Interview with The Black Lips

There’s no point pretending to play it cool when talking to the Black Lips‘ Jared Swilley. I’m a fan, so naturally my face became pretty acquainted with my palm throughout the interview as I went about making a dick of myself.

How big of a dick? I asked what the Black Lips would be if they were a food. Seriously, who asks that? (It’s steak tartare in case you were wondering). Thankfully, Jared was forgiving and nice enough to pretend I wasn’t an idiot. Ahead of their fifth visit to Australian shores, he gave us the nitty gritty on their brush with Charles Manson, what he thinks of Black Lips copy cats, hipsters, and their plans to one day play in Antarctica.

For those not as familiar with the Black Lips, what you would have heard about them would mostly relate to their ‘delinquent behaviour’ and mad live shows. This reputation is not without reason. They are known for vomiting, urinating and getting naked, not to mention making out with each other and inviting live chickens on stage. They even got kicked out of India in 2010 by their tour promoter for what was, for them fairly standard on-stage behaviour.

Though they might be getting older, it doesn’t mean they’re growing up. Seven albums in and no longer struggling musicians, they’re a long way from settling (or slowing) down. “We’re still not really settled,” Jared says. “I mean, I’m not. I’m in between cities right now and we’re pretty much on the road all the time. I guess we’re a little more settled, like, three out of four of us have a house,” he acknowledges. “But I don’t think that will influence our music too much. We’ve pretty much done things the same the past few years, we just stay on tour a lot.”

Maybe it’s their reputation as loveable rogues, but it’s easy to forget the Black Lips have been around for close to fifteen years. It’s no wonder then that there have been quite a few Black Lips look-alikes, particularly in the last couple of years. Since being signed to Vice Records they’ve become quite the reference point for up-and-coming bands. “Yeah, I remember noticing that when we started getting referenced in other reviews and stuff,” Jared reflects. Fans might be pissed off at the influx of such bands, but Jared is far from annoyed. “I think it’s cool,” he says. “It’s a high honour to get that kind of nod. Especially ‘cos when we started we were influenced by other bands and wanted to sound like other bands. We like being part of the cycle.”

In the past Jared and his bandmates have expressed a dislike for their mainly hipster demographic. This attitude seems to have matured since then, as Jared reflects that to him, “hipsters” are just youth in general. “That’s gone on no matter what moniker you put it under. Those kids don’t bother me, it’s just history,” he says of his trend-following fans. “It’s just a young person that’s into music. I mean, they were punks before that, and hippies before that. I don’t know, I don’t get the whole hipster thing. I mean, I guess I’m a hipster.”

It is true though that the Black Lips would prefer to reject the niche they have been placed in. As did Nirvana, they would prefer to play the popular late night talk shows and reach a wider audience than keep their music sheltered within a subculture. “Yeah, we want to play Saturday Night Live and I’d like to play the Super Bowl,” he adds. “We’d like to get our music to as many people as possible. We don’t really have any moral scruples about stuff like that.”

It might be for this reason, along with a new album produced by Mark Ronson, that some fans have cried ‘sell-outs’ (apparently Mark Ronson is too mainstream?). Jared just laughs. “I don’t really know what selling out is,” he claims. “The definition of sell-out is someone who changes their music when they don’t want to. See, I don’t really understand the concept of that. I’m too old to worry about being a sell-out. I don’t think we have to prove any more street cred. We’ve been around fifteen years so we’re not changing anything.” This is a fair call as the Black Lips haven’t really changed in sound or image since they began (in the best possible sense). It’s also an awkward claim when pretty much every band or artist today is spamming themselves to friends and acquaintances via Facebook and Twitter.

On the topic of social media, one of the most fun parts of the Black Lips is their use of Facebook and Twitter. In the past they even had a fan phone, where people could ring up the band at all hours and have a chat. “Mostly it’s just fun,” comments Jared. “It’s fun to do, you know, interact with people. I know they appreciate that. I mean, when I was in middle school and stuff, like before social media, I would have flipped out if I’d been able to interact with bands. It’s also cool we can post music and photos, and kill time on tour. Like share stories and stuff. I kind of like it to a degree.”

Like he says, it’s an opportunity for fans to interact with their idols, so what is it like touring with one of theirs? Also out in Australia for the Adelaide Festival and Golden Plains, the Black Lips are supporting Roky Erickson – he’s the guy from the 13th Floor Elevators, whose music was some of the first to ever be referred to as psychedelic, and also one of their biggest influences. “It doesn’t get much better than that,” Jared says. “I mean, like you said he’s one of my idols, so that was really cool. We’ve played a couple of times and it’s been an honour. Any time you get to play with one of your influences it’s really cool.” He doubts that Roky has actually ever listened to their stuff though. “He’s seen us play but I doubt if he’d actually take time to listen to the record.”

Most of the Black Lips’ influences are rooted in older genres of music, such as southern gospel and ‘60s rock. It seems like it could also be the key to their ongoing success. “We play what we like,” Jared agrees. “We’ve never really been on trend at all. So that’s kind of giving us staying power, just ‘cos we do what we want to do… We’ve just kind of always really been into roots music and stuff like that. People like the music that we do and we have our own thing… If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and that music’s sounded good for sixty or so years so people always like it.”

Leading up to their latest album Arabia Mountain, the Lips’ frontman Cole Alexander mentioned he was potentially going to talk to notorious cult leader Charles Manson in the hope of gaining some inspiration for lyrics. Unfortunately the meeting fell through. “We were in the studio and he was supposed to be on a conference call. [Cole] had a friend he could conference call in the prison. But I think he talked about it or mentioned it or let it get out, and then the guy that was going to do the conference call got mad and he didn’t get to do it.”

From interesting sources for lyrics (‘Spidey’s Curse’ is actually based on an anti-paedophilia pamphlet featuring Spiderman that Cole was given in school) to the cray cray live shows, there’s plenty to like about the Black Lips. In particular, their desire to take their music to places where rock and roll isn’t often heard. As well as India, the Black Lips have toured Thailand and other parts of South East Asia.

“When you go places that a million bands don’t go to every day you get a much more appreciative crowd. It’s completely different. I mean, playing in Europe and America and Australia is awesome, but when you go off the beaten path it’s a totally new experience,” Jared says. “All the Western places you play, they’re great and you get a cool crowd and stuff, but it’s cool to play somewhere like Thailand where it’s completely different. I didn’t even know we had a fan base in Thailand and we had a huge show, and it was the same for Vietnam and Cambodia.

“We’re working on a tour of the Middle East in early September. So that’s our next goal, somewhere we haven’t been. We’d like to do a show in Africa. We want to try and knock out all the continents we can.” Even perhaps Antarctica, then? “Yeah, actually we’re trying to work on that but it’s hard to find a contact down there. We want to play on a research base. They have a big research base there that has a bar. We want to play at that bar.”

But before they get there, they’ll be touching down in Australia, and they plan on partying. “I don’t know what our schedule is but I know we have days off. We always kind of party a lot in Australia. We’re always there in the summer time, when festivals are happening, so it’s always super fun. So yeah, we’ll probably be partying.”

Originally published 29 February 2012 on

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