Atlanta Fire: An Interview with Black Lips

Jared Swilley says his band's only trying to have some fun, but things don't always work out that way.

Jared Swilley may be the son of a preacher man, but he and his merry band of '60s garage rock revisionists the Black Lips behave more like the fun-loving spawn of Satan. Okay, that may be a bit hyperbolic, but the band could never be mistaken for saints. Bassist Swilley grew up in Georgia, the white son of a pastor whose congregation was almost entirely black. Surrounded by gospel music his entire life, the 25-year-old Swilley and the Black Lips are bringing the fire and brimstone back to a stagnant indie rock scene with scorching live shows, and a sound drenched in whiskey-soaked hymns the band has dubbed "flower punk". The group recently took their traveling road show to India, and they had to flee the country under duress after having the remainder of their tour cancelled after a particularly inflammatory live show, complete with male-on-male tonsil hockey and crowd mooning, culminating with lead singer Cole Alexander attempting to play the six-string with his genitals. None of this seemed unusual or excessive to the band, and Swilley insists that all they are trying to do is have some fun without offending anyone.

"I think the first time I met Cole, I saw him make out with a dude at a movie theatre, and then I remember the next time I met him he was getting suspended for using the girls' bathroom to piss, so he kind of always did stuff like that," said Swilley in a voice that sounds ravaged by a million cigarettes. "It wasn't really a conscious thing to incorporate that stuff into the live act, that's just how we were. It's hard to understand if you didn't grow up with us, but it's kind of like how we got our kicks. It was pretty dumb, but it made us laugh. We just like to have fun.

"I kind of felt like we had pushed it a bit too far in India, but I really don't have any regrets because honestly I don't think we did anything wrong. It was more of a cultural misunderstanding. The only reason I thought we had gone too far was because our passports had been stolen, and it was really stressful and really scary to be stuck in this Third World country with people trying to shake us down for money. The cops were even out to get us. We've never done anything evil or hurtful towards anyone. I always look at it as funny. I mean, all Cole did was moon a crowd. They did that in Teen Wolf. The whole thing was in the spirit of good-natured fun, and we weren't trying to be mean. We're not trying to be the Sex Pistols and go out of our way to be controversial."

The band's latest album, 200 Million Thousand, combines the gospel of Swilley's youth with the sonic fuzz of Velvet Underground and the gothic lyrical mentality of Nick Cave. The whole experience is druggy and woozy, stripped of much of the pop accessibility of 2007's breakout Good Bad Not Evil. The record sounds like it could have been recorded in the catacombs of an old cathedral, and it seems possible to reach through the headphones and touch the mold on the amps.

"This record is really a reflection of us being who we are," said Swilley. "We recorded it the way we wanted, and made our own rules and our own schedule. We had our own equipment and got our own space. I'm really into microphone placement, and we try and emulate the recording techniques they used in the '60s, like on the early Sun records and all those girl group records. They were using two to three mics tops, and it sounded beautiful because they were using the room to create an atmosphere, and not relying on technology that kills humanity and emotion. So it was really like if the drums were too loud, we would move them farther away from the mic. We were really interested in making a record created by humans and not by robots, because that really kills music and makes it cheap. Robots have no soul. All the music on the record is live, I mean we overdub some piano parts and a couple guitar solos, but pretty much everything else is live."

For a live show that has included vomiting, urination, flaming guitars, nudity, fireworks, and live chickens, Swilley insists that it's all about creating a communal vibe with the audience, similar to the feeling he got watching his dad work the congregation into a frenzy at Sunday Mass. "I grew up in Georgia, and I'm the only male in my family who's not a minister," said Swilley. "My dad's a pastor at a mostly black church and the first time I ever sang was onstage at church. As far as my lifestyle and our antics go, my dad goes back and forth about it. He likes the music, and the fact that I get to travel and I don't have to ask him for money. He's pretty liberal, but some of the stuff that Cole does onstage bums him out. My ultimate goal has always been to bring that fire and brimstone to the stage, and to create that kind of Church communion environment. I'm not religious at all, and there are a lot of ugly and nasty things that go with religion. But I love the sheer fact that there's no alcohol involved and it's on a Sunday morning, and I can watch my dad line up all these people and touch them on the head and they fall down, and the people are taking their shoes off and dancing and screaming and going crazy ... that's pretty wild."

"It's not for show either. These people aren't trying to look cool or score with chicks, at least most people aren't. It's just an amazing energy that can't be re-created out of church, but I would like to harness that energy, as much as possible with our music, and that's why I love gospel music so much. It's so beautiful because you can't recreate that energy in rock 'n' roll. I write about having fun, and chicks and stuff like that, and that stuff is inspiration for good music, but the churchgoers are singing about a magic being that they believe created the entire universe, and is going to keep their souls eternally, and you can't re-create that in any other form of music. When you're singing and praising something that you think is divine, you can't recreate that in pop music. That fierce, raw energy is just so primal."

Through their notorious live shows and critically lauded albums, the Black Lips have inadvertently become the ringleaders for putting the Atlanta independent music scene on the nation's radar. In years past, Atlanta has largely been recognized as a hip-hop crunk city, with acts like Cat Power and Prefuse 73 gaining notoriety only after leaving the city. But along with acts like Deerhunter and the Shock Waves, the Black Lips have helped put Atlanta onto the map of indie rock relevancy, with hipster voices Pitchfork and Vice taking notice.

"From when we started playing to now, Atlanta's definitely gotten way better," said Swilley. "There's a lot going on, and it's really friendly and there's healthy competition. It's a really healthy environment, and it's really easy to be in a band in Atlanta because it's cheap and there's a lot of space and it's warm and people are really laid back. It's just a really good place to be a musician right now, and I'm really proud of my friends for what they've accomplished. I think that in the last couple of years, Atlanta has become really supportive of indie music. For a long time, bands wouldn't come through Atlanta. I don't know what it was like in the '80s or '90s, but the people from that era tell me that this is the best time for indie music in Atlanta, and we're really grateful to be a part of it. The media caught up to what was going on a year or two after it blossomed, and aside from R&B and hip-hop, this is the best time for Atlanta music ever."

As Swilley speaks with me on tour from a New York City apartment, I can hear band members coming and going, girls talking loudly, lighters flicking, and cans opening. Laughter rings out in the apartment and Swilley steps onto the balcony to be heard. "I've had many girlfriends, and I'm kinda focusing on the music right now," said Swilley. "Relationships are just too stressful, and it's tough. I'm fine with that, and I'm a lot happier being married to the band, because there's a lot of girls out there. At home, it's pretty mellow. I just eat a lot of barbeque, go swimming and ride my bike. Professionally, five years from now, I'd like to be successful and still be traveling. I'm trying to buy a home right now, and that's always been my goal to own a house in Atlanta. But who knows? I just want to be happy. I'm really, really Southern, and I'm very close with my family and they're all based here. I guess it all comes down to one fact. I'll never leave Atlanta."

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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