"This has been very, very different. I mean, we've only played in festivals to crowds of this many people." That's Black Lips' Jared Swilley, talking about the band's latest gig, one that finds them in unfamiliar territory — playing venues that hold several thousand people, as the opening act for some certifiable six-figure-selling rock stars, the Raconteurs.
I must admit: It was a bit disconcerting to see, of all bands, the lovably lecherous "bad kids" with the "dirty hands" from Atlanta in the support slot last Friday night (and all weekend long) at Manhattan's Terminal 5, a dance-turned-rock club that still has its black-and-chrome motif, fancy bars and disco ball in place. With weird sight lines and sound spots, and zero of the grit that's synonymous with the Lips, I'm still not sure Terminal 5 ought to be hosting rock bands. Mind you, the scruffy ATL-ers aren't complaining.
"We absolutely appreciate the Raconteurs taking us on tour with them — they've been great," said guitarist Ian St. Pé. Though he added they did receive an unexpected welcome to the tour a couple of weeks back, one with which they were unaccustomed. "They gave us a list of things we couldn't do — no setting guitars on fire, no touching the monitors, no spitting." Whoa. No spitting? Hard to believe that was not a deal-breaker for the Black Lips, especially for that salivating little rascal, guitarist Cole Alexander, whose hock-and-spit routine long ago became a trademark. No problem, said Cole. "Yeah, I just have to wipe up my spit. I don't want 'em to slip on it."
No such expectoration restrictions on Monday night in Hoboken, New Jersey, where the Lips were taking advantage of an off-night from the Raconteurs' trek to play their own show at the much more reasonably sized Maxwell's — a show attended, by the way, by Mr. Jack White himself. It was also a chance to play a more-than-40-minute set, and more songs from the Lips' last album, Good Bad Not Evil. Released nine months ago, the record is ridiculously deep in potential singles, and in fact, they've just released another. After somehow turning a song about a natural disaster into a good-time garage jam ("O Katrina!"), and their bluesy musings on hegemony ("Veni Vidi Vici"), the guys have returned with a track about a subject a little closer to home: Atlanta strippers. "It Feels Alright" — and its accompanying black-and-white video — serves up an homage to the boys' hometown and, as St. Pé explained, to a particular night spot known as Magic City. "It's an all-black strip club, where they'll showcase all the new rap songs that come out. They'll play 'em in the club for the girls to dance. It's a famous joint."
And then there's the matter of Black Lips' feature-film debut in director Roger Rawlings' "Let It Be," a fictional account of a band called the Renegades, reportedly loosely inspired by the Replacements, who "almost make it" in the formative years of indie music, the 1980s. While the guys say their taste in '80s music generally runs more toward hardcore bands like the Butthole Surfers, the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, they said they're up for the challenge of playing musicians, in a naturalistic way. "They purposely didn't want professional actors," explained Swilley. "They just wanted a real band. So it seems easy to just be ourselves in front of the camera."
First announced last winter, "Let It Be" has had some delays, but the Lips say it's still on track — though shooting may have to be pushed back to early next year because the boys' main order of business for the latter half of the summer (besides Swilley's impending wedding) will be situating themselves at a rented space in Atlanta and recording a new album. Though Alexander says they've only written "a couple of demos" so far, and drummer Joe Bradley says he's got "four or five" songs at different levels of completion in his head, they add that they are four independent writers and ideas come to them readily. St. Pé's not worried: "We'll be able to pump the album out, no problem."
On the live front, the band is looking forward to England's Glastonbury Festival at the end of June; August dates at Lollapalooza in Chicago and at Brooklyn's McCarren Park Pool with pals Deerhunter and King Khan; shows later in the year in India, Brazil and China; and maybe somewhere even more exotic. Black Lips' label, Vice Records, and its parent magazine have long had a reputation for guerrilla journalism in extreme locales. Last year, with their VBS.tv cameras in tow, the band played street gigs in Israel and Palestine, and Alexander said a show in Iraq has even been discussed. "We have a friend whose father is Iraqi and he smuggles people in the country. Or we could go in the Green Zone and play a U.S.O. show." Of course, that would be the safer option, but frankly, Red Zone is more Black Lips. "Like a guerrilla show," Cole reckoned. "They told me you can hire a militia, you go in with 'em, they start blasting guns, everybody freezes and you can, you know, play a show." Yikes.
If that all sounds like a pretty nonstop, breakneck schedule, that's nothing new. The old cliché "road warriors" certainly applies to Black Lips, and that's OK with them. After all, it wasn't that long ago that they were busting their asses for far less. As Swilley said: "Other jobs suck way worse." And finally, the Black Lips want you to give them a call on their hotline. The number is (949) 836-7407 (or TEN-SH0P). No joke.
"One of us will answer, for real, if we are on tour in America," St. Pé said. "Give us a call, and you will make our long-ass drives more fun."
See much more of my conversation with Black Lips at Rhapsody.com.