Through five albums in eight years, the recording process of Atlanta's Black Lips was a lot like their songs: quick, sloppy and without help from anyone. But for "Arabia Mountain," out June 7, the band had bigger ambitions.
"The deadline for finishing this record was, 'When it's awesome,' " singer Cole Alexander says. "If we'd never come up with something awesome, we may have never put out a record again."
Black Lips became front-runners in the burgeoning garage-punk scene, along with the late Jay Reatard and the King Khan & BBQ Show, around 2007. Their Vice debut, "Good Bad Not Evil," was critically adored, and the band's live shows notoriously wild. But self-recorded 2009 follow-up "200 Million Thousand" was "a step backward, from a label perspective," Vice co-founder Suroosh Alvi says. "We sold less copies and it didn't increase their touring draw."
By summer 2010, the band had cut an album's worth of new tracks, including several with Deerhunter's Lockett Pundt, but both Alvi and the Lips agreed that an extra push was needed. Alvi called the band's top producer pick, Mark Ronson ("We really liked the retro production on the Amy Winehouse record," Alexander says), and he gladly obliged.
"Working around his schedule was the only hard part," Alvi says. "He was putting Beyoncé on hold to work with the Black Lips."
Though Ronson's résumé largely includes vintage, but polished pop, working on the Black Lips' ragged, raucous punk wasn't a stretch, Alvi says. At the core of every Lips song, after all, is a simple pop hook.
"There's not a lot of difference between what we do and what Michael Jackson did," Alexander says. "But we are pretty sloppy; that's our charm. [Ronson] just wanted to take what we do and make it pop a little harder. Maybe even get people to dance. Normally we clear the dancefloor."
The Ronson sessions at Brooklyn's MetroSonic Recording Studio produced nine "Arabia" tracks, while the album's remaining seven were remastered to match Ronson's studio finesse. The results met the band's goal: "To be more messed up, but more accessible at the same time, like two horses pulling a body apart," Alexander says.
"Arabia Mountain" fuses bluesy grooves, '60s garage-rock looseness and frenetic punk guitars with true-story lyrics about tripping on ketamine at a Spanish Salvador Dali museum on "Modern Art" ("It canceled out the surrealism and we felt really normal," Alexander says) and finding trashed Osama bin Laden urinal pads in the singalong "Dumpster Diving."
"The funny part was the [bin Laden] sticker deflected the pee, like bin Laden was spitting urine on you," Alexander says. "Tragic comedy."
The songs are perfect for the Lips' live set, which Alexander says induces "pain, joy, laughter, tears, panic, fear and existentialism."
"I'm just trying to attack people with the best sensorial overload; sounds, vision, smell, taste. I've even seen a girl cry at our show," he says. "She got dropped on her head in a mosh pit."
But Alvi sees a higher purpose for "Arabia Mountain." "People will finally judge them on the merits of this album, not for Cole's ability to spit six feet in the air while playing guitar and catch it in his mouth," he says. "This album is vindication for any critics who have said they're just about shock value."