Interview with Jared Swilley from The Black Lips: Climbing To The Summit

Hailing from the expanding northerly Atlanta suburb of agricultural metropolis Dunwoody, GA, the Black Lips steadily ransack rock and roll’s past to reenergize the here and now. While attending grade school together, the three original members precipitously discovered the joy of music and have since embarked on an enduringly fruitful artistic journey back in time without ever lapsing into idle nostalgic vagrancy. A virtual democratic unit gathering son-of-a-preacher-man bassist Jared Swilley, harmonica-blowing guitarist Cole Alexander and boisterous drummer Joe Bradley (plus auxiliary lead guitarist Ian St. Pé), the thriving combo gained instant local attention mainly due to their rowdily rambunctious and raucously ramshackle performances.

To make an automatic lasting impression, many early shows contained flagrant vomiting, urination, nudity, fireworks and pyrotechnics, much to the dismay of disgruntled club owners. Nevertheless, the Black Lips’ maniacally crazed and electrifyingly intense live shows could not be denied. And their reputation grew incrementally over six albums at a surely slower, but no less impressive, pace then Kings Of Leon took achieving fashionable frontline status.

Swilley’s pastor father may’ve introduced the ‘prodigal’ son to typical ‘60s signposts such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Kinks, but the Peach State natives’ earliest influences may not be as obvious as the Fab Four.

“We learned to play guitar through Link Wray records. His tones and style were based on simple chords. I like simple forms,” Swilley explains prior to bringing up another impressionable motivator. “The Germs couldn’t play their instruments at the start, but eventually they could. I loved their nasty punk attitude.”

That said, Swilley knows full well the punk revolution’s flames were spreading way before Iggy cut himself onstage or the Ramones yelled, “Hey ho, let’s go!” and the Sex Pistols raged fervently about “Anarchy In The U.K.” Inarguably, the basic underclass struggles informing The Who’s tempestuous ’65 teen anthem “My Generation” portended punk’s swaggering acrimonious swill, especially when Roger Daltrey beseechingly stuttered “People try to put us down/Just because we g-g-get around,” prefiguring the decadent underground punk movement with its monumental nihilistic denouncement. Then again, most agree Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks invented the power chord in ’65, not only presaging punk’s primordial provocation, but also metal’s ear-shattering gear jamming.

Swilley affirms, “The first time I heard the Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me,’ I thought it was more punk then a lot of stuff that’s supposed to be. That was a defining moment. I don’t want to be condescending, but a lot of contemporary rock is safe. It seems to be made by kids wearing bicycle helmets and don’t jump in the pool unless a lifeguard’s around. Music ought to be dangerous so you’re parents want to burn the records. I had to hide records from my parents.”

As high-schooled buddies, they’d befriend Greg and Suzy Shaw of Bomp! Records, whose independent Los Angeles label once boasted a string of influential bands including Iggy & the Stooges, Modern Lovers, Dead Boys and the aforementioned Germs. The Shaw’s sent mix tapes to the young musical aspirants, then signed the Black Lips for a self-titled debut and its wordily surrealistic follow-up, We Did Not Know The Forest Spirit Made The Flowers Grow, a few incipiently inconstant sets of amateurishly unbridled furor and blisteringly bedraggled beats. Undeniably, similarly archaic material from Rhino’s masterful Nuggets compilation and Crypt Records’ ensuing Back From The Grave series additionally helped the antediluvian Georgians find common primeval ground.

“There were all these shitty American wannabe bands revealing a British Invasion persuasion that sounded amazing and awful at the same time. That was inspirational,” Swilley says.

Another energetic local garage combo, the Rock*A*Teens, may’ve set the stage for the Black Lips as well. During the ‘90s, there weren’t many rock bands coming out of Atlanta. Instead, smooth rhythm & blues and hip-hop ruled the roost. But the Rock*A*Teens, and to a lesser extent, the Subsonics, gained a formidable national cult audience, assuring access for their scruffy, roughhewn offspring.

“We’ve never done any recording on computer,” Swilley shares. “The tape machine we have is vintage 1971. When we went into the studio, most of the new record was recorded with old radio microphones from the ‘30s. We like using tape and tube amps. We’re not going for low fidelity, it’s just that recording technology, in my opinion, peaked in the mid-‘60s. Those machines sound best—warmer than computer gear.”

Though the Black Lips have grown as songwriters and arrangers, continuously improving on their instruments, they use the same exact process put forth a decade ago. Gospel, country and soul all find their way into the diversified mix, cannibalizing the past and reinvesting the gains towards presciently newfangled ideas.

“In the South, music’s really huge. I came from a family of musical creatures. Then, when I started skateboarding, older kids showed us punk records. And with the advent of the Internet, it’s easier to find great music,” Swilley swimmingly swaggers.

A major step up, 2007’s Good Bad Not Evil contained their most spirited primal rockers yet. “Step Right Up” begs comparisons to Roky Erickson’s 13th Floor Elevators with its bewitching testimonial screams and incessant siren buzz. “Off The Block” injects surf-affected Boyce-Hart harmonies into scintillating Amboy Dukes acid rock virulence. Caustic hurricane exasperation, “O Katrina,” cries out for New Orleans’ flood-ravaged victims. For a nifty turnabout, audaciously satirical Western-styled novelty “How Do You Tell A Child That Someone Has Died” flaunts a comical, Shel Silverstein whimsicality.

Two years hence, the more rounded 200 Million Thousand stretched out the fertile arrangements a tiny bit and delved deeper into the ‘60s subculture dustbin. Swamp blues confection “Body Combat” recreates the long gone era with remarkable exhilaration. Fuzz-toned jubilee “Again & Again” could be a caliginous Animals outtake. The torn and frayed “Elijah” masks the Kingsmen’s classic “Louie Louie” riff. Nervy clamorous resolution “Take My Heart” receives a densely muddled production skewed perfectly to reflect its duskily crude auspices.

Embracing America’s subterranean bohemian culture head-on are “Drugs” (an interesting take on T. Rex glam-rock, commingling Beach Boys multi-harmonies with BC Buddah weed) and the piously convoluted “I Saw God.” The latter recounts the pleasures and perils of getting high enough to see the Lord.

“The whole acid-based LSD spirituality is funny to us, so we joke about it. We do psychedelic drugs, but in moderation,” Swilley lets on. “The song [“I Saw God”] is about DMT, a government researched chemical that’s intense for a 15 minute trip—a tremendous out of body experience. We are not proponents of drug use and hate drug abuse so we don’t promote heroin or reckless drugs. But the Black Lips have gotten chemical inspiration from psychedelic mushrooms. Weed I find counterproductive during composing, though. You tend to overindulge.”

Coming on stronger than ever, the Black Lips’ latest full-length romp, Arabia Mountain, reaches beyond the overcrowded vinyl wasteland for enlightenment, absorbing elements procured outside garage rock’s rudimentary instrumental boundaries. As if to shun any direct correlation to one distinct backdated generation, they chose an ambiguous album title deemed “kindergarten controversial,” saluting a granite-rocked ex-quarry east of Atlanta where ‘80s cult fave Pet Cemetary was filmed, acquiring a few veteran sax men and one saw virtuoso to widen the unadulterated analog soundscape proved commendable.

Not only does wailing sax infiltrate forceful opener “Family Tree” (a nifty entrée set aglow by its clandestine, ‘30s Bolivian folk roots), but also mangy, acid-glazed R & B blurt “Mad Dog.” Innovative New York-based violinist Dale Stuckenbruck comes aboard to showcase skillful saw work, emulating a wand-like Theremin to a tee on poppy Euro-trashed punk derivation “Modern Art,” where fuzzy axe licks re-ignite David Allen & the Arrows ’67 biker classic “Blue’s Theme” and ‘80s Swiss funk-punks Kleenex (aka Liliput) get check-listed. Stuckenbruck returns for the Clash-dashed, hand-clapped, tambourine shaker, “Bone Marrow,” creating a weirdly oscillating “Jet Boy Jet Girl” whir.

On the more conventional tunes, innumerable childhood relics activate the frolicking foursome. Recalling a more demure version of the Ramones, “Spidey’s Curse” brings jangled Byrds guitar lattice to the front of an innocently annotated ode.

Swilley recalls, “In fourth grade, we were issued Spider-Man comic books. [Marvel mastermind] Stan Lee drew them. But we wondered why our school allowed a book where there was a bizarre Peter Parker molestation taking place to be read. The song sounds happy, but it’s about Spider-Man’s pre-super power molestation.”

As expected, many redirected rock and roll throwbacks fill out the engaging Arabia Mountain. Mocking greedy, self-centered baby boomers, “Bicentennial Man” could be the most straightforward antedated goosestep. Obsessing on ‘50s rockers Bobby Fuller and Duane Eddy, “Time” takes to the highway with a drink in one hand and tears in both eyes, receiving a trashy “Hippie Hippie Shake” strut. Invigorated by a pre-Clash record Joe Strummer did with unheralded formative Brit-rockers, the 101ers, “Go Out And Get It” nearly goes into the Kinks’ “Davey Watts” at its catchy choral center. “Don’t Mess Up My Baby” connects its punctual Bo Diddley beat to a cheeky, drug-hazed schoolyard chant worthy of ‘60s midlevel bands such as the Swingin’ Medallions or the Searchers.

The Black Lips insatiable appetite and unending appreciation for raw, roots-y, rock revelry cannot be suppressed. A working class outfit better suited for dank basement clubs rather than impersonal arena-sized venues, these durable Southerners gladly embrace America’s bohemian underclass. In this modern world where pre-fab stardom often overrules do-it-yourself integrity and homespun ingenuity on the large scale, there’s still a few musicians willing to go the distance.

“I don’t listen to commercial radio anymore,” Swilley concludes. “Honestly, I’m digging a lot of hip-hop lately. But there’s still a lot of talented musicians out there. I’m into Buick 666, these Puerto Rican rockers singing in Spanish. Wolfgang Kill Them All have a punk-rock attitude. Brooklyn hardcore revisionists Cerebral Ballzy are fun, exciting and unpredictable.”

Those last three descriptive words also truly define the Black Lips: An experienced, youthful clique ready to reach the next level of appreciable fame. Stay tuned.

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