Louder Than War Interview: Black Lips by Carrie Quartly
This photo of Black Lips and all others on here by Mick Rock.
As Atlanta’s Black Lips deliver another fine set of booze-soaked Southern anthems with new album Underneath The Rainbow, and also work on branching out into fragrance and fashion, Louder Than War’s Carrie Quartly talks to bassist and singer Jared Swilley about all these exciting new schemes for Black Lips to get inside your brain.
Black Lips bassist Jared Swilley may have the classically rugged looks and carry the aura and attitude of a rebellious 1950s greaser in videos and photo-shoots, but despite this and other numerous exaggerated tales of roguery surrounding the band, Swilley is casual and unassuming, pleasant and thoughtful. Before we get started, Swilley excuses himself to grab a smoke then settles back down in the kitchen of his Atlanta home where a taxidermy wall mount oversees proceedings from the far end of the room.
Jared Swilley: Okay so what’s up, what’s your name?
Louder Than War: Carrie, like the horror film… [laughs]
Oh, Carrie… Hi, I’m Jared.
Hi, nice to meet you!
Hi, you too.
Okay. Congrats on the album, your first in three years and it picks up pretty much where Arabia Mountain left off.
Yeah. Well I mean all of our albums are almost like a continuation, we just keep recording and writing songs. We never like sit down and say, “We’re going to do this album”. It’s just songs, they come along and you gotta package them as an album, pretty much. We don’t like say, you know, “Let’s do something more jazzy and we’re gonna go for this feel”.
You just do what’s natural.
I read you initially tried to entice an incarcerated Phil Spector into a production role on the album. How do you think that would’ve worked out? Were you hoping for something as outlandish as his wig collection in your original vision for Underneath The Rainbow?
I actually didn’t find out, like that was Cole. I didn’t even know he was trying to do that until after we found out it wasn’t gonna happen, but I’m really glad because it would’ve been a logistical nightmare, because, you know, he’s incarcerated, and in prison you only get like 15 minute phone calls, so just how long that would take having to go back and forth like that would be insane. And I mean, Phil Spector is my favorite producer of all time. Him and Joe Meek, but like, that was a different time and I think it would be really tacky and perceived the wrong way. I mean, he killed a lady, and us using him to record our album… I think it would be really tacky to be like “Oh we’re gonna get Phil Spector to record our album”, not because of the merits of what he can do but just for the shock value of it.
But at the same time, you know, Joe Meek killed his landlady and stuff but I don’t have that kind of ghoulish perspective of him for some reason, I don’t know why.
Well I always looked at Joe Meek kinda like more of a victim, and Phil Spector as more like a bully. I mean, it was hard to be gay in the 60s. Now it’s super cool if you wanna be gay, like if you wanna drum up some good PR, just come out of the closet.
Yeah, absolutely! Now, if you’re experimenting, like if you’re going through some fads in college, some trendy dieting rituals or something, it’s almost a rite of passage for some people to play around with their sexuality and ‘try out’ being gay.
So you ended up co-producing with The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney and you’re friends with him already, did that make the process easier?
It makes it a little easier just because we’re already familiar with each other and there’s no, like, awkward introductions. ‘Cause it’s weird recording an album or doing any art with people because you’re kind of vulnerable. Even singing in front of people can be scary sometimes because you’re like, “Oh does this suck, is this terrible?”, but it’s good going into it with someone you’re familiar with and someone you don’t care about looking dumb around. Our last album we did with Mark Ronson and I was a little nervous because we hadn’t met him before. I mean, it turned out great and now we’re good friends and very comfortable with him, but with Patrick it was just like going in there with a buddy of ours, so it definitely made that a lot easier.
Yeah, I watched some of the footage with you working with him and stuff, just seemed very relaxed and spontaneous.
Yeah, we started on the same label as Black Keys and our first album came out around the same time. They kinda hit it big time way before us and they’re doing Grammys and being on TV and shit, but uh, you know, we’ll get there one day. We’re gonna play the Super Bowl.
You’re going to be playing scented shows and releasing scented cassettes! I went to your show last year with Subsonics at the Music Hall of Williamsburg and it smelled like vomit [laughs], but I guess ocean and denim and even fresh plum semen juice are infinitely more appealing smells. How did you decide what kind of smells epitomize the essence of your band?
Well we consulted with our team of olfactory scientists who explained the essence of smells and what kind of emotions they bring out of people. We tried an experiment last year in Austin where we synthesized female hormones and that one, we put too much in the mix and it kind of made everyone sick, like Cole threw up, and uh, actually we made Ryan Gosling really ill, because he was right by the machine and he got an upset stomach, so we had to, you know, start over from there. But we’ve been working on it for 2 years now and I think we’ve got it down. Tomorrow night’s the first night we’re gonna have our new scented show, so we’ll see how that goes [it’s Thursday, March 6th at the time of the interview]. I’m pretty confident about it.
Are you gonna market this scent afterwards? Is it going to be sold in stores or something?
No, no, no, we’re not gonna release like a cologne or a fragrance. It’s basically because we’re already using sight and sound to get people but then there’s gonna be this smell, so when you smell it you’re like “Huh, that reminds me of that night, or that reminds me of Black Lips”. And so, we’re kind of like, trying to get inside your brain, because the US military uses it, they use certain smells to calm people down. I know Wal-Mart pumps out smells to make people more inclined to buy things, and casinos pump out extra oxygen into the air to make people looser with their money and stuff, so we’re kind of trying to do that. Like when I smell hot burning asphalt or tar, it brings me back to summertime in high school because when I was in summer school, every year they would re-do the roofs, so it was just like this really noxious, all encompassing smell and it was really bad and probably toxic, but it brings a really good and nostalgic memory to me whenever they’re laying new roads because it brings me back to summertime, so we’re kind of trying to recreate that kind of thing.
Yeah, and that’s interesting because smell and memory are so closely linked, as well as directly effecting people’s moods like you mentioned.
Yeah and people can’t place it all the time, so they’ll be subconsciously thinking of us when they smell that smell.
You’re also working on creating your own line of denim jackets – are the Black Lips becoming a brand as well as a band?
You wanna see it? I just got the prototypes. [Jared comes back with a biker gang style cut-off vest featuring a skull wearing a confederate hat over a pot leaf on the back.]
I like it!
Yeah, this French company [APRIL77] asked if we wanted to design a jacket and I’d never done that before, so I designed a jacket, and it was kinda like a biker jacket and so I wrote a song about an imaginary bike gang called The Pink Angels. Oh, I have our club house sign.
Basically it’s just a gang called The Pink Angels, and they’re the toughest gang in the world and they will fucking shank you if you fuck with them but they’re all gay guys, and people wanna fuck with them but they can’t because they’re just like, too tough. So when you buy the jacket it comes with a flexi disc of the single, it’s not on the album. I also made a video, and I did a choreographed dance kinda like Michael Jackson and it looks really cool.
Are these projects Kenneth Anger influenced at all?
Oh yeah, we kind of worship Kenneth Anger. I mean I totally ripped off Cry Baby and Kustom Kar Kommandos and Scorpio Rising and all that, but it’s more like an homage to it.
A lot is made of your mischievousness and onstage stunts (the chicken incident, nudity, fireworks, etc.) and you’ve been called a lot of things in the press, “menacing”, “terrors”, and “brats” are just a few of the adjectives I came across in a quick general search, but I also see you as a well meaning, respectful band with a conscience, is that where your ‘flower punk’ tag comes from?
Well, I think we’re kind of misrepresented or misunderstood sometimes because I mean, we’re pretty nice guys, you know. We’re Southerners so we grew up with a lot of manners and everything like that. We never try and intentionally make people mad and usually we don’t, but sometimes people are really uptight and take things the wrong way. I think we’re well meaning, like we would never wanna hurt anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings or anything like that. But we just do kinda what we wanna do all the time and sometimes that makes people mad.
It shouldn’t, of course, but you know… [laughs] I always thought of you guys as totally refreshing, fully committed warriors against the mundane. Certainly your Middle Eastern tour (and accompanying documentary) shows that there’s more substance to you than the sort of wild and destructive reputation you’ve got, even if you didn’t have some vacuous celebrity charity mission in mind – you just did it because you wanted to, right? For the experience?
We just want to travel everywhere we can, and being in a band is a perfect vehicle for that. I set up tours in all these different countries through meeting people on MySpace or Facebook and stuff, and the great thing about being in a band, it’s like, I would want to go to Egypt, but if I went there by myself I would have to check into a hostel and wouldn’t know anyone. When you go there as a band, you’re with all these people that are kinda your age and into the same kinda stuff you’re into and they’ll take you to their parents’ house and cook and show you places that aren’t in a stupid tourist book, so in my opinion it’s the best way to travel and we’re really lucky to have that. We don’t have much time on this earth and there’s a lot of places to go, so I wanna try and get to those places before, you know, my time comes.
Definitely. I’m going to try not to ask too much about the Middle Eastern tour because you’ve talked about it a lot elsewhere and we’ve already discussed this a little earlier, but I liked what you said about dealing with stereotypes (as Southerners you must face this a lot yourselves) and overturning people’s expectations. What surprised you the most during your time over there?
Well I didn’t know what to expect. A couple days before, I got a little nervous, like I wasn’t nervous at all, but a bunch of people stormed the American embassy in Cairo a few days before we went there and all of our moms started freaking out. Like my mom and Cole’s mom and I think Joe’s mom all called our manager and Vice, saying to pull the plug on it, like you can’t go, and so then with them getting so nervous, I got nervous. But we got there, and we stayed near the American embassy and it was fine, and it wasn’t Al-Qaeda that stormed the embassy, it was a bunch of football hooligans that were just fighting with the police. That’s what you get when you have a bunch of sexually repressed young men that aren’t allowed to drink and stuff, they just like to smash shit, and that’s the world over. But that didn’t fit the narrative, so Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN were saying that it was this Islamic uprising. It wasn’t, it was just a bunch of bored young dudes that can’t get laid… So I was just really surprised when we got there, how normal it was, everyone was so nice to us, nothing weird happened, the whole thing went off without a hitch. I was just surprised by how non-political and non-religious it was when we went over there. Like, I don’t know, there’s bullshit everywhere and those kids don’t want to deal with that bullshit, just the same way I don’t want to deal with bullshit here.
I’ve also known people who have spent lots of time there and they were amazed at how westernized it was, too.
Well the thing is, everyone there and all the young people speak English even without an accent, and they go so out of their way to be hospitable. Kinda like down here if you come to the South, we have a bad reputation, like everyone thinks we’re a bunch of crazy gun-toting rednecks. I mean, I have guns and I hunt and stuff like that, but I can also read… I think we get portrayed in the media the wrong way, the same way sometimes people in the Middle East get portrayed the wrong way. You never know how people are until you see them in person.
On a semi-related note, you knew The Yellow Dogs from Tehran, who came to America to pursue their dreams as a band, right? [Yellow Dogs are an Iranian rock band who relocated to Brooklyn. Two founding members were shot dead in the early hours of November 11th, 2013 by an acquaintance from another Iranian expatriate band.]
Yeah we knew them, or still know them. We met them when they first came from Iran and we did a bunch of shows with them and we’re still in contact with some of them. That’s kind of how we set up the tour; we started meeting all kinds of bands from Lebanon and Iran and a few from Pakistan, and just started meeting that whole scene. I guess they call it ‘Taqwacore’, like all the Muslim bands, but yeah that was really insane what happened to them.
I only got to see them once and thought they were pretty phenomenal but they were kind of always on the show listings, so I thought I’d have plenty of chances. Of course you can never tell when something like that is going to happen, and I went to the Brooklyn Bowl benefit memorial show.
Yeah we almost went up for that, but we were on tour.
What was Die Slaugherhaus like? [Die Slaugherhaus was a house in Home Park, Atlanta which became a DIY venue and hangout for disaffected underage kids.]
Oh, that was our house. Cole lived in it and it was…I moved in when I was 17 and basically it used to be a fraternity house, so there was like, 10 bedrooms and 13 or 14 people lived there. It was just like a classic punk house, it was disgusting, awful, but it was still… I couldn’t do that again now, because I can’t be 17 again, but as a 17 year old, it was amazing. I mean, you could wake up in the morning, and if you felt like it, you could just kick a hole in the wall, or spray paint a skull on the outside of the house. It was just pure chaos, and everything I like about the stupid awesome shit that teenagers do. Because you only get one chance to do that, and I feel like you’re really missing out, like squares and uptight people don’t get that out, because you have no consequences when you’re a teenager. Nothing matters, you can do anything you want, and I realized that at a very young age. I was like, “I have this small window to do the most retarded shit ever, and I might as well get it all out now because pretty soon I’m gonna have to start paying taxes and bills and worrying about other shit”.
So do you have any particularly fond or enduring memories of that place?
The final show we had before the house got condemned, and so we were gonna have to move out. We were having the last show and someone got onto a college radio station and advertized it as a trash the house party, so all these people showed up with sticks and hammers and everything, and that was not what it was supposed to be like. They just literally destroyed the place, I mean, almost knocked it down, and the people that were on the lease called the police and were trying to bring a lawsuit against them and they gave us 48 hours to repair all the drywall, so we had about 50 people there just working around the clock. We had to clean the whole place out and make sure all the walls were back together, and I learned a lot of carpentry skills in that little episode.
I also broke my ankle that night. I tried to ollie off the roof with my skateboard, and I landed it, but then I fell quickly afterwards because my ankle was broken…
So it seems like despite all the mayhem there was also a strong sense of community. Is there another venue or place around now with a similar spirit that you can think of?
Maybe there is, but I’m not really hip to a lot of that stuff now, because it’s kids that do that, it should be kids that do that, and it’d be weird for a 30 year old to be hanging out around teenagers, I’d feel like a creep. But I’m sure there are, I mean house shows, they’re a thing that will always happen.
Do you miss playing house shows?
Very much so, but at this point we can’t really do it anymore.
Do you have any plans to do more with The Almighty Defenders?
Yeah, we have a few days off in Berlin on our next European tour. King Khan and BBQ both live in Berlin now, so we’re gonna do some recordings and we’re going on tour with them later this year, so you know, we’re always gonna bring the band back.
Great! I’m probably going to see you in April; you’re playing with Natural Child at The Webster Hall? I’ve seen them a few times and they’re always fun.
Yeah, they’re great.
Have you heard The Orwells cover of Not a Problem?
Yeah I saw them play that when they were in Atlanta.
What do you think of it? They’ve also got a song on their Who Needs You EP, Salvation is a Parking Lot (A Black Lips Rip Off).
I guess they’re big fans of ours. I mean, that’s cool because it’s all like a cycle. You know, when I was starting out, we idolized a bunch of bands and I’m kind of honored to continue that cycle and be a part of that, and I’m sure that a few years down the line, some kids will hear The Orwells and do the same kind of thing.
They get a lot of flack from people being ageist and writing them off for being too young or whatever.
Awww, that’s bullshit. You know what, every time anyone says they don’t like young people or hipsters or anything, it’s just people that are jealous that other people are having more fun than them.
I totally agree, and I hate the word ‘hipster’. Every time somebody is clued in on something that’s cool, you’re suddenly a hipster or whatever. I am so bored with the overuse of that word and its negative connotations.
Well you know what, I’m a fuckin’ hipster and I’m fuckin’ proud of it.
So am I!
Hipster is any youngish person that’s into music or art or culture. It’s such a non-term to me. And you know what, I am cooler than them, so fuck them, I don’t give a fuck. Stay at home and play World of Warcraft.
[laughs] Okay I’m going to mention some of the songs on the album. Boys In the Wood is a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute?
And the video is quite sleazy and dark, right? There’s beatings, drug abuse, golden showers, suggested sodomy… I mean, who came up with the idea for the video treatment?
The ATL Twins did it; it’s supposed to be like the white version of Boyz n the Hood – instead of the projects, it’s the trailer park. So it was kinda like that and I knew they could pull that off, so they came up with a lot of that. The rape scene, we came up with that the day of, because I was like, “Well no one has ever been raped in their own video, so I wanna do that”.
There’s a first for everything! [laughs] Smiling is about spending the night in jail? What happened there, what’s the story behind that?
Can’t really go into details but I went to prison for a few days. I got into an altercation with a police officer and I’m still dealing with that bullshit now. I finally got out of it but my way of dealing with it, trying to turn something so negative into something positive, was having a song about it that sounded happy, but it was a really unhappy situation.
Justice After All is definitely an important song for today’s world, I think. In your opinion, what are the best and worst things about technology, and what is the real price for this instant gratification and impatient appetite for information we’re all becoming accustomed to? How has your own reliance on tech changed things for you and how you operate as a band since you first began in ’99?
That was Joe’s song but I think what he’s trying to get at is that people kind of create this identity for themselves that isn’t real, like the way they want to project themselves. It just seems a little soulless. I mean, I use social media and all that stuff too, and you can’t fight progress or change, but it definitely has changed the human psyche. You can’t say it’s good or bad, it’s just different, but I think people concentrate less and it’s kind of created mass A.D.D. almost. Like even with me sometimes, I will have to put my computer in the car and park it down the street so I can read or play guitar more because sometimes it’s easier to just dick around on the internet forever. It can be a good thing, but it can easily be a bad thing.
What’s next for you and for Black Lips?
Well tomorrow we’re playing our going away show in Atlanta with Deerhunter and really looking forward to that, it’s gonna be a family affair and really fun. We’re pretty much on tour for a year starting from now, and damn, I’m ready for that because we’ve been sitting at home for quite some time.
Okay, well I’m looking forward to seeing you in April and thank you so much for talking to me!
Okay, you take it easy.
Go see Black Lips on ‘the only tour that makes SCENTS’ and buy all their shit! They’re real nice boys and their music just might change your life. Underneath The Rainbow is out March 18th.
Interview by Carrie Quartly, you can read more of her writing on the site here.