The story of Black Lips reads kind of like a trashy young adult novel. The band's two founders were kicked out of high school; another band member was killed just before their debut album was released. They did outrageous stuff at shows — there was pee, vomit, blood, and making out with each other on stage — and they got banned from more than a few clubs in the process. Yet after 15 years, they're still at it, having played on six continents and picked up fans around the world.
Black Lips' latest album, Underneath the Rainbow, mines '50s rockabilly and '60s garage rock and twists it into something darker, even a little dangerous. Guitarist Cole Alexander and bassist Jared Swilley, who started the band as middle-schoolers in Georgia, spoke with NPR's Kelly McEvers about the appeal of abrasive music, the perils of looking "strange" as a teen in the late '90s, and why being in a band can be an effective way to cope with loss. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
KELLY MCEVERS: Jared, you told Spin magazine that this new album is the result of a really rough year. Can you tell us what happened and how that roughness made it into the music?
JARED SWILLEY: It wasn't really all that rough. I mean, it's rough for everybody out there; life's just rough. We like when things are hard for us. We like struggle.
MCEVERS: You lost some friends. Not to belittle your experience or anybody else's experience, but that sounds kind of rough. You write songs about things that have happened, and they're not always pretty, pleasant, happy rainbow things.
SWILLEY: Yeah, but they happened, and if you can bring something positive out of that, like making a song about it, then it's like, "Well, at least I took something from this." You learn a little bit, and you get a little negative art that you can yell in people's faces every night.
MCEVERS: Is it hard to perform those songs sometimes?
SWILLEY: No, I think it gives you more drive and passion to do it.
COLE ALEXANDER: Yeah. We had a song about a friend who died, and when I would sing it, it would feel therapeutic or whatever. Sometimes I might get a little choked up, but it felt good.
MCEVERS: When I listen to your music, I think about what The Cramps were doing back in the '80s, or even The Stooges before that. You know, they took garage rock of the '60s and made it something kind of ... darker, I guess. Is that something you guys were trying to do?
ALEXANDER: I feel like we were always trying to find the roots of punk rock, and I feel like The Cramps definitely tapped into that. They were going to the '50s and '60s and finding prototypes of what punk rock became.
SWILLEY: They, along with labels like Norton Records, dug through all these record crates and just found the scuzziest and most primitive stuff you could find — these weird songs that they were digging up and rehashing and putting a modern punk take on.
MCEVERS: What's one of the scuzziest records from the '50s and '60s that you like?
SWILLEY: I like Hasil Adkins. Like, he's this one-man band guy from West Virginia, and he actually thought that he was gonna make it. All of his songs about, like, cutting girls' heads off and eating hot dogs, just really bizarre, and he literally didn't think there was anything wrong with that. He would send letters to Johnny Cash and Elvis and RCA and all this stuff, and they sent him back letters ...
ALEXANDER: ... of rejection. Another scuzzy record is from 1965 in Peru. There was a band called Los Saicos, and they had a song called "Demolition", which is about blowing up the train station. It's actually, like, a terrorist-themed song, and they just scream and they scream — but it was a big hit in Peru. To put out records like that in such a conservative time, when The Beatles were considered too much in certain circles, that took a rebel. You had to be truly demented back then.
MCEVERS: You guys have talked about how you weren't very good when you first started out.
ALEXANDER: Oh, we were horrible.
MCEVERS: It made me wonder: Is it OK for punk bands to get better at making music? You think about The Ramones and their later albums; people didn't like them as much as they got better.
SWILLEY: As long as you do it tastefully. You can get better as long as you do it gracefully.
MCEVERS: (Laughing) What do you mean?
SWILLEY: Well, don't forget what made you cool in the first place.
ALEXANDER: There are some very talented punk rock musicians, very intricate with their guitar parts, but yeah, it's how you do it. Although a lot of times my favorite bands are, like, 15-year-old kids who don't know how to play, and they tend to stumble into stuff by accident because they don't know what they're doing. If you're too trained, you might just kind of do what everybody else has taught you to do.
MCEVERS: Right, you might start sounding the way you think you're supposed to sound.
SWILLEY: So many cool songs have just come from accidents, and someone who's better at their instrument or more well-versed in songwriting and stuff will be like, "Oh, I can't do that because that's not how you're supposed to do it."
ALEXANDER: When we first started, we were so bad, so we had to make up for it by learning the entertainment side. We'd study James Brown and all these entertainers, and we were very theatrical. We would use shock tactics — like, we would kiss each other while we were playing and stuff. And that entertained the crowd for a couple years while we learned our instruments.
MCEVERS: I know the two of you go way back. When exactly did you start the band?
SWILLEY: I was probably in eighth grade, and Cole was in ninth grade. We were The Renegades. We weren't really a band when we started; we would just make fake flyers. We tried to grow rat tails, we all wore jean jackets that said "Renegades" on the back, and we all wore American flag Chuck Taylors. We were going to cut holes in our collars for the rat tails to go through. We were a concept first.
ALEXANDER: Jared had a school project — you had to make some sort of creative thing. So we came up with that band. I had no idea that would end up being our career.
MCEVERS: And you guys got kicked out of school at some point?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, we got kicked out. We chronically misbehaved, but it was petty. After the Columbine shooting, we kind of felt like they were trying to get rid of any strange, subculture kids. They, like, troubleshot the subculture. They'd end up kicking you out for being tardy.
SWILLEY: I never considered myself unruly at school at all. I mostly minded my own business, but I think they couldn't tell the difference between, "Oh, he has a leather jacket. He must be ..."
MCEVERS: A murderer?
SWILLEY: Yeah. But we had a big crew; we weren't antisocial at all. We hung out with football players and cheerleaders and nerds, pretty much everyone.
MCEVERS: But somebody decided at some point, The Renegades had to go.
SWILLEY: Yeah, The Renegades were a little too tough for that school. It was really silly.
ALEXANDER: Being kicked out kind of gave us motivation. My mom was like, "You have to get a job now." The job sucked — I was washing dishes, and I was kind of miserable. So that drove us to work harder at being a band and getting on the road and touring.
SWILLEY: And everyone, including our teachers, told us, "You're gonna be pumping gas. You're not going to do anything with your life. This band thing is stupid." So for the first few years, it was kind of to prove them wrong.
MCEVERS: I need to ask you about an intense part of your history. I know that a bandmate of yours, Ben Eberbaugh, was killed right around when the band was first starting to get noticed. How close did you guys come to just dissolving the band at that point?
ALEXANDER: Not very close at all.
SWILLEY: I don't think we ever considered it. It was on the eve of the release of our first album, and we were doing our first tour. We went to his parents' house immediately that day, and one of the first things they said was to keep going. We just cancelled the first few dates to deal with the stuff at home.
ALEXANDER: We felt like he was so excited about doing the tour, it would almost have been like a letdown for him if we didn't continue doing what we liked and loved.
SWILLEY: It was kind of crazy because all these friends that were away at college or had moved to New York all came in for the funeral, and a lot of them didn't get return tickets. So we had like a three- or four-van caravan, and like 40 of us went on the whole tour. We were dropping people off all along the way.
MCEVERS: Wow. So the tour became like a funeral procession.
ALEXANDER: It was kind of therapeutic: These songs he helped us write, we got to play every night. So yeah, it felt healing.
SWILLEY: And the whole gang was there. We had to play as a three-piece, and if it had just been the three of us on tour, it would have been kind of lonely. But we had all of our crew and our childhood friends and stuff.
MCEVERS: I love that one of your new songs, "Make You Mine," was written with a guy from a heavy metal band, Brent Hinds from Mastodon — but then the song sounds like Buddy Holly or Eddie Cochran or something like that. What's up with that song?
SWILLEY: Ian [Saint Pé] wrote it, our other guitar player. We were making demos in Atlanta, and Brent from Mastodon was just showing up at the studio every single day and hanging out. We told him, "You have to write a guitar line or something," so he just went in there. He's in a heavy metal band and stuff, but he likes a lot of the same music that we do — a lot of country music and rockabilly.
ALEXANDER: We did open up for Mastodon, and their audience didn't like us too much, I don't think.
SWILLEY: Yeah, we got booed.
SWILLEY: Yeah. Kids were shooting us the middle finger and telling us to stop playing.
ALEXANDER: The funny thing is, our own crowd will throw beers at us, but it's in a loving way. But I could tell, the way that they threw them, it felt not as loving.
SWILLEY: We just kept doing our thing because I could see my mom and Cole's mom up in the balcony, and I was just like, "You know what? We're just doing this for y'all."
MCEVERS: Jared, back in 2010, your dad was a guest on this program. He's a bishop at Church in the Now outside of Atlanta, and when we talked to him, he had just announced to his congregation that he was gay. He told us about calling you while you were on tour in Europe, and how immediately supportive you were.
SWILLEY: Yeah, I mean, I was a grown-up. That doesn't bother me at all, if that makes him happy — and he's been happier than he ever has, than I've ever seen him. It takes a lot of balls to come out, and he comes from a pretty famous preaching dynasty in the South, so he lost a lot of friends.
My grandpa got excommunicated from the church for not denouncing him publicly. Things for the most part are back to normal now, but there's a lot of people, even family members, that won't talk to him. I thought it was brave. It was tough that he did it, so I was really happy for him.
MCEVERS: Have you guys ever gotten in trouble with local authorities or club owners for what you do on stage?
SWILLEY: We were banned from a lot of clubs when we first started going around. Since we started drawing crowds, I think every single one of our more significant bans has since been rescinded, and they like us now.
ALEXANDER: We learned a valuable lesson in India when we played there, where we kind of got a little too rowdy, and the promoter told us he thought the police were called and that we could go to jail for indecency. He wanted us to flee the jurisdiction of the state, and we actually left the country out of fear of going to jail. So now we try to pick our battles a little better.