Rock and roll is a mess of contradictions, a central one being that a rock band, in order to live a life of zero responsibility, must sacrifice, practice, display determination, and maintain a Spartan work ethic in order to succeed. It's surprising to talk to a band of yahoos and find out just how much focus and dedication goes into such mindless mayhem. Case in point: Atlanta's Black Lips. Formed as a band of high-school delinquents, these prolific garage-rocking lunatics have broken countless on-stage taboos in pursuit of precious punk oblivion — but they've done it all with a steely resolve that has enabled them not only to preach the good word the world over but also to outlast their early-'00s garage-revival contemporaries.
WINNING LOSERS: "We're professional at being fuck-ups," says Black Lips frontman Cole Alexander (bottom, center), "and it's an easy job for us because it's not an act."
"Basically, our job is to be fuck-ups," says laconic Lips frontman Cole Alexander. "We work hard, but we've had this kind of professional amateur vibe our whole careers. We're professional at being fuck-ups, and it's an easy job for us because it's not an act."
Cole isn't kidding. Chances are, if you've heard of the band, it's because of their extreme behavior, whether it's their crazy live shows (which have included vomiting, pyromania, water sports, and on-stage make-out sessions) or maybe their recent ouster from the Indian subcontinent (see "Battle of the Banned," below). "When we first started, we weren't a very good band, technically, so we'd do all these antics to make up for it, just to entertain people. And then touring all the time, we'd learn all these punk gimmicks. Of course, touring also taught us a lot about having a work ethic, and how to actually play."
If indeed the band's reputation has begun to overshadow their music, their new 200 Million Thousand (Vice) — their sixth long-player in as many years — might be their best chance of evening out the experience. From the searingly lysergic lead guitar of rumbling opener "Take My Heart" to the psychedelic hip-hop of "The Drop I Hold" to the art-damaged sound collage of closer "I Saw God," they're at the peak of their powers, and the album bursts from the constraints of what's expected of garage rock.
"When we were kids," says Alexander, "we grew up listening to oldies, and we always loved those tough oldies like, you know, 'Wild Thing' by the Troggs and 'Satisfaction' by the Stones. Then we got super into punk music getting out of high school, and we realized that a lot of times the oldies, the really tough ones, sounded more punk than the punk songs that were coming out in the '80s and '90s. We were trying to tap the roots of early punk, when it was really dirty and stuff, trying to find the earliest form of punk. You know, researching old music, like old gospel music from the '40s and '50s with preachers screaming their asses off. We've gotten more experimental in recent years too — we never wanted to be purists by any means."
Their experimental streak isn't just musical but geographical — the Lips attempt to walk (or stumble) outside the lines of where rock bands are supposed to play. Their reputation for a good time spread faster than the Internet could carry it, and before long, show offers from far-flung fan bases in Brazil and Indonesia started rolling in.
"If big corporations can globalize pop music," Alexander continues, "why can't some poor kids from the suburbs globalize punk? Rock shows feel pretty universal in most 'Westernized' countries, but when we played Palestine and India, we noticed a difference — this kind of curiosity in the audience that was endearing. In Palestine we played in front of a mosque, and kids started coming out, and then their dads would come out and try to push them away. It was strange to play a place where the people are really at odds with the United States, but the politics didn't really matter; all of that kind of melts away once you start playing music. We all got along."
BLACK LIPS + GENTLEMAN JESSE AND HIS MEN + MEAN CREEK | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | March 7 at 9 pm | $12 | 617.864.EAST orwww.mideastclub.com