From Atlanta warehouses to Iraqi DIY shows, founding member Jared Swilley recounts the Black Lips' weird and wonderful touring highlights
There are few acts out there more primed to recount the weirder side of gigging than Black Lips. Nudity, vomiting and other extreme on-stage acts from the Atalanta band kept some of the chaos of rock ‘n’ roll going in the noughties when others around them turned all trim and twee.
Case in point: the band’s infamous show at the London nightclub Heaven in 2008, not long after the release of their landmark album Good Bad Not Evil. “The crowd got really rowdy,” bassist and founding member Jared Swilley recalls. “It was the first time Mark Ronson had come to see us live. I don’t think security were used to this kind of crowd, so I think they kinda tripped out when they saw people moshing and stuff. We don’t really get ’em so much in the States, but in the UK there’re always really beefy bouncers in matching shirts and earpieces. I said something like, ‘there’s more of us in here than there are of them’ and told everyone to get on stage.”
Swilley laughs about it now, acknowledging that the bouncers “whupped my ass a little bit,” and after 15 years of performing and growing older, his 22-year-old self would probably piss him off too. “I’m glad that all happened, and there was definitely a time and place for that. I think now we strike more of a balance of a fun, energetic show where people can dance and get wild or whatever, but it’s not a total liability.”
It’s a good thing too, as Black Lips return to headline Heaven on Tuesday 25 April as part of a small UK tour. Ahead of the show, we take a trip with Swilley to the weird and wonderful moments of the band’s touring life.
The gig that made you want to play music
I remember the moment I pretty much said those exact words. It wasn’t a live performance, but it was when I saw The Decline Of Western Civilisation, the punk rock documentary, and I saw the Germs play. I had kinda got into punk a little bit, like I knew who the Sex Pistols were and stuff like that, but when I saw the Germs on camera, it unlocked this thing that I didn’t even know was a possibility. That week I had myself a Germs tattoo on my ankle, I was 14. Their album was amazing but you see that footage of them and it’s total chaos. The Ramones made me feel that way too, but we didn’t get a lot of concerts in Atlanta at that time. Atlanta was kind of a major city, like we almost had the Olympics come, but bands didn’t really come here. I remember The Cramps came to town when I was in eighth grade, they were playing with Guitar Wolf and I wanted to go to that show so bad. I was friends with some older kids who got me a ticket but my mum wouldn’t let me go. I was crushed. All these kids came into school the next day like, “I lost my shoe at The Cramps show!” and all these crazy stories. That was the first big show I really wanted to go to.
Our first gig was at this warehouse in Atlanta, these warehouses where all these artists and musicians used to live. They got condemned a while ago and most of them have been gentrified and changed a lot. We got a gig there – I was 14, I think – and we didn’t have any songs rehearsed. It was more like performance art back then. I think Cole got naked and lit himself on fire. We passed out fliers at school, and some kid’s mum found it and followed him to that place and found him wasted. She threatened the people who lived there who, when we got there, had told us we couldn’t drink out of the keg because “y’all are kids”. We almost got in a lot of trouble because all these high school kids came to the show and got drunk. It was our first show and it was very fun.
Probably playing The Conan O’Brien Show. But then also playing Coachella for the first time, that was wild. But I think the biggest in terms of people was probably Primavera Sound festival. There were a couple years where it was a sea of thousands and thousands of people.
We did it last year, and they kinda always joked that we were one of the Primavera house bands, like Yo La Tengo does it every year and we do it almost every year too. I love that festival. It was big when we first started playing it, and all of our friends’ bands were playing and you’d go visit each other’s backstages and it was kind of anarchy. I’d sneak friends in. But now it’s a proper festival. I remember there being free beer for a bunch of years.
There are so many amazing quality shows, but the ones that stand out for me are the places. We booked our own show in Iraq one time, totally DIY, and it wasn’t a great show, we weren’t even able to get our own gear into the country so we had a really rudimentary set up. We had joked about it for years, being the first American punk band to play in Iraq that’s not on a military base, and I remember thinking wow, we did that. It was cool, we met a lot of local people and it felt like a neat accomplishment, that whole Middle East tour.
Dude, we booked these shows all through Facebook and MySpace. I’d just throw it out there or people would write us and tell us they’re fans, and I’d just ask if people had shows where they lived. In the Middle East they were like, “No, but I think we can figure it out.” In Iraq we somehow got through the Ministry of Culture, and we were supposed to play a park there but at the 11th hour it got pulled because they saw some of our stuff and it wasn’t appropriate for the government. So there was this British film student living there and she knew a community centre where she could set up a show. We already had plane tickets, so we just flew there with out guitars and played through a little PA.
And then just the beautiful places. We used to go to Sardinia every couple of years for our friend’s little beach party. We’d stay for a month out in the countryside with all these farmers and have their homemade wine. That stuff stands out to me more. A lot of our shows are super fun, but a lot of them meld together and it’s the places that I remember.
One time we played Mexico City and the police came to break up the show, and it’s the only time I’ve ever seen the crowd fight off the police. They just gave up and left.
We’ve pretty much gone all the places that bands have traditionally gone, but we’re trying to work on a show in Zambia as I’ve heard there’s a little scene there. At this point I think we can play anywhere, even if it’s just a little coffee shop. It’s fun to go and meet a few people. It’s a great vehicle to go and travel.
When we first started touring – we call it the Bad Old Days. I booked all of our shows through message boards and this old zine called Book Your Own F*cking Life, and the first time we went out we just bought this old van and none of us had any money, so we just drove around the US for four months. We’d show up in Richmond, Virginia, and the venue didn’t exist. We turned up to our first show in New Orleans and they’d say, “We didn’t know there was a show here tonight but you can practice here.” I was 18 so it was fun no matter what happened, we just slept in the van and ate at homeless shelters. It got kinda bleak – we didn’t have any money in our bank accounts so we’d busk between shows. I’m glad we did it, it was a cool experience and it made any time you got a real gig feel that much better.
We’ve got to talk about India, where you ended up playing essentially a high school talent show…
[Laughs] yeah we did, and I was a judge for it. It was this televised competition. Touring India was really weird. We got pelted with bottles, which happened at our stateside shows a lot – people just throw sh*t at us all the time, but I think some of the people there genuinely disliked us. It was us playing with a bunch of Indian heavy metal bands, and the audience was 100 per cent male. It was like, ‘who are these guys who have flown all the way over here with these three-chord crappy rock songs?!’. Every other band we played with totally shredded and sounded like Metallica, so I got it. There were a couple of people who kinda dug it, but that was our first show there so it was a little discouraging, like, ‘man, I hope the whole tour’s not like this’. It wasn’t until we got kicked out. It was just a misunderstanding [laughs]. That whole tour was a beautiful disaster.
There’ve been so many weird ones, though. We played a big festival in Moscow, it was an outdoor festival in a park and the security was the military. Backstage there were loads of guys with military weapons, and I remember there not being any water, just tons of vodka. I think the crowd wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol, so we were just chucking tons of vodka into the crowd. But even on stage, by my amp, we had armed security on stage. It was kind of off-putting. Being in Russia is already a little tense, but when you’re surrounded by the military early in the morning, and you’re hungover, it’s just a weird vibe…