Black Lips are a band with a reputation that precedes them likea giant looming shadow.
As they ready their second album 200 Million Thousand, it seems just about everybody with half an ear tuned to music at least knows of them,though far fewer could reliably discuss their music.
What people talkabout when they start on about Black Lips is their “stage antics”, aphrase that instantly makes the speaker sound like a granny waggingher finger at a naughty cat.
Recent events in the “unprecedented” tourof India have only added to the band’s infamy. The resulting coverageon the web has been like a global game of Chinese Whispers, differingversions colliding and breeding new monstrous hybrids.
When we meet lead singer and guitarist Cole and drummer Joe, theyboth give the impression of being completely underwhelmed by the mediainterest. “I just feel like we are repeating ourselves over and overagain,” says Cole, pouting into a plate of pineapple and sipping anorganic juice. With Joe tapping away at his MacBook (it seems eachmember of the band has one), it feels more like everyday brunch in Islingtonthan meeting with Atlanta, Georgia’s foremost punk rockers.
In reality, the ‘India episode’ is a testament to the legendaryfussiness of the Indian authorities rather than the rock’n'rolllargesse of Black Lips. Joe is quick to offer to show us a video ofthe concert in question, at a campus in Chennai, so we can see the definitive version.
The offensive acts consist of a fairly rigid,chaste kiss between Cole and guitarist Ian, and then a pretty goodview of Cole’s nether regions. “We think it was the kiss that got usinto trouble,” says Joe. Whichever act caused offense, it resulted inthe band enduring a 10-hour car journey, fleeing for the stateborder.
The video, it turns out, is a preview for a four-part documentaryon the Lips in India. This, along with Joe’s eagerness to show it off,begins to undermine the sense that the Black Lips think very little ofall the fuss.
Surely they aren’t as nonplussed about the hype as theymake out? After all, the one thing that strikes you about this bandwhen you first meet them is just how smart they are. They must knowthat their shows attract people who come to see them act out as Black Lips as much as they attract hardcore fans of the music.
As pretty fair evidence, the preview contains a bizarre scene whereCole and some random tour guy seem to be acting out an exposition ofevents so far. It has the same wooden quality as dialogue in porn, the’actors’ knowing that they need to get the dialogue out of the wayexpediently, if artlessly, to get to the juicy stuff.
You would haveto bet that the scene is recreated to represent the original events atbest; there’s the sneaking suspicion that theBlack Lips know just how good their trials and tribulations in Indiaare for business. But they can’t be seen to seem too excited about itthemselves.
Almost as confirmation, Cole remarks that, “this may be one of ourbest UK tours. We’ve played for a long time here to not much avail.This is the first tour where most of the shows were sold out”. Thefact that it comes one month after reports of what happened in Indiahit the web can’t be overlooked. While they may be sick of India, theyseem to know well enough that spinning out the myth of the Black Lipsand their decadence could keep them in pocket money.
If it’s not exactly in the spirit of the punk that the bandespouse, you still have to say fair play to them. Partially becausethey are just a bunch of really nice guys, but also because they arecomplete workhorses when it comes to touring. It comes across starklywhen we talk about the fact that they tend not to play music whendriving to gigs: “We hear all music all the fucking time. It’s notgoing to drive us crazy not having music.”
The thing is, though, they do deserve the attention for their musicalone. It’s a bit sad, in a way, that they have to rely on marketingstagecraft to sell out in the UK. After all, the Black Lips have beendoing this for a long time. Since they were teenagers they have beenpursuing the dream, struggling to pay the rent, and touring as much aspossible.
Their latest album, 200 Million Thousand – a rowdy, jangling,lo-fi affair, full of cute pop hooks and country twangs – is a testamentto the love of music and the influences they have picked up on theway. “We went down to Brazil and picked up some records. When wewere in France we got turned on to some really great stuff… wedefinitely try to pick up on what’s different.”
Cole, in particular, has a thing for digging out rare classics fromhis favourite genres, ringing up key labels on a semi-regular basis tosee if they have found anything new in their archives. We talk aboutwhat he is listening to at the moment, his answer coming as a bit of asurprise: “Right now I’m listening to a lot of gospel music.”
Perhapsseeing my confusion he qualifies this quickly: “I like theSensational Nightingales. The lead singer, Julius Cheeks, hestarted screaming before anyone else started screaming like that. Hebasically destroyed his vocal chords and ended up in a prison. He’samazing.”
We want to know how all this comes together on200 Million Thousand, but both Joe and Cole are so eclectic in theirtastes that it seems like every song is inspired by a complex mix ofvastly differing genres and styles. Just talking about Trapped In ABasement is like a musical tour of the late middle 20th century.
It sounds almost too fussy for the band, and I can’t help but remarkthat the album sounds like it could have been recorded in two days.Cole laughs: “This is the longest we’ve taken to record… like amonth… you wouldn’t be able to tell that”.
Black Lips should surely be raw.When people hear that you’re interviewing them, they look atyou like you’ve just announced you will be putting your head into themouth of a lion. But, on the contrary, they are almost too nice, tooprofessional. Somewhere along the way, maybe when signing to Vice in2006, they became careerists. They want to do this and they want to doit well. There’s nothing wrong with a strong work ethic, but this is a little deflating.
You have to wonder if what happens on stage is calcifying from thegenuinely chaotic into the artfully rehearsed. So, in some ways, the the last question has to be asked. They are still young, but have beendoing this a long time, and are junkies for the road. Do they thinkearly mid-life crises might be on the horizon? They laugh, but missthe point by replying, “we are too young”. Cole is itchingto start mucking around with his MacBook. We leave themtip-tapping away on the keys, arguing about servers.