Black Lips
Mountain High
by Eric Davidson

No matter the time, place or genre dogmatics, it happens to the best of ’em. A band starts out with a groundbreaking sound, has a breakout stage show to match, backs it up with lots of touring, and releases an unwittingly influential debut masterpiece. As naysayers keep waiting for them to slip up, they don’t. What started as a local phenom goes global as a decade’s favorite underground sons. Maybe they do slip up with a quickie album “to tour on,” and then, the inevitable: trying out a big time producer. Hey, if it was good enough for the Ramones...

Only that next-step of career-band methodology developed back when bands actually made money off of record sales. The Black Lips came along right at the millennial switcheroo, when bands had to start re-evaluating how to work their act. And so they have become well-adept at consistently releasing fine tunes, knocking out way gear videos, touring exotic lands, filming wacky shenanigans to post online, setting up quirky gigs, and just plain getting in the van and touring like nuts. They’ve generally exuded the ADD generation ethos of not stopping to breathe, while simultaneously sporting a laidback air and sense of humor (often lost on their garage punk brethren) that the ladies and chicken hawks just love.

So they didn’t really need to go the big time producer route—they just wanted to—and it works like a charm on their latest, Arabia Mountain (Vice), which is arguably the band’s most flat-out enjoyable record to date. In actuality, said producer Mark Ronson worked on only about half the songs, while the other half were recorded by Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt. They all add up to the first top-down volume knob workout of the summer. Horns on the opener, “Family Tree,” announce an only slightly bigger production. Lots of near-80s paisley garage sounds jangle around (“Bicentennial Man,” “Time”) and theremins whirl in and out unexpectedly. And who’d have thunk a mess of whistling would lead one of the band’s best tunes yet (“Raw Meat”)?! Down around the 13th song, “New Direction,” and next on the party shouter “Noc-a-Homa,” the Black Lips sound like they’re still shifting gears and counting down ’til the next beer run. They should’ve called this album The Fountain of Youth or some shit.

Running around somewhere on tour in Europe, singer and guitarist Cole Alexander sat down long enough to try to whip out some answers via email as to the Black Lips’ hutzpah.

Honestly, I’m surprised you guys are still around, forget how good the music has gotten! I remember booking you in Columbus in 2002, then seeing you at Siberia in Manhattan in 2004. You’d just got back from, I think, your first extended European tour, and the tales of drunkenness, the sheer amount of mushrooms ingested (and not just the dinner kind in France), and the droopy eyes made me think the band wasn’t going to make it to a third album. And yet, here you stand! To what do you owe your energy? (I hear tell of B vitamin shots to the ass.)

Cole Alexander: I guess we’re still going with energy ’cause we’re young, although we have been playing for almost 12 years now! I feel like a veteran, but we are still young enough to have vibrant fertile energy. I like to drink water in the daytime as well.

Please explain the Arabian theme of the new album, artwork, etc.

CA: The new album is named Arabia Mountain after a large granite rock in Georgia. They shot Pet Cemetery 2 there, and we took pics for the album cover there. Then we transposed the pics with milk and food coloring and dish soap, which is hydrophobic.

The song “Family Tree”... any interesting characters in the Black Lips family tree? Often, bands come out of square families and are the black sheep, as it were.

CA: Well my lineage is Native American and Spanish, maybe some Scotch or Irish. I’m a little bit of a mutt. On my mother’s side, back in Spain, there was a Jew in my family that was to be burned at the stake during the inquisition, so they acclimated to Christianity. My mom’s maiden name is Niño, and they owned a ship called the Niña, one of three boats that discovered this place called America. Then I think my explorer descendent crashed a boat filled with treasure off the coast of Hispañola. The boat was never to be found, but the treasure, of course, is still there.

You named a song “Modern Art”...

CA: Yes, we named a song “Modern Art.” We were hoping you would gather that it sounds pretentious. That’s why we called it that.

You know the Mark Ronson questions are going to come up. So how about you just say a few things about working with him and Lockett too?

CA: Lockett was great because he did some four-track recordings with us. Cassette has always been my favorite medium for music. As for Mark, what can I say? For me, it was one of the best experiences recording ever! It was really nice to have someone give us some perspective, let us do our thing, and enhance what we do. I kind of wished we would’ve tried working with a producer sooner. I don’t think there could have been a better one for us than Mark, though.

When I saw you at Webster Hall recently, you said it was fun and interesting to record with Mark Ronson, but that you kind of missed the lower-fi eight-track thing. So can we expect the next record to be scuzzier?

CA: I don’t recall saying I miss the lo-fi thing, because I don’t. I have been recording lo-fi forever now, and I’m kind of ready for a change. Thus this album, which isn’t that clean. But future records will probably be a healthy mix of scuzz and well-produced cuts. Actually, I was thinking of making a record with only soft songs, kind of angelic tunes. I think our fans would hate it, though, especially live. I was thinking maybe John Cale could produce that one.

Where did “Raw Meat” come from? Any vegetarians in the band? And is that a human whistling or a keyboard?

CA: “Raw Meat” was funny. We were really inspired by punks from Belgium—bands like Hubble Bubble, Plastic Bertran and Kleenex—with a touch of Ramones. We beat on raw meat for percussion. The whistle is real, and Mark brought in an amazing sawplayer to give it that extra something. I hate to say it, but I think it would be really good in a car commercial. Perhaps Fiat (Fix It Again Tony). I want to have a version of the song in French as well. I want to ask Lou Doillion to sing it, but she would probably hate it, and I’m too scared to ask. We tried recording that song three times before, but could never get the whistle right. Then we called Mark, and he helped us make it work, though it’s going to be tough live!

Please detail the worst fight you guys got into with each other on the last tour. And how was the make-up sex?

CA: I can’t remember the last tour. If there was a good fight, I would have remembered it. We don’t fight too much. Once Joe (Bradley) punched me in the face, and it gave me a permanent scar by my eye. But I kind of like it because it looks tough. And the make-up sex? I was never that angry, so there was no real need to make up.

Name a couple bands you wish would break up and a couple you wish hadn’t.

CA: I don’t really care if anybody breaks up, but I do want to spoof that Kings of Leon video where they’re running around with all the black school children. In our video, all the children will not only be minorities, but they will all be crippled, just to top them.

Demon’s Claws breaking up was a heartbreak, but I think they still play in an incarnation called Hell Shovel.

What are the top five advantages to playing a booze cruise?

CA: One, low minimum on the roulette table. Two, all you eat buffet (so much food got wasted). Three, live comedy hour. Four, shitty comics, and I love bad comedy. Five, seeing a hot chick in an ’80s style one-piece Budweiser swimsuit. And getting to wear ’30s style male one-piece bathing suit.