Sunday 22 April 2018

Lips service

Eamon Sweeney meets Black Lips, the ‘flower punk’ band from Atlanta, Georgia, who are so crazy that their fans set their pubic hair on fire at gigs

Eamon Sweeney

Eamon Sweeney

In the bland modern era of squeaky-clean celebrity culture, Black Lips truly are mad, bad and dangerous to know. The self-described 'flower punk' band from Atlanta, Georgia, was founded by delinquent school buddies Jared Swilley and Cole Alexander.

From an early age, Swilley and Alexander aroused the suspicions of the authorities, as the pair were expelled from school following the Columbine massacre in 1999 after being considered a "subculture danger".

"Well, that's what you get for growing in the South," sighs vocalist and guitarist Jared Swilley. "We come from an extremely conservative suburb of Atlanta. After the Columbine shootings, they adopted a complete zero tolerance policy to everything.

"I got kicked out for smoking while Cole got kicked out for being late too often. They declared total war on any misdemeanour whatsoever. I was so glad to get out of there."

Despite this strict conservatism, Swilley agrees that such a cultural backdrop helped inspire the insurrectionary likes of Black Lips and fellow Atlanta trailblazers Deerhunter.

"The atmosphere definitely encouraged anybody who was creative-minded to become more creative and resourceful," he states.

Black Lips are plotting to record their seventh album after headlining the Camden Crawl festivities over the May bank holiday weekend.

"Between you and me it's been way too long, man," Swilley drawls. "The good news is that we've got the album written. We're going to London in May to record it with Mark Ronson.

"We worked really well together with Mark on the last album, so we saw no reason not to work with him again. We adored his retro production on the Amy Winehouse record."

The Black Keys live show is quite unlike anything you're likely to see this year. The first time I saw them perform at Barcelona's Primavera festival, they played as if their lives depended on it, delivering a blistering, high-octane set at four in the morning.

"God, we were on really late at that one," Swilley recalls. "Y'know a kid broke their leg at that show? A relative of one of the other bands tried to stage dive, but he didn't make it over the press pit and broke his leg."

However, stage diving and crowd surfing is actually pretty tame compared to some of the antics you might witness at a Black Lips gig, which have been known to feature vomiting, urination, nudity, fireworks, car racing and setting their guitars on fire.

"As time goes by it's the audience rather than us that does all this crazy stuff," Swilley maintains. "Sometimes we catch a glimpse of what some kids get up to at our shows and it's pretty far out. We've seen people set their pubic hair on fire and do back flips. All we do is provide the soundtrack."

One trip that Black Lips will never forget is a tour of India where they were forced to flee the country after Cole stripped naked onstage and started making out with his bandmates.

Subsequent events turned into a "cultural shitstorm", which culminated in the band cutting their tour short.

"We'd definitely go back," Swilley somewhat surprisingly reveals. "For all that happened, we're not on bad terms with the promoters and people that brought us over there.

"There were moments when it got real dark, but I wished we could have finished the tour. It definitely was a learning experience."

Black Lips certainly have an intrepid and unusual approach to touring. They were even scheduled to play war-torn Syria before events took a turn for the worse.

"We had our visas processed and had a great meeting at the embassy, who gave us the green light for the tour," Swilley says. "They were all super helpful and really wanted us to go.

"Then, the Arab Spring happened and the conflict intensified, but we still ended up doing Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Dubai and Cyprus. It was an amazing tour. We made a film about it that we're going to release some day."

Iraq? Where the hell does a rock band play in Iraq? "We played 150km north of Baghdad," Jared answers.

"It was a great show. We didn't even have any equipment or backline. Our drummer just played on suitcases."

Seemingly, Black Lips will literally go to the very ends of the earth to play a gig.

"We're working on being the first band to play on all seven continents," Swilley reveals. "We just have Antarctica left. We've finally found a base where there's people living all the year round. They've a pub there, so it's very doable."

Heaven knows what the locals will make of Black Lips' psychedelic flower punk, but they're sure to leave an impression.

"Everywhere we go it's completely crazy," Swilley exclaims. "We were told that Japanese audiences would just stand there and clap. Maybe they do that for other bands, but not for us. When we were in Egypt, we even had girls wearing headscarves crowd surfing. We seem to break down those cultural barriers. For us, rock 'n' roll is everywhere."

Black Lips play the Camden Crawl on Sunday May 5 at the Button Factory, Dublin. See for more details

Irish Independent

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