Black Lips are probably more infamous for their riotous and ramshackle live shows than the music they make. Those shows regularly descend into chaos with stage invasions, man kisses, vomiting and nudity but behind it all is a finely tuned songwriting aesthetic that combines the garage, punk, country and psych influences that make up their fifth album 200 Million Thousand.
During the early stages of yet another USA tour, via the SXSW festival in Texas, Wireless Bollinger chatted to singer/guitarist Cole Alexander about touring, the story behind the new album and the band’s side projects.
Speaking from the back of a van on a 7 hour run to Cleveland for the next show, Alexander is enthusiastic when asked about the audience reaction at recent gigs. “Oh great man, really good active crowds, last time [Williamsburg] we lost control and the crowd took over the stage, it was fun to lose control.” He estimates that at least 80% of their shows are selling out on this tour which means that organisation and putting on a good event has become more of a priority for the band. “We’ve actually taken a lot of command of that because we started to get more serious about touring and ticket prices; so to make it worth it we had to make it an all round package, like an old school James Brown package or something.”
One perk to offset the late nights and long drives is discovering new bands and playing with personal favourites. “We always go out of our way to pick an opening band to tour with us and we try to get really good local acts, we do a bit of research to get up to speed on whatever is cool” explains Alexander, “We played with the Vivian Girls, they were great, and we played with this band called Crystal Stilts and Davila 666 who are on In The Red, they are label mates with Vivian Girls, I really like Ariel Pink too”.
In January Black Lips played in India for the first time and after their unedited performance at a Campus Rock Idol show they found themselves hurriedly retrieving their passports from the promoter and heading for the airport. It seems that nudity and two men kissing onstage (or anywhere for that matter) is strictly forbidden in India. Regardless, it was great publicity and Alexander doesn’t see them changing their behaviour in the future to meet the moral standards of other countries. “We’re just going to do what we always do. Things don’t always go as planned but we aren’t going to change our game plan you know.”
200 Million Thousand continues in the vein of previous Black Lips albums and it features that raw, unpolished element that Alexander is keen to maintain. ”I think this one is more of a return to form of our earlier albums, just in that kind of more lo-fi direction,” adding “On the last one we cleaned it up a little bit, but even that last one wasn’t hi-fi to me.” In keeping with that approach, the final version of the album was pressed onto vinyl before being transferred to CD. This was retain the warmth and analog ambience they had invested in the recording. “A lot of our fans buy vinyl but we wanted people to buy the CD when it was released first, so when you are listening to the CD you are actually listening to a recording of the record. Vinyl is a growing industry so it seemed like the right thing to do.”
The recorded output of Black Lips never seems to reach the chaotic heights of their live reputation so it was interesting to find out if there was an intention to bring that energy to the studio. It seems it was used more in creating the right studio atmosphere rather than the actual sounds you hear. “We had a fog machine and tried to do like atmospheric fogged out things where you couldn’t see anything. We tried to create an ambience in the studio, turn out the lights, flash them on and off, blow up fireworks, it got crazy every once in a while.” Having their own studio in a converted warehouse allowed them take a month to record the album and it also gave them free rein to act stupid and break things. Cole laughs when recalling, “I remember being in a studio once and saying ‘I wanna record breaking glass in this song‘ and they were like ‘ah, I don’t know about that!’”
After their escape from India the band flew to Berlin where they hooked up with friend King Khan to record a gospel influenced album under the name The Almighty Defenders. Side projects keep the band out of trouble when not on Black Lips duties and allows them to explore other musical styles. “We’re not so confined that we just want to play rock,” says Cole, “We like all kinds of music so we just mess around. We haven’t been super serious about our side projects as far as touring or anything but we’ve done everything from rap projects to gospel projects to synthesizer music.”
The band intends to keep touring for the rest of the year and a trip down to Australia is tentatively pencilled in for September/October. Cole has nothing but good memories from their last tour here at the end of 2007. “We had a great time in Australia last time. We play a lot in Europe and I always feel like their heart is in electronic music but in Australia peoples heart is in rock music in general”.
BLACK LIPS INTERVIEW AT WIRELESS BOLLINGER