The Black Lips play the Belly Up Saturday, April 5.
The Black Lips know how to talk dirty to the attention-starved, their guttural music a promise hissed in the ear of the needy. And they’re a damn good time. Any band write-up includes stumbling descriptions of on-stage nudity, kissing, urinating, or vomiting. Maybe there’s mention of clubs banning the group for those very antics; of bassist Jared Swilley and guitarist Cole Alexander, who formed the Black Lips back in their middle school years, getting kicked out of high school. But it’s not who Atlanta’s rockers are anymore -- at least, not entirely. Equal parts pop wild, dirty blues, and garage punk, the Black Lips are still here for a good time and a great show, and on Saturday, April 5, the Belly Up becomes their playground.
They’ve been at this for 15 years now, no longer inexperienced teens figuring out instruments behind a veil of show-making entertainment (Alexander has said that they studied James Brown to that end). The release of last month’s Underneath the Rainbow, produced by the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, captures the band’s persona, probably because they didn’t try too hard to do it. That’s not to say they don’t care. But these guys are organic, not overly calculating in studio, with Swilley, Alexander, Ian Saint Pé (guitar) and Joe Bradley (drums) each bringing the songs he wrote to record, and together finding the album therein. The result hurts at times, the way music is meant to -- pulling at something unrecognizable or forgotten, enticing you to listen on repeat if only to figure out what the hell they’ve hit on.
Maybe it’s not as serious as all that. But the speak-sing vocals and hypnotic guitar charm regardless, as do the Southerners themselves -- however unconventionally. Here, Swilley talks travel, sunken treasure, chivalry, and more from the road en route to Solana Beach for tomorrow night’s show.
Hannah Lott-Schwartz: With tours to the Middle East, India, and the like taking the Black Lips to six continents, you guys must enjoy the travel aspect of touring. Where else do you want to go?
Jared Swilley: I’d really like to go more into Southeast Asia, like Malaysia and Indonesia. We’ve gotten a lot of response from there. Also I’d like to get more into South America. We just did Bogotá for the first time, which was really awesome.
HLS: How was Columbia?
JS: Oh, it was great. It’s crazy going to a place that you’ve never been to before, and you don’t know if anyone knows you. But all these people knew about us, and we made a lot of friends, and they showed us around. It was awesome. That’s the great thing about getting able to travel in a band -- like with a band. When you go places, you’re not just a tourist. It’s like you’re meeting these friends for the first time, and they kind of show you the ropes. It’s really fortunate being able to travel like that.
HLS: That’s gotta be one of the perks of being on the road so much.
JS: I mean, it’s cool. You meet people’s families, their parents, hang out at the bars they go to. Yeah, it’s really nice.
HLS: Congrats on the new album, by the way. It sounds darker than previous records. Where does that come from, or would you disagree?
JS: I’m not sure. I thought it sounded kind of darker, but I don’t really know why. We never really have a concept for a record or talk about where we want to go with it or anything. It’s just basically everyone writes their songs, and when it’s time to go into the studio, we record all the songs that everyone’s been writing and just pick out the ones that sound the best. So there’s not really rhyme or reason to it. I do think it sounds a little darker, but I’m not sure why or where that came from.
HLS: Did you guys spend much time in the studio for this one?
JS: So this record and the last record are probably the ones that we spent the most time in the studio with. But it’s still not that long. I’d say maybe we did 20 days or something like that, maybe a little more. But usually we’re pretty quick in the studio. But we try now to spend a little more time. We used to just do it out of sheer lack of funds and resources, so we’d have to go in and do it as fast as we could because we didn’t have any money to record. Now we can take our time a little more -- if we don’t like something we can do it over.
HLS: Is there anything else you thought you might do other than write music? You started when you were pretty young.
JS: I’m glad that I fell into this profession, because there’s a bunch of others that I don’t think I’d be very good at. I guess maybe be an explorer or a treasure hunter, something like that.
HLS: There’s good money in that.
JS: Yeah, there’s still three million sunken ships that haven’t been discovered yet in the Atlantic Ocean alone. So think on that a little bit.
HLS: How does being from the South come out in your music?
JS: It’s where pretty much pop music came from. You had all these cultures coming together in one place at a certain time, forced to be together, so all this music just got mixed up and then you had this crazy brew of gospel, country, and blues, and then came the rock and roll. You kind of grow up with it there. My father was a minister in a gospel church, or is, and my grandfather as well, and all my uncles, so I grew up singing church songs. I think there’s a big musical tradition down there.
HLS: Gospel has influenced a lot of musicians -- not always necessarily the religious aspect, but the community.
JS: The thing I love about gospel music is you can’t get anything musically more honest and raw and open and intense as that. Even the best rock and roll song in the world is still distinctly about some chick or cruising around on a Friday night. Gospel music, these people are singing about their relationship with God. You can’t really get more passionate than that, because you can’t recreate that belief with that much conviction thinking about something else.
HLS: You guys are known for your stage antics, and it’s easy to write off bands that entertain well as just being a fun time. Have you had to reckon with that in the past?
JS: I think the records speak for themselves. It would be easy write us off if we weren’t actually making good songs. But as far as all that goes, a lot of it’s drummed up, like stuff you read, and a lot of that stuff we did when we were teenagers, and there wasn’t that many people watching. We did that in the beginning just to put on a good show because we weren’t very good at playing, and we’re still just trying to put on a good show that’s entertaining. Basically all we’re going to do is go out there and make everyone have a really good time. That’s all that counts.
HLS: Do you guys still have the Black Lips Fan Hotline?
JS: Oh yeah, we used to have that because there was this phone company -- I guess they were trying to become like a hip phone company -- and they gave us a free phone. Since we couldn’t split one phone between four people, we just turned it into a hotline when we were on tour, and we’d just talk on the phone to fans all day.
HLS: Did you get some weird ish from that?
JS: Yeah, really weird. We got a suicide call -- that’s when we pretty much stopped doing it, because that was really creepy. I don’t know, it might have been a prank, but they seemed pretty genuine about it. But most of the time, it was like probably a teenage girl that would call, and they'd be like, "Hello? Is this the Black Lips?" And you’re like, "Yeah," and then you’d hear a bunch of laughs and then just a hang up. But it was cool, we’d give dating tips; guys would call up and ask for tips on how to get chicks. We’re pretty good at that, so we gave like fatherly advice. We’d give like restaurant recommendations, and be like, oh, well take her to this place and then pull her chair out for her, hold the door open.
HLS: That Southern thing coming through.
JS: Yeah, well, that’s chivalry.
Hannah Lott-Schwartz, a San Diego native, recently moved back to the area after working the magazine-publishing scene in Boston. Now she’s straight trolling SD for all the music she missed while away. Want to help? Hit her up with just about anything at all over on Twitter, where -- though not always work-appropriate -- she means well.