Black Lips pucker up to Ronson

The underground punk band and the hit producer repeat their unlikely pairing, says Ed Power

JARED SWILLEY didn’t believe it. His record label had phoned to say one of the biggest producers in pop wanted to work with his alt.punk band, The Black Lips. A committed underground rocker, since the age of 14, the singer and bassist was in shock.

“The folk at the label kept badgering us to collaborate with someone outside the group,” says Swilley.

“They were constantly on about it. So we were cheeky and put down the craziest names we could think of. It was a long list. We had even put in Dr Dre, strictly for laughs. Among the people in there was Mark Ronson. And he agreed to record with us. Honestly, I was stunned.”

Swilley’s surprise is understandable. Ronson is one of the world’s most famous — and in-demand — studio men. He was the brains behind Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black and has overseen albums by Rufus Wainwright and Kaiser Chiefs. Black Lips are a scrappy, alternative quartet from Atlanta, Georgia, famed for their unhinged live shows (impromptu stage invasions are a feature) and an unapologetically experimental outlook.

It did not seem a natural fit. Had it been April 1, the assumption would have been that someone was playing a prank.

“Our record label approached him and it turned out he was into doing it,” says Swilley. “It was the first occasion he had worked with a punk group. He wanted to try something different, broaden his range, as it were. We were nervous. It turned out he was nervous, too. We had more in common than we expected.”

This was two and a half years ago. Having flown to Atlanta, Ronson would produce the bulk of what became The Black Lips’ 2011 album, Arabia Mountain. Both sides were so pleased with the results, they are doing it again, and so, this month, the Black Lips are going to London to hook up with Ronson at his studio. Swilley can’t wait.

“We’ve never actually gone and recorded in another country. So, you have a big novelty factor from our perspective. Mostly, we’re thrilled about getting together with Mark. The last occasion, we really, really clicked. It’s going to be great. I am looking forward to seeing what ideas we cook up.”

Big-name producers and overseas studios are a novelty for the Black Lips. Starting out in the late 1990s, at an average age of 13, their early work was primitively recorded, thrown together in days. This gave their music a thrilling, instantaneous quality.

Swilley fears that some of their albums were too slapdash to withstand scrutiny. They struggled to get their furious live sound down on tape. Hence the decision to recruit Ronson.

“I’ll never forget it — there was this one time we went into the studio and did a record in ten days. I promised the rest of the band I had two songs ready to go. It wasn’t true. I literally wrote them that morning. We weren’t totally happy with the results. Now, we make sure we’ve written the material in advance. It’s kind of a waste of time to go into the studio and just start hashing stuff out, there and then.

“That’s fine if you’ve got lots of money. But we’ve never had any,” Swilley says.

The Black Lips do things their own way. They are signed, not to a conventional record label, but to the music wing of the infamous Vice media group, notorious for its PC-baiting print articles and lurid web videos.

“They are actually the coolest guys to work for,” says Swilley. “We pretty much have free rein to do what we like. There aren’t many artists on the label, so you know you aren’t going to be overlooked.

“They bring the personal touch. Also, Vice has offices all over the world. That’s useful when you are touring.”

The Black Lips have an intense work ethic. They regularly play 200 gigs a year. The band don’t confine themselves to the US or Europe, either. They’ve toured South America and India. Last year, they went where few of their peers would dare, and embarked on a two-week tour of the Middle East, visiting Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus, Dubai, Jordan and Kurdish Iraq.

“We would have been nervous had we gone to Baghdad,” says Swilley. “We were in the Kurdish zone, to the north, which didn’t have a strong US presence even during the war. There was some difficulties. We were supposed to play a festival — then, the organisers found a video of ours on YouTube where two guys are kissing. They weren’t down with that. We had already paid for our tickets, so we went to Iraq anyway and were able to organise an alternate venue. Man, it was wild. You had girls with headscarves moshing and waving skateboards.

“People ask us, ‘was there any culture shock’? Honestly, we were moving so fast, there wasn’t time. Okay, you go to a city like Cairo and it’s overwhelming — it’s just so huge. We’ve had that before. You go to Sao Paolo or Mumbai and these places are just vast. After that, the Middle East didn’t seem totally insane to us.”

Who invited them? “We booked the shows ourselves. We reached out through Twitter and Facebook. It’s the same thing we’ve done with concerts in other parts of the world. We’re a DIY group. We don’t wait around. We get out there, make things happen for ourselves.”

All in their late 20s, the band have been together nearly 15 years. Swilley attributes the Black Lips’ longevity to their honesty with one another.

“We always split everything four ways,” he says. “We don’t argue over money. Never have. That’s one of the things that breaks groups apart. We have made sure it doesn’t damage us. Our lives have changed. However, we are as close today as the day we started.”

*The Black Lips play The Camden Crawl, Dublin, on Sunday


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