Interview: Black Lips
From Atlanta to India, the Black Lips cross the globe in search of good times, leaving good shows – and new fans – in their wake. Now on tour supporting their latest release, 200 Million Thousand, bassist Jared Swilley talked to Black Plastic Bag about being chased out of India, getting covered by Wu-Tang's GZA, and recording an album in Berlin.
I heard you guys got kicked out of India. Could you talk about what happened with that situation?
Well, basically it was just kind of a culture clash – they weren't ready for it. But, we had been planning a trip to India for quite some time. A Canadian friend of ours of Indian descent's over there doing agricultural research, and he found a promotion company to book a tour for us, so we were gonna try it, 'cause, why not, we just did Brazil, and India's the other emerging market with a growing middle class. So we got there, and, I mean it was fun bein' a tourist there and eatin' the food, and all that stuff, but the shows were really bland and stale, like people didn't understand us, like, I'm sure they were just thinkin' like "Who are these white guys who don't know how to play instruments with shitty crap?", you know, that we had. So the shows weren't going very good, so finally by like the fourth show the promoters kept sayin', "Oh, just be yourself, just do what you do, like, have fun," and so we did. And we went crazy, and had a great show with a great response. The promoters were happy, we were happy, the kids were happy, but the sponsors weren't happy.
So after that show we got back to the hotel, and the promoters informed us that the tour had been cancelled, all the money for the tour had been pulled, and the sponsors had called the Tamil state police on us either for indecent exposure, 'cause Cole [Alexander, lead vocalist & guitarist] had mooned the crowd, or for homosexuality, 'cause Ian [St. Pe, guitarist] and Cole kissed, and homosexuality is illegal, it's punishable by up to three months in prison, and public displays of affection – even between a man and a woman – are in some states illegal, in others highly frowned upon. So, for one of those reasons, the police were coming to collect us at the hotel, and you know, lord knows I don't want to go to Indian prison. So about 5 a.m. we hired two taxis to take us out of state to Bangalore. What should have been a five-hour taxi journey took 10 hours, about.
So we get to the hotel in Bangalore, and by this time the promoters aren't so happy with the show anymore, and they demand $10,000 from us. We don't have $10,000, so we start trying to reach an agreement and I start gettin' sketched out, 'cause I'm just like, You know what, right now, I don't know what's going on, I'm in India, I'm fucking exhausted, I really want my passport right now. So I went to the hotel reception desk – 'cause you have to always leave your passports with reception there – and asked for all of our passports back, and they said that a gentleman had just come by about 10 minutes before and collected them. And that's not right. So, I got all the guys, and they said he went out the back door, so we went out the back door to the back parking lot of the hotel. And this guy, who we'd never seen before, had all of our passports locked in his car and was talking to the main promoter, and I overheard him say, like, "Yeah, I have their passports." So they were trying to hold our passports and extort money from us.
But luckily there was only two of them and six of us. We surrounded them – our friend who was filming us got the guy in a choke hold, we got our passports back and said You know what there's no contract, you just took our passport, like, fuck you, we were gonna try and be nice and try to compensate you for something, but you just took our passports, and we're in India, and you just fucked up – there's no rules anymore. And they mentioned lawyers, and we said There's no contract, I hate to be a dickhead, I mean, but our lawyers in New York and London will destroy you. And then we booked tickets to Berlin, and we were out about six hours later.
You said that Ian and Cole kissed. I thought that you guys stopped sort of doing those things onstage, at least in the States, in the shows I've been to, because you wanted people to take your music seriously?
Yeah, I mean, generally we don't do that. Sometimes it happens, you know. Sometimes you get in the heat of the moment, you get real passionate about something and, sometimes that stuff happens, you know. It's not like it never happens, it's not like we try to do it, it's not like we're gonna do that all the time, or even sometimes. It just, that just – I don't know why they did that, we were just - I mean, we had had a couple drinks before the show, and the rest is history. But, you know. It happened.
I don't wanna make any, like, we're not the kind of guys to say like, you know, 'cause we're not a gimmick band, but sometimes, in the heat of the moment, it can be spontaneous. And yeah, it just happened.
Going back to how you guys have an affinity for playing in different places, you played in India, Israel, Palestine, and recorded a live album in Mexico – why are you guys drawn to playing in these different places, and what do you think it does for your music?
Well, it's not that we're drawn, we're just like, I mean, not everyone's like that, but I like to travel, you know. I wanna see the entire world before I die, and this is the best ticket to do it because you get your flights paid for, you get to meet cool people – the kind of people that you might hang out with if you lived there, you get to see stuff that is outside of a hostel, or like, you know, a hitchhiker's guide to, you know, whatever those stupid travel books are. So it's like the perfect way to travel, and I wanna see all of it. And I don't wanna be confined to North America and Western Europe, you know. It's a big world out there, and everybody like music. It's really inspiring to go around the world and see kids in Brazil singin' along to your songs, or see kids in Jerusalem singin' along to your songs, or in Russia. It's cool and, you know, everyone deserves a good rock'n'roll show, everyone deserves a good night out, that doesn't live in the European Union or North America. So it's just, I don't know, I don't see why everyone doesn't do it.
Where would you really like to play?
I'd really like to play Japan. I know it's kinda cliche, but everyone wants to play Japan. I'd like to play there. I really wanna do some shows in Africa, it's just hard, like, I've done a lot of research – I have a friends that have played like in Angola and Liberia, but they're more like DJs and stuff, so that's easier to do. I really wanna focus more on South America and Mexico, 'cause I really love – Mexico's my favorite country, I just love everything about it. I mean, obviously I don't like the drug trade and murders. But yeah, I really wanna do Argentina – yeah, South America and Mexico is where I would like to focus on next.
It seems like you guys do a lot of touring, so when did you guys have time to record and write 200 Million Thousand if you're on the road all the time?
Last fall we were supposed to go to China, but instead of goin' to China we had to do the record, 'cause you gotta make music. And it was nice – we had close to three months off, almost. I mean, we were doin' a little bit – we went to Brazil for a little bit during the recording, and think we did a short tour of France during it. But, no, there's always time for everything. I mean, people say life is short, but it's long, there's always time for everything – I've done a million things today. So yeah, I think it was a week here, a week there through last autumn.
And what were your influences on this record? I hear a lot of Wu-Tang, and even some of the Stooges.
You know what, we actually got GZA to rap one of the songs, he already finished it.
"The Drop I Hold." He did his own remix. Yeah, we love – I love early Wu-Tang. We really love Three 6 Mafia, stuff like that. And, like, Outkast is great. But, a lot of psychadelic stuff – I, personally, I listen to tons of Doo-Wop and like, girl groups and just like '50s, that kind of sappy music. I really like Del Shannon a lot. All that kind of wimpy stuff like that, and of course like Love and 13th Floor Elevators. I don't know, I guess we're just always listenin' to different stuff.
Did you guys have an idea or theme with 200 Million Thousand – why the title and why this selection of songs? Is it just random?
Yeah, it's completely random, we don't have plans like that. We're not that advanced.
How do you guys go about coming up with and writing songs?
It's always a different process, like, usually in the van or backstage or on tour, you just come up, just messin' around with the guitar and you come up with something cool. Then by the time you record, you know, you unload, pick apart your brain, and everybody say, Hey, I got this, and it just kind of transforms into a song. I wrote that song "Drugs" within, like, while we were recording another song, I just came up with it on the spot. I usually come up with stuff on the spot. But I like spontaneity a lot; I don't like to overthink things, I like simplicity, so, it's just whatever comes out, that's what happens.
Some of your songs are pretty serious, I mean, I know you just joked that you guys aren't that advanced, but you do cover some serious stuff. Why do you think some people perceive you to be ridiculous and jokey?
'Cause a lot of people aren't very smart, and a lot of people don't get good jokes. Actually, I'd say the majority of people. That's why there's a lot of bullshit around, because a lot of people don't get it. So, we're kinda jokin' with everyone, a little bit, but you know, we're not retarded.
So how do you guys get ready for your shows, before you go on ? I was just curious, because, I love seeing you guys, but a couple of shows I've been to, you guys've been pretty inebriated and couldn't really play your instruments.
Oh, we stand in a circle and cry. And hold each others' hands. No – we don't really prepare for anything, we just, you know, just hang out backstage. A lot of times you have old friends in town that you haven't seen in a long time, just kinda goof around and then – the only ritual we ever do is we kinda, like, have to warm up our voices, like do vocal exercises so you don't blow out your voice. But yeah, nothing too, like... we don't have like a prayer meeting or chant or anything like that.
But onstage, what are you guys looking to do, besides just play for the crowd?
All I'm trying to do, like, every person – well, not every person, but I believe that everybody should have a purpose in life, and my purpose in life is to make people smile and have a great night out, try to make people have fun, laugh, maybe get laid, just have a general good time. We just wanna bring good will, and fun times to people, so I just want – I love, a lot of times, the way it doesn't get old for me is 'cause everyday you see new faces and you see kids doing really ridiculous stuff in this crowd, you see people laughing. And that makes me laught, a lot, like, I'm constantly crackin' up onstage, so that's what I look for, I just wanna see people dancing.
What do you guys think of D.C., as a place to play in? What has your experience been there?
D.C.? Honestly, now I really like it, but in the first years of our – the dark days when we first began, D.C. was on our blacklist. We played a show at Velvet Lounge like eight years ago, and they refused to pay us, and they were real dicks, and the guy ownin' the club had one of those utilikilts on, and I was automatically just like, just killed it for me. So, for a while it really sucked, but then once we started playin' at the Black Cat it got really good, and now I have a ton of fun there, like, it's always really cool.
And what can fans expect from your D.C. show this time around?
Good times. Fun in the sun.
Also, I heard that the hand motions for "Hippie Hippie Hoorah" – the jazz hands – are a D.C. thing. Is that true, do you know?
I think it started there, that might've been the first place we did it. Yeah, just jazz hands, you know. We thought it was funny that people actually – we didn't think that people'd actually do it when we did it, but it was actually pretty funny.
In what country do you find your music, or your show, is best received – makes you really enjoy playing for that crowd?
Well, nowadays, it's pretty much everywhere. But I mean, my personal favorite is being in France, just because, I like French girls. And they usually – that's the only place we've ever been flashed before, so that was kinda neat.
Yeah. A girl showed us her boobs.
Is there anything else you wanna talk about that I missed about the new album?
Well, there is a new album. India was such a traumatic, like, terrifying, painful experience, then when we got to Berlin it was one of the happiest moments of my life and turned into one of the happiest weeks of my life. And our friends King Khan – we got to stay with our friends King Khan & BBQ, and we wanted to record just like 7-inch or something, but. Maybe it was what we had just experienced – and we were listening to a lot of gospel music at the time – so we went in and it turned into like a 12-song LP, and we started a new band called the Almighty Defenders. So we recorded a whole gospel LP, and that's going to come out sometime this year.
Is that gonna be on Vice?
We're lookin' right now, I don't know what it's gonna be on. Maybe CBS Records or Warner Bros., or something like that. Some sort of global conglomerate.
The Black Lips play the Black Cat on Thursday, March 5.