By Colin Stutz; photos by Marc Lemoine on June 7, 2011
As the Black Lips prepared to work with Mark Ronson on Arabia Mountain, they did something they'd never done—write and rehearse before actually getting into the studio. FILTER caught up with the foursome for FILTER 42, just before they recorded, and talked about how they came together and why they keep going for what they want.
A simple justification for the rampage, which ensued: “I was just pissed off so I fucked the school up.”
In the year 2000, outside Atlanta, Georgia, in the suburb of Dunwoody, the expulsion of 18-year-old high school senior Cole Alexander triggered an explosion. Sitting there, fidgeting in his seat, with his small frame and burning brown eyes, he responded to the tyrant principal, Ms. Bobo: “Huh, you’re kicking me out?” Pulling a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, he coolly slid one from its case, placed the stick between his lips and sparked it. To her screams our misfit hero roared back, kicking out his chair and storming from that sterile office, papers and pencils flying in his wake.
Tearing through the hallway, trailed by a cloud of smoke, Alexander grabbed a trash can and chucked it against the wall. Then, into a nearby classroom he charged.
“What are you doing?” shrieked the teacher, shocked by her lesson’s teenage interruption.
Alexander took another deep puff from his cigarette and exhaled violently in her face. “Trying to get in your pants, bitch!” The room erupted in laughter.
Next, to the teacher’s lounge he blitzed, grabbed a milk carton from the refrigerator and started to chug. “Students can’t be in here!” some teachers yelled. He crushed the plastic container and slammed it against the wall.
“It became high school lore,” says Jared Swilley, 27, Alexander’s best friend and longtime bass-playing bandmate. The school cited Alexander’s chronic tardiness but he and Swilley blame it on the administration’s post-Columbine paranoia, fearing this pair was some sort of danger to the other students and faculty. A week later Swilley was expelled for smoking cigarettes on campus. “I was just like, ‘Thanks,’ and walked home,” he says. “I knew it was going to happen. I was just itching to get out of there.”
But in those months following 1999’s Columbine High School massacre, when two students killed 12 peers and one teacher, the entire country was thrown into a panic, and Dunwoody High heightened security measures amidst concern of a potential copycat attack. “They thought everyone was in the Trench Coat Mafia,” says Swilley.
“The weird thing was that we were friends with popular girls and jocks,” he continues, sipping a Pacifico and working on some fish tacos at a Mexican restaurant in Echo Park, Los Angeles. He speaks surrounded by his bandmates—the avant-garde Alexander, the responsible Joe Bradley, and the laid-back, theatrical Ian St. Pé. Swilley, says Alexander, is the heart and soul of these self-proclaimed flower-punks, the Black Lips. “They just figured because we didn’t play football or we kind of dressed weird and had no extracurricular activities that we were trouble.”
Ms. Bobo eventually ended up getting fired for sexual misconduct after strip-searching two girls, while Alexander and Swilley grew into the modern world’s most successful do-whatever-we-want punk band. “It’s the people with the most miserable, mundane lives that have the most opportunity to make your life the most living piece of shit ever,” Swilley says. “But sometimes I can say to myself, ‘Let’s give this person a break—their life is hell. This is my cartoon drawing of what hell would be like.’”
Swilley’s life, meanwhile, seems relatively heavenly at the moment—a nice house in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown neighborhood where he only sometimes has to pay rent, a serious girlfriend in Nebraska, a beer in his hand and, later, cocaine in his nose, grass in his lungs, a bass over his shoulder, rampaging fans and booming applause. Still, after 12 years expulsion is no alien notion to him and his bandmates. Tonight, for instance, they are headlining Echo Park’s Echoplex, a club they last played in 2007 and to where they were told they’d never be asked back. It had happened then that St. Pé broke a beer bottle to use the glass neck as a guitar slide, allegedly spraying glass shards into the monitor engineer’s eye. Threatened with arrest and legal action, the band fled the venue.
“We’re a real rock and roll band,” says St. Pé, 32, full of swagger but even more sincerity. “We like to have a good fucking time, and we know we can get away with shit so we see how far we can take it… We’ve been kicked out of tons of places that have us back. And that’s cool. We just have fun. That’s it.”
So, it seems this mayhem is all pretty routine. For consistent, quality, take-that! pop songs the band has become beloved; for its onstage antics it has become notorious. Larry Hardy, founder of In the Red Records—the L.A.-based garage-and-punk label that released Black Lips’ third LP, Let It Bloom, in 2005—remembers first seeing the band in 2002 at the Subterranean in Chicago: “They were amazing. It was nuts. Everything about it. They had a sampler that was going the entire time that had a scream on it. And they were fist-fighting one another onstage. Cole projectile-vomited and it seemed like he was doing it at will. It was just fucking insane. It was total chaos. It was definitely one of the most over-the-top performances I’ve ever seen in my life.”
For the rest of our cover story from issue 42, stay tuned for Part 2 and Part 3 to follow this week.
This article is from FILTER 42