Raw Meat and Human Skulls
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."
In an email, Alexander writes that "we expected nothing but excellence from the upper echelons of pop music," but St. Pé says that having Ronson in the studio didn't really change how the band conducts business. Well, if you don't count the dead cow and human skull, that is.
"That was just one of those fucking stupid ideas I had in the studio," says Ronson. "Like, the song is called 'Raw Meat' so instead of handclaps for the percussion, I thought it might be cool to go to the supermarket and buy some raw slabs of ribs and just pound on that. It's not the kind of thing that might work on a Morrissey solo album, but I think with a band like the Lips it just plays into their mythology."
And the human skull?
"Cole found a human skull at this oddities shop in New York City," explains St. Pé. "We were talking about the 13th Floor Elevators, who we all really like. The jug player [Tommy Hall] made this sound with his mouth, but he used the jug as a reverberation chamber. So Cole thought we could put a microphone in the cranium, where we could take sounds out from it and back on to the tape. We figured the reverb that we would get out of that would be like what would be happening in your own head. The majority of the Mark Ronson tracks were run through that skull."
For a vehemently DIY band, St. Pé says the band look back on the experience with Ronson as nothing but positive.
"I don't know what other producers are like, but working with him was like having another set of ears from the outside listening in," St. Pé explains. "I didn't know at first, but he likes the same kind of production style that we do. It's called 'if it ain't broke don't fix it.' He uses old tape machines, old microphones ― all the stuff that we fully believe in. He didn't change us at all. Basically what happens is that when we go to clubs and hear our songs on the sound system it doesn't ever really sound too good. So now this album sounds good in a club. But don't get too scared, it doesn't sound all electronic or anything. It still sounds like us, but it just thumps more. Hopefully the fans or the crew, as I call them, will like it."
Arabia Mountain could prove to be a divisive listen for "the crew." Noticeably superior in every way to its predecessor, 2009's hurried 200 Million Thousand, it's their most cohesive record yet, filled with big choruses, that innate, raw energy they bring to everything they do, and all of the idiosyncrasies fans have grown to love. However, those set in their ways might be put off by just how good it will sound in a club. Ronson, who says his efforts were directed most towards song structure and arrangement, is quick to point out that "I didn't want to fuck with their songs at all, just help them craft a few more pop nuggets."
Though Ronson only produced half of the album, the band's ambition to "switch it up a little bit" is evident throughout the other half. Whether it's the sax-y rave up "Family Tree" or Pundt's frisky "Go Out and Get It," even Ronson admits his contributions aren't that easy to pick out. "I don't hear a whole lot of difference sonically of what I did compared to the songs that I didn't produce," he feels. "In fact, I kind of think a song like 'Family Tree' sounds even bigger than some of the ones I did."
Regardless of whether Arabia Mountain becomes that commercial breakthrough for them, on stage, Black Lips are one of the most entertaining bands in the business. It's as a live band that they've built their massive "cult" following, mostly because people want to see what stunts they'll pull next. This unpredictability led to a highly publicized incident two years ago during a tour of India. In Chennai, Cole Alexander stripped naked, dove into the crowd and then began making out with the rest of band. The promoter called the Tamil police, pulled the band's funding and tried to confiscate their passports.
The way St. Pé tells it, what went down in Chennai was all just part of what his band bring to the table, night in and night out. "I will say that entertainment is a dying art form," he explains. "There was a time when we had greats like James Brown, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and now it's dying. You can now go to a rock show and close your eyes and it sounds like a CD. You know what I call that? Boring. I might as well go online, download your music for free and listen to it. If you want to come to a Black Lips show, we're gonna give you some entertainment as well as some music. Yeah, we are known for our live shows. And if your question is, 'Are we cool with it?' Then, hell yeah we are."
Of course, this kind of passionate showmanship has led to unreasonable expectations from their audience. St. Pé says that everything you see on stage is of the moment and not premeditated at all. Even they don't know what will happen until they're in the moment.
"We're not puppets," he explains. "People sometimes say, 'Why didn't you pee?' Didn't have to. 'Why didn't you do fireworks?' Didn't feel like it. Our shows are unpredictable because it just happens. But it's not gonna happen every night. Hell, some of those things have only happened one or two times, but that's how myths start. I'm sure there are a lot of expectations, like when people went to see Jerry Lee Lewis they wanted him to burn his piano. Some people come wanting to see some crazy stuff happen, but I'll tell you what, I don't think they leave disappointed. I think the music speaks for itself. Hey, a little extra lagniappe, if you will, never hurt anybody."
Mark Ronson says that even he half-expected something bizarre or dangerous to happen while he was heading into the studio. Y'know, other than the band requesting he use a human skull as a reverb chamber. "There was a tiny part of me in the back of my mind that thought on the first day I'd walk into some Vice version of the show Punk'd and open the door to the studio and have this bucket of human excrement fall on my head."
He adds: "They're just a band that I and a lot of people have love for. They have a great cult following and haven't had that breakthrough moment yet. But they've quietly sold a lot of records and they're a band that represent something. I feel that most bands I work with are kind of the best of what they do, and they're no exception."
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