By Colin Stutz; photos by Marc Lemoine on June 8, 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.
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Swilley, Alexander and Bradley met skateboarding around Atlanta. Alexander had repeated kindergarten twice and was always in and out of trouble; he was put in special education classes because teachers and administrators said he had a behavioral disorder. They were 15 and 16 when Swilley and Alexander’s first band, The Renegades, fizzled. Picking up Bradley on drums, though he’d never played before, they formed Black Lips. Piece by piece, ramshackle songs were assembled, the band getting tips where they could, learning their instruments along the way. After a couple shows, their friend Ben Eberbaugh joined in on guitar with enough expertise to exercise a solo or two.
What they lacked in skill they made up for with raw, authentic energy that would become a staple of the band’s identity. Alexander, looking for an outlet for his off-kilter creativity, found he could be as disruptive as he liked while singing and playing guitar onstage—and even evoke a similar response from his audience. Disorder! Swilley says coming from a long lineage of preachers helped kill any stage fright he might have ever had himself: “Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had to stand onstage and sing or talk.” Their style was garnered from Ramones-punk, ’60s psychedelia and garage, Alvino Rey-era blues and old gospel stuff their grandparents had listened to, forming an earnest, primitive sound familiar but their own, juiced with reckless energy and enthusiasm.
Once expelled from Dunwoody High, Alexander got a job at a restaurant and Swilley was sent off to a “wilderness treatment center for bad kids” thanks to an earlier incident involving a drunken night when the two friends smashed every mailbox on Swilley’s block. Meanwhile, Bradley had graduated from high school early and was taking college courses. But when Swilley returned to town and proposed to take the band seriously, the drummer dropped his studies and set his sights on the road.
“My rationale was that college will always be there,” says Bradley, 27. “But the opportunity is now. I’d be a fool to turn it down.”
Soon, the guys had moved out of their parents’ places and were living some grimy punk fantasy in a rundown two-story house they called Die Slaughterhaus. They would throw insane shows when other bands came through town, drink South Carolina moonshine and host TV-smashing parties where the Lips and their friends would toss appliances off the roof.
“We just destroyed the house,” recalls Alexander, 28. “Jared ollied off the roof on his skateboard, people would punch holes in the wall and break glass… There were a couple kids doing hard drugs so the cops would totally raid it all the time. It was insane. Meth-heads were in and out of there, people were shooting guns; it was like the fucking Wild West… It was one of the craziest times of my life—every day was retarded and stupid.”
Meanwhile, the Black Lips were in and out of jail and constantly on the road, each trying to save 200 bucks to sink into another poorly routed tour that would see no financial return and have them unsure how to pay the next month’s rent at home. Slumming it, they would routinely sleep on cold, hardwood floors and eat out of garbage cans or at homeless shelters, tired and dirty pretty much all the time. “If we had moved back to the suburbs I’m sure we could have gotten jobs and worked and been fine,” says Alexander. “We weren’t poor but the life we were choosing was.”
In 2002, just days before a tour was set to begin, while idling his car at a toll booth Eberbaugh was killed by a drunk driver headed the wrong direction down the highway. While senselessly tragic, it’s not something the band shies away from talking about but still seem reserved in doing so. (“That kind of sucked,” says Alexander offhandedly, summing up the band’s lowest point.) Believing it would have been Eberbaugh’s wish, they carried on, quickly picking up friend Jack Hines on guitar and headed out on the road once more, touring this way until Hines left the band in 2004 to get married and settle down. In need of a permanent replacement, they called St. Pé, an older friend from New Orleans who’d played in The Renegades and would often buy them beer and cigarettes. He had just started a music industry program at the University of Memphis when they asked him to join the band.
“It was midnight and I was at a bar drinking with my girlfriend,” St. Pé recalls. “Jared called me and said, ‘I’ve got two questions for you. Do you want to join the band?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Can you leave tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Come pick me up.’”
Like that, St. Pé quit college and left his girlfriend of four years to chase his “rock and roll dream.” His new bandmates picked him up on the way from Atlanta to Cleveland, taught him 13 songs in the van, and by that night he was opening for L.A. 1960s garage legends The Seeds, smoking dope backstage with frontman Sky Saxon. St. Pé used his university loan money to buy gold teeth grills, the Pebbles and Back to the Grave ’60s garage-rock compilations for research, and never went back to school.
Reunited with St. Pé, the Lips lineup finally felt cemented. At this point they wouldn’t have accepted anything less than full dedication, says Bradley. “Not as crappy as we were—you have to be committed to the crappiness and 100-percent committed to the bettering of such crappiness.” The following year they released their lo-fi masterpiece, Let It Bloom, full of rambling rock-and-roll catharsis that kicks dirt over a blossoming knack for pop.
Combining their skill for sing-along slacker anthems with their live spectacle and sheer persistence, the Black Lips damn well support an image of deranged men on a mission, an abominable force with which to be reckoned. Somehow, these supposed-slackers have become what is today often heralded as “The Hardest Working Band in Show Business.” (“At the end of the day, if you don’t give 110 percent, someone else will. And you know who that is? Us,” says St. Pé, somewhat spontaneously and repeatedly.) Their hard-partying, hell-raising reputation has only grown over the years as their destructive wake has turned into a folkloric blaze of bedlam. Each of the last seven years have been packed with close to 300 shows and the Lips’ fascination with traveling has seen them play all over the world—from Brazil to Russia to Palestine’s West Bank, with hopeful sights set next on Iraqi Kurdistan.
“They’re delinquents,” says Suroosh Alvi, co-founder of Vice magazine and the band’s current label, Vice Recordings. “They’re into sex, drugs and rock and roll, but they’re such workhorses and they have such insane work ethic. They’re funny because they’re high school dropouts but they read The Economist. I would say they know more about what’s going on in the world than the average American kid who’s been to college.”
In 2009, on tour in India, after one raucous show in Chennai during which St. Pé and Alexander kissed and Alexander pulled down his pants to moon the audience and strum his guitar with his penis, the band was threatened with arrest for indecency. So motivated, they fled the country to Berlin halfway through the tour. Making the best of a bad situation, they met up with the now-defunct doo-wop group The King Khan & BBQ Show and spent a lost weekend writing and recording a psych-rock-supergroup album dubbed The Almighty Defenders under the same name.
Yet, to be sure, the band’s propensity for raising hell isn’t without effect. Later that year, Swilley publicly criticized SoCal-slacker-punk Nathan Williams of Wavves for an onstage meltdown at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound Festival, calling him a “baby” and a “dick” on Norwegian radio. Months later, the two happened into the same Brooklyn bar and a fight broke out after Swilley walked up to Williams and said, “You’re that faggot from Wavves and I don’t like you.” Swilley wound up with a bottle broken over his head and missed three flights the next day because he couldn’t get his wound to stop bleeding.
“I had a bottle broken over my head in Portland,” says Alexander, explaining that much of the hype was in jest, mimicking rap feuds. “Sometimes we get a little surly and shit happens… It wasn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last time.
“Hopefully it’ll be the last,” he adds.
For the conclusion of our cover story from issue 42, stay tuned for Part 3 to follow tomorrow.
This article is from FILTER 42