Atlanta's The Black Lips formed as teenagers, right before the turn of the millennium. Just a year or two later, while still in high school, the punk-influenced, retro-obsessed four-piece started touring. And they've never really looked back.
Seemingly more comfortable on the road than at home, the band's pretty much constantly on the road. So it's of little surprise, then, that when we recently caught up with bassist Jared Swilley over the phone, the band was on the road again -- this time en route to Columbus, Ohio, for a show.
Already, it's been a busy year for the band. A few months back, they co-headlined a sort of spring break for the hipster set, playing a number of shows with like-minded touring bands on a cruise called the Bruise Cruise. (The above music video for their song "Go Out and Get It" was filmed on the Bruise Cruise.) They followed that up with a stop at Mardi Gras. Then it was on to Austin for South by Southwest.
That was all by design, of course: The band's sixth studio album, Arabia Mountain, which features production work from Mark Ronson, is due out on Vice Records on June 7. And, as Swilley told us in our conversation, the band's got "a lot of ground to cover" in their promotional tour, with concerts already planned in four continents, and maybe even ballooning to all seven by year's end. And, yes, that would make the Black Lips the first ever band to accomplish such a feat, far as Swilley's aware.
Read our full Q&A with him after the jump to hear his thoughts on why it's important to tour the entire world, what it's like to working with a high-profile producer such as Ronson, and why he didn't even bother to watch Bad Brains' set during his band's shared bill with that band at SXSW.
So I understand you guys are on the road to Columbus right now?
Yeah! We had a lovely day of rest yesterday, which is extremely rare.
Have you guys been on the road constantly since the Bruise Cruise back in February?
A little bit. After that, we went down to New Orleans for like five days, for Mardi Gras, and after that went to South by Southwest.
How'd that go for you this year, South by Southwest? It's hardly your first time through it now...
It was good. The shows were really good. All the bands we played with were really great and we only had one show a night. but it's always the same -- you can't really do anything, you're tired all the time and you can't sit down. It's a big clusterfuck.
I know a lot of people were rally excited about that show you played with OFF! and Bad Brains at Emo's down there. The line just to get into that show was insane.
I didn't even know we were playing with Bad Brains! I knew we were playing with OFF!, but, when I got there, I saw H.R. sitting back stage and realized that Bad Brains were playing. I had no idea they were even on the show.
What was that like, then? Are those guys you look up to?
For sure. They're one of my favorite punk bands. I was really excited. Like, if I could go back in time and tell 15-year-old me that we were playing with Bad Brains, I'd be shitting my pants.
So how'd adult you handle it?
I was really happy just to say that we played with Bad Brains. But, honestly, I didn't watch them. I've heard that they aren't that great any more, and I don't want the image that I have of them in my head to get tarnished. Same with a lot of those early punk bands. Other bands, it's easier to deal with. But hardcore bands, not so much.
There's absolutely punk elements to your sound. Would you consider bands like that to be big influences on you guys?
In a sense. Mostly the energy and stuff like that. Not so much in the sound and definitely not int he guitar tones and the drumming style. But the spirit, yeah. I love all those bands. I still listen to that kind of music.
What was the Bruise Cruise like? It looks like you filmed the video for your lead single, "Go Out and Get It," while on the boat.
Yeah, we did. It was awesome. A three-day vacation with all the bands we tour with and play with and tons of other people that we know -- other band members that weren't playing, but were on it. I mean, I think cruises are dumb and stupid and retarded, and I would never go on one, but, in that environment, it was one of the most fun things I've ever done. It was totally like spring break. And that's the closest thing I've ever done to spring break. It was ridiculous and hilarious and three days of binge drinking and sun burns.
You guys definitely have that hard-partying reputation, and being on a cruise like that certainly adds to that reputation. Is that something you embrace? You guys have been around for some time now. Does it catch up with you?
No more so than the average person, although we probably do a little better at than the average person. I guess we're kind of pros. Everyone gets a hangover once in a while, though.
Is it kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy because that's what people expect out of you all? Or is that just who you are?
It's just how we are. If we weren't in a band, we'd probably be doing it all, just in other capacities.
How important is it, then, to add that to your live performance aesthetic? You guys are known for rowdy shows.
Well, when I go to a show, I want to have a really good time and I want everyone else to have a really good time and get their money's worth. We're entertainers. We just want to put on a really great live show. And we come from a long line of great performers out of Georgia -- James Brown, Little Richard, those were wild shows and those guys were amazing entertainers. We want to do the same thing. That's what we set out to do.
At least sonically, there's a good deal of progression on this new album. What can you tell me about your aims with it?
Tonally, it's the best thing we've done. Songwriting-wise, it's the best thing we've done. It's the first time we've really put this much work into a record. The last one [200 Million Thousand] was kind of done on the fly and rushed out there. With this one, we said we weren't going to put something out until we were solid with it and ready for it to come out. Like, with the last one, I was happy with it, but there were a lot of parts where I said, 'Man, I wish we could go back and change this.' And, yeah, sometimes spontaneity creates great music. but when you're tracking your songs and doing obvious things that are wrong -- well, we just made sure not to do that this time.
What were those lessons you learned? Those things you wanted to improve upon?
Just the way you sing a song. or the way you write a lyric. Or a part that should have been different. We had a lot of time to reflect on this one. The last one we had, we couldn't even go back and listen to the mixes. We did it on our own at our home studio, and our tape machine didn't really have playback capabilities. We just had to do it by memory -- like, "Yeah, I think that was OK." For this one, we recorded at multiple studios over longer periods of time, and the songs were able to sink in a little more.
You're working with some big-name producers on this album, too. Mark Ronson, for one. Deerhunter's Lockett Pundt, too. Did you enlist them to go in a more technical route or something with this album?
I wouldn't say technical. We used pretty much the same equipment we've used on the past two albums -- the same kinds of tape machines and same amps. It was just about getting really good sounds. [Mark] brought a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge. A lot of old equipment, too, like old microphones. Where to place this microphone to get this or that sweet spot.
How'd that relationship form?
Slowly. We heard he was a fan through the grapevine and put it out there that we wanted to work with him.
If there's a common thread there, it's in the retro aspect of both your sound and the sound he's known to produce. I imagine that was a big part of it, right?
Yeah, that was the main selling point was. Just his knowledge of production. I think that the 1960s was kind of, like, the apex of recording technology -- in my opinion, at least. That's when I think it sounded the best. And if it's not broken, why fix it. Everything that's was invited after that hasn't been anything special. It's all turned into robotics.
This whole retro sound thing is out there a ton at the moment. Is that something that you had to think about -- all this new competition -- in writing this new record?
No, not really. There were a lot of people doing it before us, too. It's been going since it started -- there's always been some element of that. but I like when other bands sound like that. It's what I like to listen to. But we like everything. We're definitely not purists, and I don't necessarily even think of us as a retro band. We like older stuff, but there's a lot of new stuff, to. We're using samplers and loops and all sorts of things like that. I was like 15 or 16 when we started the band. I'm still learning. Trying to learn something new every day. But we were lucky to get an early start.
The album's not out until June. How much of this tour is new material?
A lot of it. We're touring this early because we've got a lot of ground to cover. We've got four or five continents we've got to play this year. Possibly six. This is pretty much the tour for the album. But we'd be on tour regardless because we tour all the time.
Is there anywhere you haven't yet toured that you want to?
In September, we're playing the Middle East. We've been to Israel and the West Bank. But this will take us to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. We've already played Turkey and Egypt. I think it's the perfect time to go. It's an exciting time to go. probably the biggest period of Middle Eastern history in this century, at least.
How much are you even able to pay attention to social climates when you're on tour?
Well, you have to pay attention. But we're not going over there as some sort of political thing. We're following it very closely, though. We had a meeting the other day in D.C. at the Syrian embassy. They were actually all really cool. They were all young and talking to use about how they'd all gone to see the Wire show the night before, and asking us about what kinds of fuzz pedals to buy, and why I use this or that bass. I was really surprised. But we do stuff like that. And we've been building a lot of contacts like that. Now we want to play Antarctica. They have a base there, this international base, and there's usually around 1,300 people there. And I know they have a pub there on the base. If we could get the funding, we'd really like to do it -- if only to say that we're the first band to play on seven continents.
Have you explored that?
Yeah! We've been in touch with some contractors. And our label, Vice, always has a lot of connections like that. So we're gonna try and make it happen. You've always got to have goals.