Sure, most bands would be insulted, but when you're interviewing the Black Lips, it seems like the obvious question: After a half-dozen albums, just how hard is it to sound so fucked up?
"It's not that I like music to sound shitty," answers an amicable Jared Swilley, "I just like it to sound human. And real. I hate robots with all my heart, and vocoders and all that kind of stuff."
In fact, the Atlanta foursome — whose rsum includes overseas riots, one backstage beating and close to two-dozen singles on a dozen different labels — has just released a new album, the impressively titled 200 Million Thousand, which manages to sound even more low-fidelity than its 2007 predecessor, Good Bad Not Evil.
"It's because we got our own studio and did this one ourselves," says Swilley, whose father, a preacher, once blogged about how he's gotten a "good bit of prayer offered to me for the salvation of my son."
"I like to record everything to tape, and our studio has a big room that I wanted to use to our advantage, like they did in the '50s. I mean, even on Elvis records and all those Sun records, they're using one or two mics, and if stuff was too loud, they'd just move whatever was too loud farther away from the mic. As opposed to just using 64 tracks and just bullshit."
Consistent with the band's DIY ethos, new Black Lips songs like "Again & Again" and "The Drop I Hold" wouldn't sound nearly as catchy if the vocals were less distorted, the playing less ragged. Six years into their recording career, the band still produces music that is a shotgun wedding between the primal rock of '60s garage bands and the smirk of early Beastie Boys and Camper Van Beethoven, with odd elements of surf, doo-wop and psychedelia acting as best man and bridesmaids.
How it began
The Black Lips got off to an auspicious start when Greg Shaw's Bomp! Records released the band's self-titled album back in 2003. Being avid record collectors, the Lips held the indie label's legacy in high regard: "I don't know if you can count the Stooges or not," says Swilley of the label that put out a dozen live and rarities albums from Iggy and company. "But the Pebbles series and the Germs reissues that he did are really great. And the Pandoras — I usually don't like '80s garage bands, it always seemed kind of cheesy — but that album is really awesome. There's so much that he did to help preserve so much music and culture."
Although well-spoken and affable offstage, bassist Swilley (who shares vocal duties with bandmates Cole Alexander, Joe Bradley and Ian St. Pe) acknowledges his band's reputation for creating mayhem during live shows. An onstage kiss between band members at a show in India this past January created enough controversy to cancel remaining dates in that country. A few months earlier, stage-diving teens and overzealous bouncers led to a riot at the London club Heaven.
"Those kids up front couldn't have been more than 14 or 15 years old," says Swilley of the incident, which made a big splash on YouTube. "All they wanted to do was stand on the stage and jump back in the crowd and nothing would have happened. But they started taking the kids and just throwing them off really violently — when they were just gonna jump off anyways, you know? — and they took it to the point of running them backstage, pushing them and slapping them around and just being really inappropriate."
Amid the chaos, Swilley himself managed a genuinely impressive stage dive, his faux Hofner Beatle bass held high. ("It's an Epiphone," he admits. "I go through basses too fast to have a nice one.") Ever the diplomat, he also grabbed a mic and let the crowd know there were 700 of them and only 10 bouncers.
"So then everyone started screaming and throwing beer at the bouncers and cheering when they'd get hit. It's kind of like, I loved it when we were in school and you'd get mad at the teacher and everybody would start coughing and they couldn't do anything. It was kind of like that mentality."
The bouncers, as it turned out, were less amused.
"After the show, they were super-pissed at me," says Swilley. "They just picked me up and rammed me through three doors with my head first. Then they slammed me on the ground, and one of them used his knee on my back to hold me there. I kept telling them that America was the greatest country on earth and he was a pussy for being British — anything I could think of to really make them mad."
Yet, for all their delinquencies, the Black Lips do have their serious moments, even if it's usually kind of hard to tell.
The sensitive side
On the song "Katrina," for instance, they anthropomorphize the devastating hurricane, much as artists of the past might have personified trouble or sorrow or the blues.
And in "How Do You Tell a Child That Someone Has Died," they croon, "He was killed by a motorist in a drunken act of rage / Let him live on in your heart / Now we must turn the page."
Delivered in the deadest of deadpans, the sentiment veers dangerously close to becoming maudlin, even for fans who know that the band's first guitarist, Ben Eberbaugh, was killed in a 2002 auto accident.
"He was the first person I'd ever known that had died — besides, like, relatives that I'd met once or twice — and it was weird," Swilley recalls. "Our record had just come out and it was a couple days away from the first tour."
So was the song a way of dealing with all that?
"Maybe subconsciously," says Swilley. "But we had since had a lot of friends die. And we were also listening to Red Sovine and a lot of those sappy trucker tapes. And they always had these real fucked-up ballads like 'Teddy Bear' and that kind of stuff."
That said, Swilley insists the band has no desire to become whiny or, worse still, get political: "Why the hell would I be an authority on anything like that, when all we do is make kids dance and have a good night?"
"I understand growing," admits Swilley, "but I'm not into the whole Tibetan thing and the Beastie Boys slagging their old songs as being too misogynistic. I mean, it was just fun, and they were just supposed to be young and stupid."