It might seem like a funny pairing to some, but award-winning producer Mark Ronson “swooped in at the last minute and saved the day” according to vocalist/bassist Jared Swilley from lo-fi garage kings Black Lips. Ronson may be known for polishing songs to a shimmering and slick finish but in the case of Black Lips, he hasn't messed too much with a good thing. Thrown a suit jacket on them perhaps, but the jeans are still torn and the hair still tousled. The resulting musical love child is 2011’ s Arabia Mountain.
After spending most of last year recording in various locations, when Ronson got in touch and said he was interested in producing the new album, the Black Lips jumped at the opportunity and flew to New York. When asked whether it was fun to work with Ronson, Swilley is quick to say with complete enthusiasm: “Absolutely, absolutely. We connected and it was magical”. If you've heard the album you'll be sure to agree that the result is sensational; Arabia Mountain is an album full of rockin’, relentlessly catchy tunes with some extra flourishes added to their normally stripped back garage sound. Horn parts give some raw rhythm ‘n’ blues touches to opener Family Tree and are integral to the sleazy creeper, Mad Dog.
“It’s my favorite part really, I love getting down the back bone of the song, but I love messing with it and adding parts,” Swilley says. “In my younger days I hated horns but I love saxophone now, not in everything of course, it's gotta be tasteful.” Horns aren’t the only extra instrumentation on Arabia Mountain either. On Modern Art, the band employed a professional saw player to add some interesting sounds, which this interviewer mistook for a Theremin. “It’s a saw actually, we were trying to use Theremin but Theremin is really hard to hit notes on so we got this professional saw player to come in – it was kinda the same sound but more organic.”
Arabia Mountain marks the band’ssixthfull length to date, making the band no stranger to the recording process. “We’ve gotten a little better at knowing how to write songs and definitely for the most part, we’ve now spent so much time in studios. When we first started we were pretty naïve about the recording process and what you actually did, but now we know more about the equipment we wanna use, and what’s gonna sound like what,” Swilley muses.
The Black Lips may have refined their song writing over their 13 year career but the same cannot be said for their lyrical content, which has stayed deliciously kooky and juvenile, just the way we like it. There’s a certain art to penning quirky songs and maintaining your integrity, and Black Lips have nailed it. Their boisterous stage demeanour, uninhibited aesthetic, and lo-fi sound making for a hot-bed from which crazy lyrics are ripe to burst forth. Also, it’s a safe bet they’re not too fussed with the whole integrity thing. And there may be more truth to those seemingly frivolous songs than you realise.
“Most of it is actual stuff taken from our lives, like we have a song about Spider-Man being molested as a child,” says Swilley of the song Spidey’s Curse off their latest album. “See we grew up in Georgia and Georgia’s a pretty conservative state and they don’t like talking about sex and stuff very much, so when we learned about sex in school, instead of just telling us the facts, they made a comic book about it and in it, Spider-Man gets molested”. Swilley is quick to add that molestation is not something that the Black Lips find humorous: “It’s supposed to be bittersweet, there’s nothing funny about child molestation, we don’t wanna have like, full child molestation songs. I just thought it was ridiculous they had to use super heroes to teach us about sex.”
Sonically speaking, Arabia Mountain dips into the past for inspiration, so it’s no surprise that what is currently influencing Swilley was recorded decades ago. “There‘s such a rich history and catalogue of rock‘n’roll, blues and gospel, pretty much all the stuff that really influences me was recorded a long time ago. I still like musicians today obviously because they are keeping it fresh and everything but I really like to dig into the past for a lot of my influences, like Link Ray, the guitar player form the ‘50s who is probably one of my biggest inspirations, as far as guitar tones and song structure.” Swilley talks as though he has barely scratched the surface of this wealth of rock‘n’roll history and remarks, “I just don’t listen to too much modern music, there’s just so much old stuff that I haven’t heard and I’ll never be able to hear all of it in my life time.”
Notorious for their onstage antics and loose live shows, Swilley assures Australian crowds their shows will be “a world of good vibes and fun”, commenting that, “every time we’ve been there, it’s just been so much fun, it’s just been a really good party.” As the ever-accommodating hosts, Aussie crowds will no doubt be happy to join in said party and indulge the Black Lips on this Australian tour, which Swilley believes, “will feel kinda like a fun vacation.” No vacation would be complete without visiting a few tourists attractions and if you aren’t seeing Black Lips at one of their Melbourne shows you may just spot them at the Koala Ranch (it’s actually a sanctuary but Swilley calling it a ranch sounds far more cool) just outside of Melbourne or chasing some surf at one of our famous beaches.
BY KRYSTAL MAYNARD
BLACK LIPS play alongside Roots Manuva, Roky Erickson, Bon Iver and more at Golden Plains Sixxx, taking place from Saturday March 10 to Monday March 12. They also play The Tote on Tuesday March 6 and The Corner Hotel on Wednesday March 7.