I’ll admit I did a double take when I first saw the announcement, weeks back, that venerable indie scruff punks Black Lips would be playing support on a string of East Coast dates with none other than newly reinvented dance-pop avatar Kesha.
But however unlikely it might seem at first blush, the pairing is an inspired one. The band from Atlanta and the singer-songwriter from Nashville are each, in their own way, hippies at heart — not afraid to get grimy, but also free spirits forever looking for, in the words of the 2011 Black Lips single, a “new direction.”
Kesha’s Rainbow finds her casting her musical net more widely, while the Lips’ latest, Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art (released in May of this year) is also their most ambitious to date — a sprawler that sees them mining familiar territory (cowpunk-garage tracks abound) as well as going in more experimental places, under the aegis of producer Sean Lennon. So, of course they were up for going on the road with Kesha, a longtime friend.
“We were like, ‘Why not?” says Lips’ bassist and vocalist Jared Swilley. “I think her crowd’s pretty receptive, more so than other big artists with a built-in audience. I mean, they’re young kids, covered in glitter, so it’s kind of, they’re into whatever.”
I’m sitting in the eat-in kitchen at VICE’s Brooklyn headquarters across from Swilley and his partner in punk of the last 18 years, guitarist and vocalist Cole Alexander — the two founded the band while in high school, and remain its core — and it’s the afternoon following their first date on Kesha’s Rainbow tour.
“I really enjoyed her show last night,” says Swilley, adding that they’ve known the singer for years. “We met her at Coachella years ago and we got in trouble with NPR, cause we were doing an interview with them, and Kesha was there, and we were like, ‘Yeah, we’re doing a record with Kesha.’ And then a journalist called me up to fact-check it, and I said, ‘I didn’t say we were in the studio doing it, only that we were talking about it.’”
Alexander adds that the door is certainly open for Black Lips and Kesha to collaborate on music in the future, and says they’re more kindred spirits than a casual observer might think. “You know, for a pop artist, she’s just different, in a way,” he explains. “She kind of has a rocker’s sensibility. And her boyfriend [Brad Ashenfelter] too, he’s playing with her, he had like a [Portland punk band] Dead Moon patch, so he seems like a rock n’ roll dude. I think her mom [Pebe Sebert] is really into rock n’ roll too. Her roots are kind of steeped in that.”
Black Lips’ short run with Kesha winds up Monday and Tuesday with two shows in New York, and soon the band heads again to Europe, where it spent part of the summer, continuing to tour on Satan’s Graffiti despite currently having, in their words, “a revolving door” at the number two guitar spot in the lineup. Jack Hines, who came back for his second stint with the band in 2014, replacing longtime guitarist Ian St. Pé, recently split from the group himself after the birth of his second child.
So for the moment, the Lips are in ad hoc guitar mode: Danny Lee Blackwell from Seattle’s Night Beats has been filling the role on the current run, while St. Pé will temporarily return for the European shows. “It’s kind of cool to not pick somebody right now,” says Alexander. “We can kind of have different people come in and keep it more open. I think it’s exciting for fans to see Ian come back, and then maybe somebody else next time. It keeps things interesting.”
Hines played a significant role on Satan’s Graffiti, and his departure has meant cutting some of the songs on which he was the principal singer from the set list, including “Occidental Front”, a track which also features a guest vocal from the record’s producer, one Yoko Ono. And the change at guitar comes on the heels of an even bigger upheaval in Black Lips: last year’s departure of drummer Joe Bradley, who’d been with the band nearly as long as Swilley and Alexander, and who’d played an integral role, including serving as main vocalist on what became the band’s de facto anthem, “Bad Kids.”
As such, that fan favorite has also been dropped from the live shows. “We kind of stopped doing that one because Joe left,” says Alexander. “We might try and bring it back because it’s such a big song for us — it’s kind of our biggest hit.” Adds Swilley, who provided the “response” to Bradley’s “call” on the song, “That’s a hard one to sing. I would feel weird without Joe singing it.”
Still, Black Lips have more than enough bangers to fill several set lists. Their live shows are still rowdy and raucous affairs, if not quite as scabrous as when I first saw them more than a decade ago, and with the addition of new drummer Oakley Munson and the charming, exotic presence of saxophonist and backing vocalist Zumi Rosow, there’s a undeniable new energy to the lineup.
A band that moved into Sean Lennon’s upstate New York studio in 2016 with no new songs, no record deal and no drummer emerged from the experience with a remarkable 18-track record and seems to be enjoying a new renaissance-in-progress, whatever the hiccups. “I mean, in a way it kind of opened up things to new possibilities now,” says Alexander. “Because we had like a structure there, and it kind of broke that up.”
While Black Lips have never been an overtly political band, Black Keys’ reflexive impulse has always been to mess with genres, poke at sacred cows and flirt with taboos. There was “Noc-a-Homa” on 2011’s Arabia Mountain, which Swilley wrote as an homage to the Atlanta Braves’ original Native American “mascot”, who was dropped by the team, according to Swilley, “for PC reasons.” “I liked him, and I hate how the Braves dumped him.”
On Satan’s Graffiti, there’s “Wayne”, about Atlanta’s Wayne Williams, convicted in 1981 of the murder of two men and implicated in the deaths of many more children — allegations never proven. “I think a ton of crimes got dumped onto him,” says Swilley. “But he definitely killed someone, and deserves to be in jail. The song is a completely neutral observation. We’re not weighing in pro or negative.”
And then there’s recent single “Crystal Night,” which employs the Holocaust as the backdrop to a Spector-ish tune of broken romance, and comes complete with a fractured-prom-night video. “I thought, ‘What’s the most tragic way for two lovers to have to be broken apart?’ And I watch a lot of war documentaries, and thought, ‘That would be absolutely heartbreaking.’”
It could be potentially controversial, as well, particularly in the more watchful social media world of 2017, an environment with which the Lips find themselves increasingly at odds. “We came up in a world where punk rock is supposed to be rude and offensive and that’s been a real challenge for us, honestly,” says Alexander. “You know, I don’t want to come off like a bigot and there’s been times when me and Jared have been accused of that kind of stuff. But at the same time, it’s been stifling when I just want to say whatever the fuck I want.”
Next on Black Lips’ agenda is another curve ball — a country album. The band has only recorded one song for it so far, but Swilley has paid for studio time to do another three. “I’m really excited,” exclaims Alexander, adding that the band hopes to do a month-long residency in Nashville and land a spot on Goldenvoice’s twangy sister festival to Coachella, Stagecoach. And while there’s apparently nothing ironic about their intentions, no one will confuse their music for Toby Keith: The band hopes to take a page from country music’s more progressive past.
“I think we’re gonna try to highlight some underappreciated aspects of country,” he says. “Like in the early ’60s, it was kind of the innovative music form. They were using fuzz guitars and talk boxes before anybody in rock or funk or soul was, using special effects and reverbs and kind of experimental stuff was happening.”
And culturally, Alexander and Swilley point to the success of Charley Pride, one of country’s preeminent black artists, and genre-mashers like Joe Tex’s 1968 Soul Country and soul man The Mighty Hannibal — another Atlantan — as evidence that country isn’t as one-dimensional or uniracial as it’s often perceived.
Black Lips keep on keepin’ on. After 18 years together that have included the tragic death of original guitarist Ben Eberbaugh in a 2002 car crash, multiple personnel changes and too many pronouncements that “this will be the record that really breaks them” to count, Swilley and Alexander grind it out as reliably fun, inventive, provocative and proud standard-bearers of their beloved ATL. On 2011’s Arabia Mountain (produced by Mark Ronson) and 2014’s Underneath the Rainbow, they leaned toward a cleaner, cheeky pop sound — but now seem less encumbered by concerns of “accessibility”.
“I feel like we tried to a little bit of a commercial thing, and it went somewhere, but only so far,” says Alexander. “So this time, it’s like, we felt like didn’t have to cater to anything like that. Kind of like, ‘Oh, we tried that.’”
“I’ve been trying to make every [record] ‘The big one’,” adds Swilley. “It’s funny how some people interpret it, cause I just always want to put out the best songs. This one actually, I was like, ‘Man, this is gonna be a hit.’ And it wasn’t a dud, it wasn’t a miss.”
Even tested by their recent disruptions, with nearly two decades in the game Alexander insists the pair has no plans to hang it up. “I think once you get in a groove, it’s like we’re unstoppable,” he says. “Everything bad that would break up a band, we already know, and it’s already happened, and it hasn’t broken us up. So, I kind of feel like we’re invincible now.”
Black Lips play their final two dates with Kesha Monday Oct. 9 and Tuesday Oct. 10 in New York. Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art? is out now on VICE.