Black Lips

BAD BOYS GONE GOOD-ISH

These days, it’s not as easy to write an article about the Black Lips as it once was. The bodily-function-drenched exhibitionism of their live shows is old news and the band has largely retired that shtick. To extol the virtues of the boys’ hedonistic tendencies and playful antagonism is fine, but as anyone with a local scene knows, hedonism and antagonism are in pretty ample supply for anyone interested in getting wet right now. And any discussion of what may be the Lips’ most widely interesting and provocative habit – their willingness to play anywhere, at any time – essentially came to a head at the start of 2009 when the band was ‘chased’ out of India after showing a little dick on stage.

So, really, if there’s any real story here (aside from the actual release of Lips’ 7th LP, Arabia Mountain), it’s that the Black Lips – whether inspired by the success of other ‘lo-fi’/garage-y peers shorter in the game and wider in recognition, or by the simple desire to expand their sound and popular reach a dozen some-odd years into their career – are suddenly acting like professionals.

The band took a year and a half to record Arabia Mountain, which, for anyone counting, is something like 84 times longer than it took them to record last album 200 Million Thousand. And for the first time ever, they’ve enlisted the help of a producer, and not just any producer. The Lips went out and hired the help of premier UK board man Mark Ronson to smooth out, beef up, and make spacey-er their ramshackle brand of garage pop. They’ve grown up, for sure, and at this stage that growth seems to be for the better.

On my first listen to Arabia Mountain I was having beers with a couple very musically in-the-know friends. One of them was talking about talking to the Lips’ new manager in New York recently, who had explained to him the promotional efforts being put into pushing the new album. From what my friend had heard, the Lips are spending the majority of their free time between shows, to the tune of several hours a day, keeping up with media requests and making face time with cameras.

“They’re going to be on the cover of SPIN,” my friend told me, with a slow head nod. And while that may not be quite the big to-do it once was, it’s still kind of incredible when you consider the road the band took to land there.

Perhaps the most critical observation of our little listening session came just after that assertion, from the other friend involved in the conversation (a noted musician himself). Halfway through recent single “Modern Art,” he interrupted our talk to say, “This sounds like it could be in a car commercial.”

And while my friend was wrong (the lyrics for the song are about doing ketamine and looking at surrealist art and I don’t even think Scion is trying to market their cars with that sort of imagery), he had the right idea. Big companies these days are looking for well-produced, up-tempo ‘indie’ music – and all the associated ideals of individualism, freedom, and youth that go along with it – to hitch their brands to these days. And whether it scores them a big contract with Ford or not, the Black Lips are now, more than ever before, making music that might fit in with the corporately constructed presentation of these ideals.

But please don’t let any of this insult your righteous sense of what’s acceptable from the band you once knew as the Black Lips. At the end of the day, Arabia Mountain is, really, the best thing the band has ever laid to tape. The Lips are still riotous, loose, and invigorating, and their “We fun” mantra is still intact. It’s just that now, finally, the music seems to be backed by a sense of purpose that may have been lacking before.

As for whether Arabia Mountain will be their “big break” or not remains to be seen, but judging by the size of venue the band will be playing on their current tour and the aforementioned press blitz being launched ahead of the album’s imminent release, I can’t see it going any other way. Below, is a concise conversation ION recently had with Black Lips’ bassist and singer Jared Swilley.

Obviously, one of the biggest talking points with the new album is going to be Mark Ronson’s production contributions.

How was it for you guys, being in the studio with a ’superproducer’ when so much of what the Black Lips are is based on being uncaged and uncompromising?
Pretty natural actually. He didn’t do anything radically different than we’ve ever done before. I loved working with him.

What’s Ronson like? I stumbled into a birthday party for one of the Klaxons at a pub in London a couple months ago and he was there. Seems like a chill dude.
He is very sweet, smart and funny. Super chill dude.

I know that, after the success of Good Bad Not Evil, the reception for 200 Million Thousand was seen as something of a ‘disappointment’ (even if it was a successful broadening of the Black Lips palette). Was there any conscious decision with Arabia Mountain to return to the form of GBNE, is it a reconciliation of the best parts of those two albums, or do you guys see it as a new thing altogether?
It’s a new thing altogether. We did 200 Million really rushed. I think it has its moments, but we could have done a much better job. We did it ourselves and didn’t really know what we were doing. I wasn’t happy with it. With this one we decided to keep recording until we had something we really liked. We might never have put out another record if we weren’t completely satisfied.

Do you feel like economic crash of 2008 and the feelings of panic and despair that followed it had any effect on how people felt about 200 Million? Does it seem like now there’s a better stateside ‘vibe’ to release a Black Lips album into?
I’ve never really thought about that before. I think we just made a half assed record with 200 Million.

The new album has been a long time coming, considering there were rumors it would be available last summer. What’s the cause of the delay(s)?
It wasn’t ready. Then we heard Ronson wanted to work with us.

I have to ask about the skull (seen on Arabia Mountain’s cover). Firstly, how does one go about getting their hands on a human skull? Secondly, how does one go about using that skull as an instrument? Thirdly, has there been any weird juju following that thing around? And fourthly, have you guys tried crossing the border with it?
Cole bought it at an occult store in New York. We use it as an echo chamber. Basically a plastic tube goes into its eyeball and the sound reverberates in his head. His name is Jeremiah Krinklefingers. We haven’t crossed any borders with it but we did take it on an airplane, which made me nervous.

“Modern Art” is pretty quickly becoming one of my favorite Lips’ songs ever, maybe catchier than “O, Katrina!” and thematically hilarious. It’s also a pretty good spin on some old hat for you guys, situating a good-time drug story in the Dali museum. Is that song an encapsulation of where you guys are as a band now, perhaps, standing somewhere between “perpetual party machine” and “high art”?
No. It was literally about when Cole and I took psychedelics at the Dali museum. True story.

You guys have been together as a band now in three different decades. Could you have predicted the longevity of the Black Lips when you first got together as a band? What’s the secret to keeping together a machine that has always seemed like it could explode at any moment? 
I never thought too much about the future and still don’t. I did know that I would be doing this for my adult life. It works for us because we all grew up together and have been through all the major events of our teenage and adult lives together. Everyone is completely dedicated and we get along very well. Everything is democratic and equal and we don’t have egos. And we all sing and write songs.

 

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