How an Uncertain Future Led to a Major Reinvention for the Black Lips
“It was a weird time…” begins Jared Swilley. He starts several accounts with the very same disclaimer during the course of our hour-long conversation on the front porch of his home in Cabbagetown – all of them about different junctures in the Black Lips’ now 18-year existence. Suffice to say, the band’s been through a lot of weird times.
The weird time he’s speaking of at this particular moment began some three years ago, after the release of their seventh studio album, Underneath the Rainbow. when guitarist Ian St. Pe left the group after a ten-year stint, ending the longest period of stability for the group to date. It was a run that saw them transform from raggedy “flower punk” kids more adept at shock-value antics than proficiency into a positively sturdy rock ‘n’ roll juggernaut with a solid arsenal of goofy, catchy songs. But the loss of St. Pe was tempered by Jack Hines’ reenlistment in the lineup. A dozen years earlier, Hines had taken on the unenviable task of stepping into founding member Ben Eberbaugh’s position on guitar after the latter died in a terrible car accident on 400 one night. After a two-year run in the band, Hines took off to New York City with his wife Julie, where they focused on their group K-Holes, as well as their narcotic country-inflected duo Georgiana Starlington. But with Julie expecting their first child, they moved back south four years ago, to Greenville, South Carolina where Jack has family.
“I was working in a factory,” Hines tells me, sitting across the porch from Swilley, Black Lips guitarist/vocalist Cole Alexander and me. “Cole called me one night, asked if I could fill in for six months or something. I was like, ‘No, but I can join the band.’ I mean, I wasn’t making any money and definitely wasn’t having any fun, wasn’t doing anything I felt like I was good at it…”
“Jack got screwed by the Black Lips the first time around, because he did the shitty, shitty days. The worst part of our existence,” says Swilley, the band’s bassist and vocalist.
“Like when we were touring and there’d be five people every night for like 20 nights in a row, not having any money for food,” adds Alexander. “We were eatin’ out of garbage cans. He didn’t get any of the rewards from that part.”
“Maybe six months after I left [in 2004],” Hines says, “they went on tour with Sky Saxon. I was like, ‘Aw, man…’”
Soon after St. Pe’s departure in 2014, however, came another. Drummer Joe Bradley, a founding member, told his friends he was leaving the band.
“I think he was just growing out of it,” ponders Swilley. “We’re still buddies. I slept over at his house the other night…. He wrote some of our biggest songs and he was totally integral to our band. That’s what made it kind of scary.”
“It was kind of heavy for us, because he’d been playing with us so long,” agrees Alexander. “I remember we had a little meeting, and we all kind of got choked up.”
I will attest that Bradley was a pivotal, if oft-overlooked member of the band. He is a spot-on drummer who, during their earlier years at least, often seemed to keep their live shows from falling apart. He contributed backup vocals. He wrote songs. I remember when Black Lips opened for DEVO at Chastain; I don’t know why, exactly, but for some reason I just kept watching Joe the whole damn time, thinking, “That guy is fucking great.” Bringing Jack back into the band had been rather seamless – he was already a member of the family. But replacing Bradley?
Not only that, but the band’s attempts at recording new material for the follow-up to Underneath the Rainbow were faltering. They weren’t stoked by the material, and they hadn’t exactly been thrilled with how Rainbow had turned out, either. (“That was, like, a weird time,” says Swilley of Rainbow’s conception, while Alexander admits, “it wasn’t a super fun experience.”) So they really wanted to turn heads with their next album. But their contract with Vice Records was expiring, so there was no label funding whatever sessions they were haphazardly lining up.
Enter Sean Lennon.
Actually, the sole offspring of John and Yoko had already entered the Black Lips’ world. He’d befriended them after stopping by the sessions for the Lips’ 2011 tour de force, Arabia Mountain, which Sean’s friend Mark Ronson produced.
“We stayed in touch,” says Alexander, who was subsequently invited by Lennon to come to his upstate New York recording studio to hang out while he was recording London grimers Fat White Family. “When we were doing that I was like, ‘This is a cool studio,’ and Sean was like, ‘If you guys ever want to come up, feel free.’”
“Sean kind of saved the day,” Jared emphasizes. “We were just standing there not knowing what to do. He just let us do it gratis.”
“We wouldn’t have been able do it without him,” Cole agrees. “We didn’t really have anybody. It was uncertain. We didn’t have members, we didn’t have a label. And he was like, ‘Why don’t you just come hang out and have fun and see what happens?’”
“We went up and all lived on this beautiful mountain with, like, turkeys and deer everywhere,” beams Swilley. “And anytime you wanted to, you could just go to the studio. The engineer lived at the studio, you could walk there. So, it was really the most creative I’ve ever felt in my life, or one of the most creative. I don’t wanna sound, like, girlie or douchey, but it was kinda beautiful. Our situation there was so fun, and new, and beautiful. We were completely secluded from society. Enchanting. That’s the word.”
The enchantment extended itself to their absent drummer situation, too. It just so happened that one Oakley Munson – longtime friend of the Lips, onetime Athens resident, ex-member of bands ranging from Puddin’ Tang and The Witnesses to The Rhondells and The Shine Brothers (look ‘em all up if you’re unaware – they’re great) – had moved a short distance away from Lennon’s compound just a couple months earlier.
“Cole kinda knew he was there,” says Jared. “The first time Oakley’s landline ever rang, it was Cole calling him.” Munson came over, played drums on the recording sessions – and ended up joining the band.
Someone who also contributed to the sessions, but ultimately didn’t join the band (that would’ve been something else, though) was Sean’s mom.
“The first night, we heard she was coming back to the farm, or whatever you call it,” recounts Swilley. “It was like 5 or 6 a.m., and Sean called down to the house – we were partying – and said, ‘Mom wants to meet you!’ We all went up there, and she gave us all chess pieces. She’s real into chess.”
“She gave us black pawns,” says Cole. “So, we were kickin’ with her.”
With 84-year-old Yoko working on some reissue projects at the same time the Lips were there, she was in the studio alongside them for eight or nine days, Jared estimates, during which time she took an interest in the group and contributed her unique vocals to “Occidental Front,” the opening track on the album that successfully resulted from all this chaos, Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art?, just out on Vice. (Yep, they re-signed with their longtime label.)
“To me, Yoko totally fit with the tracks, because her shrieking… not everybody likes it, but for a punk band it makes sense to me,” offers Cole. “She was always a big fan of the B-52s, which is a Georgia influence of ours – like, they do all that kind of shrieking and weirdo rock ‘n’ roll. So I was kind of drawing that connection in my head.”
The band is also quick to credit producer Sean Lennon’s active involvement in the performances on Satan’s Graffiti (“He can play the shit out of everything,” Jared testifies) along with Fat White Family’s Saul Adamczewski; both of them play multiple instruments on the majority of the album’s songs.
“We’re really more open to outside influences than we’ve ever been. Like just taking in outside forces,” Cole points out. “That was actually one of the few things I did like about Underneath the Rainbow. We started working with other songwriters, like Curtis Harding – he and Jared wrote a song. Bradford Cox and me wrote a song. And having session people come in is a new thing that started happening. We’re not so insular. We were like Russia, or Germany before the Berlin Wall fell. Now we’ve opened the gates to new influences and culture.”
Another individual figuring prominently on Graffiti’s 18 cuts (including interludes), mostly on saxophone and percussion but also singing a duet with Swilley on “Crystal Night,” is Zumi Rosow. The Los Angeles-based musician and jewelry artist has been sitting in on occasional Black Lips shows the past few years, but to the surprise of some she is now a full-on member of the band, making them a quintet. But she’s sorta been part of the extended family for longer than that. She was a latter-day member of the K-Holes. And she’s Cole’s girlfriend, so he’s been splitting his time between Atlanta and L.A. the past couple years.
“She’s badass,” Swilley declares. “Not everyone could ride in a van with us.”
“She’s kind of like a dude in that kind of way. Like if we’re peeing in a bottle in the van, that’s not gonna bother her. She knows how to roll with us. She can get perverted and weird like us,” Alexander adds. “And it’s cool having saxophone. We had had saxophone on some [studio] tracks before she started playing with us, and so that’s why it made sense.”
I gotta tell ya – I’ve been digging this new Lips album. It’s trashy in that shambolic sort of Black Lips way, but it’s not trash. It may not be a certified Work Of Art, in the establishment sense, but it has artful flourishes. It’s fuckin’ rock ‘n’ roll, but I get the impression that they were inspired to make something that was also lasting. You can sort of pick those albums out of their catalog – or at least I can – and it seems to me to be every other one, sorta like Star Trek movies. Like, I loved 2007’s Good Bad Not Evil. The next one, 200 Million Thousand, doesn’t do a lot for me. I consider Arabia Mountain their finest work to date. But then I was about as enthused about Rainbow as the band seems to be. Now, granted, there are many Black Lips fans who stand in the complete opposite camp – they love the fucked up, sloppy, muddled aspect of the band and don’t take so kindly to them aspiring to greater things. To my ears, Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art? has the potential to appeal to both extremes. But then, my ears are sprouting hair these days.
One thing in particular that I appreciate about it is that, like Arabia Mountain’s “Noc-A-Homa,” they once again take on a notorious oddball figure from Atlanta’s history as a song subject – in this case convicted murderer Wayne Williams, who was implicated but never charged in Atlanta’s string of unsolved child murders of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s – on the song “Wayne.”
“That’s always been something that I’ve been drawn towards when I write songs,” says Swilley. “Like Chuck Berry always had narrative kind of songs, and I love Atlanta with all my heart. I always wanna write about… I don’t wanna say ‘weirdos,’ that sounds negative, and ‘folk heroes’ is not the right term. But just Atlanta misfit icons. We’d always wanted to write a song about Wayne Williams. But it’s hard to be tactful with that. I mean, no one knows what really happened. I’m sure it’s not what is on paper.
“We also have a song about Wolfman and Donna,” he continues. “It’s not on the record, but it’ll be a single or B-side… I have a bunch of French girls singing backups on it. Like, call and response. And I was trying to explain to them what Wolfman and Donna were. And even after I showed them a bunch of the videos, they still [were confused]. It’s so not Parisian.
“My next Atlanta character I’m writing a song about is [onetime Varsity employee] Flossie Mae. I wanna do it like a soul song, like, ‘Do the Flossie Mae.’ And I actually met Chief Noc-A-Homa at a Braves game. This was really recently. I told him, ‘I wrote this song about you,’ and his wife was like, ‘YOU wrote that song?’ She was really mad. They were super mad about it. And I explained myself for an hour. I was like, ‘I’m writing from the perspective of someone that, you’re kind of fictional. It’s not a real story.’ But we got a picture together, and that was kinda cool.”
Even though the Black Lips are too young to have experienced first-hand some of these Atlanta misfits they’re writing about, they’ve been a band since 1999. They’re all in their mid-thirties now, and they’re – dare I say it – established Atlanta music veterans.
“I kind of have started to like look at the old Atlanta rock ‘n’ roll, kinda classic rock bands, like Georgia Satellites and Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, and I kinda like ’em a little bit more than I did when I was younger,” says Hines, “just ’cause I feel like I’m kind of part of their historical marker or something.”
“One of the guys in Georgia Satellites, I remember coming to see us at a DIY [show] once,” Cole pipes in. “I always liked these guys from the periphery a little bit.”
“One thing I love about rock ‘n’ roll is the cycle. Like, when we start, we look up to these other bands – you see them, and that influences you, and then… it’s a constant process. And when a rock ‘n’ roll scene starts, that’s a 19-year-old’s job. Y’all do that. And it’s cool that that happens. When we started, you know, to use an Atlanta band for a reference, we looked up to the Subsonics. And I still love them. We thought they were amazing. And now there are younger bands that look at us, and probably think the same thing. I like the process, and how that whole thing works.”
I suppose the Black Lips will know they’ve finally really made it when younger bands dismiss them as old farts who don’t deserve any attention paid whatsoever, like some “heritage” act or something. But thankfully, in the here and now, they’re still vital, and they’re still fun and exciting, and they’re still evolving in untested directions. There’s little more you can ask of a nearly 20-year-old band.
The Black Lips will play Variety Playhouse on Friday, July 21st. TNT (featuring Tommy Lee and Tammy) and the Subsonics open.
Photo by Tim Song.