“This sandwich kinda sucks,” says one Black Lips member to another. All four of the guys from the self-described “flower-punk” group are in rare, subdued form while sitting around a table in the upstairs seating area of a dingy, midtown Manhattan deli, the kind of place that deserved the B rating it received. The time is around 1:30 in the afternoon, but they look sleepy-eyed or maybe just a little hungover. Their voices are scratchy, making them sound like a cross between heavy smokers and little kids who just spent three hours gleefully yelling at a friend’s birthday party.
Black Lips’ raucous live shows have built it a wild and intriguing reputation in the indie music community, providing fans with a welcome escape into a beer-fueled and bodily fluid-filled world of adolescent energy. The band has spent the better part of the last decade reaching out to the farthest nether-regions of the globe, going to places where other musicians would never dream of unloading gear and plugging in, allowing that rowdy reputation to spread abroad. It has upped the offensive ante over the years, going from being referred to as a public nuisance in newspapers in its home state of Georgia to being run out of the country of India after singer and guitarist Cole Alexander’s pants and underwear mysteriously disappeared on stage.
Now, after more than 10 years making music together, the group is ready to let people know that there is more to it than just shock value. “Everyone wants to talk about the pee-pee and the poo-poo,” says guitarist Ian Saint Pé, “but how much can you talk about pee-pee and poo-poo?” “We’re grownups,” remarks Alexander. “Everybody does it.” Though most reserve it for the comfort and private of their own homes as opposed to on a stage in front of hundreds of people, Saint Pé makes a point. There is much more to the group than body discharge.
Black Lips showed signs of musical maturation this year with its June-released album and sixth studio work, Arabia Mountain. The guys brought in British producer Mark Ronson to help, marking the first time they have used a producer or really asked for any outside opinion while putting together a record. “It had to be Grammy-award winning,” jokes Saint Pé when asked why they got more serious with this LP. The awards aren’t until early next year, but the Grammy-winning Ronson, known for producing material for the likes of Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, Ghostface Killah, Wale, Q-Tip and others, might bring Black Lips some trophy luck.
None of the members seem at all star-struck by their work with Ronson, choosing to drop joke after joke about the producer’s successes. But their irreverent, young-at-heart attitude has always covered up how much like Southern gentlemen those involved in Black Lips actually may be. “Everyone just wants to bring up the bad things we do,” says Alexander. Through the band’s career, the members have given a fair amount back to those around them, frequently playing shows for Camelot For Kids, an organization geared toward helping out kids with autism.
“Camelot For Kids holds a special place in my heart because I was in special ed. classes when I was in high school,” says Alexander. “It’s a soft spot for us really.” The group also donates a lot of money to an organization that does cochlear implants for deaf children. “We like kids,” says bassist Jared Swilley. “They’re not cowards—they’re pure.”
The group also admits to sending some money to a school in Japan after it was ravaged by the April tsunami, hoping to buy the kids some new computers for school. Where did the guys get their donation funds? “The bank? Out of pocket,” Alexander says. “When we get bigger we’ll try to step up our philanthropy.” Not worrying about sounding cocky, Alexander promises, “If we get as big as Bono, I promise to do twice as much as what he has done for the world.” “What’s that joke?” asks the soft-spoken drummer Joe Bradley. “Every time Bono claps his hands, a child in a third-world country dies?”
Black Lips is currently putting together a tour that will bring it through the Middle East, hopefully landing in Iraq for a show. “Things are a little fickle out there,” Alexander says sarcastically while leaning in to sip his coffee. “It’s a little flaky in the region.” The members plan to play at a university in Iraq where students apparently listen to bands like the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and they’ll inevitably have to tone down their live performance antics. “It’s going to be Black Lips lite,” says Alexander. Yhough he insists that even a more subdued version of Black Lips is still “going to shock the shit out of them.”