The band on sticking together forever
Artwork by Bradford Cox
Most bands break up. Like post-apocalyptic cockroaches, The Black Lips never have. In 17 years the Black Lips have travelled the world leaving thousands of hungover people in their wake. They lost band members, friends and bosses. They ate out of trash cans. They nearly killed Mark Ronson. Looking past the madness, the late nights, the questionable recording techniques, the robberies and the endless, gruelling touring, what they are left with is a beautiful story of friendship, perseverance and integrity.
This conversation is founding members Jared Swilley and Cole Alexander talking through each album and relaying anecdotes from times when things looked like they were lost. What the feature has become, which wasn’t actually the plan, is a kind of in-depth oral history of the band, right up to their brand new album. It’s really beautiful.
“Ben Eberbaugh, the first guitarist, dies”
Jared: I was 17.
Cole: I would’ve been 18, I guess. We originally started as three-piece. It was Joe Bradley, Jared and me. We used to play in my basement and garages and stuff. Ben actually joined a little bit later. He was an older kid, so I was kind of intimidated – or flattered – when he wanted to watch our practices. I think we let him play on a song and then it just grew out of that. It was good because he was older, had a car, and he was also a guitar buff and would make his own custom guitars and stuff so he had tons of equipment. He helped support us and nurture us because he knew how to play his instruments way better than we did. Before that, we were just trying to figure out how to even play. But he saw something in us.
Jared: And he was the biggest guy, so he was kind of our bodyguard too.
Cole: Yeah! We were small guys. He used to be a jock when he was younger. I think his freshman year in high school he was on the baseball team, but then flipped and went on the dark side and went punk rock.
Jared: He made us. It was our first step into being professional. We had song structures with a beginning and an end. Before it was just one-part songs like maybe performance art, or a really bad jam band. We had just finished our first record. We got signed to Bomp! Records, we had the album out and we had a whole East Coast tour booked and then... Well, I was walking to work one day and it was 6am, because Cole, Ben and I all worked at this diner, and the mom of my girlfriend at the time was driving down the street and picked me up and told me that Ben had been killed in a car accident the night before. We were set to go on tour two days from then.
Cole: There was someone driving the wrong way on the highway late at night, without their lights on, so he didn't see it coming. It was really devastating for us. I mean, we were all so excited about going on tour. I remember working at the restaurant and I was pretty much washing the dishes with my tears. We didn't really miss a beat though. We just did [the tour] anyway because we felt like we would've let him down if we didn't do this thing he was so excited about. It was really painful for us, but we also felt like we were doing his will, in a way, kind of keeping his memory alive a little bit.
Jared: I think his dad said something like, “I'd be bummed if you guys didn't go on the tour. You should do it.”
Cole: We still play songs we wrote with him. Sometimes I think about how things would have been different had he been around, but it's really hard to even imagine. Ben always really wanted to do a European tour. I remember him always saying that once we got our first European tour, his parents might invite him over for dinner and he could reject their offer, like: “Oh! I'm sorry I can't come to dinner, mom, I'm going to be in Paris this weekend.” I always think about that every time we tour Europe.
“Our recording machine blew up and had to wing it”
Jared: We were on a very tight budget. I think Bomp! sent us 500 dollars to record the record, which is, I mean…that's nothing. So we had a friend who had an 8-track and he was like; “Oh, I'll record you guys.” But then halfway through the recording his machine broke, fried everything.
Cole: I don't even know if Pro Tools was out yet back then, but we were able to transfer some of the stuff and finish it on digital maybe...
Jared: That's why that album sounds so insane, because it was really poorly recorded. And that was not on purpose. We were trying to make it sound like Van Halen or something.
Cole: We'd get two ghetto blasters and record, let's say, drums and bass into one, and then we'd press rewind and then press play and I was playing out of the speaker into the next one. We might be playing guitar and singing out loud, so it would go through the air and then pick up that track. I call it external two-track recording. It actually gives it a really cool sound, but it was just out of necessity that we were recording in such a primitive, crude fashion. It's our most low fidelity record too, but that ended up becoming a trendy thing a couple of years later, so we were at a good time actually to do that. But, yeah, it sounds like it was recorded in a garbage can underwater.
Jared: It was very unprofessional, but we worked really hard on it. At that time I was so naïve I was like; “This is a really professional-sounding recording.”
Cole: I think, at the end of the first album us and Ben had met Bradford Cox and he ended up doing the album cover for the first album, but he ended up recording the second album. It was kind of the birth of a little scene we were developing in Atlanta, because Bradford ended up starting a band called Deerhunter around that time too.
“We had to live off of food from the trash and homeless shelters until Larry Hardy found out”
Jared: After Bomp! we heard about this label In The Red. I think we just cold emailed Larry Hardy that ran it and said we would really appreciate it if you put out our next record, and he said yes.
Cole: Greg Shaw at Bomp! was kind of like our mentor, but he died. It was a good time to maybe move on, to get more budget and stuff. I remember us playing that Horizontal Actions festival in Chicago. It was half porno, half punk rock and garage rock and I remember it being a really big deal. It was kind of the crème de la de crème of bands in the world we were in. I think we opened for Lost Sounds, so we met Jay Reatard.
Jared: Speaking of Jay Reatard – not to talk trash on the dead, he'd probably think it was funny – we were living in the same building in Atlanta and he was doing his first solo record, and he heard that Larry from In The Red had agreed to take us on. So Jay immediately calls up Larry and tells him not to sign us because we were thieves.
Cole: Larry went cold on us for a while. I remember he wasn't responding. We were like: “what the fuck?”
Jared: But he was asking people: “Are these guys going to take my advance for the recording thing and just…”
Cole: ...Buy drugs?
Jared: Yeah and everyone was like, “No, no, that's not them.” But, yeah, Jay tried to block us from getting on In The Red.
Cole: We had a friendly rivalry with Jay. Well, it was a serious rivalry, but it ended up becoming a brotherly love/hate thing. We ended up becoming really good friends with him, but the rivalry was good. It kept us sharp and wanting to do better.
Jared: We stopped working at the diner and went out to LA to record the record. Which was a good idea, on paper, but you can't buy things if you don't have any money. So we were in the studio recording and it was a wonderful studio, but then the engineer spotted us... well, basically we were eating out of a trash can by this Mexican restaurant.
Cole: He saw us doing that.
Jared: He ratted us out to Larry, like, “Hey Larry! These guys are literally eating garbage.” Then Larry felt really bad and he came to the studio the next day and gave us a per diem for every day so we could eat.
Cole: Yeah, he went from thinking we were going to steal from him to seeing we were eating out of the trash can and giving us some extra dough to eat with. I remember we would busk on the street. It was pretty disheartening at that time. I remember traveling, driving hours and hours, with barely enough money to put gas in the tank. Then after driving all day we'd get to, like, Fort Collins, Colorado and there'd be four people there. It's like what are you even doing this for? Nobody's there. We went to some homeless shelters to eat.
Jared: It was self-imposed poverty. We have families that love us.
Cole: We were doing what we wanted to do. I remember, too, I don't like sweets a lot, there was a sweet pie and I did say “I don't want to eat that.” And I was-
Jared: No, that was pineapple on the ham.
Cole: Oh yeah. And I didn't eat the pineapple and there were some real bums in there and that was super insulting to not eat the pineapple. They were like, “Yo, you got to take this seriously.” So I remember forcing it down, feeling bad, I didn't mean to waste it. For the first four or five tours, we'd all save up about 200 bucks each and at the end of the tour we'd all lost all of our 200 bucks each. So we were losing close to a grand a tour. And then you had to come back and pay rent and not have made any money at work, so it was a real struggle.
Jared: Yeah, we called these the battle days. We had this thing, it was called voltromode, where...okay here's classic voltromode: you'd get an empty pack of cigarettes and you'd walk around the club, ask everyone you see for a cigarette, and you'd have a full pack of cigarettes. Or here's another trick, if you see a couple out on a date, you hang out outside the restaurant and when they have their leftovers coming out, the guy wants to look like a hero and you do this Charles Dickens thing, you're like, “Sir, are you going to finish that?” And it's yours every time. That's voltromode.
Cole: Once you got into voltromode you knew you were going to eat, you'd find a way. You'd start to get smart too. Before a tour, to help us out, this sound guy called five or six different fast food restaurants and screamed fake complaints, like, “Taco Bell I found these hairs in my fucking taco!” and then they were like, “Oh, we're so sorry.” And they would send him these gift certificates. So before we took off for tour we had 50 to 75 dollars worth of gift certificates from him.
“Got super famous and became indentured servants in England”
Cole: I don't think we really started making money until we got Dave Kaplan, our booking agent. That's when we kind of got our first critical acclaim on any album reviews. We started getting positive reviews in publications nationally. We were really surprised when all of a sudden people really liked our record. We were kind of embarrassed too. And Vice, I remember, got us PR, which we'd never had before.
So suddenly we're playing Conan O'Brien's show and getting songs in movies like 500 Days of Summer. Radiohead's management in England, ATC, even picked us up. Traditionally in the record industry they used to sink tons of money in the bands and the band would owe the record company money, even if they made good money. But at the same time record sales were just plummeting, it was like the Great Depression of record sales because of the advent of the internet downloading culture, so it was a tough time.
But I've got to give it to ATC, as much as they were sinking money while we were being indentured servants because we weren't making any, they were really getting us out there. I remember having radio play in England. Just us being on the charts was mind-blowing. I never thought I'd see the day.
Jared: It was a good learning experience. We had blindly signed anything. Basically, they pumped a bunch of money into us that we would never be able to recoup, so they worked us real hard. We all lived in The Columbia Hotel together for about a year.
Cole: Yeah, Led Zeppelin used to hang out there back in the day, but by this point it was just decrepit and old.
Jared: We all lived in this one room and there were four beds. It was like an orphanage. We'd start the day every morning at 7am and you'd go to do three radio sessions, then an in-store, and then a show that night. And then the next day you sit at a pub and do nine hours straight of press, interview after interview. And we made zero dollars. I mean, they gave us a stipend. There was money to eat and they paid for our flights and we could live. But at that time we were like; “Man, we're living large!” They'd pick up your bar tab.
Cole: As long as we were on tour busting our ass, we had food and a roof over our head.
Jared: But it got stressful at that point.
Cole: Yeah. We started to crack a little bit.
Jared: I started to even crack a little bit because we were doingfour shows a day and it was just nonstop. Like who tours England for three months straight? But the idea of quitting never even came up. It was discouraging because you'd be in Europe for six months and you'd come home with zero dollars. But we all lived in one room in one apartment which three of us shared. Our room was 200 bucks. Split three ways, that's not bad.
Cole: We were on the way up! We played a 1000-seat venue at one point. It was a dream come true to get to just to play your stuff in front of that many people. We started to get to play big festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, yeah. Those were really massive crowds. That's just really exciting.
“Our studio got robbed and we caught the guy who did it”
Jared: We were doing well, things were starting to pick up, but we decided to make our own budget studio. I think we bought it off of some Greek guy. He was kind of a loser, I guess, and he was like, “Oh, I'm going to become a record producer!” And so his parents just bought him a full studio and then he lost interest because he's a loser, and so we just bought it off the guy's dad.
Songs like Bad Kids were super poppy and got in all these movies like 500 Days of Summer, but we felt like we'd gone away a little bit from our lo-fi just trashy punk rock roots and we wanted to go back to basics. We were sharing it with a bunch of people and the idea was that other bands could rent it from us.
But when it actually happened all these bands would come and record and no one ever paid us. We'd be like; “It'd be awesome if you all could throw us some dough,” but I'm not going to be a rent collector. Then that led to tons of people being in and out and this junkie robbed us. Took all the equipment, or a bunch of stuff, and Deerhunter's equipment too.
Cole: I remember driving by a pawn shop downtown and I was like; “that looks like the guitar I haven't seen in a while...” So I went in and was like, “That's my guitar.” And they were like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” Because I'm sure they get that all the time at pawn shops. And I was like, “I demand to know who sold you this!” And they were like, “We legally can't tell you. You'll have to file a police report or something.” Somehow, though, I just kept bitching and said I was going to make a police report and then ended up giving me the name and I figured out who it was. And, yeah, I remember he came down with his dad, all strung out, begging for forgiveness and gave me my guitar back.
Jared: That's way better than beating someone up or calling the police, you call their dad. I don't even care about the money, he'll never live that one down.
“Got the world’s number one producer and almost killed him”
Jared: We just got a call from our label, Vice, and they said Mark Ronson wants to produce the record and he's a very successful guy.
Cole: He’d worked with all kinds of huge people like Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, Q-Tip and what's her name? Miley Cyrus. He did a really great job for being in the pop world and then bridging the gap with this lo-fi garage punk world. He brought out the best in us.
Jared: We were partying a lot. That's why it's hard to record in New York City because you end up...Well, I went out with his brother one night and we didn't go to sleep and I was trying to hide it so I took a shower and tucked in my shirt and got the New York Times and went to Mark's house and knocked on the door, like: “Hey Mark. I'm ready to go to the studio!” And he's like, “I know what you did last night. You haven't gone to sleep.” Called me on it. One night we wanted to celebrate making this one song called Raw Meat, so we went to this Japanese place and we all ate raw liver. And I guess his stomach didn't take to it and he ended up, well, I think his fever got into well into the hundreds, to the point where if you walked into his room you could smell sickness. He was turning green. I think we had to call his mom?
Cole: You can die if your fever stays at 105 too long. He was a couple of degrees off of being in the brain damage zone so we sent him to the hospital, and then we were like, “We better tell his family that he's in the hospital in case anything happens.” I felt really bad. He's probably used to these really nice recording sessions and here he is, with us, deathly ill and we all had food poisoning. But he was such a great sport. And to this day it was such a great experience.
“Band softly dissolved and almost stopped”
Jared: I think we just got stagnant. We got in a little bit of a rut. I think we had maybe hit 30 by that point.
Cole: We were starting to grow up a little bit. I think Ian ended up getting married. Our directions in life were starting to maybe change. I think Joe, our drummer, got into certain things and, yeah, we were trying to find new ways to keep it together. After Good Bad Not Evil we had to fulfill certain amounts of record sales and stuff and at the end of the day we're not a pop band. You can only take it so far with the way we sound, we’re still a lo-fi, sloppy punk band at the end of the day.
Jared: Our contract was up with Vice. We didn't even have a label. That was a low point. It was just me and Cole left.
Cole: Ian had been really important, like I said, to fill that void of Ben. He was an older guy who really knew how to play his instrument and took a lot of pride in his craft. When he moved on we had to really stop and take notice of where we were going to go with this.
“Went to Sean Lennon’s house with half a band and no songs”
Jared: Sean Lennon came in and saved the day. We didn't have any financial backing to make a record. Cole had done some recording up at Sean's place and he offered his services. So we all just flew to Sean Lennon's house with half of a band and really not very much written at all.
Cole: Sean really saved us. He kind of helped us rebuild from scratch and then we kind of refound ourselves. And now I'm the happiest I've ever been, musically, with where we're at now.
Jared: We basically just moved into his house. We've never really done a record where we pretty much wrote it at the studio. It was almost like group therapy going up there because we were on this really beautiful mountain, far away from society or distractions and stuff. He was like a hero.
Cole: We enjoyed the Mark Ronson experience and wanted to keep embracing it. So on this record we worked with Sean who also brought Saul, this guy from Fat White Family – who are like our brother band from England basically – so that was another outside perspective that was good, because we were wanting to branch out. And then we also brought in Oakley [Munson] and then Zumi [Rosow] joined our band at that time. So it was completely new blood and we had a full-time sax player, which was really cool.
Jared: New blood.
Cole: Sean was made to play music. His parents are musicians, so from the time he was little he was being classically trained and learning from the finest role models. David Bowie would come over to his fucking house and drop him off at school. He learned from the greats, then we got to learn from him. I remember he suggested we do a Beatles cover and us being baffled at how complex it seemed. I used John Lennon's amp that he used in The Beatles and on Plastic Ono Band, his Fender Bassman. So I feel like John Lennon's spirit was... I feel like this recording session was a blessing from beyond the grave, from Lennon's spirit.
“After 20 years you need to bring some new life into the band”
Cole: The final piece missing was the guitarist. We brought in Jeff Clarke who was in a band called Demon's Claws. He'd written a bunch of songs but didn't have a label at that time to put them out, kind of like where we were a couple of albums before that. So we were like, “Oh, these songs would be great.” We're doing this kind of countryish thing and he had a lot of country songs. He was like the final piece of the current line up, which is my favorite line up.
But now we have all the pieces, I think this could end up being our most prolific period. Some bands I see, like Ty Segall will do two, three albums in a year, and there's always been like two years before we even make one album. I think we just have such a great unit now, that we're going to be able to pump stuff out. Not to knock Underneath The Rainbow – it definitely has its moments and it's kind of sentimental because it's our last one with Joe and Ian – but it's exciting to finally have some new blood. After 20 years you need to bring some new life into the band. You can't do the same thing over and over again.
It's always been kind of hodgepodge and all over the place. In a way, I think it's our most mature record because we had a theme and we actually stuck with it. We've done some of that before, but we've never just stuck with one sound. You can't hide behind a bunch of distorted guitars with country, so we had to step up our lyrics a little bit here. Yeah, I think it's our most mature record.
We started demoing stuff more to develop songs. Because we used to just do it once and that was it, and be like, “I wish we did this or that.” But by doing it, we did it once or even twice, the songs, and found out what we didn't like about it, so by the time that we came in the third time to this Valentine Studios in LA, we really knew what we wanted to do and a clear vision, which we never really had before. So yeah, we spent time developing the songs in a way that was cool.
Jared: We finally got to where we wanted to be, or should've been a while ago. But it takes us time to do things sometimes.
Cole: Some bands are, I've always noticed, are in it to be famous or to make it, and I think we were always in it because this was the kind of music we wanted to make. It was more for ourselves, first and foremost, we were going to do it even if nobody was there.
Jared: I don't even think that was ever a question.
Cole: It's like we wanted success but we weren't going to not play music if we didn't have it. So many bands break up, but it's crazy that we've been together for 20 years. I always liken it to a marriage. Like most people don't stay married these days, but we still stayed married. We're going to drive each other crazy, but you got to learn to not take it personally and not hold on to grudges. Obviously you're going to piss each other off and drive each other crazy, but you have to not take it personally and just learn to, yeah, keep going and work through it. Not get hung up on the little shit for too long.
Interview and recording by Christopher Mosson
Watch · 3:41