Lasting for 20 years in any career is an accomplishment. Enduring that long in the music business — a cannibalistic industry in which nearly 90 percent of the profits go to corporations — is cause for celebration. Making it two decades while playing in a band known for making offhand comments and engaging in outrageous onstage antics is a goddamn fucking miracle.
So, what has been the secret to the longevity of Black Lips, the Atlanta band that started while guitarist Cole Alexander and bassist Jared Swilley were in their teens and which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year?
“There aren’t any other options for us,” says Swilley, whose group co-headlines the Great American Music Hall with Danish rockers Iceage on Friday, Nov. 9. “We don’t have a whole lot of skills other than this, so it’s like music or washing dishes for a living. That’s a pretty good motivator right there.”
Swilley’s no-nonsense answer is true in many ways — it would be difficult to picture the scruffy, mustachioed bass player as a corporate drone — but it also minimizes the talents of the venerable indie band, which is now a five-piece group.
Over the years, Black Lips have morphed effortlessly between transgressive punk, polished power pop, rootsy Americana, trippy psychedelia, and lo-fi garage rock. Along the way, they’ve weathered personal tragedy, some near-disastrous tours, and a fair amount of career uncertainty — most noticeably in the period leading up to their latest album, 2017’s Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art?
Left without a label, and dealing with the departure of two long-time band members — drummer Joe Bradley and guitarist Ian Saint Pé — Swilley said the group seriously considered breaking up, and likely would have, if not for the influence of Sean Lennon, who produced their album.
“We had nowhere really to go at that time. No place to record or anything,” Swilley says. “And he stepped in, got us in the studio, kind of supported us during a tough time. We were at a bit of a crossroads, but we pulled through.”
Refreshed from that experience, Black Lips are now back in their comfort zone, with their latest lineup iteration featuring Alexander and Swilley alongside guitarist Jeff Clarke, drummer Oakley Munson, and saxophone player Zumi Rosow. Swilley says this motley collection of players has an album’s worth of material, much of it recorded in Berlin with fellow Atlantan King Khan and in a studio at Munson’s home in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Reflecting the group’s chameleonic philosophy, the new songs are mostly a “bastardized version of country music,” according to Swilley.
“This is definitely our interpretation of country music,” he says. “No one is going to mistake us for Toby Keith.”
The group is still looking for a label, but Swilley is confident they’ll find someone to put out their record early next year. If the new album is anything like their past efforts, it will feature a combination of irreverent sendoffs and surprisingly heartfelt ballads, the latter of which may come as a surprise to people who only know Black Lips by their reputation.
Although they first gained fame for drunkenly puking and pissing on each other onstage (a practice long since abandoned) and were nearly arrested in India for dropping their drawers during a live performance, Black Lips are more than just impish punks. Swilley and Alexander had to contend with the death of their childhood friend Ben Eberbaugh, a founding member of the group who was killed in a car accident at age 22. In addition, their “spiritual guru,” Benjamin Jay Womack, aka Bobby Ubangi, a fixture of the Atlanta music scene and former bandmate of Swilley, died in 2009 after a bout of lung cancer. The Black Lips catalog is filled with tender shout-outs to their fallen comrades, a level of vulnerability that belies the band’s repute as hedonistic party animals.
“We’ve had a lot of people from our camp pass away over the years, so we are always thinking about them,” says Swilley. “It feels good to play songs about them live. You’re not sobbing, really, but you get this lump in your throat.”
Given his reckless early days, Swilley says he considers himself lucky to be still playing music after all these years. The band is a relentless touring machine, having performed on six continents — and still harboring long-planned dreams of playing a special gig in Antarctica — a lifestyle that would nominally pose a strain on any other group. However, Swilley says the band feels most comfortable on the road, and they have their eyes set on some future gigs in off-the-beaten path locales, such as the Eastern Bloc and South America. If any band can withstand the pitfalls of a few sketchy venues, it’s Black Lips.
Near-arrests in foreign countries, tragic deaths, bad press — the group has overcome it all, making Swilley and Alexander the ultimate indie rock survivors. It has been a tumultuous 20 years, but Black Lips are still standing tall. Just don’t ask them for any sage advice about making it big in show biz.
“We just kind of fly by the seat of our pants,” says Swilley. “I mean, that’s basically the Black Lips philosophy.”
Black Lips with Iceage and Surfbort, Friday, Nov. 9, at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., $25, slimspresents.com