Interview Black Lips: ‘I Don’t Even Smoke Pot Anymore’

Experimental hormones pumped out at gigs, a drink banned by the FDA and a new album. Black Lips have a lot going on.

At a certain point, Black Lips became a band that felt like they’d always been around. Maybe it was around the release of fourth album ‘Good Bad Not Evil’. Perhaps it was their spot on the (500) Days of Summer soundtrack with ‘Bad Kids’. Whenever it was, it feels like ‘Underneath the Rainbow’ has somehow snuck up on us. It’s the bands seventh – seventh! – album, and a welcome return after 2011’s ‘Arabia Mountain’.

“It’s our biggest gap between albums,” explains bassist Jared Swilley. “I didn’t realise, I don’t know where the time went. The reason the gaps got bigger is because our territory got bigger. We used to only do one or two short American tours. That expanded to all of North American and Central America. Then we started going to Europe a bunch. When we do an album cycle now we have to do two North American tours, two or three European tours, Australia, Japan, South American, Central America. Now we’re starting to go into Asia more, and even Africa now. There’s so many damn cities to play! It takes a long time to tour.”

It might sound like a complaint, but it isn’t really. “I’m ready; I’m sick of being at home now, I’m going stir-crazy,” Jared admits. “Basically the next year of our lives has just been mapped out. I’ve seen it in an email. We’ve just got a whole lot to do. But we’ve had like three or four months off. It’s almost like we have a teacher’s schedule, they get three or four months a year, but now it’s time to get back to work.”

Things have already started up again; the band just came back from playing Columbia for the first time, and next up is Texas staple SXSW. Did the band ever see themselves going this far? Apparently not: “I think we let ourselves believe that, we talked a lot of game like that early on, but deep down, not at all, no. Everything happened so slowly with us, like it was at a glacial pace but it was always an upwards tick. We never had that stuff happen overnight, but I think it was more rewarding than that. I never thought we’d play outside of the state of Georgia.”

It takes a while to steer talk towards the new album; to begin with, it’s mostly of drugs. Possibly not in the way you’d expect though. While Black Lips give off that particular kind of rock‘n’roll vibe, Jared takes time to point out: “It’s not so much that we do drugs, it’s that we have done drugs. I haven’t done psychedelics in a long long time. But I’m still really into the idea of the whole thing. I wouldn’t do them anymore; I think you can only do them when you’re a teenager or when you’re over 50. Everything in between then, you’ve just got too much s**t to worry about. It’s hard to handle. But I like the idea of a lot of that stuff more than the actual practice of it. I don’t even smoke pot anymore. It just kills ambition. I don’t want to sit around in my underwear playing video games and smoking doobies.”

So they’re not exactly stoner rock. Instead, Jared tells tales of Black Lips’ dabbles in drug-based band merch. “We did an experiment in Texas last year where we had synthetic hormones pumped through the crowd. But it was way too pungent and made people sick, a little bit. That was in the initial stages, but after consulting with our factory scientists we kind of called it all in.”

That ‘The next year of our lives has just been mapped out.’ wasn’t even their first attempt at something new, as Jared continues: “A couple of years ago we were trying to patent a Black Lips drink called D-Tune. We could never get it approved by the FDA, because it has a couple of chemicals in it that weren’t approved for use in the states. It was a vodka-based drink but it was infused with… like aphrodisiac drugs. It was supposed to be a downer, and an upper at the same time. But the first batch we brought to Canada with us, and we tried it with the Vice Canada people, and we got so ill. The next day, it was the worst hangover/flu feeling ever. And then we started talking to lawyers and people, and… you can get in a lot of trouble for that. There’s all these rules about it, so we just had to throw in the towel.”

Now, the band are trying something else. Live shows already target sight and sound; now the boys want to hit your sense of smell. “We’re trademarking our own scent, so that a smell will conjure a memory of us,” Jared explains. “The record will smell like that, and the shows will smell like that too. We’re trying to hit up all the senses. We got sight and sound, now we have smell; I guess we’ll have to work on taste next.” Any other band would just release a beer, but Black Lips aren’t any other band.

When it comes to the new album, they didn’t go the standard route of planning it out either. They never do. “It’s always the same; we never have a plan for an album. There’s four of us writing; everyone’s just constantly writing. The music’s broken up into different albums, but it’s all be one long writing process. Whenever anyone has a song, we just try and record it, and whatever current ones we have, we put on a record. We’ve never been, ‘All right, we’ll have a band meeting, and we want it to sound like this. Let’s make it jazzy’. It’s mostly just writing songs as they come.”

The first track to be released, ‘Boys in the Wood’, wasn’t exactly picked for traditional, ‘give the fans a taste’ reasons. “It sounded weird, so it would throw people off. It’s country-ish or southern rock. You ever heard of that movie Boyz N The Hood? ‘Boys in the Wood’ is the redneck, white trash version of that. The white ghetto’s the trailer park. It also had cool horns on it, I like the horns.” It seems for every possibly deep or meaningful reason the band have for doing something, they have an equally…shallow isn’t the right word, but picking something because it seems ‘cool’ seems like something the band do quite regularly.

Just take the album’s name. “We wanted to call it ‘Dark Side of the Rainbow’,” says Jared, “but then after doing some research, we found out that’s what you call it when you play ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ along to the Wizard of Oz. We don’t want any association, or people thinking we’re referencing Wizard of Oz or Pink Floyd. So we had to call it ‘Underneath the Rainbow’.

He continues: “And people call puking a technicolour rainbow sometimes, so it’s kind of like, you’re lying down and someone throws up on you.” Uh, did you just make that up on the spot? “Yeah, I did kind of just pull that one out my ass,” Jared laughs. “I’m not super happy with the record title but I guess it’ll work.”

It’s hard to tell what’s made up and what’s meaningful to the band. Whether that “kind of cedar-y, musky smell, like a dad smell” really sums the band up, or whether it was pulled out of their asses. But with the continued, enduring success they’ve had, does it really matter? What matters more is that they’re good – still good, after all this time – and they seem to believe in what they do. Jared certainly sounds sincere when we discuss the album cover for ‘Underneath the Rainbow’.

“One of my favourite photographers shot the cover; Mick Rock. He did Queen’s first album cover and all of David Bowie’s stuff from the 70s, and stuff for The Stooges. I was kind of obsessed with this photographer from the 60s, Karlheinz Weinberger. He took all these pictures of these teenage gangs in Switzerland that were doing a weird Euro-take on American greasers and British teddy boys. I was trying to rip off their look, a little bit. They look like weird gay greaser biker punks. But it was 1962 in Geneva, so it’s super odd. It’s really cool imagery.”

Perhaps the band members balance each other out. Jared says his favourite song on the record is ‘Dog Years’, the album closer. “It’s like when Cole does monologues, he gets really into it. And I try not to laugh in front of him because I don’t make him get weirded out, but it’s still hilarious watching him. He tries to do it with so much conviction. That’s like the outro on the record, and that’s my favourite thing.” What one member finds serious, another will laugh about. It’s probably a good way to be. It must be, if it’s worked for them so far. Let’s just hope they don’t gas us with their smell when they head over here later this year.

Black Lips’ new album ‘Underneath The Rainbow’ is out now via Vice Records.

Taken from the March 2014 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.

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