Black Lips bassist Jared Swilley discusses Mark Ronson, plans for a Middle Eastern tour and the band’s new album, ‘Arabia Mountain’
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‘Guess what I’m wearing?’ Black Lips bassist Jared Swilley asked at the beginning of a recent phone interview, leaving an imaginative listener to fear the worst. After all, the scrappy Atlanta garage punk band has gained notoriety over the years for its ribald stage antics, including public displays of affection and nudity -- shenanigans that famously drove them to flee India in 2009 after a concert drew police attention.
But Swilley defused any tension by answering his own question. ‘Shorts!’ he proclaimed, offering the innocuous explanation that he’d packed for spring on the current tour but had been blindsided by cold and snowy weather during the Northeastern leg of the trek. Heading to a gig in Texas -- with a new album to support, and days away from a European tour -- he was happy to be in a climate that more closely mirrors that of his home state of Georgia.
Heralding a new attention to detail and craftsmanship, the self-described flower punk band’s latest and most ambitious long-player, ‘Arabia Mountain,’ hit record stores Tuesday. Previously, the Black Lips’ slapdash approach to recording resulted in a certain vibrant extemporaneousness, but they were ready to produce something more polished on this outing. “Usually, we’ll block out 10 days or less and be like, ‘Alright let’s just make an album,’ ” said Swilley, whose bandmates include Cole Alexander on rhythm guitar, Joe Bradley on drums and Ian St. Pé Brown on lead guitar. “This one we actually had a chance to think about it in a few different sessions. We made a decision beforehand, like, ‘We’re not going to put this album out -- or call it done -- until we’re really done.’ ‘
Recorded around the band’s grueling 250-day-a-year touring schedule, ‘Arabia Mountain’ took a full year to complete -- a veritable eternity compared with the Black Lips’ typical recording timetable.
It helped, of course, that high-profile British DJ, guitarist and music producer Mark Ronson -- who has twiddled the knobs for Amy Winehouse and Duran Duran -- was eager to work with them. ‘That was what really sealed it,’ said Swilley. ‘We were like, ‘Hell yeah! Let’s do that! Dude’s got Grammys, let’s go work with him!’ ‘
The improbable creative relationship, it turned out, became a mutually respectful meeting of the minds. ‘He has a really good ear for music,’ said Swilley. ‘And he’s different from us -- different as in he produces different kind of stuff than us, but he still has the same sensibilities that we do.’ In addition to a shared belief in the superiority of analog-based ‘60s recording techniques, Ronson had no desire to water down the Black Lips’ shaggy, irreverent and sometimes coarse sonic voice. ‘The first thing he said was, ‘I don’t want to be responsible for [messing] up the Black Lips, turning you guys into something that all your fans are going to hate.’ ‘
Where previous Black Lips efforts clung more closely to the traditional bare-bones script of modern garage rock, ‘Arabia Mountain’ roams free and far afield, gathering, crunching up and spewing forth influences picked from a variety of musical gardens. The record’s iconoclastic subject matter includes the challenges of being Spider-Man, the dangers of satanic ‘80s metal music, the joys and perils of raw meat, and Spain’s Dali Museum (as viewed through a psychedelics-enhanced lens), not to mention one of the great recurrent themes of garage punk, freeloading girlfriends. The 16 songs on “Arabia Mountain” may not break new ground lyrically, but the band’s painstaking approach to crafting the album shines through musically. There are saxophones, whistle solos, a saw, sensitive guitar intros, European folk music twists, Rolling Stones-style country rock flourishes and Bo Diddley backbeats, plus plenty of the stark, straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll chutzpah that fans expect from the band.
That flagrantly carefree punk-rock attitude has kept the band in good stead over the years. When the Black Lips formed in 1999 -- barely out of high school at the time -- the Atlanta music landscape was mostly limited to hip-hop and R&B, and Swilley & Co., along with other nascent Atlanta rockers such as the Carbonas and Deerhunter, had to create their own scene.
“Atlanta, geographically, is a little bit isolated,” Swilley said. “Southern bands are kind of outsiders sometimes. People think we can’t read books. They think we’re all racists. Things like that. I don’t blame them, because we don’t really paint a good picture of ourselves on the national circuit. For example, when our governor called a prayer meeting to pray to God to make it rain because of the drought, that doesn’t look too cool.” Nonetheless, the band still takes pride in its Southern heritage. “Arabia Mountain” is named for DeKalb County’s imposing 940-foot summit.
As for the future, said Swilley, “Our big thing right now is we’re planning a tour in the Middle East. We’re gonna do Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey. We’re hoping to do that in September, just when Ramadan ends. We want to bridge the gap between us and them, because there are pretty nasty relations between the Western world and the Middle East right now. I think we’d be good ambassadors. We bring music, not bombs.”
Whether or not the well-intentioned Black Lips Middle Eastern tour comes to fruition in a post-Bin Laden world, the band will still hit the Southland on June 24, when it plays the Music Box. Take a listen to “Modern Art,” the first single from “Arabia Mountain,” here:
-- Jason Gelt