Jared Swilley of Black Lips says the pranks began when the band threw lit firecrackers at the audience during a show at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Ga., almost six years ago. The owners were understandably incensed, but the band continued pulling similar stunts. During a tour of India in January to promote 200 Million Thousand, singer Cole Alexander used his penis as a guitar pick while performing for the country’s American Idol-like band showcase, Campus Rock Idol. The event organizers weren't happy, and the band was essentially forced out of the country and escaped to Berlin, where it sought refuge at King Khan’s studio. In advance of the group's show tonight at the El Rey Theatre, bassist Swilley spoke to Decider about busking and GZA, while taking a moment to punch a guy in the face.
Decider: How did the collaborations with King Khan and GZA come about?
Jared Swilley: We all grew up influenced by hip-hop and Wu Tang, and share some of the same kind of experiences being part of a scene characterized by disorder. GZA happened to contribute a part to a song of ours called “The Drop I Hold,” and now we have a studio in Atlanta, so we wanted to get in there and collaborate together. Why not? We met up with King Khan in Berlin after the mess in India, and it's so miserable there during the winter. You can't go out, so we spent 10 days there working together on an album.
D: And that album is influenced by gospel?
JS: I've been listening to a lot of gospel. I think it's the most beautiful kind of music. Just thinking about a group of people on a Sunday morning—no drugs, no partying, just connecting with a higher power. Then there's usually a choir joining together on one or two mics, creating this soulful music. So the recording captures the spirit that comes through.
[Swilley drops the phone, and there's a commotion and shouting on his end.]
D: Are you ok?
JS: Sorry, this guy just showed up who tried to kiss my girlfriend a few days ago, so I had to hit him and kick him out. I've got this big ring on, so I cut my hand, too… What were we talking about?
JS: It's the most beautiful thing. We're not into God or anything, but we tried to take that sort of vibe and join it with our music and King Khan.
D: Does the band feel pressure to break or fulfill expectations with this reputation of peeing onstage, kissing each other, and burning drum sets?
JS: We've always done things the way we wanted to. It’s true that our experience affects some of our decision making, but that’s a part of growing up and evolving as a band and as people. The first five or six years were really rough. We had no money. We were lost and crazy and made mistakes, but we learned a lot and suffered through tough times, and I think what we did reflected where we were and who we are. We’re not going to kiss onstage or pee on people because they ask us to, and we’re not going to do it because they don’t want us to. We do what feels right in the moment of performing.
D: In the early days, Black Lips did some busking between shows and ate at homeless shelters. Do any experiences with strangers on the road stand out?
JS: I remember once we were in Fort Collins, Colo. We'd been there for a few weeks, and we were peddling on the street. We had dinner at a homeless shelter, and then made about 70 or 80 dollars on the street. Then we met a girl who had just moved to town and didn't know anyone. She took us to her house, and it ended up being this amazing place with a pool and everything. She treated us really well, and it was gratifying to see some good in the world—that someone would be good to kids, even fucked up kids.
D: Do you think you can set an example for fucked up kids?
JS: I think we can. We work really hard. I work harder now than I've ever worked in my life. I didn't finish high school or go to college, but I'm able to make something of myself with music. We party a lot and don't always behave ourselves like model citizens, but at least we're honest, and we're not just doing things because it will get us attention. We're just fucked up sometimes. We still have to figure things out and live lives that get complicated—you know, like having to interrupt an interview to punch some guy in the face who tried to make out with your girl, and then there you are with a bleeding hand trying to explain yourself.