It’s been 11 years and counting, and THE BLACK LIPS are still rambling on. For the past decade, the four-piece have been misunderstood, misinterpreted, and mislabeled, but their latest effort, Underneath The Rainbow, kicks every negative connotation in the shin by exposing what they’re famous for: virtuosic rock ‘n’ roll. The LP connected them with their roots with most of the recording being done at Nashville’s Haptown and Blackbird Studios while Patrick Carney, Tommy Brenneck, and Ed Rawls assisted with production. The process was somewhat tedious but it forced the band’s reflective and tour-weary “sad songs” to develop and convey emotions at the right volume and tone.
The result sort of established a period piece. Front to back, Underneath The Rainbow is a raw police sketch of their maturity: there’s riff-dominant drives (“Dorner Party”), Neil Young-tinged slow burners (“Justice After All”), and a mixed bag of tunes that show how the Black Lips are constantly perfecting melodies (“Smiling”, “Dandelion Dust”). To get a better sense of where they’re at now, we got together with the Lips during another round of SXSW and discussed their tour habits, milk chugging, and how they’re still willing to do overtime if no one else wants to.
Given how busy you guys have been, how are you enjoying South By so far?
JARED SWILLEY: Umm… you know, it is what it is. The shows we’ve had have been good and we’ve been able to get some work done and stuff but I can’t speak for anyone else. At this point, South By Southwest is just work.
JOE BRADLEY: It’s always a pleasure to see our friends from all over the world in one place.
IAN BROWN: It’s a good opportunity to for press people like yourself. We’ve done this so many times and we’re not looking to get signed. We’ve got that.
Well you guys do have a new album that’s coming out this month. As you’ve mentioned it before, why do you think its your best record to date?
JOE: Well if we don’t say that, who will?
JARED: You have to confidence for it to work. You can’t not rock your own stuff.
JOE: When your stuff sucks, the people who have faith in you will say, “Yeah it sucks”.
COLE ALEXANDER: I don’t even remember saying that (laughs).
Obviously as musicians, you always want to improve. You don’t want to release an album that’s in no way comparable to your previous albums. Would it be fair to say that Underneath The Rainbow continues to represent significant progress?
JOE: As far as music and writing is concerned, the most important thing is to make sure it’s not contrived. You don’t want to express some type of emotion through music that’s not genuine or honest because people will see right through it. I feel like all of efforts to date now have been as genuine as they possibly could be.
IAN: We’re not the best musicians but I think we’re honest musicians and it comes through what we write, what we play, and how we entertain. I think that’s why we’ve had longevity.
I think honesty is the most important tool you can have.
JOE: Absolutely. We can’t all be Lady Gaga and make up our own realities. Like I don’t think Doritos has enough money to sponsor everybody like that.
It’s probably for the better that they don’t. I woke up this morning to a few articles about how Lady Gaga got a performance artist to vomit on her during her show last night.
JARED: On purpose or on accident?
On purpose. They drank some green liquid and proceeded to vomit on her.
JARED: That sounds like a set-up.
COLE: Yeah, I’ve seen that trick done before.
JARED: Yeah, it’s kind of like how KISS used to have blood all over themselves but it was really just corn syrup.
JOE: There was one band we used to always play with and they would chug a gallon of milk before they went on stage and they’d puke it up everywhere.
COLE: They would use food colouring so it would be green, red, and blue, and they’d have rainbow-coloured vomit.
JOE: Your body can only take so much milk as it’s so acidic so it’ll just send it up after a while.
It’s a good thing I don’t like milk. But speaking of rainbows, what song from your new LP would you say was the toughest one to write?
JARED: I personally think they were all really easy.
JOE: There’s not really an exact science to our songwriting process. I’ll be writing a song and often it’ll take me months to even come up with all of the parts just because it hasn’t popped into my head yet. I don’t think any of those songs were particularly hard to write. We have four songwriters too so that always helps. Everybody’s writing.
COLE: It doesn’t end up being too difficult. We always have a surplus of songs.
IAN: We did work with two different producers as I’m sure you know already because you’ve done your research. They put in their little pieces of advice as well.
Does the title Underneath The Rainbow relate to the subject matter that’s on your new record?
JARED: It came from a long list of names and ideas. It’s ambiguous so some stoned kid in his college dorm could think, “Oh man. I bet this means that all around the world there’s all these colours and we’re just underneath it”.
JOE: You never look down to see a rainbow, it’s always above you. So everything you know that’s relative to you is underneath the rainbow.
COLE: We like rainbows.
Having listened to the LP, there’s definitely the feeling of it being a representation of the things you’ve done but at a different level. Why did you feel it’s important to outdo your past efforts?
JARED: You want to keep moving on up. You have to keep trying to outdo yourself because you can’t always get comfortable and just “do this thing”. You should always want to do better.
JOE: It’s good to be satisfied but satisfaction leaves you at a dead end where you end up wanting more. If we don’t want more, then we won’t produce more.
Have you ever had to step out of your comfort zone avoid just being satisfied?
JOE: Yeah, and compromise is important.
JARED: I think we always have one foot in what we do. But we try new things, we’re not purists.
JOE: You can’t be too rigid…
That’s not what rock ‘n’ roll’s about.
JOE: No, not at all (laughs).
JARED: Hell yeah, you said it.
JOE: But don’t tell Johnny Ramone that.
Touching on the idea of being different, why is touring less common places so important to you?
JOE: It’s fun and interesting.
JARED: This is the perfect opportunity to travel. Like last year we went to Thailand and we got to stay for a week and a half, and we can go to Thailand on our own – stay at a hostel, be a tourist – but we were able to go on a tour and be a guest amongst the locals. Touring is just the perfect way to travel so why not take advantage of that.
JOE: Our comfort zone is always going to be there but opportunities to visit different places won’t always be there. Sometimes it’s hard because you spend months and months at home, sitting there with your everyday goods and it can be difficult to step away from that. But once you do, you realize there’s so much more out there.
Absolutely but a lot of musicians do agree with the opposite. They think touring isn’t a great way to see the world because you spend so much of your time doing load-ins, soundcheck, and then you have to pack up and move on to the next place.
JARED: I hear that all the time. Every once in a while, I’ll see an article come up about some seasoned veteran or a band and they’ll say touring isn’t fun and that it’s just sitting around and blah blah blah, but while that is true, it doesn’t have to be like that.
IAN: Eating and celebrating are the two greatest things in life and we get to do that on tour, and even though we’re not tourists, we get shown around places by the locals. I don’t think there’s anything better than that. So basically, tell those cry babies to start shaking some hands. If they want to throw in the towel, then we’ll take it from them.