The Black Lips’ gigs are known for onstage vomit, urinating in mouths, stage invasion and band-member kissing. All of which have propelled their ‘flower punk’ across the globe, to places other bands daren’t tread. Like Iraq. Of course, culture clashes ensued. Legendarily, Indian authorities were particularly unimpressed by the band’s ‘illegal public displays of affection’ on stage, resulting in a high-octane escape across India to evade the cuffs of the Tamil police.
The Black Lips’ UK tour begins with a headline slot at Bristol’s Simple Things festival on October 25th. Simple Things, in its second year, is a muso snob’s fantasia: the West Country’s answer to All Tomorrow’s Parties, organised by the musical auteurs behind Crack Magazine. In anticipation we spoke to The Black Lips guitarist, Cole Alexander.
Turns out, you may be able to call the The Black Lips yourself, on this UK tour: “We really want to bring back our hotline”. The hotline was a mobile you could phone to alleviate their boredom on the bus across tours. “A lot of the time it would be some teenager, who’d call: ‘Is this really The Black Lips?’ then scream and hang up. We got one suicide call which was kind of unsettling. I don’t know if it was real or not. If it was a prank, they did a pretty fucking good job of it. People would call for dating advice, how to talk to girls. Some kids would just call and ask what songs they should listen to, or what cool bands were. It was pretty fun. It was interesting.”
The band he says they should listen to now, is one with loud echoes of The Black Lips’ younger selves and the accompanying hype surrounding their anarchic live shows and imbibing of the rock ’n' roll diet.“I really like Fat White Family. That’s the most recent band I found out about that I liked. We took them on a short tour around Europe.”
Considering The Black Lips’ anarchic reputation, they’re actually in danger of becoming elder statesmen of the scene.“Yeah, these days I guess we do get treated pretty good,” Cole admits. “I guess sometimes younger bands will ask our advice; there’s no real way to do it though, just be authentic and work hard is the root of it.”
After releasing four albums, The Black Lips came to prominence in 2007 as the first ever release by Vice Records. Over the same period, Vice has grown into one of the most powerful media brands in the world, now mentioned in the same breath as Google, Twitter and News International. The Black Lips have been a flagship for Vice’s irreverent style and snark. The band fulfilled their end of the bargain with peerless gonzo garage blues that expressed the hullabaloo surrounding the Vice brand.
Vice have no doubt been influenced by the band, as friends. Consequently, the band’s influence runs deeper on a generation of Topshop hipsters than the lack of a huge hit single might imply. The Black Lips believe in the power of rock ’n' roll and are fearless to its clichés. However they’re also on a genuine exploration, trying to make their own footprints, as their wanderlust tours to exotic locations other western bands of their size would never organise implies.
“My first times on stage though were at church. The kind of churches I grew up with were very entertainment-oriented and very much a live experience and I always wanted to recapture that kind of energy in a rock ’n' roll show. I’m not really religious, but I’m not against it. I understand why people want that sort of thing. I respect that. I dig the church. A lot of my favourite singers and performers grew up in church: Little Richard, James Brown and so as far as American church goes, it’s played a key role in some of my favourite music.”
Perceptions and prejudices about the South and its supposed religious conservatism irk Cole: ”I think the perception that outsiders have of the South is a lot different to what it actually is. I mean Atlanta per capita has the largest gay population in America; it has the wealthiest black population on the planet. We have an extremely progressive city. It’s where Martin Luther King is from. The civil rights movement was born there. My dad is actually a gay preacher. I mean what you see in movies and in popular culture, their portrayal of Southerners in general is pretty biased and we’re not all a bunch of hillbillies living in trailers. That’s a narrative Hollywood and the media like to represent. Southerners and rednecks are the last people it’s OK and fair game to openly mock and we’re like this cartoon character. But it’s not really like that.”
Live and let live seems to be the philosophy. Albeit with an outlandish example: “I think people should stop being so mean to Nickelback. It’s really heartbreaking saying they’re ‘the worst band ever'. So give them a break, you know? No one’s ever listened to them apart from the millions of people that bought their records. I think people should be a lot easier on Nickelback because they have feelings too. People shouldn’t be mean to them. I don’t like when people make punching bags, like recently it was really popular to hate on U2. But you know, U2 are just being themselves. You know, give them a break. They gave everyone that had iTunes a free present and everyone got all mad at them. They’re just trying to save the world!”
When asked about whether he’ll rest after finishing touring their last album, Underneath the Rainbow (released back in March), Cole explains the band are already coalescing on what’s coming next: “We got a bunch of songs, so the second we get some free time off the road, which is pretty soon, we’re gonna start getting in there and recording more songs. We have four writers so we’re always trying to record.” The process begins “mostly just by playing during soundchecks. We have our old guitar player back, Jack Hines, and he writes a lot of songs. We’re really interested to see what stuff he pulls out. I’m feeling pretty productive. I think everyone has a lot of stuff ready to go so I’m excited about it. We never really have any idea or concept of how it’s going to go. We just write a bunch of songs, record them and pick the best ones.”
“I really like being in the studio, I dig the recording process. But the live shows, you can’t really beat the live shows: that feeling.” That gut feeling is The Black Lips’ sound. “We learnt to play from scratch: on stage.” Their wildness during live shows originated as a disguise for a lack of instrument playing.
In Bristol, where trip hop originated and dubstep was popularised, The Black Lips will be playing Simple Things alongside an electronic-heavy line-up including artists DJ Harvey, Zomby and SOPHIE. Does electronic music mean much to Cole? “There’s electronic music I like, Silver Apples or some early Detroit techno stuff. There’s no real current electronic stuff. I like old electronic music using pretty primitive equipment when it kind of sounded bad.”
The same low-production preference goes for live shows: “We never prepare anything or plan anything other than blowing the roof off the joint. We usually make a set list like ten or fifteen minutes before. We like to keep it no more than an hour because personally I could never watch a band play for more than an hour.” Although he’d make an exception for the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson.
At that mention I assume that he’s a Stones rather than Beatles man. But why choose between great things? It doesn’t have to be that complicated. “I like them the same for different reasons. I don’t really favour one more than the other. The Stones are more badass and the Beatles are really good. I like them equally.” Badass or good, The Black Lips just love rock ’n' roll and it’s a simple, visceral spirit that shines through their back catalogue of music and media. But most of all in their live performance. We can’t wait to catch them on the 25th.