Interview by Michael Tedder / Photos by Travis Huggett
So much has happened with Black Lips since self-titled last talked to our Issue No. 1 covers stars. The guys recently released their latest album, 200 Million Thousand, and though it shows the quartet throwing some beer-soaked curveballs here and there, the reckless abandon for which fans love them remains intact. In fact, if anything the group has used its rising profile to make trouble on an even larger scale (much to their tour promoter’s chagrin, no doubt). Bassist Jared Swilley talked with self-titled about the group’s struggle to keep things exciting as they graduate to bigger stages, what really went down during their trip to India and what’s up with that film they were supposed to make. And, this being Black Lips, we also got to hear about dudes making out and flying meat.
self-titled: So even though you just put out an album, I hear you have new material in the works, and not all of it is under the name Black Lips. What’s going on?
Yeah, we recorded another LP in February with our friends in [King Khan & BBQ Show] when we were in Berlin, and we started a new, kind of gospel group called the Almighty Defenders. I was really happy with it, and I guess we’re going to tour with that band later this year when we go on tour with King Khan and BBQ. We’ve done one show as the Almighty Defenders when we were in Berlin, and it went pretty well.
How did that come about? Did it happen on the spot, or had you guys been talking about doing this for a while?
No, it was completely spontaneous. We got to Berlin and had ten days, and Berlin in the winter is pretty rough, so you can’t go outside. We had been listening to a lot of gospel music, so we wanted to record just like a seven-inch of Black Lips songs that were kind of like that, but when we got to the studio King Khan and BBQ both had songs, and we started having so much fun it just evolved into a whole LP–and another band.
Do you know when that will be out?
Soon, I hope. I wanted it to already be out now, but we’re just trying to figure out what label to put it out on. Hopefully some time this summer–definitely before we go on tour with them in the fall.
Speaking of collaborations, you guys performed a few shows at South by Southwest with GZA from Wu-Tang, right?
Yeah, yeah, we did.
How do you think the shows went?
Well, the shows didn’t go well. It was real sloppy. He asked us to… We came up with the idea the night before and never practiced. We just kinda went up there and tried to follow what he was doing. But uh, I don’t know, we’ve always really liked Wu-Tang a lot, and on this album we have one song that was kind of inspired by their early stuff, and GZA actually did a couple verses on it. I think it should be out …somewhere. He did some verses on it and wanted to do stuff live. I want to do more stuff with him later. It’s weird how it came about. We’re friends with his manager, and we hung with Raekwon before, and GZA liked one of our songs, so he wanted to hang out with us at South by Southwest.
But you don’t think the show went that well?
I thought it was cool just because we were onstage together. But as far as like, technically, we weren’t very spot on with everything. But I’ve never been to a hip-hop show that was very spot on with everything. When we were up there he was like, “Oh, we’re going to do this other song,” and I had never even heard it before, so I just had to kinda find the note on my bass somehow.
Do you think you’ll do it again and practice more, or do you think this was one time only?
Yeah, the next time we do it, we’re going to definitely practice more. But this was super spontaneous, like we were just hanging out with him at the hotel the night before, and he was like, “Oh, let’s do this show together.” So we did it.
Speaking of festival shows, you guys are known as almost the quintessential dive-bar group. These days you’ve graduated to bigger stages; you’ve opened for the Raconteurs. You’ve played a lot of festivals. Has it been weird for you guys to bring your show to a large audience?
Well, it definitely did take a little bit of getting used to when we first stated playing those big stages because we were kind of out of our element. We were used to little shitty places. But now that we’ve done them a lot, we’ve kind of worked out a way to translate that vibe of a small place–try to make it more intimate even though it’s a big place. I’m used to it now, and I kind of like those big stages. They’re fun to play. There’s pros and cons about both.
What are some things you can do to translate the intimate vibe?
I mean, getting in the crowd always helps. Just getting into putting on a good show because you do look really small to those people. I don’t know. Setting fires or throwing garbage or toilet paper out visually looks cool. Last time we did this big outdoor festival in Austin, we bought like two to three hundred hamburgers from McDonald’s and threw them at everyone. I guess it was kind of gross, but people seemed to think it was funny.
Three hundred? It must have been pretty expensive.
Yeah, $300. A little less than $300 because they’re like 89 cents a piece, but it was worth it.
And how many of those ended up getting thrown back at you?
A bunch. Actually, GZA was up there. He wasn’t playing with us at that show; he was just onstage watching. He’s been a vegan for like twenty years, and he got freaked out. I don’t know if it hit him or just landed at his feet, but he got offstage because he said that was the closest he’s been to meat in like sixteen years or something.
At this point all your fans know your reputation for the crazy live show. When you play these bigger venues, is it cool to play to an audience that doesn’t know anything about you and might get freaked out a bit?
Yeah, I think most people have an idea of that, but sometimes you can tell that people don’t know what’s going on, especially if people that don’t know what’s going on are mixed in the crowd with people who do. Our crowd, they kind of do stupid things sometimes, and it could rub someone else the wrong way. But I think it’s not a negative thing. It’s just that people are like, “Whoa, what’s going on?”
Definitely. Last year I arrived at Lollapalooza early to catch your set, and at the very end of it when you guys started making out, these two high school kids in front of me looked terrified.
Hell yeah. I like to break down barriers like that about guys kissing because Americans are so homophobic and so uptight about other dudes. It’s really annoying, I’m a grown man, and when I wear shorts walking down the street, I have like constructions workers and stuff like that yelling “faggot” out the window. In this day and age, it’s so annoying. So stuff like that, especially if kids think we’re cool and then we make out or do something kind of gay and they have to accept that like, “Oh, I guess that’s alright.” I don’t know. That’s kind of our big political stand. But if teenage boys at our shows get uncomfortable by us making out onstage or if my shorts make them uncomfortable, then my job is done.
Then that’s rock ‘n’ roll.
Are you guys totally sick of answering questions about the India incident?
Yeah, but I’ll do it [laughs].
What went on with that?
We’ve been working on it for a year. We have a Canadian friend of Indian descent living over there, doing agricultural research, and he thought it would be a good idea to invite some bands over. We were supposed to go with King Khan and BBQ, but they pulled out, and he asked Deerhunter to go, and he asked Jay Reatard, but we’re kind of like always the guinea pigs for stuff like that. So we went and the first few shows…it was cool to play, but as far as the shows went it was pretty boring. People didn’t really understand what we were doing. I think we were the first punk band to go over there or the first DIY tour because they don’t have the concept of touring in the way that we think about it in the West. But finally it was getting kind of discouraging with the shows; it was just weird, so we just decided to go all out. We didn’t even go that crazy. I think I threw my bass up, and I did a stage dive. I didn’t see it at the time, but I guess Ian and Cole kissed onstage, and that was just too much. We didn’t think anything of it at the time, but when we went back to the hotel, we found out that the sponsors had pulled all the money from the tour and kicked us off the rest of the shows and called the police on us because I guess indecency and homosexuality are illegal there because it’s still extremely conservative. So we had to get in the car and drive ten hours away to the next show. The promoters tried to jack our passports. We got them back by force, kicked them out of the next hotel, booked tickets to Berlin and got the hell out of there.
Whoa, that’s insane.
It was a bad scene for about thirty hours there. The rest of it was pretty rad though.
Were you worried you might end up in jail?
Yeah, because we hadn’t slept in two days. At first I was calling bullshit on it to the tour manager, like, “No fucking way,” because I was tired and wanted to go to sleep. I was kinda drunk, too. “I’m just going to go to sleep. No one can come into your hotel after the fact, especially just for kissing.” But for the tour manager to be that adamant about it–it was four, five in the morning–he ordered two cars to take us that far. I’m sure that wasn’t cheap. Then I knew that would have been a reality. The main thing I was afraid of was exiting the country because I didn’t want them to do something with customs, getting out of there and then a red flag go up. That would be just terrifying. Judging from the hotels we were staying in–which were disgusting and filthy and scary–if those were hotels, then I can’t imagine what the fucking jails would be like.
When you first got there, were you outright told not to do anything crazy onstage, or was it just strongly implied?
No, never told. Quite the opposite, actually. We did a full press tour the first day we were in Mumbai, and the tour managers were there, and they heard all the questions. They were asking the same questions you’re asking me, the same effect, and they had seen videos of us on YouTube. They knew what was up, and they never said, “Hey, this is cool; this isn’t cool.” In fact, after the second show they could tell we were discouraged, and they just told us to be ourselves and go crazy. So I was pretty shocked. I could understand, maybe, if we were playing some really traditional place, but it was a Western-style venue, a Western-style production. All the bands were metal bands. I was under the impression that this is the exception to the rule. So yeah, I was really surprised.
You guys have played Palestine before, right?
Was it the same kind of deal?
That was more like a busking thing. We didn’t have that set up with anyone. We just set ourselves up in front of a mosque, like in the square. I was actually really nervous about that one, nervous to the point where we just had acoustic guitars and just played. But we actually got a good crowd there, and people were dancing. That was a really good vibe. The shopkeepers invited us into their store and made us a bunch of tea and gave us kefirs and gave us a cool picture Saddam Hussein shaking hands with [Yassir] Arafat.
So on this new album, you guys have a lot of weird noise and a lot experimenting and some samples on it. Are you guys trying to break out of the quote-unquote garage-punk tag?
Yeah, I’ve always hated that tag. I think everyone who gets tagged that or called that kinda hates it, but I realize it’s going to be inevitable. It doesn’t bother me that much. We’ve never been very traditional with anything we do. We listen to mostly old music and all, but I’m not going to deny the present or the future. It’s always just fun to mess around with stuff. I don’t want to be one of those skinny tie wearing Beatles knock-off kind of bands that we used to play with.
On the new album I was really struck by the song “I’ll Be With You.” You guys are known as these crazy dudes, and this song has these sweet, innocent lyrics. Where did that come from?
I mean, that’s kinda who we are. We’re not badasses at all. I love wimpy, sappy music and doo-wop and stuff like that. It’s kinda just holding on to our youthful innocence, if we can at all. I like to mix tough shit with wimpy shit. It’s kinda cool, like a gay dude wearing a sleeveless leather jacket and knuckle-less leather gloves.
So last year, you guys had been talking about playing the part of a Replacements-like group called the Renegades in an ’80s DIY-scene film called Let It Be. Are you guys still working on that?
No, we decided not to do that. It was a mixture of the way things were going and mainly just timing because we don’t have eight weeks to take off to shoot a full-length movie. It just didn’t work out basically.
I was kind of surprised you guys were doing it in the first place because you tour all the time.
Yeah, it was just unrealistic.
I know you’re always writing stuff. Besides the gospel album, what else is on the horizon?
Well, we’ve already started writing the next album. This summer we have a lot of time off in Atlanta, and now we have our own studio, so we’ll probably try to record another album this summer. I was supposed to work on my other record yesterday. I have a band called the Gaye Blades. I’m supposed to do an LP, but we only had a week off, and now we have to leave in the morning. There’s just no time.
But maybe you’ll start working in the summer?
Oh yeah, definitely. I don’t like downtime.