Lip service: Black Lips’ own brand of maturity

ONLY THE GOOD DIE YOUNG: Much like the band’s live shows, Black Lips’ records have gotten crisper over time. “We’ve gotten way better,” says bassist Jared Swilley, near right. “Now we just put on a good show.” Photo by Mick Rock
ONLY THE GOOD DIE YOUNG: Much like the band’s live shows, Black Lips’ records have gotten crisper over time. “We’ve gotten way better,” says bassist Jared Swilley, near right. “Now we just put on a good show.” Photo by Mick Rock

By the time they hit the stage at The Orange Peel on Saturday, July 19, Black Lips’ reputation will have preceded them. After all, as the hook from the lead single of March’s Underneath the Rainbow says, “Them boys are wild / Back in the wood.”

Since erupting from the comfortable Atlanta suburb Dunwoody — not exactly the woods, but not far, either — the garage-punk quartet’s built a strong reputation for, well, not really giving a damn about its reputation. Most of the rumors you’ve heard about Black Lips’ notoriously wild live shows —the band’s members have stripped naked while playing gigs; they had to escape from India after kissing each other onstage and being chased by local authorities and promoters; and other, grosser stories involving various bodily fluids — are true, says bassist Jared Swilley.

On the other hand, those stories no longer really represent Black Lips as a band. “If anything, a lot of the early shows and stuff that gets written about from when we were supercrazy or whatever, there weren’t that many people to see that,” Swilley says. “Those were shows when there were 10 people there. So I think people kind of created this weird mythology.”

Black Lips shows are still crazy, but not because of any bad behavior. “We’ve gotten way better,” Swilley says. “Now we just put on a good show.”

Underneath the Rainbow is Black Lips’ seventh record since 2000, meaning the band’s been around for nearly 15 years. So it’s only natural that they’ve mellowed out a bit. “Most of us have mortgages,” Swilley deadpans. “So, you know, that’s pretty mature. I have a bank account. I have a credit card.” (Furthering that point, guitarist Ian Saint Pé left the band just before the start of its current tour. “Ian has a house, a wife and a dog and doesn’t want to deal with a rigorous touring schedule anymore,” Swilley told Atlanta’s Creative Loafing, adding, “He’s not totally out, and might even come into the studio with us again at some point. We’re all still buddies.” Saint Pé’s replacement, Jack Hines, played with Black Lips from 2002-05.)

Much like the band’s live shows, Black Lips’ records, too, have gotten crisper over time — the music is catchier as Swilley and company grow more confident. “I think we’re better at writing songs,” he says. “That’s mature. I wrote a bridge in a couple songs. I didn’t even know what one of those was when we started.”

There’s that word again: mature. Recorded with both Black Keys’ Patrick Carney and Dap-Tone Records all-star Thomas Brenneck (“He puts more passion into it than almost anyone I’ve ever worked with,” Swilley says of Brenneck), Underneath the Rainbow is Black Lips’ cleanest, hookiest record to date. It likely boasts the band’s finest playing: Note the assured strut of “Make You Mine,” the bleary, feral blues crawl of “Boys in the Wood,” the nervy verve of the driving “Dorner Party.”

All of which raises an interesting question: Can a punk band grow up, get better at making music and still be a punk band? “I mean, a lot of my favorite bands come from a punk start. You’re raw and you’re loved,” Swilley says, citing The Clash as a particular example. “The key thing is never forgetting what made you cool in the first place, what made people love you.”

Just because Underneath the Rainbow is spit-polished doesn’t mean it has better manners. Black Lips still sound like the same brash band they’ve always been. Swilley’s smirking “Smiling” recounts a rough night spent in a county lockup. There’s the Cramps-level crass self-gratification ode, “Do the Vibrate.” Opener “Drive-By Buddy” reaffirms the Lips’ Fonzie-esque attitude, with guitarist Cole Alexander belting “We’re hanging on a broken T-Bird hood.”

But even as the embraces their aesthetic, Black Lips are working on pre-empting their notorious image, using scent over sight. The band’s touring with a smell machine that emits a scent of the band’s own design. The idea, Swilley says, is to have a scent for each song, to complete the band’s physiological assault. “We still have a way to go on the technology,” he says. “But we’re getting there. I mean, airplanes sucked when they were first invented, so we just gotta work out the kinks. Eventually, it’s going to be a 5-D experience.”

WHO  Black Lips with Curtis Harding and The Shine Brothers

WHERE  The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net

WHEN  Saturday, July 19, 9 p.m. $15 advance/$18 day of show

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About Patrick Wall
Patrick Wall is a writer based in Charlotte, N.C. He is carbon-based.

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