Music Interviews

Interview: Black Lips

Black Lips

Black Lips

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 talk about when they start on about Black Lips is their “stage antics”, a phrase that instantly makes the speaker sound like a granny wagging her finger at a naughty cat. Recent events in the “unprecedented” tour of India have only added to the band’s infamy. The resulting coverage on the web has been like a global game of Chinese Whispers, differing versions colliding and breeding new monstrous hybrids.

When we meet lead singer and guitarist Cole and drummer Joe, they both give the impression of being completely underwhelmed by the media interest. “I just feel like we are repeating ourselves over and over again,” says Cole, pouting into a plate of pineapple and sipping an organic juice. With Joe tapping away at his MacBook (it seems each member of the band has one), it feels more like everyday brunch in Islington than meeting with Atlanta, Georgia’s foremost punk rockers.

In reality, the ‘India episode’ is a testament to the legendary fussiness of the Indian authorities rather than the rock ‘n’ roll largesse of Black Lips. Joe is quick to offer to show us a video of the 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 good view of Cole’s nether regions. “We think it was the kiss that got us into trouble,” says Joe. Whichever act caused offense, it resulted in the band enduring a 10-hour car journey, fleeing for the state border.

The video, it turns out, is a preview for a four-part documentary on 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 of all the fuss.

Surely they aren’t as nonplussed about the hype as they make out? After all, the one thing that strikes you about this band when you first meet them is just how smart they are. They must know that 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 where Cole and some random tour guy seem to be acting out an exposition of events 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 way expediently, if artlessly, to get to the juicy stuff.

You would have to bet that the scene is recreated to represent the original events at best; there’s the sneaking suspicion that the Black Lips know just how good their trials and tribulations in India are for business. But they can’t be seen to seem too excited about it themselves.

“We hear all music all the fucking time. It’s not going to drive us crazy not having music.”

Almost as confirmation, Cole remarks that, “this may be one of our best 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”. The fact that it comes one month after reports of what happened in India hit the web can’t be overlooked. While they may be sick of India, they seem to know well enough that spinning out the myth of the Black Lips and their decadence could keep them in pocket money.

If it’s not exactly in the spirit of the punk that the band espouse, you still have to say fair play to them. Partially because they are just a bunch of really nice guys, but also because they are complete workhorses when it comes to touring. It comes across starkly when we talk about the fact that they tend not to play music when driving to gigs: “We hear all music all the fucking time. It’s not going to drive us crazy not having music.”

The thing is, though, they do deserve the attention for their music alone. It’s a bit sad, in a way, that they have to rely on marketing stagecraft to sell out in the UK. After all, the Black Lips have been doing this for a long time. Since they were teenagers they have been pursuing the dream, struggling to pay the rent, and touring as much as possible.

Their latest album, 200 Million Thousand – a rowdy, jangling, lo-fi affair, full of cute pop hooks and country twangs – is a testament to the love of music and the influences they have picked up on the way. “We went down to Brazil and picked up some records. When we were in France we got turned on to some really great stuff… we definitely try to pick up on what’s different.”

Cole, in particular, has a thing for digging out rare classics from his favourite genres, ringing up key labels on a semi-regular basis to see if they have found anything new in their archives. We talk about what he is listening to at the moment, his answer coming as a bit of a surprise: “Right now I’m listening to a lot of gospel music.”

Perhaps seeing my confusion he qualifies this quickly: “I like the Sensational Nightingales. The lead singer, Julius Cheeks, he started screaming before anyone else started screaming like that. He basically destroyed his vocal chords and ended up in a prison. He’s amazing.”

We want to know how all this comes together on 200 Million Thousand, but both Joe and Cole are so eclectic in their tastes that it seems like every song is inspired by a complex mix of vastly differing genres and styles. Just talking about Trapped In A Basement 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 remark that the album sounds like it could have been recorded in two days. Cole laughs: “This is the longest we’ve taken to record… like a month… you wouldn’t be able to tell that”.

Black Lips should surely be raw. When people hear that you’re interviewing them, they look at you like you’ve just announced you will be putting your head into the mouth of a lion. But, on the contrary, they are almost too nice, too professional. Somewhere along the way, maybe when signing to Vice in 2006, they became careerists. They want to do this and they want to do it 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 the genuinely chaotic into the artfully rehearsed. So, in some ways, the last question has to be asked. They are still young, but have been doing this a long time, and are junkies for the road. Do they think early mid-life crises might be on the horizon? They laugh, but miss the point by replying, “we are too young”. Cole is itching to start mucking around with his MacBook. We leave them tip-tapping away on the keys, arguing about servers.

Black Lips’ album 200 Million Thousand is out now through Vice.

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