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Pushing Buttons

Georgia Quartet The Black Lips Grows Up By Staying Young

By Tony Ware | Posted 9/12/2007

The Black Lips

Sonar Sept. 14

"Who are the Black Lips?" reflects bassist/vocalist Jared Swilley by phone during his Atlanta "summer vacation" between tours. "Everybody wants us to be like somebody. One of my biggest idols is Fred Cole from Dead Moon. And Roky Erickson. But if we have to be compared to the career of someone easy . . . if we're like the Rolling Stones, we're on Between the Buttons right now."

Fred Cole has been releasing skeletal snarls for some 40 years, and Roky Erickson began his career in cult '60s garage-rock band the 13th Floor Elevators. These names summon images of tumbleweediness, of psychedelic journeymen accompanied by their high-pitched and pinched guitars. They've been chasing or been chased by the husks of ambition for decades, scarred but not silenced by the powder burns of naiveté.

The Black Lips share a guitar tone, but not necessarily a personal tenor with these two legends. Sure, the band, formed in Georgia in 2000 by a gaggle of crusty suburban teens, has maintained a DIY aesthetic and stared down the highway's yellow line for two-thirds of the year, each year, as it established a reputation for bruised pop and shambolic shows. But for all the band's initially feral feedback and body fluid-swapping stage presence, the Black Lips as a whole is a band not as frayed as the influences from which it pulls. And with Good Bad Not Evil, the band's Vice Records studio full-length debut and fifth album overall, the Black Lips are building more buzz than fuzz with the group's least rust-bucket, adolescence-addled collection of blues-rawk.

"Yeah, this album has less fuzz, so I guess it means we're sellouts," shrugs the recently hirsute Swilley. "And maybe that's why we grew the fuzz on the upper lip.

"I'm actually happy with our progression, where now my dad can go out to our shows," continues Swilley, the son of a preacher who also participated in some of the band's early scatological, scuzzy, and violence-prone performances. "We're stepping away from the shock rock, because at the beginning we were a local band . . . 18 or younger and not playing too well. But now we have a huge base of baby sitters writing us for kids, sending us pictures of tricycles with Black Lips stickers on them. Our West Coast tour had all these in-stores with kids and their parents. And if those kids get to dancing, well, they're the harshest critics."

The current make-up of the Black Lips audience, previously not lacking for teenage boys crowing to see some pubic hair set on fire, cannot be independently verified, and a claim of kid-friendliness does leave doubts in this writer's mind. After all, Swilley also claims the band is working with a nuclear technician to produce a vodka-based, Brazilian herb-infused sexual energy drink.

One thing that is apparent when speaking with Swilley, however, is that he recognizes that keeping the rock rolling has somewhat transitioned into a job, but a source of good stress rather than bad or evil stress. "It sometimes feels like work, but not like I'm working at the diner again and trying to get by till I sleep," he says. "It's productive work . . . Now I serve people in a different way."

It's in this realization that his comparison to the Rolling Stones sounds appropriate. When it comes to bands that realized early on there are pockets to be filled if seats are, too, the Rolling Stones rank in the topmost tier. But even more telling is Swilley's Stones album of choice. Between the Buttons--released alongside the single "Let's Spend the Night Together/Ruby Tuesday" in 1967, consequently, within a year of Fred Cole and Roky Erickson's hit singles--was the sound of the Stones cleaning up their act, so to speak. The bristly swagger of Aftermath had transitioned into an album that experimented with compressed cabaret without totally losing its scrappy sneer. And Good Bad Not Evil is that album for the Black Lips.

Evil acknowledges the Black Lips' Southern-fried formula of steel-wool twang and decaying transients dosed with psychedelic phlegm, then wipes away some of the opalescent oil slick that beaded previous albums with a murky froth. There are still nods to Swilley's influences, as well as the Swell Maps, Mummies, and the Gun Club, but now they are less obscured. Evil delivers the comforts and contrasts of a gooey bowl of mac 'n' cheese and clean socks on an otherwise strung-out afternoon.

"Much like the bratty best of the Dead Milkmen, this album evokes in me a desire to drink moonshine and fingerbang girls," writes Mark of the MP3 blog Music-For-Robots about Evil via iChat.

Of course, the Dead Milkmen never peppered the catalog with songs inspired by New Orleans in the aftermath of a hurricane ("Katrina"), brushes with juvenile detention centers ("Bad Kids"), and the passing of band members and parents ("How Do You Tell a Child That Someone Has Died" and "Transcendental Light," respectively). Swilley says the songs come more from "Robitussin, magic mushrooms, puberty, diarrhea, a lot of weed, and living where you can wear shorts at Christmas" than the desire to convey an overt message--which Swilley considers tacky to force on people. Yet there's certainly an undercurrent of ailment and dogged catharsis throughout Evil.

Fans need not worry, however, that the Black Lips have forsaken youthful exuberance. Even as the group does its job at a furious pace--having collected enough material for a follow-up album, filming a segment in Christoph Green and Brendan Canty's Burn to Shine performance DVD series, and playing house parties to music halls the world over--it's still the little bombastic moments that count.

Every Southern suburban teen that's even a little bit "different"--"queer" is the more common term yelled from a pickup--was fucked with at least once by a gang of jocks wearing no fear T-shirts. It's to the Black Lips credit that the group of after-school pals has compellingly managed to cut its own swath through the bullshit of growing up by not fully doing so, perverting and reclaiming the shit moments and funneling them into rave-ups.

"Last night they had a No Fear pinball machine at [infamously seedy Atlanta strip club] the Clermont Lounge," Swilley says. "It's the funniest shit I've ever seen. Feel free to say the Black Lips were formed from the philosophy of 'No Fear.' We live by the motto, 'If you have fear just look it in the eyes.'"

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