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The Black Lips' Telenovela for Weirdos

Cole Alexander talks gardening, stage antics, the Middle East and death

It’s farm season in Georgia. Off of a farmer’s truck, Cole Alexander pulls fresh peaches, sweet potatoes, smoked peppers and heirloom tomatoes. He likes to cover his sweet potatoes in honey, use his tomatoes for a Georgia specialty: tomato sandwiches.

“I like uphill gardening or gardening at night,” Alexander tells me. “I grow habaneros and I like fried green tomatoes, but I don’t get enough sun. This one tomato just stayed half-ripe for like a year.”

Alexander is the guitarist and vocalist of the Black Lips -- perhaps the final packaging of a ‘70s punk ethos wrapped in today’s tinsel of garage rock.

Watch the newest video from new album "Satan's Graffiti or God's Art?" below.

In their early years, the Black Lips gained notoriety largely because of their controversial theatrics, which included vomiting and urination.

“In the beginning, we were relying on stage antics to make up for a lack of technical musical ability,” Alexander explains to me over the phone. “I think musically we’ve gotten a little better over the years.”

According to Alexander, unlike punk provocateur GG Allin, the expulsion of bodily fluids was never a defining characteristic of the band: “It just has to be spontaneous. If I have to pee then maybe I’ll pee on stage. If we do something crazy, a journalist writes about it over and over, but it might have just happened once.”

Throughout the conversation, Alexander remains passionate, energetic and inquisitive. He’s less GG Allin and more the old school showmen he admires -- James Brown, Michael Jackson and Prince -- because they were able to manage the delicate balance between theatrics and music.

Five years ago, the Black Lips toured the Middle East -- a potential recipe for disaster given their press-fueled raunch and the region’s climate of turmoil and cultural conservatism. Alexander looks back on the experience with humor and considerable regard.

According to him, “Beirut was really loose. In Cairo, it was a little more conservative. In Iraq, it was even more conservative. We played a Muslim youth center, and a lot of them had never seen a rock & roll show. We had to plug directly into the soundboard and had to use a suitcase for a kick drum. The parents walked out, but the kids liked it -- they danced really awkwardly,” he says chuckling. “We had a bad experience in India where I kissed Ian. We tried not to be offensive to their culture, but we didn’t hold back.”

Holding back isn’t in Alexander’s DNA. It’s why Deerhunter -- with whom he’s been friends since the age of 18 -- invite him to the studio “just to get the vibe right,” why Bradford Cox (frontman of Deerhunter) formed the side project Ghetto Cross with him in 2008.

Still, both Alexander and I find it somewhat strange that Deerhunter decided to go on tour with kings of cheesy Southern pop rock Kings of Leon. But there is something to be said, as Alexander suggests, about it being exciting to play for everyday people, to reach a broader audience that you wouldn’t normally reach.

Deerhunter touring with Kings of Leon is really just a less punk version of the Black Lips touring in war-torn regions of the Middle East with the threat of death looming on all sides.

But Alexander is well-versed in death, and he doesn’t seem too anxious about it. The band’s first guitarist died three days before they were supposed to leave for tour, and their close friend and spiritual style guru Bobby Ubangi died of cancer in 2009. Alexander wrote the song “I’ll Be With You” after Ubangi died.

“I guess sometimes it can be inspiring; it conjures up such strong feelings that it materializes in some way or another,” Alexander remarks ambivalently about death. “Have you ever tried DMT?”

I tell him I haven’t tried it (the so-called spirit molecule that’s supposed to give you a near-death experience), but I recently saw a Netflix documentary on the subject.

During a depressive episode, Alexander claims DMT -- and the sloth he hallucinated on the ceiling -- helped get him off his butt so he could write a song: “I felt really emotional. I started crying while I was playing.”

Sure, the Black Lips have lost members, and they’ve been messed up on drugs, but they’re really not that morbid, Alexander maintains.

“We’re a telenovela for weirdos or something -- a rock & roll weirdo telenovela,” he concludes.

Fitting, then, that Alexander finds San Diego’s own king of weirdos Gary Wilson to be “super inspirational.” Wilson opens up for the Black Lips on Wednesday, June 21, at the Belly Up in Solana Beach, and if there’s one telenovela you watch in your life, let it be this episode.

Rutger Rosenborg was almost a Stanford neuroscientist before he formed Ed Ghost Tucker. He now plays in the Lulls and makes music on his own when he's not writing. Follow his updates on Facebook or contact him directly.

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