Raw Meat and Human Skulls
"We're getting pulled over right now by the French police. I think it might be a drug bust, but no worries, we're clean. We cool."
Having an interview with Black Lips derailed by a random police interrogation in a foreign land isn't really a surprise. In fact, it only confirms the legend. When 20 minutes passes by, an assured lead guitarist Ian St. Pé gets back on the phone laughing, as the convoy to Strasbourg, France continues. "Yep, they didn't find nothing. We all good," he says, sounding remarkably poised for someone who's just been patted down. "With cops, you only bring as much as you can swallow. We get pulled over on occasion, but we're smart with that."
For 12 years, Atlanta's Black Lips have been one of the most storied and infamous rock'n'roll bands. You name the debauchery, these self-proclaimed "flower punks" have done it. They're as textbook as it gets when it comes to the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll ethos, which is why they were once offered starring roles in their own feature length movie.
"We love what we do and 12 years in, we can still give it," adds St. Pé. "We're fucking veterans. Some people go, 'Don't y'all get tired?' No. We're always like this. If you give it 110 percent, well then we just bumped it up to 120 percent. And we tell bands, if you don't give it 110 percent, someone else will. And that someone else is called us. There are so many bands that get thrown into the big leagues and chewed up. We just get out there and throw a party. Every night is Friday night."
St. Pé and his bandmates ― singer/guitarist Cole Alexander, singer/bassist Jared Swilley and drummer Joe Bradley ― are fully aware that their reputation as a "party till you pass out" band has always preceded their music, even though they've been major players in popularizing both garage rock and lo-fi recording. Their most critically and commercially successful album, 2007's Good Bad Not Evil, exposed them to a much wider audience (Virgin Mobile Canada used "Veni Vidi Vici" in an ad), but it still wasn't enough to overshadow the fact that occasionally they'll get naked and make out or even pee on stage ― though "never in each other's mouths. Only our own," Ste. Pe clarifies.
When the Lips began talking about their sixth studio album, Arabia Mountain, they felt it was time to shake things up. After self-recording a number of tracks, they broke the tradition of producing themselves, first by working with Deerhunter's Lockett Pundt. But still, they felt another outside ear was needed to help guide the way. They aimed big, because as Cole Alexander says, "Success beckoned us."
"We were trying to get Dr. Dre, the guy who did the Gnarls Barkley album, Danger Mouse, and of course, Mark Ronson, because that Amy Winehouse record was an old sounding record but also fresh," admits St. Pé. "Mark actually said yes, so we were like, 'Hell, yeah!' Doing every other album ourselves, we're like a gang, so we're not just gonna let anybody work with us. We figure that if someone has Grammys, we'll give him a shot."
As far as contemporary producers go, few have tasted the kind of success that Mark Ronson has over the past five years. Cutting his teeth on hip-hop, the London-born producer became a star working with pop artists like Lily Allen, Christina Aguilera, Robbie Williams, Adele, and of course, Amy Winehouse on her Grammy-hogging Back to Black album.
Given Ronson's résumé, a band like Black Lips hardly seemed on his radar. But Ronson was not only a fan, he was also a friend of Suroosh Alvi, co-founder of Vice, the band's record label. "I was kind of surprised and flattered when my name came up because I make shiny pop, albeit with a retro aesthetic," Ronson says. "But to be honest, the garage rock that they do isn't that much different from the work I did with Amy Winehouse, that style of recording to tape."
At the time, Ronson was scheduled to begin working with Beyoncé, but he held off to spend ten days in his Brooklyn studio with the Lips. ("It's not like Beyonce was curled up in the fetal position crying because I didn't show up to the studio," he says.) Little did he realize the experience would put him in the hospital.
"I've never had just ten days to do as much as you can, and luckily there were only eight songs, but we still had to finish them," says Ronson. "And then I got violently ill during the recording sessions because they fucking took me out to the raw Japanese meal from hell. The delay meant we ended up having to go to Atlanta, since that was the only way to finish it. I was excited to go down there into their environment and see where they made Good Bad Not Evil."
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