When is a new band not a new band? More often than you’d think, actually. Chances are most acts that emerge from a cloud of hyperbole have done the legwork, touring grot-holes ‘til they’re circuit sore and recording demos enough to stock a Tesco CD/DVD aisle.
Atlanta punks Black Lips hit paydirt with their ‘Good Bad Not Evil’ long-player of 2007, and were received by many a Brit as another US sensation to spring from the ether of finished-article acts prepared to pounce from nowhere. But the four-piece have an expansive back catalogue; new to us they may have been, but in the US they’d been plugging away since 2000.
‘200 Million Thousand’ (REVIEW, released March 16) is the group’s fifth studio album, and much likes its predecessor mixes raucous punk energy with the melodic nous of a top-dollar pop artist. It rattles and fidgets, buzzes and bounces, and clatters into one’s listening gear with a dumb smile and a knowing wink. It’s intelligently simple stuff – immediate of impression and possessed by timeless qualities that’ll see some rate it as highly as the genre-defining work of acts like The Stooges.
It is more of the same, essentially. But if it ain’t broke…
Jared Swilley, the group’s singer/guitarist, is in good spirits when Clash meets up with him in central London…
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Black Lips – ‘Short Fuse’
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You’ve just wrapped up a UK tour – it’s like you’re hardly ever away from our shores these days…
It almost feels like home, being over here. I’m almost in London more than I’m in Atlanta. But this tour’s been fantastic – it’s been our best European tour ever. It’s been really fun, we didn’t get too sick or too tired, and we saw a lot of old friends. The shows, really… I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but the shows were really fantastic. Especially in the UK – we’ve had to work really hard here to come across, because we got spoiled in America where we’re used to playing a certain size of show, and here we had to go back to the beginning. But it’s all paying off, and that feels really good. To be this happy at the end of a tour, and not be burnt out… I couldn’t be happier right now.
When you were promoting ‘Good Bad Not Evil’, a fair few features seemed to make out you were this new band. Did that suck?
Well, yeah. I’d be doing interviews where the guy would say, ‘So, you’ve just started…’ No! We’ve been going ten years now! That was weird – don’t these people have five minutes to look on Wikipedia? But we’ve been touring here for a long time, it’s just that the old tours were done by a friend of ours in Holland, and they were always small and really DIY. They were a lot of fun, because it didn’t matter what you did… It was fun at the time, but now I’ve seen the light, I wouldn’t want to go back to the darkness.
Are you guaranteed a crowd over here now, or do you ever worry about people coming out to your shows?
London I knew would be good, because of the bill with Vivian Girls and The Soft Pack – both are getting great press over here right now – but I still get nervous about other places. Like, ‘Whoa man this is kinda big… It’s pretty much gonna suck if nobody comes’. I’m really hard on myself so far as being my own worse critic, and trying not to be cocky about anything. We’re all, like, modest… and it seems like only yesterday we were eating at homeless shelters and sleeping in the van every night. It’s easy for us to keep grounded because for the majority of our existence it was really rough times.
I think coming from that sort of background gives you a distinct advantage over bands who’ve made it ‘big’ in a short time; you’ve the experience, and it keeps you grounded.
That’s true. It kinda makes us appreciate everything we have, because we’ve seen how bad it can be. Other bands, those that blow up really fast on their debut albums, who are playing sold-out academy shows – they’ve not got the experience of being in the shit, and having to work hard and fight hard for every little scrap you can get. So I think they way we’ve done things has built a lot of character, and has given us a really strong work ethic, and has made us into this unit. I’ve always thought of us like a small army, because we run things kinda military style. So everything we’ve been through has made our skin tough.
And you guys like to travel, right? And being in the band kinda facilitates this to an extent…
It’s the perfect vehicle for travelling everywhere. I remember the first time I left the country – I went to Russia with my school, like on a package tour – and you see Red Square, you see your hotel, and you don’t meet anybody other than other students. I went to Ireland on my own when I was 17, staying in shitty hostels, and met the lamest people ever. But in this band, we get to travel for free, sometimes you get paid, and you get to meet local people who you want to hang out with. You get to see peoples’ houses and eat their parents’ food, like local people… It’s a really rich experience. Like, being in Italy and having your friend’s mum cook up a giant meal, or being in Brazil and being on the streets of Sao Paulo with friends, with whom you can go to places that typical tourists can’t because they don’t speak the language. Going to Mexico and into the weirdest bars that you just wouldn’t know about without local knowledge… It’s just great, a great way to travel. I want to see as much of the world as I can before I die, and it’s great to be able to take our music there, too, because… Everyone has a purpose, and I’m not saying I’m a crusader or anything, but rock ‘n’ roll is full of love, and is a very positive thing. My purpose in life is to try to make people smile and dance as much as possible, and I want to do that in as many places as possible.
You’re known for raucous shows, of course, but typically they’re delivered with fun in mind, rather than violence. But have things ever turned nasty?
I mean, it’s come to the point of fights. In Portugal we actually had to fight the audience once. That got a little violent. The same thing happened once in Portland, and actually in Cambridge over here one time the audience fought with each other, which was pretty nasty. All these jock teenagers started beating the shit out of each other. It is scary onstage sometimes, because you can be in a very vulnerable position – you’re sitting there focusing on playing and singing, and you’re an open target if someone wants to throw a bottle at you or take you out some other way.
Has that happened?
I’ve got hurt by fans before, and we’re Americans, and we don’t have health insurance yet. It’s really expensive! In Canada, someone nearly took my teeth out by knocking the microphone into my face, and I was like: ‘Dear Canada, you guys have health insurance, everything is free for you. I have to pay’. We’ve had death threats before though, via MySpace, and that gets kinda scary. It actually happened in London one time, and for a show in Milwaukee coming up I’m going to have a few friends go out into the crowd for me, to cover my back, because I’ve got a death threat from there. Like, we’re not punk anymore… We get messages like: ‘You’re such sell-outs. I’m gonna come to your show and fuck you up.’ I’m like, why do these people care? If they like our band, surely they want us to be happy and comfortable? Do they want us to stay living homeless all the time? Fuck that. We haven’t changed at all; it’s just that life around the workload has got a lot easier.
I hate the idea of ‘selling out’ – if anything you’re buying into a lifestyle that enables to to create art, and get by on it…
Some people say we live in a corporate world and that we probably have some shitty job, and I’m like: ‘How dare you. I don’t have a real job – I make my existence travelling around and playing music. How dare you say that.’ And especially in America, the notion of that is much worse, especially amongst younger people. Even older people, actually. It’s kinda perpetuated by Maximum Rock N Roll, which is the most bullshit piece of fuck garbage poor excuse for a magazine ever. They’re like: ‘Oh, we want to keep everything ‘authentic’…’ And I’m like, fuck them! Don’t use a computer, don’t use a car, don’t drink Coca-Cola. Move to a field, grow your own food… fuck that and fuck them! Like, maybe if I got Coca-Cola tattooed on my forehead then maybe I could genuinely say I’ve ‘sold out’. And you know what, I would. If they said they’d give me a million dollars to sing, I fucking would.
Heck, if Jack White can write for ‘em…
Exactly, if Jack White can do it… And I respect him for that. He worked his way up from the bottom too – we used to tour on the same circuit as him, and I don’t think he’s a sell-out at all; he’s just doing what he loves for a living.
Would you say that your travels inspire the songs you write?
It could be an influence on our songs, because I absolutely love travelling. I’m not so fond of America, besides a few places I like, so to be able to travel gives me this raw passion for living, and I’m constantly like really excited. Like, I feel like a kid on Christmas every day. So yeah, I think a lot of the travelling does inspire me. I’ve written a lot of songs just from being in a certain place, or doing or seeing something. I’m like: ‘Wow, now I gotta get something out of me’. We do a lot of writing on the road. When we left India the other day, we went to Berlin and wanted to record a song, but that turned into eleven songs, so we’ve finished this whole album and now we have two records coming out this year.
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Black Lips – ‘Cold Hands’
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And Vice are cool with you releasing material on other labels, like In The Red?
Yeah, it’s fine. We have complete control over that. Vice aren’t very corporate or anything; they’re friends of ours mainly. We came to them with this record, but if we wanted to do another on In The Red, they’d be cool with that. I think In The Red is still my favourite record label, and it’s got some great bands right now. I’m still I touch with Larry, the guy who runs it, all the time, and I’ll probably see him in a couple of weeks in LA.
That’s the kind of deal that’d make many a band envious…
I have a lot of friends who’ve signed major label deals and their situation seems horrible to me. I know people whose bands have signed a deal – I won’t say any names – and then their record never comes out and they don’t even own their own band name any more. Luckily we looked over our contract really well, and at In The Red we’re working on a handshake basis.
As you’re in each other’s company so much, travelling and touring, how do you keep it together as friends? You must need your personal space…
The most important thing… Well, we grew up together and our backgrounds are almost identical. I’ve known these guys since I was very, very young, and I think we’re all nice guys with the understanding that if you don’t want something to work, it won’t work. I think fighting isn’t going to do anything – we know each other so well, and we know what makes a person bad. It’s not even an option to fall out. I’ve been on tour with bands who are fighting and acting like babies, and I can’t even fathom that, because nobody wants to do this to be miserable. I mean, every now and again I’ll be like, ‘Fuck you Cole [Alexander, vocalist/guitarist]’, but we never hold grudges, and any fight we’ve ever had has been over in ten minutes. And then we end up laughing about it. We’re great friends, so that helps out a lot.
And do you think this friendship comes through in the positive vibe of your live shows?
Sometimes I’ll look at something Cole’s doing… Like, last night I missed a bunch of lines in a song because I was laughing so hard. A lot of times people in our audiences do the most stupid shit. Like, Manchester was a hilarious show – all these kids were just acting like retards, in the nicest possible way. And then the bouncer fell off the stage and hit his head, but when he got up he was laughing, I think because he was into the physical aspect of it. I really get a kick out of it. We also seem to attract a lot of drunk people. I had this drunk Austrian come up to me, and he was being really hilarious.
So you still get a kick out of playing live, then…
It’s awesome, it’s so good. Sometimes I feel like it’s such a wild night, and I get so happy. And if there’s a couple of hot looking girls in the crowd, well, even better.
How do you feel about being seen primarily as a live band, knowing you’ve five proper albums to your name?
Obviously the live aspect is a very important part of what we do, but I do like to spend a long time recording, and we have a lot of recorded music out there. I think people generally enjoy our albums, and know that we have a recorded side and a live side. I guess we record to tour, because you need material. But in a sense our recorded stuff is live too, because we’re together in the room and everything’s one live expect the singing, which is overdubbed. So it’s almost live when it’s recorded.
And you’ve not glossed-up your sound for ‘200 Million Thousand’…
The thing is, the production techniques we use and the studio equipment we use, I don’t think they’ve been bettered. I think in the mid-60s recording technology reached its apex, and if it’s not broke don’t fix it. Like, I hate digital technology – it’s soulless… I don’t mean to offend you… It’s soulless, and cheap. If you’re gonna autotune a vocal, why even sing? Get a robot to sing it. If you’re using Pro Tools, you know what? You should die. You’re letting the machines win and it’s Terminator 2 all over again. You’ve given up and you’ve sold out the human race to the machines. Not knocking the future – I love the internet, and I want stem-cell research and all of that – but would you paint a picture with digital technology? I guess people do – it’s called Photoshop.
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‘200 Million Thousand’ is released on March 16 via Vice. Find Black Lips on MySpace HERE.