Tales From Arabia Mountain
“…they told us we’d be pumping gas and in prison and stuff like that. They told us not to go to college and that we should become garbage men or mechanics, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you’re not supposed to discourage kids from learning and that’s what they did.”
-Jared Swilley, The Black Lips
Introduction, Interview, and Photographs by Mike Wojcik
It’s been a long ride for these four good ol’ boys from Atlanta, Ga. Since their beginning in 1999, they have succeeded in staying true to themselves while releasing nine albums, avoiding major label influence and touring parts of the world where no band has gone before. All of the while re-inventing rock & roll as we know it today. The band has recently finished a film documenting their tour in the Middle East entitled “Kids Like You and Me”. Directed by Bill Cody, the film tells of the band’s adventures on tour with Lazzy Lung through Iraq, Lebanon, Cyprus, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Jordan. They have come a long way since being kicked out of high school after being pointed out as a “subculture danger” following the Columbine shooting, and it seems the sky is now the limit. The Lips will wrap up their tour with two more shows at home in Atlanta, and will release a brand new album in March.
So you guys took a tour out to the Middle East to places many people might think are dangerous and even deadly for an American band to venture to. From watching Bill Cody’s trailer for Kids Like You and Me, it looks like you guys ended up having a real rad time. What were some of your most memorable experiences on the trip?
Jared Swilley: We didn’t really shoot a lot of footage from Lebanon. There’s show footage from there but we were there for a little over a week in Beirut, and none of that really got captured.
Ian Saint Pé: We went up to that palace in the hills, passed the Druze, which are these mountain people who live in Lebanon. They just keep to themselves and wear these really long-crotched pants supposedly because they have really huge dicks or something. Kind of like MC Hammer pants.
Jared Swilley: I don’t know if the film captured it, but the people were really thankful that we came. They kept saying it. I’m kind of disappointed we didn’t get more footage in Lebanon because we saw a lot of cool things. That was really memorable because the band we were on tour with was from there and they showed us around to all their spots. That was the best eating of the tour.
Fourteen years ago when you The Black Lips began, did you think you’d get to play out there?
Jared Swilley: No. We’ve always set short, achievable goals. You’ve got to work your way up and take baby steps. So our first goal was just to play a show, then to play outside the city, and then outside the state.
Cole Alexander: Our goals were a lot smaller when we first started.
Ian Saint Pé: Making $500, that was a big one.
Jared Swilley: Not having a day job, that was another milestone.
Cole Alexander: And playing Europe too.
Jared Swilley: Now our goal is to go to Antarctica.
Cole and Jared, I read that you guys were expelled from your high school in your senior year after the Columbine shooting occurred? I wonder what those teachers are saying now.
Jared Swilley: Well actually mine was the beginning of my junior year. We had played a festival in Atlanta a few weeks ago, and our high school English teacher came out. He was the baseball coach and the only teacher who was ever nice to us. Part of me wants to go back and rub it in their faces, but I don’t really care and I never want to step in that building again. But they told us we’d be pumping gas and in prison and stuff like that. They told us not to go to college and that we should become garbage men or mechanics, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you’re not supposed to discourage kids from learning and that’s what they did.
This passed year, Philadelphia was forced to close 29 schools. I was wondering what your thoughts were about the entire education system in America at the moment.
Jared Swilley: I don’t know how it is now, but from my experience being there, it’s so easy to let kids slip through the cracks. There are good teachers, but I think that’s a pretty demanding job dealing with shitheads everyday, it seems like teachers can become jaded pretty easily.
Cole Alexander: We would just break the teacher down and slowly they would just stop teaching us everyday.
Jared Swilley: As far as Georgia’s public education system goes, its pretty shitty.
Cole Alexander: We rank low on the list for sure.
Jared Swilley: They care less about kids learning stuff and brain based learning and figuring things out for themselves and equipping them for the real world, and instead spend too much time trying to juke statistics and get good numbers. I think that sucks. If you have money you’ll have access to a good education system, but the public schools generally suck.
The record you guys are working on features Patrick Carney from The Black Keys and Brent Hines from Mastodon. I know you guys worked with Mark Ronson on Arabia Mountain, who are the engineers/producers for this one?
Jared Swilley: Well Patrick, and this guys named Thomas Brenneck. The tracks with Thomas were done over in New York. He was in The Dap Kings, and he helped us get a lot of sounds on Arabia Mountain, and Mark works with him a lot. So we liked the way he mixed and went back with him.
Ian Saint Pé: He was the band leader for Charles Bradley, which sounds amazing and is amazing. His studio is called Dunham Studios in New York.
Jared Swilley: Then we did all the stuff with Patrick in Nashville, and a little bit at The Living Room, which is a studio in Atlanta where we do stuff all the time. It’s kind of like a home base for us.
Ian Saint Pé: Good, Bad, Not Evil was done there. It’s where we put the cherry on top.
Have you decided on what to call the new album?
Jared Swilley: We needed to come up with one like a week ago. I was hoping I would see something at the Mütter Museum that would give me an idea for that, but we only had a half-hour before it closed.
Ian Saint Pé: We’re going to use Mick Rock to take the photo.
Jared Swilley: We’re going to think of an idea for that after this tour. He shot Iggy Pop for Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power album, and Lou Reed for Transformer, a lot of Bowie…
Cole Alexander: The Ramones’ End of the Century
Ian Saint Pé: ..and a famous Joan Jett album too.
Jared Swilley: So hopefully he can make us look good.
Ian Saint Pé: We’ll have an album title by then.
Can you take me through your songwriting process?
Jared Swilley: It’s different every time. Sometimes I’ll hear something that I like and I’ll decide that I want to write something like that. Sometimes it’s just me screwing around in my house with a guitar. I still don’t understand the process. It’s hard for me personally to force it out. It’s harder to try and write a song, it’s better if it’s by accident.
So you have to just let it come to you somehow?
Jared Swilley: Yeah.
A lot of times your music is really bright and warm, and it genuinely sounds like you all have fun writing and performing it. You have all been through a whole mess of shit as a band over the last 14 years like battling with drug addiction and losing your good friend and former guitarist, Ben Ederbaugh. How have you kept your heads up and gotten yourselves to this point, as musicians with an undeniable dynamic to release nine albums, tour areas of the world where most American bands have never gone before, and striving to become the first band to play on all seven continents of the world?
Jared Swilley: Just because we like what we do. It came through a lot of hard work, but also there is some sort of luck involved with it too. We worked really hard to get where we are…
Ian Saint Pé: ...and it was slow but we kept going. And we’re still going.
Jared Swilley: It’s just like thinking back to being in middle school and thinking, “It’d be so cool to be in a band, I really want to be in one!” When it actually becomes your job, that’s what it is. All the friends we’ve made everywhere through traveling have helped us.
Cole Alexander: Yeah, we’ve made some really great friends.
Jared Swilley: We all have a lust for life and adventure.
I’ve always felt there was this special connection between skateboarding and music. I’m sure you guys already know, but your songs are in quite a few videos. I’ve found a great deal of my favorite musicians and visual artists through the avenue that skateboarding provides which I otherwise would probably not have found anywhere else.
Cole Alexander: Yeah I think we’re in a Birdhouse video, which they never even told us about, but I was psyched that they would even think to put us in it!
Jared Swilley: Dustin (Dollin) skated to one of our songs also. I think skateboarding and music are really intertwined. I found out about a lot of music I listen to from skateboarding with older kids when I was young.
Ian Saint Pé: Thrasher got me into Black Flag.
Jared Swilley: Yeah in their “Notes from the Underground” section. But yeah, I would trade tapes and stuff at a session.
Cole Alexander: Thrasher was actually the first magazine to ever give us national press. In “Notes from the Underground” they reviewed our first seven-inch. I was really pumped.
Jared Swilley: And since skateboarding’s not very organized, kids are always getting chased out of places, and cops get called. It’s not an outsider sport anymore, but I still think it’s edgy because most people that don’t skate hate skateboarding.
Do you think skateboarding can serve as an outlet to reach an audience that otherwise might never come across certain music?
Ian Saint Pé: I think when your 13, 14, 15 and MTV is playing shit, and the radio is playing shit, how are you supposed to find out what cool shit is? Hopefully you have an older brother, but what if you don’t? I was the older brother, so I got into skateboarding and bought videos and magazines. They’re both very similar, they travel the world, party, work hard, they might break more bones than us, but still similar in that aspect.
Have you guys ever heard of Skatistan? It’s a whole organization that brings skateboarding to Middle Eastern countries.
Cole Alexander: I love that. We skated with kids in Egypt.
It reminded a lot of what you guys were doing with your tour out there.
Jared Swilley: There’s an organization like that based in Alexandria, Egypt called Skate Impact. We met a lot of those kids who ended up coming to our show. I think they opened the very first skateshop in Egypt.
Cole Alexander: They sell a shit ton of boards out in Dubai also.
Jared Swilley: It’s cool for kids out there especially where things can be a little rough sometimes. It’s a really positive thing to keep them out of trouble.
There are so many bands today that are dicked around and taken advantage of by record executives. One of my favorite bands, The Organ, is a prime example of this. It got to the point where they decided that making music together just wasn’t worth all of the bullshit anymore. How have The Black Lips succeeded in doing whatever the fuck they want on their own terms? Have you had any experiences with slimy executives milking you for everything you’ve got?
Jared Swilley: Well we’ve always been with independent labels until VICE, so we were really careful when we would get into anything like that. We always made sure we’d have 100% control. I know bands that have dealt with major labels and their albums just get shelved and they’d have to go back into the studio and re-do their entire album, so we just made sure that never would happen to us.
Cole Alexander: VICE is a really good label. They let us do whatever we want. We’ve even released records on other labels and they didn’t say anything. We did one with Third Man…
Jared Swilley: We worked it out to where we were able to release our own vinyl. I think they regretted it. As far as experience with executives, I don’t think they like us a lot. We’ve never really had any major label interest.
Cole Alexander: There was some talk about Warner Bros. helping out. Atlantic Records was helping with VICE and I think Warner Bros. was going to also, but I don’t know what’s up with that.
Ian Saint Pé: You mean like make us do stupid stuff?
Jared Swilley: No, we don’t roll like that.
Any final words?
Jared Swilley: Our album comes out in March!
For more on the Black Lips and their latest album jump to Black-Lips.com.