The members of Black Lips continue to insist that they never actually peed in each other's mouths onstage, but the truth is as debatable as it is unimportant. What matters more is that people could totally see them doing that. While they might not urinate, they do spit, bleed, throw things, break instruments, light things on fire, kiss each other, crawl on the ground, exit stage unpredictably and cause a generally substantial ruckus. (The word "ruckus" might actually have been invented for them.) And though they have created four full-lengths, two live albums and a badass live reputation in the past eight years, they have never grown up. Nor, if you believe bassist/vocalist Jared Swilley, are they likely to do so in the near future. We tracked down Swilley before the group's show at the Firebird this Thursday to discuss the band's polished new album, its consistent old sound and why Black Lips will never make the mainstream.
Kelsey Whipple: Arabia Mountain has been praised as Black Lips' most widely accessible album to date. Was that an intentional direction on the band's part?
Jared Swilley: We just made a conscious decision to make a good record, not that we tried to make bad recordss in the past or anything. Usually we just make our records fast and get them out there, and we schedule only the amount of time we think we need. This time we spent a lot of time trying to guarantee quality and make sure we put more thought into what we're doing. We recorded the last one in a warehouse by ourselves, and that shows when you listen to it. I like all of our records, but that's a huge difference this time around: time.
How does that time show itself in the results? It seems simple, but the album sounds better, and there are not as many mistakes. I just like the warm sound of this album. I like the last albums all, too, for different reasons, but this one I think overall is the best quality. (producer) Mark Ronson's influence is not that obvious on this record because when you get down to it, the record is the same as what we've always been doing, which is another quality I like about the final version. It is important to us to always do whatever the hell we want, and Mark just helped to not really polish it -- I wouldn't say that -- but to help us smooth the edges and create a stronger album.
What was the best part of working with Mark Ronson?
Basking in his glory. The producer is kind of the fifth member of the band in some ways, so that relationship is really important. I really liked working with him, and he helped us a lot without it even showing. That's tough to do.
The rumor is that there was a human skull in the studio during the recording process. Is that true, and how did it get there?
Cole found a human skull at this oddities shop in New York, and we put a microphone in it and turned it into a reverberation chamber. It's kind of inspired by this other band we like who turned a jug into a reverb chamber, and we thought it sounded interesting. It's kind of like communicating with the dead. We have another song on this album called "Raw Meat," and we went to the butcher and got a whole bunch of steaks and stuff and just just beat the shit out of it. You can hear it on the album, too: The percussion sounds like meaty hands. There was blood everywhere.
It goes without saying that the band has a huge reputation for out-of-control stage antics. If there were no limits at all to what you could do onstage, what would your stage show look like?
It would probably look the same because I've never really thought about getting in trouble by police in stuff. We get in trouble by people who own the venues. We're not going to kill anybody or sacrifice an animal onstage or anything. I've done pretty much whatever I want to do every single time I'm onstage. We tour a hell of a lot, and I'm going to keep doing the same thing. To what extent does the Atlanta music scene continue to play a role in the band's career? Are you still influenced by your origins?
I would say with older, more traditional blues and gospel and rock & roll, we're still very attached. But as far as the local scene, we're not too attached. We're there only once or twice a year because we tour so much. I haven't been to Atlanta in four months. The fact that we're from Atlanta shows, though, because we have a lot of country and early rock & roll influence.
The Black Lips have been a band more more than a decade now. How has your approach to making music changed in those years?
It's still the same aesthetic, pretty much. I don't know what that says about us, but it's a good thing. We've always had the same philosophy, that we'll do whatever we want to do. Sadly, that's really it. That's who we are.
There's always the idea that Black Lips are getting bigger but haven't reached a peak yet. At what point will the band be satisfied with its size?
I'm satisfied with how we are now, and three years ago I was fine with that. If we stayed the same, I'd be comfortable. I don't think we'll ever be mainstream or anything like that. That's not possible for us. I don't think a band like us could hit the top of the charts or anything, if you know what I mean.
I don't. What do you mean by "like us?"
We're too concerned with what we want, and we don't care about the other stuff. The time for us to make it to the top has passed, and we know that. I just want to be a fun rock & roll band that influenced younger kids. They tell us when they come to our shows, and they say they like us and things like that. And we borrowed from the bands before us. I want that to keep happening.
What is one thing the band has done right in the past year and one thing it has done wrong?
Right, we put out the record and also somehow did a world tour. The worst thing we've done recently is be late to a few shows. We don't have a lot of bad memories this year. We like doing bad things, so we think of all of those things as good things. If you look at it that way, there are really only good things.
What's the biggest lie you've told recently?
I lie to my tour manager and tell him I'll be down in five minutes. I am never down in five minutes. Never.