'We Like Struggle': Black Lips On The Will To Entertain
The story of Black Lips reads kind of like a trashy young adult novel. The band's two founders were kicked out of high school; another band member was killed just before their debut album was released. They did outrageous stuff at shows — there was pee, vomit, blood, and making out with each other on stage — and they got banned from more than a few clubs in the process. Yet after 15 years, they're still at it, having played on six continents and picked up fans around the world.
Black Lips' latest album, Underneath the Rainbow, mines '50s rockabilly and '60s garage rock and twists it into something darker, even a little dangerous. Guitarist Cole Alexander and bassist Jared Swilley, who started the band as middle-schoolers in Georgia, spoke with NPR's Kelly McEvers about the appeal of abrasive music, the perils of looking "strange" as a teen in the late '90s, and why being in a band can be an effective way to cope with loss. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
KELLY MCEVERS: Jared, you told Spin magazine that this new album is the result of a really rough year. Can you tell us what happened and how that roughness made it into the music?
JARED SWILLEY: It wasn't really all that rough. I mean, it's rough for everybody out there; life's just rough. We like when things are hard for us. We like struggle.
MCEVERS: You lost some friends. Not to belittle your experience or anybody else's experience, but that sounds kind of rough. You write songs about things that have happened, and they're not always pretty, pleasant, happy rainbow things.
SWILLEY: Yeah, but they happened, and if you can bring something positive out of that, like making a song about it, then it's like, "Well, at least I took something from this." You learn a little bit, and you get a little negative art that you can yell in people's faces every night.
MCEVERS: Is it hard to perform those songs sometimes?
SWILLEY: No, I think it gives you more drive and passion to do it.
COLE ALEXANDER: Yeah. We had a song about a friend who died, and when I would sing it, it would feel therapeutic or whatever. Sometimes I might get a little choked up, but it felt good.
MCEVERS: When I listen to your music, I think about what The Cramps were doing back in the '80s, or even The Stooges before that. You know, they took garage rock of the '60s and made it something kind of ... darker, I guess. Is that something you guys were trying to do?
ALEXANDER: I feel like we were always trying to find the roots of punk rock, and I feel like The Cramps definitely tapped into that. They were going to the '50s and '60s and finding prototypes of what punk rock became.
SWILLEY: They, along with labels like Norton Records, dug through all these record crates and just found the scuzziest and most primitive stuff you could find — these weird songs that they were digging up and rehashing and putting a modern punk take on.
MCEVERS: What's one of the scuzziest records from the '50s and '60s that you like?
SWILLEY: I like Hasil Adkins. Like, he's this one-man band guy from West Virginia, and he actually thought that he was gonna make it. All of his songs are about, like, cutting girls' heads off and eating hot dogs, just really bizarre, and he literally didn't think there was anything wrong with that. He would send letters to Johnny Cash and Elvis and RCA and all this stuff, and they sent him back letters ...
ALEXANDER: ... of rejection. Another scuzzy record is from 1965 in Peru. There was a band called Los Saicos, and they had a song called "Demolition", which is about blowing up the train station. It's actually, like, a terrorist-themed song, and they just scream and they scream — but it was a big hit in Peru. To put out records like that in such a conservative time, when The Beatles were considered too much in certain circles, that took a rebel. You had to be truly demented back then.
MCEVERS: You guys have talked about how you weren't very good when you first started out.
ALEXANDER: Oh, we were horrible.
MCEVERS: It made me wonder: Is it OK for punk bands to get better at making music? You think about The Ramones and their later albums; people didn't like them as much as they got better.
SWILLEY: As long as you do it tastefully. You can get better as long as you do it gracefully.
MCEVERS: (Laughing) What do you mean?
SWILLEY: Well, don't forget what made you cool in the first place.
ALEXANDER: There are some very talented punk rock musicians, very intricate with their guitar parts, but yeah, it's how you do it. Although a lot of times my favorite bands are, like, 15-year-old kids who don't know how to play, and they tend to stumble into stuff by accident because they don't know what they're doing. If you're too trained, you might just kind of do what everybody else has taught you to do.
MCEVERS: Right, you might start sounding the way you think you're supposed to sound.
SWILLEY: So many cool songs have just come from accidents, and someone who's better at their instrument or more well-versed in songwriting and stuff will be like, "Oh, I can't do that because that's not how you're supposed to do it."
ALEXANDER: When we first started, we were so bad, so we had to make up for it by learning the entertainment side. We'd study James Brown and all these entertainers, and we were very theatrical. We would use shock tactics — like, we would kiss each other while we were playing and stuff. And that entertained the crowd for a couple years while we learned our instruments.
MCEVERS: I know the two of you go way back. When exactly did you start the band?
SWILLEY: I was probably in eighth grade, and Cole was in ninth grade. We were The Renegades. We weren't really a band when we started; we would just make fake flyers. We tried to grow rat tails, we all wore jean jackets that said "Renegades" on the back, and we all wore American flag Chuck Taylors. We were going to cut holes in our collars for the rat tails to go through. We were a concept first.
ALEXANDER: Jared had a school project — you had to make some sort of creative thing. So we came up with that band. I had no idea that would end up being our career.
MCEVERS: And you guys got kicked out of school at some point?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, we got kicked out. We chronically misbehaved, but it was petty. After the Columbine shooting, we kind of felt like they were trying to get rid of any strange, subculture kids. They, like, troubleshot the subculture. They'd end up kicking you out for being tardy.
SWILLEY: I never considered myself unruly at school at all. I mostly minded my own business, but I think they couldn't tell the difference between, "Oh, he has a leather jacket. He must be ..."
MCEVERS: A murderer?
SWILLEY: Yeah. But we had a big crew; we weren't antisocial at all. We hung out with football players and cheerleaders and nerds, pretty much everyone.
MCEVERS: But somebody decided at some point, The Renegades had to go.
SWILLEY: Yeah, The Renegades were a little too tough for that school. It was really silly.
ALEXANDER: Being kicked out kind of gave us motivation. My mom was like, "You have to get a job now." The job sucked — I was washing dishes, and I was kind of miserable. So that drove us to work harder at being a band and getting on the road and touring.
SWILLEY: And everyone, including our teachers, told us, "You're gonna be pumping gas. You're not going to do anything with your life. This band thing is stupid." So for the first few years, it was kind of to prove them wrong.
MCEVERS: I need to ask you about an intense part of your history. I know that a bandmate of yours, Ben Eberbaugh, was killed right around when the band was first starting to get noticed. How close did you guys come to just dissolving the band at that point?
ALEXANDER: Not very close at all.
SWILLEY: I don't think we ever considered it. It was on the eve of the release of our first album, and we were doing our first tour. We went to his parents' house immediately that day, and one of the first things they said was to keep going. We just cancelled the first few dates to deal with the stuff at home.
ALEXANDER: We felt like he was so excited about doing the tour, it would almost have been like a letdown for him if we didn't continue doing what we liked and loved.
SWILLEY: It was kind of crazy because all these friends that were away at college or had moved to New York all came in for the funeral, and a lot of them didn't get return tickets. So we had like a three- or four-van caravan, and like 40 of us went on the whole tour. We were dropping people off all along the way.
MCEVERS: Wow. So the tour became like a funeral procession.
ALEXANDER: It was kind of therapeutic: These songs he helped us write, we got to play every night. So yeah, it felt healing.
SWILLEY: And the whole gang was there. We had to play as a three-piece, and if it had just been the three of us on tour, it would have been kind of lonely. But we had all of our crew and our childhood friends and stuff.
MCEVERS: I love that one of your new songs, "Make You Mine," was written with a guy from a heavy metal band, Brent Hinds from Mastodon — but then the song sounds like Buddy Holly or Eddie Cochran or something like that. What's up with that song?
SWILLEY: Ian [Saint Pé] wrote it, our other guitar player. We were making demos in Atlanta, and Brent from Mastodon was just showing up at the studio every single day and hanging out. We told him, "You have to write a guitar line or something," so he just went in there. He's in a heavy metal band and stuff, but he likes a lot of the same music that we do — a lot of country music and rockabilly.
ALEXANDER: We did open up for Mastodon, and their audience didn't like us too much, I don't think.
SWILLEY: Yeah, we got booed.
SWILLEY: Yeah. Kids were shooting us the middle finger and telling us to stop playing.
ALEXANDER: The funny thing is, our own crowd will throw beers at us, but it's in a loving way. But I could tell, the way that they threw them, it felt not as loving.
SWILLEY: We just kept doing our thing because I could see my mom and Cole's mom up in the balcony, and I was just like, "You know what? We're just doing this for y'all."
MCEVERS: Jared, back in 2010, your dad was a guest on this program. He's a bishop at Church in the Now outside of Atlanta, and when we talked to him, he had just announced to his congregation that he was gay. He told us about calling you while you were on tour in Europe, and how immediately supportive you were.
SWILLEY: Yeah, I mean, I was a grown-up. That doesn't bother me at all, if that makes him happy — and he's been happier than he ever has, than I've ever seen him. It takes a lot of balls to come out, and he comes from a pretty famous preaching dynasty in the South, so he lost a lot of friends.
My grandpa got excommunicated from the church for not denouncing him publicly. Things for the most part are back to normal now, but there's a lot of people, even family members, that won't talk to him. I thought it was brave. It was tough that he did it, so I was really happy for him.
MCEVERS: Have you guys ever gotten in trouble with local authorities or club owners for what you do on stage?
SWILLEY: We were banned from a lot of clubs when we first started going around. Since we started drawing crowds, I think every single one of our more significant bans has since been rescinded, and they like us now.
ALEXANDER: We learned a valuable lesson in India when we played there, where we kind of got a little too rowdy, and the promoter told us he thought the police were called and that we could go to jail for indecency. He wanted us to flee the jurisdiction of the state, and we actually left the country out of fear of going to jail. So now we try to pick our battles a little better.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MCEVERS: The story of the band Black Lips reads kind of like a trashy young adult novel. The two founders were kicked out of high school; another band member was killed just before their debut album. They did outrageous stuff at shows. There was pee and vomit and blood and making out with each other, stuff that got them banned from more than a few clubs. Yet after 15 years, they're still at it. At this point, they've played six different continents and picked up fans around the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRIVE BY BUDDY")
BLACK LIPS: (Singing) But as long as you're just clean, then it's all good. We're hanging on a broken T-bird hood. We'll drive, drive buddy...
MCEVERS: This is the lead track off the new album by Black Lips, called "Underneath the Rainbow." The band takes '50s rockabilly and '60s garage rock and makes it into something dark, even a little dangerous.
COLE ALEXANDER: I feel like we were always trying to find the roots of punk rock.
MCEVERS: That's guitarist Cole Alexander. He and bassist Jared Swilley started the band when they were in middle school, in Georgia.
JARED SWILLEY: And we weren't really a band when we started. We would just make fake fliers and - we made jackets. But we were a concept first. We were the Renegades and we all - we were trying to grow rat tails. And we all wore our jean jackets that said Renegades on the back. And we were going to cut holes in our collars, for the rat tails to go through. And we all wore American flag Chuck Taylors.
MCEVERS: And you guys got kicked out of school, at some point?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, we got kicked out. We chronically misbehaved, but it was petty. But after the Columbine shooting, I kind - we kind of felt like they were trying to get rid of like, any strange, subculture kids.
SWILLEY: Yeah. The year after Columbine, like, that next year, so many - it was like a zero tolerance policy. So it was just like minor infractions. The Renegades were a little too tough for that school.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. But being kicked out kind of gave us motivation. My mom was like, you have to get a job now. And the job sucked. I was washing dishes, and I was kind of miserable. So that drove us to work harder at being, like, a band and getting on the road and touring.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK LIPS SONG)
BLACK LIPS: (Singing) Sitting in the classroom, waiting for the teacher's hand to lead us in the pledge of allegiance, to make us understand. But we'd rather kick the legs out of the chair and watch them fall 'cause there's no time for her to make the call...
ALEXANDER: So when we first started, we were so bad, so we had to make up for it by learning the entertainment side. So we'd put on a really good show, and we'd study, like, James Brown and all these entertainers. And we're very theatrical. We would use shock tactics. Like, we would like, kiss each other while we were playing, and stuff. And that entertained the crowd for the couple years while we learned our instruments.
MCEVERS: I love that. I also love that one of your new songs -"Make You Mine" - was written with a guy from a heavy metal band, Mastodon.
ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah.
MCEVERS: But then the song sounds like Buddy Holly or Eddie Cochran, or something like that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE YOU MINE")
BLACK LIPS: (Singing) Waking up, and hit the ground running...
SWILLEY: We were just, like, making demos in Atlanta, and Brent just showed up at the studio every single day and was hanging out. So we just told him, like, you have to write like, a guitar line or something.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. We opened up for his metal band Mastodon, and their audience didn't really like us too much, I don't think.
SWILLEY: Yeah, we got booed.
SWILLEY: The kids were, like, shooting us the middle finger and telling us to stop playing.
ALEXANDER: There are divisions in subcultures, you know.
ALEXANDER: People get sectionalized.
MCEVERS: Don't be crossing those lines.
ALEXANDER: The funny thing is, our crowd will throw beers at us, but it's in a loving way. But I could tell with the way that they threw them, it felt not as loving.
SWILLEY: It was hateful.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE YOU MINE")
BLACK LIPS: (Singing) It's only 10 more miles, and I'm coming on home tonight. Gonna make you mine...
MCEVERS: I'm speaking with Cole Alexander and Jared Swilley, from the band Black Lips. Their new album is called "Underneath the Rainbow." I need to ask you about, you know, an intense part of your history.
MCEVERS: I know that a band mate of yours was killed when the band was first kind of starting to get noticed - Ben Eberbaugh.
MCEVERS: How close did you guys come to just kind of dissolving the band and calling the whole thing off, at that point?
ALEXANDER: Not very close at all.
SWILLEY: I don't think we ever even considered it. It was on the eve of the release of our first album, and we were doing our first tour. But, I mean, we went to his parents' house immediately that day, and one of the first things they said was to keep going on the tour.
And then all these people - it was kind of crazy because all these people had come in from - you know, all the kids that were away at college, or had moved to New York, all came in. So after the funeral, we had like, a three- or four-van caravan; and like, 40 of us, like, went on the whole tour.
MCEVERS: Wow. And like, suddenly the tour became like a funeral parade, procession, yeah.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. It was kind of therapeutic, though. Like, songs he helped us write, we got to play every night. So yeah, it felt healing.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK LIPS SONG)
MCEVERS: It seems like you guys are pretty booked this summer, you know, playing the U.S. and Europe. You guys have also toured other, like, places. I want to hear about some of the most interesting places you've played.
SWILLEY: Our last international trip was our tour of the Middle East. I'm still kind of surprised still that we did it at all because it started as a joke, kind of.
SWILLEY: We just kept saying like in interviews and to people, like, we want to be the first band to play in Iraq outside of the green zone. And finally, we met a guy that was like, oh, I could probably do that.
ALEXANDER: And then when it started happening, I started to get scared because, you know, the Arab Spring was happening. We were going to Cairo, and they were throwing, like, rocks at the embassy and, like, burning the flag, like, outside. We found out that was just, like, soccer hooligans.
SWILLEY: Actually, there was no element of danger...
ALEXANDER: That was the surprising thing.
SWILLEY: ...at all, at any point.
MCEVERS: So tell me about that show. Where did you - I was in Iraq then. Had I known, I would've gone. But where did you play?
SWILLEY: We played in (unintelligible). So, I mean, it's like - I mean, that's a completely different Iraq then if you go anywhere north Iraq.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, the Kurdish people are more friendly to the Americans.
SWILLEY: But there was no equipment, so we just had our guitars, and we just had to plug straight into the PA. And Joe, our drummer, had to play like buckets and his suitcase, and stuff.
SWILLEY: It was like, mostly families. There were some teenagers...
ALEXANDER: Like, half of the old people - like, just walked out when we started playing. But the young kids stuck around, so...
MCEVERS: Really? What made them walk out?
ALEXANDER: I don't think they like rock 'n' roll.
SWILLEY: Well, they really just didn't...
MCEVERS: Rock 'n' roll, OK.
SWILLEY: They were just like, what is this? This is stupid. This sounds bad.
ALEXANDER: Honestly, some of the...
SWILLEY: This makes my ears hurt.
ALEXANDER: ...some of the kids had never seen a rock 'n' roll show before. And that was very exciting for me. It felt like, heartwarming.
SWILLEY: Like, when we played in Alexandria, Egypt, we were playing at a sushi restaurant and I just assumed nobody was going to come. But, like, all at once, like, a hundred teenagers came. And they were all - they all had their skateboards. And most of them - or the ones I talked to said they'd never been to a rock 'n' roll concert before. And they were, like, wanting to get into it and were dancing. But you could tell they were just figuring it out. It was like, whoa these - we invented punk to these kids.
MCEVERS: Globalizing punk, with you guys at the vanguard. That's Cole Alexander and Jared Swilley, from the band Black Lips. Their new album is called "Underneath the Rainbow." Guys, thanks.
ALEXANDER: Thank you so much.
SWILLEY: Thank you, Kelly.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.