Life in the Black Lips is life without brakes.
Through six records of relentless garage-punk and a dozen years of performances soaked with infamous debauchery (and plenty of bodily fluids), the band hasn't slowed a step. The Black Lips' mission statement is honest, blunt and borne of a brutal commitment to never stop playing their own music, their own way.
"Eat, shit, sleep and breathe music," says guitarist Ian St. Pé. "It's a lifestyle that might not be for everybody, but it is for us."
Self-described "flower punks," the Black Lips began with guitarist Cole Alexander, bassist Jared Swilley and drummer Joe Bradley, teens in suburban Atlanta who built a reputation for wild live shows. Original guitarist Ben Eberbaugh was killed in a vehicle collision in 2002, and St. Pé joined the band two years later, fully confident the band had what it takes to make it.
"That's why I joined. I really feel that if you give 110 percent, there's no reason you can't get it," St. Pé says. "If you have a fallback plan, you're gonna fall back. I knew we would make it, because otherwise, we'd be back washing dishes. I don't want to wash dishes."
The band's persistence is paying dividends.
"We went from trash cans to Taco Bell to Red Lobster," says St. Pé, who bought himself a Cadillac to celebrate a bit of success in the old Sun Records style.
During a phone interview before the San Diego show that would kick off the western leg of the band's lengthy tour, St. Pé talked of the afternoon's shopping spree.
"We just bought a shit-load of equipment, brand new. A whole back line. We're tired of renting; that's for chumps. We're stepping it up in the 2011," he says.
A big step up is how he describes the band's new album, Arabia Mountain, marking the first time the Black Lips worked with an outside producer, the British songwriter, DJ and producer Mark Ronson. While it's still at the raw end of the spectrum, Arabia Mountain is refined in comparison to the rest of the Black Lips' albums.
"It sounds familiar but different," St. Pé says. "It's like with kids, you can't pick a favorite. They all have their own special perks, special things to offer in life. But this kid is gonna be a doctor; the last kid was a garbage man."
Ronson was on a short list of dream producers for the Black Lips that included Dr. Dre and Danger Mouse.
"We pretty much did the whole record without (a producer) like we always do, but last minute, our label wanted a producer, so we threw out big names. If we're gonna work with somebody, we're gonna step it up. We stepped it up big-time, three Grammys up," St. Pé says. "It's nice, four of us in the band all writing, and it's nice to have a fresh set of ears listening in. He did offer some 'try this' suggestions, and it ended up being cool."
The record—16 songs in 42 minutes—is, for the most part, straightforward, sweaty, raw garage music, but there's a pop tunefulness at its core. Songs like "Family Tree," "Time," "Dumpster Dive" and "Bicentennial Man" combine unexpected melodic hooks with the surging guitar fuzz.
Lyrically, there's enough straightforward content to show that the Black Lips truly write what they know. "Dumpster Dive" is an ode to the band's beyond-broke days; "Modern Art" is about a drugged-up tour of the Dali Museum; "Mr. Driver" references the band's wild stage show in the line "I want to bleed on my Squier;" and one song is even called "New Direction."
"The thing I love about art and music is the minute it leaves our heads, our bodies, our arms, it's no longer ours. It's y'all's. It's out for the world to have," St. Pé says. "It's up to you and everyone else to take what you want out of it. We're looking forward and moving in a new direction, and I want people to think what they want about that."
Still, don't expect a new direction and a Grammy-winning producer's refinements to take the punches out of the Black Lips' live experience. Even after years of shocking stage antics, the piss, puke and blood are still regular—though not guaranteed—features of the band's shows. And if the crowd is a morbidly curious bunch out for a glimpse of infamy, so be it.
"Do I think people sometimes come out for the stage antics? Maybe. But we've got to get them out there. If that's their reason for coming, they will be happily entertained by the experience," St. Pé says. "We're entertainers. Musicians are the people who sell us guitar strings at the store. If you want music, download that shit for free. If you want to be entertained, come to a Black Lips concert."
This comes from a band that started its current tour on April 6, hitting the Midwest and East Coast. After two days off, they went to Europe. Four days off, then the West and Southwest. Then Japan and back to Europe. And they're bummed about having to cancel a string of Middle East dates because of unrest in Syria.
"The Black Lips, all four of us, love what we do, and that's why people leave our show satisfied. We're having an experience together. Y'all are our crew, and we're gonna have fun," St. Pé says. "The bottom line is every night is the first night of the rest of your life. Every night is Friday night for us. There's no reason why the kids 30 days into a tour should experience any less than tonight's show."