Black Lips make often chaotic, always entertaining, never-heard-on-the-radio, “flower punk” garage rock.
British super-producer Mark Ronson has made records for Amy Winehouse, Adele, Q-Tip, Nas, Robbie Williams, Duran Duran and Christina Aguilera.
And now, he’s made one with Black Lips. So, Black Lips bassist Jared Swilley, how did that surprising, off-the-wall producer-band hook-up happen? And how did it work?
“He liked our band and said he wanted to do it,” Swilley explains. “That was it. I loved it. It was an awesome experience. The great thing about him is he knew our songs were totally there. He was very good about not overstepping and trying to change things.
“He understood what we were doing. He just added really cool elements. He just made [the songs] better. We meshed very well. It was kind of like having another member of the band.”
It may be impractical to go into specifics about what Ronson added to the songs Lips brought into his Brooklyn studio, where the record was cut over nine months to fit into the producer’s schedule. But his pro polish certainly helped the Black Lips create what might be the garage rock record of 2011 with Arabia Mountain.
The 16-song slab-o-wax echoes real rock ’n’ roll past while fitting in perfectly with Black Lips’ fully up-to-date fun.
The saxophone, driving guitars and ah-ah vocals on “Mad Dog” and “Noc-a-Homa” (about the baseball mascot) bring to mind The Sonics, the legendary early ’60s pioneering garage rockers, while “Time” and “New Direction” revive the swinging British Invasion sound. The Ramones get a hint on “Raw Meat,” and “The Lie” is classic-she-done-me-wrong agro-guitar pop.
Swilley is justifiably proud of Arabia Mountain, the band’s sixth studio album.
“I will say it’s the most satisfied I’ve ever been with a record after we’re done,” he says. “I think it’s probably our most accessible record and maybe our best.
Those who turn up for the shows are likely to get a good dose of Arabia Mountain songs. Or at least that will be the plan going in most nights.
“We’ll have a set list,” Swilley says. “But will we follow it? Who knows. It just depends.”
It depends because Black Lips shows are, to be understated, chaotic, over-the-top, crazily entertaining affairs that are far from the same night after night.
Instead of the usual nightly repetition, Swilley says, the band surveys the crowd at each venue and, depending on what they sense, gears up the show.
“It really depends on the room and the feeling,” Swilley says. “If the feeling’s insane, we’re going to go insane.”
The Black Lips have been known to take insane to the breaking point.
Two years ago, they got booted out of India after guitarists Cole Alexander and Ian Saint Pe kissed on stage, committing a “homosexual act” that was punishable by imprisonment.
That’s tame compared to some of the legendary Lips acts over the years that have involved public nudity, bodily fluids, explosions, fire and a general disregard for personal safety — especially for the band members.
“The real drawback is when you get hurt on stage,” Swilley says. “But we’ve never killed a child on stage or hurt anyone who’s not in the band.”
Though they’ve gotten notice in the last few years, Black Lips have been together since 1999, when Dunwoody, Ga., teenagers Swilley and Alexander hooked up with guitarist Ben Eberbaugh. A few months later, drummer Joe Bradley joined up, and the Black Lips were born.
The band put out its first 7-inch on its own label in 2002, the same year that Eberbaugh was killed by a drunk driver in an automobile accident. Black Lips carried on, Swilley said, because the band believed Eberbaugh would have wanted them to keep rocking.
Black Lips! the band’s debut album, was released on Bomp! Records in 2003, and by 2007, Black Lips had signed with Vice, released first a live album, then Good, Bad, Not Evil, and took the South By Southwest music conference by storm.
“It’s been slow progress,” Swilley says of the group’s career. “It’s hard to take stock of it. I don’t think we’ve developed much at all. The only huge thing for the band was the day we discovered we didn’t have to do day jobs. That was the thing that did it for us.”
That day happened six years ago. Black Lips haven’t slowed down since.
“We’re in a really lucky place,” he says. “Some bands don’t like touring a lot and think it’s a grinding thing. A lot of bands don’t really like each other, either. We all get along really well and enjoy what we do. We’re thankful we get to do this as our job.”