Garage outfit BLACK LIPS have resided in an all-encompassing rock ’n’ roll lifestyle for the better part of two decades. Their story is one that has grown from the suburbs of Atlanta into countless nights on tour, audience-led stage invasions and work alongside some of music’s biggest names, including Mark Ronson, The Black Keys and Beatle-descendent Sean Lennon.
In anticipation of their Liverpool gig, Brit Williams spoke to bassist Jared Swilley about the band’s new album, growing up in a religious family, and what’s help keep the Black Lips alive for two decades.
Black Lips have a little bit of a connection with Liverpool. You guys have worked with Sean Lennon before. How did that happen?
We have actually known him for a while. Three albums ago we were recording with Mark Ronson and we needed a guitar player, and it happened to be Sean who came in. We kind of just stayed friends after that and we all had mutual friends. We also played SXSW with Sean’s band and with Fat White Family, so we both discovered them at the same time. Sean ended up recording the Fat Whites and they invited Cole [Alexander] to do guitar. We didn’t really have a label at the time and didn’t have many resources. Cole was up there in New York and Sean just said, ‘Come record here’. So we moved in with him.
I heard you locked yourself in his recording studio for two months. Do you normally go into the studio like that, with nothing written?
That one took a little longer than usual because we didn’t have a lot written, and we didn’t have a drummer. We also just had the luxury of being on this magical mountain in the middle of nowhere, so it was easy to kind of just turn off and tune out. Both aspects have their ups and downs. I mean, I prefer to have at least something done. That one was probably my favourite recording experience we’ve ever had, just because we were in a point of transition and it was such a magical place.
Do you feel like, as you get older, you are writing about more mature topics, or are you just trying to stay as authentic as you know to be?
Oh yeh, I don’t really try to set out to write about anything. I mostly write about stories. Everyone has their own different writing style. I never really wrote love songs. I mean, the last sort of love song I wrote was a couple getting separated on Kristallnacht in Berlin. I was trying to think of one of the most devastating ways to split a pair up.
We hear you might be playing some new music on tour?
Yeh, our album’s done. It’s been done for a while. By the time we get to Liverpool we’ll have some of those singles out and already be playing a lot of those songs. We like country music and always flirted with that kind of style. It’s not a purist country record by any means, but we just felt like had to go back to our roots and do country music. That’s where we’re from.
Can you tell us what it’s called?
Oh yeh, I don’t see why not. It’s called, The Black Lips Sing In A World That’s Falling Apart.
Love that. What inspired the name?
My family are all preachers and they put out a lot of gospel records from the 50s to the 80s, and they had an album called The Swilley Family Sings, and then we had a lyric on our album “in a world that’s falling apart”, so I wanted it to sound like an old gospel record title.
Coming from such a religious background, at what point did you pick up a guitar and get into music?
Before I can remember. I grew up on the stage. I’ve seen performances of me on stage that I don’t even remember doing, so basically my whole life. It’s like the family business, kinda.
So what does your family think of you being in the Black Lips?
They’ve always been a very accepting, liberal theology. My dad’s a homosexual; he came out a few years ago. He lost his main church, but he still has his church. They mostly preach love and acceptance and all that. There was never a conflict at all. I got most of my inspiration from the church, ’cos I grew up in one of those churches where they’re screaming and the music’s wild and they’re speaking tongues. It was way more wild than any rock ’n’ roll show I’ve ever been to.
That must be where some of the outrageous onstage antics come from?
Totally. I always thought that if I could get just a [bit of their vibe], ’cos those people are doing that on a Sunday morning with no alcohol and they’re going wild. And they’re singing about something that they think is eternity and is way more powerful. We sing about, I dunno, dumb stuff. Well, not dumb, but if we could get even a fraction of this energy into our shows, I’d be happy.
Do you think there will still be garage rock bands in the digital age?
I think there will be a few, but I don’t really think you’ll see any bands doing what we did. It took us seven years in a van, eating shit. I mean, that was self-imposed. We were middle-class kids, we didn’t have to; it was self-imposed poverty. I don’t really think there’s a formula any more. I could be wrong. But now it’s so easy to connect with everyone. When we started, no one had cell phones, and it was a very different thing. We never used the internet and we still are luddites about all that stuff. Even ’til this day, I can barely use the internet. I can email, but I don’t even know where to look for stuff.
Yeh, there’s almost too many resources these days. It’s kind of exhausting.
I only had a few sources when I was younger. Mail order catalogs and Maximum Rock ’n’ Roll and that was it, but those were physical copies. I’m glad that there’s people like ya’ll still having stuff in print. I like stuff I can pick up.
What do you want the crowd to get out of your performance?
I want people to get their damn money’s worth because it’s not cheap to go out. It’s kind of like an escape ’cos the world can be rough and you need to just go out and let loose. We just want people to have a good time and meet each other. One of the best compliments is that we’ve had a few Black Lips babies, from people who have met at our shows and got married. That makes it all worth it. I love seeing Black Lips tattoos, too. If you have one of those you get into all of our shows free for life.
What have you been listening to lately?
As far as new stuff goes, I am totally out of the loop. I was just in Croatia to go and check it out. I actually got my tooth busted out a while back, so I heard they do cheap general surgery over there, and I was just cruisin’ around the mountains in the most beautiful place I’ve ever been and I think I listened to The 13th Floor Elevators all together for 22 hours straight. Last night when I was up in Malibu I was listening to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. I found the music I like a long time ago. In my record collection at home I’ve got about 300, I don’t buy any new records. Mostly just 45s now. I just listen to a lot of country music and gospel, soul and R&B. It got a bad rap, the South. It’s not really what most people think it is. It’s real dear to me. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I think most forms of popular music came from the South East. It was the first time you had all of these different types of people thrown together, living in poverty. You had poor Irish, mixing with slaves and Native Americans and it was such a weird mix of stuff where everyone shared their ideas and came up with some really cool styles.
What do you think has kept Black Lips alive for 20 years?
This is what we do. This is what me and Cole set out to do when we were kids, and we don’t really have that many other skills. If we hadn’t gotten into music it would have been prison or the military. That’s what a lot of the kids I went to high school with ending up doing, so it kinda saved our lives.