Black Lips’ bassist and vocalist Jared Swilley just woke up and is nursing the mother of all hangovers. One of the band’s two remaining founding members alongside guitarist and vocalist Cole Alexander, he was out last night with a friend celebrating the renewal of their contract with long term label Vice Records.
From his home in Atlanta, Georgia he is apologetically scrambling about his room to find earphones so he can hear better. Once we get talking he is conflicted, earnestly flitting between hangover openness, humour and the fear of saying something that could get him in trouble. With their eighth album – Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art? – set to land on 5th May, Black Lips’ artistic and collective fire seems as fervent now as it did eighteen years ago when they started.
That’s not to say that things have not changed for the group over the years, recent years have seen various line-up changes. But their current incarnation feels tight, and recruiting the prolific Sean Lennon on production duty and featuring guest spots from Fat White Family’s Saul Adamczewski and Yoko Ono has resulted in Black Lips creating what is arguably their strongest work to date.
Ahead of the album’s release, Jared talked us through the new album, the changing face of punk, politics and the importance of understanding one another.
Eoin Murray: So you were out celebrating last night. As a band, you’ve often spoke about how constraining labels can be, how have you kept the working relationship with Vice so productive?
Jared Swilley: We’ve stayed with Vice because other labels are weird and a pain in the ass. And we’ve been with them for so long it’s become like a family thing. We’re big into loyalty, and besides, there aren’t many other labels out there that we’d be cool with. They’re not a traditional label. I couldn’t imagine having a major label with all their fucking rules, telling us to write or release things a certain way. All we want is an outlet from where we can do whatever we want without supervision.
Eoin: Yeah, you’ve never struck me as a band who would want to abide by other people’s rules…
Jared: We all have this disease called ODD. or Oppositional Defiance Disorder. I mean, we made it up… but I’m sure it could be real. I just have a very difficult time being told what to do. I have such a hard time being told what to do that if someone tells me not to do something then I pretty much have to do it. I guess I have to be more careful nowadays though. We’re living in very sensitive cultural times so you have to be very cautious about everything you say, which is kind of annoying and anti-punk and it goes against everything I believed in before, but I guess that’s the times we’re living in. You have to think about everything you say before you say it.
Eoin: Does it get on your nerves?
Jared: Oh you know, I was raised by good parents in a Christian household. I’ve learned to bite my tongue and think about what I’m saying before I say it. I’m big on manners. Human decency and being kind to people is important.
“We all have this disease called ODD. or Oppositional Defiance Disorder.”
Eoin: So have you started being more careful about who you pick fights with or what you say in your music?
Jared: When we started we were just kids going out looking for a fight. Trouble follows you anyway, but now that I’m older I sort of go out of my way to avoid it. But I don’t censor myself lyrically. I like to believe I’m very thoughtful with what I write anyway, but sometimes you just can’t win. It’s so anti-punk, but even now talking to you I feel I need to be very careful about what I say in case something gets misconstrued.
Eoin: Have you been misconstrued before?
Jared: Yeah, pretty recently. There’s a song on the new album called Crystal Night, and it’s basically an anti-Nazi song. Not overtly, like not in the traditional sense… But I mean, who doesn’t hate Nazis? It’s a duet I did with our saxophone player Zumi who’s Jewish. We were trying to think of the most tragic way that a person could be ripped away from their lover, a situation where you meet someone and fall in love with them but then the next day you can’t find them and you don’t know if they’re alive or dead because the Nazis took them away. Obviously none of us are old enough to have experienced that first hand, but it was a hypothetical situation we were imagining. How tragic would that be? How brutal? And then at the end of the song the two characters meet in Heaven when they’re both dead.
Anyway, some people who’ve heard that song are now saying that it’s controversial. How is that controversial? We’re saying that Nazis are fucking evil! It’s most evil thing we could think of. People are saying it’s controversial because “we weren’t there.” Of course we weren’t there. But why would you limit yourself and your art to only your immediate experiences? That’s lame. The great thing about art is that you can take other experiences and try and understand them.
Eoin: Of course.
Jared: You should be able to write about… Look here I go. I’m seizing up now because I don’t want to say anything that will get me in trouble. But look, there shouldn’t be limits on art. For example, maybe it’s because of the political climate, but I’ve gotten really back into bands like Crass. They’re one of my favourite punk bands because they just said whatever the fuck they wanted. And no, I didn’t agree with a lot of the things they said in their music, politically or otherwise, but at least they were honest. I admired that.
Eoin: Do you think the Internet and Social Media are big factors in all this?
Jared: It kind of feels like a new form of McCarthyism sometimes, yeah. People have such short attention spans and no one wants to hear what you’re actually talking about. They just take a headline or a snippet and go on the attack. That’s not the world I want to live in. I want to live in a world where there’s an exchange of ideas. If you disagree with me then talk to me about it and we’ll figure it out. It’s hard to get by as a rational, normal person nowadays.
“People have such short attention spans and no one wants to hear what you’re actually talking about. They just take a headline or a snippet and go on the attack. That’s not the world I want to live in.”
Eoin: So, this album then, Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art? Tell us about it.
Jared: This is our ‘do-or-die’ album. We were at a point where we either wanted to make something really good that we were really proud of, or not do it all. I couldn’t just make another album that I didn’t feel great about. It started to feel like we were going through the motions and I just didn’t want to do that anymore. It was a case of doing it right or not being a band anymore.
Eoin: There was quite a significant line-up shift. And recruiting Sean Lennon must have had quite the impact…
Jared: Sean saved the day and invited us to record at his home studio in LA. Our drummer Joe (Bradley) didn’t want to go for a few reasons, so he left the band. It was amicable though, you know, we had a meeting in my house and we talked it all out. He was in a creative spot where he wanted to do something different. There were tears, we hugged it out. We’re all still great buddies, I stayed over at his house the other night.
So we went up to Sean’s without any drummer and started writing. Then we got Oakley (Munson) on board, who just happened to live 30 minutes away and something just clicked. It just all went so well, it’s going to be one of the fondest memories of my life. It’s my favourite album that we’ve done… well maybe second favourite…. Well, my favourite since we’ve been grown-ups.
Eoin: What does “Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art” mean?
Jared: I’d love to have a very thoughtful and considered answer for what it means, but the truth is, where I’m from is a very religious area and outside all the Pentecostal and Evangelical churches they always have these signs with messages of the week on them. I mean, they’re usually pretty benign but sometimes they can be colourful and really quite bizarre. So that was one of them that I liked. I just like stuff like that. It’s so open to interpretation. I guess some people might look at our record like it’s blasphemy; others might look at it like a nice piece of art.
“The whole idea of the Sid Vicious punk is really dated and juvenile. I’m 33 now, I’m not going to flip off old ladies and yell “cunt” at them, am I?”
Eoin: Individual perception and interpretation is obviously really important to you…
Jared: Everyone looks at everything differently, art or otherwise. You know, for example I really don’t think that anyone is inherently evil. There are people who are psychopaths or sociopaths sure, but that’s a mental illness. Most people want to do the right thing. Even people I don’t like, even people I disagree with, I want to see where they’re coming from or why they think the way they do. In their minds they’re doing the right thing. When someone crosses me I always try to understand where they’re coming from; why they are the way they are. Who knows what the fuck people are going through? People don’t take the time to understand one another.
So everything is up to individual perception, yeah. Everything. Is it satanic or is it godly? It’s always up for interpretation. It’s always down to perspective.
Eoin: Maybe that’s where punk is supposed to go? Instead of going out looking for fights and looking for liberation through rebellion, punk now should be about liberation through acceptance and embracing of differences?
Jared: Punk has always been about freedom. When it started and even when we started it was reactionary. We’ve progressed so much from some of that shit now that punk needs to become about understanding and a free exchange of ideas, about how to decently deal with each other and talk to each other. The whole idea of the Sid Vicious punk is really dated and juvenile. I’m 33 now, I’m not going to flip off old ladies and yell “cunt” at them, am I? Differences are awesome and learning to understand them is awesome.
Eoin: Lots of kids see you and your band as a big influence. They really admire you and what you do. Are these all messages you think you’re putting across through The Black Lips?
Jared: Absolutely. Every male in my family is preacher, and I’m definitely still in the family business in a different way. I try to set a good example for the kids that come see us. I do think rock ‘n’ roll itself is kind of like preaching a message of freedom. Life’s fucking tough and you need a release, whether that’s through rock ‘n’ roll, or religion, or whatever. At the end of the day we all have the same primal desires and people want to have fun and like each other. Art helps people belong. That’s why I hate any form of censorship of expression. It’s so liberating when you can create and enjoy what other people create. It’s a great way of creating empathy. It’s a beautiful thing.
Eoin: So that’s the message people should take from this record?
Jared: We never really have a straight message. I don’t like telling people what to do. Just be free, just be you. We’re not here very long. We have such a finite time on this planet, why would you spend your time being mad at someone else? Let’s just party while we’re here, you’re going to die eventually anyway. This is what I was born to do, this is my calling, and I’m going to have a damn good time doing it.
Black Lips‘ Satan’s Grafitti Or God’s Art? is out 5th May via Vice Records.