Interview: New Black Lips Album, 'Underneath The Rainbow' The Georgia rockers have endured high school expulsion, the death of a bandmate and countless other challenges — and soldiered on. Kelly McEvers speaks with founders Cole Alexander and Jared Swilley.

'We Like Struggle': Black Lips On The Will To Entertain

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Again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.


MCEVERS: The story of the band Black Lips reads kind of like a trashy young adult novel. The two founders were kicked out of high school; another band member was killed just before their debut album. They did outrageous stuff at shows. There was pee and vomit and blood and making out with each other, stuff that got them banned from more than a few clubs. Yet after 15 years, they're still at it. At this point, they've played six different continents and picked up fans around the world.


BLACK LIPS: (Singing) But as long as you're just clean, then it's all good. We're hanging on a broken T-bird hood. We'll drive, drive buddy...

MCEVERS: This is the lead track off the new album by Black Lips, called "Underneath the Rainbow." The band takes '50s rockabilly and '60s garage rock and makes it into something dark, even a little dangerous.

COLE ALEXANDER: I feel like we were always trying to find the roots of punk rock.

MCEVERS: That's guitarist Cole Alexander. He and bassist Jared Swilley started the band when they were in middle school, in Georgia.

JARED SWILLEY: And we weren't really a band when we started. We would just make fake fliers and - we made jackets. But we were a concept first. We were the Renegades and we all - we were trying to grow rat tails. And we all wore our jean jackets that said Renegades on the back. And we were going to cut holes in our collars, for the rat tails to go through. And we all wore American flag Chuck Taylors.

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. But after the Columbine shooting, I kind - we kind of felt like they were trying to get rid of like, any strange, subculture kids.

SWILLEY: Yeah. The year after Columbine, like, that next year, so many - it was like a zero tolerance policy. So it was just like minor infractions. The Renegades were a little too tough for that school.

ALEXANDER: Yeah. But being kicked out kind of gave us motivation. My mom was like, you have to get a job now. And the job sucked. I was washing dishes, and I was kind of miserable. So that drove us to work harder at being, like, a band and getting on the road and touring.


BLACK LIPS: (Singing) Sitting in the classroom, waiting for the teacher's hand to lead us in the pledge of allegiance, to make us understand. But we'd rather kick the legs out of the chair and watch them fall 'cause there's no time for her to make the call...

ALEXANDER: So when we first started, we were so bad, so we had to make up for it by learning the entertainment side. So we'd put on a really good show, and we'd study, like, James Brown and all these entertainers. And we're very theatrical. We would use shock tactics. Like, we would like, kiss each other while we were playing, and stuff. And that entertained the crowd for the couple years while we learned our instruments.


MCEVERS: I love that. I also love that one of your new songs -"Make You Mine" - was written with a guy from a heavy metal band, Mastodon.

ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah.

MCEVERS: But then the song sounds like Buddy Holly or Eddie Cochran, or something like that.


BLACK LIPS: (Singing) Waking up, and hit the ground running...

SWILLEY: We were just, like, making demos in Atlanta, and Brent just showed up at the studio every single day and was hanging out. So we just told him, like, you have to write like, a guitar line or something.

ALEXANDER: Yeah. We opened up for his metal band Mastodon, and their audience didn't really like us too much, I don't think.

SWILLEY: Yeah, we got booed.

MCEVERS: Really?


SWILLEY: The kids were, like, shooting us the middle finger and telling us to stop playing.

ALEXANDER: There are divisions in subcultures, you know.


ALEXANDER: People get sectionalized.

MCEVERS: Don't be crossing those lines.

ALEXANDER: The funny thing is, our crowd will throw beers at us, but it's in a loving way. But I could tell with the way that they threw them, it felt not as loving.

SWILLEY: It was hateful.


BLACK LIPS: (Singing) It's only 10 more miles, and I'm coming on home tonight. Gonna make you mine...

MCEVERS: I'm speaking with Cole Alexander and Jared Swilley, from the band Black Lips. Their new album is called "Underneath the Rainbow." I need to ask you about, you know, an intense part of your history.


MCEVERS: I know that a band mate of yours was killed when the band was first kind of starting to get noticed - Ben Eberbaugh.


MCEVERS: How close did you guys come to just kind of dissolving the band and calling the whole thing off, at that point?

ALEXANDER: Not very close at all.

SWILLEY: I don't think we ever even considered it. It was on the eve of the release of our first album, and we were doing our first tour. But, I mean, we went to his parents' house immediately that day, and one of the first things they said was to keep going on the tour.

And then all these people - it was kind of crazy because all these people had come in from - you know, all the kids that were away at college, or had moved to New York, all came in. So after the funeral, we had like, a three- or four-van caravan; and like, 40 of us, like, went on the whole tour.

MCEVERS: Wow. And like, suddenly the tour became like a funeral parade, procession, yeah.

ALEXANDER: Yeah. It was kind of therapeutic, though. Like, songs he helped us write, we got to play every night. So yeah, it felt healing.


MCEVERS: It seems like you guys are pretty booked this summer, you know, playing the U.S. and Europe. You guys have also toured other, like, places. I want to hear about some of the most interesting places you've played.

SWILLEY: Our last international trip was our tour of the Middle East. I'm still kind of surprised still that we did it at all because it started as a joke, kind of.

MCEVERS: Really?

SWILLEY: We just kept saying like in interviews and to people, like, we want to be the first band to play in Iraq outside of the green zone. And finally, we met a guy that was like, oh, I could probably do that.


ALEXANDER: And then when it started happening, I started to get scared because, you know, the Arab Spring was happening. We were going to Cairo, and they were throwing, like, rocks at the embassy and, like, burning the flag, like, outside. We found out that was just, like, soccer hooligans.

SWILLEY: Actually, there was no element of danger...

ALEXANDER: That was the surprising thing.

SWILLEY: all, at any point.

MCEVERS: So tell me about that show. Where did you - I was in Iraq then. Had I known, I would've gone. But where did you play?

SWILLEY: We played in (unintelligible). So, I mean, it's like - I mean, that's a completely different Iraq then if you go anywhere north Iraq.

MCEVERS: Northern.

ALEXANDER: Yeah, the Kurdish people are more friendly to the Americans.

SWILLEY: But there was no equipment, so we just had our guitars, and we just had to plug straight into the PA. And Joe, our drummer, had to play like buckets and his suitcase, and stuff.


SWILLEY: It was like, mostly families. There were some teenagers...

ALEXANDER: Like, half of the old people - like, just walked out when we started playing. But the young kids stuck around, so...

MCEVERS: Really? What made them walk out?

ALEXANDER: I don't think they like rock 'n' roll.

SWILLEY: Well, they really just didn't...

MCEVERS: Rock 'n' roll, OK.

SWILLEY: They were just like, what is this? This is stupid. This sounds bad.

ALEXANDER: Honestly, some of the...

SWILLEY: This makes my ears hurt.

ALEXANDER: ...some of the kids had never seen a rock 'n' roll show before. And that was very exciting for me. It felt like, heartwarming.

SWILLEY: Like, when we played in Alexandria, Egypt, we were playing at a sushi restaurant and I just assumed nobody was going to come. But, like, all at once, like, a hundred teenagers came. And they were all - they all had their skateboards. And most of them - or the ones I talked to said they'd never been to a rock 'n' roll concert before. And they were, like, wanting to get into it and were dancing. But you could tell they were just figuring it out. It was like, whoa these - we invented punk to these kids.

MCEVERS: Globalizing punk, with you guys at the vanguard. That's Cole Alexander and Jared Swilley, from the band Black Lips. Their new album is called "Underneath the Rainbow." Guys, thanks.

ALEXANDER: Thank you so much.

SWILLEY: Thank you, Kelly.


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