Black Lips: Body combat

By Dan Trevarthen

Since their debut in 2000, an eventful 12 years has seen Georgia USA’s Black Lips play Israel and Palestine, get into feisty band beef with Wavves and get chased from India after nude on-stage antics. Now they’re bringing the ruckus to Auckland.

'I grew up in  Georgia in full gospel churches where everyone danced and spoke in tongues and went crazy' - Jared Swilley. Photo / Supplied
'I grew up in Georgia in full gospel churches where everyone danced and spoke in tongues and went crazy' - Jared Swilley. Photo / Supplied

At the moment Black Lips are about to head to Thailand, continuing their habit of playing non-Western nations that many indie rock bands wouldn't make it to. But even after that colourful experience playing India, bassist/vocalist Jared Swilley says audiences aren't all that different.

"Generally it's always been kind of the same reaction from everyone. People are a little different, but all the kids have the same urges and desires. I don't know what to expect from Thailand at all, but either way it'll be cool."

Swilley cites an unexpected influence for the atmosphere they try to create live. Every male in his family is a preacher, and now he tries to inspire rapturous responses of a different kind.

"I grew up in Georgia in full gospel churches where everyone danced and spoke in tongues and went crazy, and I remember as a kid going there on Sunday mornings and people just losing their shit completely."

But for a band renowned as a touring act, on latest outing Arabia Mountain they decided they needed to focus a little more on the recorded output.

"The album that preceded this one was really rushed. I like that record but we gave ourselves two weeks, then we had five months of tours right after that. With this one we just worked on it until we were happy with it, and we've never really done that before."
While they haven't exactly mellowed, Black Lips have decided to settle down in one sense: they're working with a producer for the first time. Though Swilley says they're not abandoning all the old ways yet.

"I think on this record we only used one mic for the drums on a lot of tracks and just had it placed well. All the early Sun Records' records that you heard like Elvis or Johnny Cash that sound real good - that was just one microphone in the middle of the room. And if you had to turn down the drums, you'd just move the drums further away from the microphone."

Normally the person who decided exactly where to move those drums would simply have been a member of Black Lips. Swilley says their label had "always wanted us to work with a producer, but we weren't so keen on that". But when the issue presented itself again, they drew up a half-joking list of big-name producers.

"We ended up making this list of really famous high-end producers and gave that to them, and were like, 'well, we'll work with these people'. And somehow Mark Ronson heard about that, and I guess he was a fan and got in touch with us."

It was Ronson's work on Amy Winehouse's Stax-flavoured Back to Black that caught their eye.

"As far as top 10 stuff and records that are getting Grammys, like huge albums, that album was really cool. I don't really like many super-famous records that come out anymore, and they used to come out all the time. But that one was done really well - the production was awesome, the arrangements sound really good. It was just a classic sounding record so I knew he had the production taste that we had."

That Black Lips taste is developing quite nicely, but it sounds like it'll stay free of much modern influence for now. Swilley innocently talks about recently having learned how to download music off the internet. It's surprising, but it fits in with their analogue approach.

"I was pretty late in the game in finding out about [downloading music], but once I knew how to do it, it was rad. There's not too much new stuff I like, though a lot of hip hop excites me. A lot of the stuff I get excited about has already been recorded and forgotten about and found again," he says.

They might have their heads in yesteryear, but now he searches for those kindred musical spirits in the mode of the day.

"I love buying records and digging through record stores for hours, but I can do that sitting on my couch, find tons of crazy shit and not have to go all over the place."

Black Lips plays The Powerstation in Auckland on Tuesday 28 February.

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