin night.

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A few hours earlier, when it was a little warmer, Alexander took his pants off during the climax of their last song at the Austin Psych Fest party. The band continued to play, as did Alexander, naked from the waist down, still wearing a visibly filthy white jacket adorned with some sort of puka shell military decoration, as well as a small black beanie that sat atop an askew haircut that looked like it could have belonged to a precocious child. Earlier, with his pants still on, he had been approached by an Embassy Suites employee who feared a bum had wandered into the lobby. There can’t be many grown men fitting his description who would receive wild, adoring applause upon exposing themselves in front of a hundred some-odd people, but such was the case for Alexander on this particular evening on the Hotel Vegas patio.

The crowd now at its most rabid, his bandmates pushing the energy higher and higher, and riding a surge of adrenaline unlike anything any of us could imagine, Alexander quickly laid his guitar face up on the stage, joined it horizontally and…well, he fucked the guitar. The gentle open-lipped kiss he shared with St. Pé earlier in the set was rendered tame. Waves of penis distortion reverberated through the cool Austin air, and the white noise of this and the band and the fans grew louder. Then in one motion he got up and hurled himself into the audience. The band’s tour manager, who for the past 40 minutes had been leaning stoically on the side of the stage, sprang after him into the fray. The damage was limited to an anonymous slap on the ass.

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The Black Lips are self-aware. They actually might be one of the most down-to-earth, self-aware bands in America. They’re certainly one of the most consistent—they’ve been recording albums and touring regularly for over a decade with the same four members. That doesn’t happen by accident. Despite the reckless image, the partying, the wild stage antics and so on, they know exactly what they’re doing and how best to do it.

This isn’t to say that Alexander had any idea he was going to get naked in the middle of the Psych Fest performance—he most definitely did not and says that if he had thought about it beforehand his dick would have shriveled up—but the band knows that such occurrences are liable to take place at their shows, and nothing phases them. Over the years these occurrences have tended to irritate or offend the same types of 40- or 45-year-olds looking down their noses at Bieber and Miley and Kanye, but offending people is the last thing they’re trying to do.

Above all else, they’re just trying to have a good time and entertain the people who paid to see them. If someone gets offended by two dudes kissing on stage, it sure as hell isn’t the band’s problem. They’re in on the joke, though, and the non-offended who are laughing and cheering are laughing and cheering with them, not at them. Everybody’s on the same page.

Along with their self-awareness, it’s this basic commitment to entertaining that has sustained them through all of the debauchery. The ability to continue to make music and play it for people takes supreme precedence over everything else, and they know not to let anything get in the way of it. Over 10-plus years, they’ve mastered how to stay just over the right side of that line that so many other fast-living bands have fallen over. They’re professionals.

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There’s no real consensus as to the best Black Lips album. 2005’s Let It Bloom best embodies the raw, lo-fi sloppiness that has long been their signature. 2007’s Good Bad Not Evil, their Vice debut, was their first album to gain widespread acclaim, placing the Lips on the national stage as irreverent flower punks. They played “O Katrina” on Conan, still their only appearance on late-night TV; “Veni Vidi Vici” was featured on the short-lived ABC series Dirty Sexy Money; and “Bad Kids,” the group’s identity-defining anthem of rebellion, was included on the 500 Days of Summer soundtrack. The same year they were deemed the “Hardest Working Band at SXSW” by The New York Times, who also called them a “band in demand” and also “an adorable bunch.” Good Bad Not Evil and the rest of the Black Lips’ first five albums were recorded without a producer and sounded every bit as chaotic as the raucous live shows they’d become famous for.

The last of these was 2009’s disappointing 200 Million Thousand, and in an effort to rebound they hired Grammy-winning British producer Mark Ronson to help record their sixth album, Arabia Mountain. Ronson was mostly known for his work with mainstream pop acts, but had also produced records for artists like Richard Swift and, most notably as far as the Lips were concerned, Amy Winehouse. Looking back on the experience, Alexander admits that working with a producer after over a decade of doing everything themselves “took some transitioning,” and Bradley remembers the frustration of having his drumming rhythms tinkered with for the first time. “Creatively it was a little bit hard for me to swallow,” he says. “But I got over it.”

Ronson knew not to try to turn the Black Lips into something they weren’t, though—“The first thing he said was y’all do your thing,” says Swilley—and the result was the most tightly crafted and accessible album the band had recorded. Drivers like “Modern Art,” “Bicentennial Man” and “The Lie” were propelled by a more refined, pop-oriented energy while still retaining the band’s ragged charm. Hardcore Black Lips fans might have a hard time putting the album ahead of Let It Bloom or Good Bad Not Evil, but there’s no denying it contains some of their best songs.

Ronson wanted to record Arabia Mountain at the Brooklyn studio of Daptone’s Thomas Brenneck, but the space wasn’t available at the time. Brenneck stopped by the sessions to help conjure a few particular drum sounds, though, and briefly met the band. “I didn’t know much about them,” he remembers. “They were super sweet.” Their paths would cross again at a festival in Australia, where Brenneck was playing guitar for Charles Bradley, whose debut album he had also produced. He and the Black Lips hung out, “partied and shit,” and after expressing their admiration for Daptone, the band asked Brenneck if he wanted to produce their next album. “I was pumped,” he says.

The Black Lips would later have a similar conversation with Patrick Carney of The Black Keys while hanging out in a Mexico City hotel room. “I don’t think either of them knew at the time,” Swilley says about Brenneck and Carney’s awareness that they wouldn’t be producing the entire album. “I don’t think we conveyed that to them.”

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Backstage at Hotel Vegas, after Alexander had been corralled and was able to get his pants on, the unkempt guitarist stood wild-eyed. His bandmates were laughing, only partially in disbelief. Various backstage people passed by and gave him high-fives and fist bumps and told him how awesome he was, but his mind still seemed to be lost somewhere in that spontaneous moment on stage. Everyone was smiling. Bradley passed out tallboys of Lone Star. A girl with a “Punk is Dad” t-shirt and her friend came back and offered Swilley a pull of a bottle of Jack Daniels under the condition that he break the bottle’s seal. After a while, a woman stole the band away from their fans and led them into an alley adjacent to the stage for a quick photo shoot and interview. As soon as they were in front of the camera, a switch flipped and the four of them struck silly poses and mugged like it was second nature. It was their job, after all. They modeled as effortlessly and expertly as most of us navigate the programs and protocols our own careers require our mastery of on a daily basis.

After the photo shoot, they spent a few minutes talking to Sean Lennon, whose band The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger had played earlier, in the alley before getting in the van to head back to the hotel before the Vice show. Leftover energy from Alexander’s dramatic unveiling swirled faintly outside. Everyone was in good spirits. Swilley wondered if anyone had anything left of a joint.

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Underneath the Rainbow was recorded last summer over a handful of sessions between Dunham Studios in Brooklyn with Brenneck and Black Bird Studios in Nashville with Carney. Both producers served as facilitators rather than manipulators. Suggestions were made here and there—guitar tunings would be honed, microphone placements would be altered, subtle overdubs would be implemented—but as far as the actual songs went, the band already knew what they wanted. “Patrick and Tommy were just kind of buddies hanging out,” says Swilley.

The main difference between the two producers was that Carney used Pro Tools while Brenneck, a disciple of vintage soul, cut everything on tape. When the sessions were over, all of the recordings were sent to famed engineer Jimmy Douglass, who has worked with everyone from The Rolling Stones to Justin Timberlake, for mixing and to make sure the digital and analog cuts sounded consistent.

Underneath the Rainbow’s first single, “Boys in the Wood,” a down-tempo backwoods growler that signifies the album’s more countrified sound, came out of the sessions with Brenneck, who sounded borderline giddy as he recounted his experience working with the band. He detailed some of his contributions to the album, like the horns during the “Boys in the Wood” chorus or a backward saxophone tape loop on “Funny,” another single-worthy track and personal favorite of his, but he stressed the band’s control over the project. “I pretty much stayed out of the way,” he says. “They came in with good tunes. They came in rehearsed.” More than anything, though, he praised the Black Lips’ work ethic, attention to detail and focus in the studio.

He talked about how St. Pé had never really been pleased with the sound of his guitar on previous albums and how the two of them would sit and work out tones together. He gushed over how meticulous Bradley was about songs he wasn’t even singing on and how the drummer would pace back and forth in the control room giving notes on Alexander’s diction. He praised the brilliance of some of the ideas Alexander came in with and how beautiful his guitar playing was. He remembered how he and Swilley stayed up until 4 a.m. getting the vocals just right on “Smiling,” Swilley’s song about a brief stint in jail, and how the bassist came back in the next day at noon wanting to cut them all over again…and then how he wanted to cut them again when they came back for another session two months later after having worked some of the new songs out on the road.

“They’re like-minded, they have the same references, they have a clear idea of how they want it to sound,” says Brenneck. “I really just think it’s them just taking the time to make it sound the way they hear it in their head as opposed to just showing up and tearing through songs like a live gig and putting that out.”

This “show up and tear through songs” approach is what the Lips employed on their first five albums, at least relative to the care they put into Underneath the Rainbow, which was recorded over multiple months in multiple sessions with multiple producers. Arabia Mountain was the first time they really poured their energy into making the absolute best album they could, but they were still just learning how to work with a producer and really go deep with an album. Brenneck mentions how Ronson had hired people to tune the drums and guitars in between takes, how there were certain things Ronson was doing on Arabia Mountain that the band assumed responsibility for on Underneath the Rainbow. Now that they have the resources and know-how to actually record the songs as they hear them in their heads, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they want to do as much of it themselves as possible.

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Regardless of the quality of the albums they put out, the Black Lips are never going to be a band for everyone. The night after the Psych Fest and Vice shows, they were one of several artists slated to cover a Lou Reed song as part of a tribute show at Austin’s gorgeous Paramount Theatre. A colleague of mine said bluntly that he hated the Black Lips, citing a time he saw them piss on each other on stage years back. Some people just aren’t down with stuff like that, and I guess you can’t really blame them.

In 2014, they might be working with big-name producers and their songs might be in a commercial or movie here and there, but to many they’ll always be the uncontrollable wild men known for pissing and kissing and spitting and vomiting on stage, for breaking glass and inciting mini-riots. At heart they still are that band. Ask anyone who saw more of Cole Alexander than they bargained for at Hotel Vegas. For fans, such displays reaffirm that despite everything, the Black Lips haven’t compromised their punk values. In at least one very significant way, they still don’t give a fuck, and being reassured of this is worth seeing a dick now and then. The band knows they haven’t really changed either, of course. They know that some measure of mayhem is still on the menu every time they take the stage. If you ask them how they’ve matured over the years, they’ll talk about their musicianship and how they used to not even play notes during shows, not their behavior.

Before it was their turn to pay tribute to Lou Reed at the Paramount, Lucinda Williams sang a gorgeous seven-minute version of “Pale Blue Eyes.” It was beautiful. The audience sat enraptured throughout. A tear or two might have been shed. Then Lucinda left the stage, the Black Lips were introduced and Alexander promptly took a jab at the man they were there to honor: “We wanted to play Lulu in its entirety,” he said, referencing Reed’s disastrous 2011 collaboration with Metallica, “But the amps aren’t big enough.”

Not many people got the joke. It wasn’t exactly a Black Lips crowd. They instead launched into a wild, jangly version of “Run, Run, Run.” Bradley lurched away on the drums, Swilley and St. Pé played standing next to each other, leaning in to a single mic to provide the “run, run, run” harmonies, and Alexander, the lead man for this particular song, staggered around the front of the stage playing guitar and barking the verses. At one point he tilted his head back and hawked a gigantic loogie toward the theater’s ornate ceiling, arranging himself under it to catch it in his mouth on its way back down, continuing to play the entire time. I’m sure there were plenty of 40- and 45-year olds in the audience wondering who the hell these assholes thought they were.

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