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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."

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