The Black Lips Climb Arabia Mountain: An Interview

The Black Lips, a self-described “flower punk” quartet from Atlanta have recently released Arabia Mountain, produced by the legendary Mark Ronson. This record finds them rocking out with the same gusto they bring to other records and to their infamously eventful live shows. In this interview with frontman Jared Swilley, we learn why their shows are so infamous, talk about the Congo, and compare oscillating instruments.

ELM: How are you today?

JS: I’m doing great. This is my first day off since April 6. Tonight I’m going to the Magic Castle with my girlfriend, and I just got my suit dry-cleaned.

ELM: Did you say you’re going to the Magic Castle?

JS: You don’t know what the Magic Castle is?

ELM. No, I don’t.

JS: Oh, my God. It’s the most amazing place I’ve ever been. It’s a castle–hold on, I got a package–it’s this castle in Hollywood and Harry Houdini used to hang out there, and Penn and Teller, and that guy that got eaten by the tiger, and all those people used to hang out there. It’s super exclusive. You have to be a magician and have a membership or know someone who’s connected there or be on the guest list. You have dinner first, you wander through the castle and in every room there’s different magicians and shows and weird secrets, and when you get in, you have to walk into this library and walk up to this bookshelf, and the bookshelf opens, just like in the movies.

ELM: Have you been there before?

JS: Yeah, I went there three or four weeks ago when I first got to LA. And somehow my girlfriend got us on the list. It was really magical. There’s no other word to describe it.

ELM: That sounds like a very good day indeed. How’s your tour been going?

JS: Oh, it’s been great. In the past three months, we’ve only had one kind of bad show, but it wasn’t even that bad. It was out in Boise, Idaho.

ELM: What made it bad?

JS: It was a 12OO [person] stadium, and there were maybe 45 people there. And they had about twenty security guards. We couldn’t do anything crazy at all. People were dancing and security was attacking them. They made a barrier and I was like, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ and we tore down the barrier but the kids that were there, the guards started manhandling them, like young kids and girls and stuff. And this one kid that was there hit this huge security guard with a beer and I had to stop playing because I was laughing so hard.

ELM: I hear your live shows are pretty energetic. How would you describe a typical live show, if you have a typical live show.

JS: The only thing that they’re all typical about is we all go crazy at every show when you put as much work into it as we do. It’s fun. The art of entertainment has been lost, I think. Not entirely lost. We’re from Atlanta and there’s a long line of entertainers from there, Little Richard, James Brown, they put on shows. And we’re there to put on a show. And we’re not putting on a show for free. I mean, ten or fifteen bucks in this economy? I want to make it work every cent. That’s my duty. That’s my job. I want it to be energetic and fun and a release from their regular week. A lot of weeks kind of suck sometimes. You have to go to the post office and your boss yells at you and you have to worry about taking exams and shit like that.

ELM:How did growing up in Atlanta affect your musical upbringing?

JS: Well, I grew up in a very Pentecostal, evangelical family. So from a very young age, I was on stage singing gospel music in a mostly black church, so there’s very early influences. Everyone in my family plays music. If you’re from Georgia, lots of people tend to be musical. There’s a long history of musicians in the South. So I was really into gospel and country and fifties rock n’ roll at a very young age, so you get that in you. I think we’re definitely products of being from the South, Atlanta and New Orleans. New Orleans is much more musical than Atlanta is. So it’s just a tradition down there.

ELM: Three of you met in school, is that correct?

JS: Yes, three of us grew up together.

ELM: How long have the Black Lips been together?

JS: I guess if you want to get technical about it, me and Cole started the band when we were 13. We’re 27 now, so you can do the math.

ELM: What was the first record you got that really changed your life?

JS: I would say Link Wray, this guitar player from the 5O’s. He definitely influenced our sound. And the Ramones. That was the moment when I thought, “I can do this.”

ELM: How did Link Wray help shape your band?

JS: We learned to play guitar off his records. They’re very simple but very effective and very powerful. Basically I learned to play guitar from Link Wray records and Ramones records. ‘Cause they’re simple and easy, and I don’t like complicated shit, so Rush is probably my least favorite band in the world ever. I don’t like guys that are good at playing guitar. We’re entertainers. We’re not musicians. Musicians are the ones that sell strings at the guitar center. We’re entertainers.

ELM: I like that distinction that you draw.

JS: I like everything very simple. I like very simple music.

ELM: Do any of you have classical training?

JS: No, we’re all professional dishwashers pretty much. I can do a little bit of carpentry. Before we could be in a band for a living, I was a construction worker.

ELM: I actually asked if you had classical training.

JS: My first instrument was the violin. Our drummer is a pretty accomplished musician. He plays French horn, trumpet, saxophone, trombone, guitar, piano. I could pretty much play almost any instrument to a degree. I just understand the way music works ’cause I’ve been doing it for so long.

ELM: I read somewhere that you recorded Arabia Mountain on vintage equipment.

JS: Recording technology reached its apex in the mid-6O’s, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fit it. The machines just sound good. I’m not saying you have to make that kind of music. I don’t think music made by a computer sounds very good. But that’s just to my ears.

ELM: What sort of equipment did you use?

JS: Just a lot of old analog tape machines. We used a lot of ribbon microphones that they used n radio shows in the 3O’s, old tube microphones. They just sound warmer and more human.

ELM: How did Mark Ronson’s production affect the album?

JS: We’ve been recording together for over a decade, so it was cool to have a fifth person come in. He brought in some cool instrumentation I hadn’t thought of. He helped me arrange some of my songs. And just general good vibes and an ear for music. He’s a pop impresario. That motherfucker has three Grammies, so he knows what he’s talking about.

ELM: Am I correct that there is a Theremin on the album?

JS: There is a Theremin. There is also a saw. It’s hard to tell the different between the Theremin and the saw. The saw, we got this guy–one of two people– Dale Stuckenbruck–the other one is a lady who lives in Shanghai, I think. According to him, they’re the only two people who can keep perfect pitch on a saw, and if you watch someone play a note, it’s insane. I don’t know how they can catch a note on that thing. But he does and he came in. The Theremin was actually played by. Well, have you heard of the English band the Beatles?

ELM: *laughs* Yes, I have.

JS: Well, one of those guys in that band, his son plays Theremin on our record. John Lennon’s son.

ELM: I play the Theremin a little bit myself, so I’m always looking out for the Theremin in music. I did not know that John Lennon’s song could play it.

JS: Oh, man, the Theremin is, like, one of my favorite instruments. Me and Cole, one time when we were in high school, we made a theremin out of a boombox. And metal rods. It didn’t really work that great, but it was still pretty cool.

ELM: That’s ambitious. I’ve seen the kits where you can make your own, but I don’t know what they contain.

JS: Me and Joe formed another band, The Spookss, we’re kind of like a Halloween band, with two Theremin players, and with two Theremin players, it’s really difficult.

ELM: It’s difficult enough to keep a good pitch on one.

JS: Yes. I really like that instrument. I should get one. Bob Moog’s factory is in South Carolina, so I should make a trip out there. Maybe North Carolina.

ELM: You should make a pilgrimage.

JS: He actually died a couple of years ago. But one of the guys that’s in our Theremin band, he actually drove out there, and Bob Moog was out there selling Theremins, and you could buy one directly from him, and he would even autograph it. Who was that British lady in the late sixties who really helped develop Theremin and electronic music. She did the soundtrack for Dr. Who. I like early electronic music.

ELM: What other early electronic music do you like?

JS: There’s this guy Pierre Henri. He was this French guy, an early guy, then this band Silver Apples, they did a lot with oscillating instruments.

ELM: One last question for you. Who are your favorite writers?

JS: As in books? I don’t read books. Books are for smart people and nerds. I’m just kidding. I actually like Herman Hesse a lot, classic early-German/late-homoerotic, I like him. I like to read a lot of European takes on African exploration, especially centered around the Congo. I just finished this book that was really cool. It wasn’t written very well, but the story was good. It was about this guy named William Shepard, who was an African-American guy in Atlanta, and around 1892 he went to a Congo, and he was the first African-American to go there on a mission trip. He was the first to write about abuses by the Belgian government in the Congo.

ELM: What’s the title?

JS: It’s called the Black Livingstone. Because people are racist white men and instead of saying William Shepherd they say the Black Livingstone. I really love the idea of Africa around the late 18OO’s, early-twentieth century. ‘Cause it was such uncharted territory. They didn’t have maps or anything. That’s why I like Henry Morton Stanley a lot. Henry Morton Stanley was from Wales, faked an American accent, took a boat to New Orleans, joined the Confederate army, got captured by the Northern army, then joined the Northern army, went back to England, then went to the Congo and met Dr. Livingstone. Things like that–I like adventure. I like Jacques Cousteau a lot.

ELM: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

JS: I could go on about the Congo forever.

ELM: Have you been there?

JS: No. One time in second grade, my dad was going there and Nigeria and was trying to take me along. My parents were divorced and they hated each other, and my mom was a total dickhead, like ‘you can’t miss school.’ You can’t have a life-changing experience, sorry! Cole’s mom lives in Uganda now.He goes there once or twice a year. I’m going to go with him soon. I really want to go there. That’s the only inhabited continent I haven’t been to.

ELM: Do you want to just see the Congo or the other countries as well?

JS: There’s not one place on this earth I don’t want to see. I want to go everywhere before I die. But if I went over there, I really wanna go to Rwanda–one of my other heroes is this Canadian general, he’s retired now. His name is Romeo Dallaire, he was in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994, and I’ve read everything he has written. He is an amazing individual. And one of my good friends is in Africa now. She studies apes and she’s been in the jungle for a year and a half.

ELM: Would you say you’re politically active or is it just an interest for you to read about?

JS: My idea of political action is ignorning everything that happens because I have a problem with the way the world works, and I think most grown-ups are really stupid, so I try to limit myself. It’s hard to explain. It’s just my dissatisfaction with the way people act all the time. I want to live by having a good time and meeting people. And not judging anybody.

ELM: Well, I hope you have fun at the Magic Castle in your dry-cleaned suit.

JS: Oh, I WILL have fun at the Magic Castle!

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