“Black Lips live and ready, how ya doing Lauren?”
The Black Lips’ drummer Joe Bradley greeted me over the phone in a Southern drawl as the band traveled by van to Boise, Idaho for its tour in support of its newest record. As it has been deeply emphasized in recent music publications, the Atlanta flower-punks set out to record Arabia Mountain with help from Grammy decorated producer Mark Ronson. The result? A lo-fi, bittersweet compilation of catchy punk songs with pop hooks. Lyrically speaking, the content ranges from inspirational theme songs to tales of Spiderman’s alleged childhood molestation.
Kids Like You And Me spoke with Bradley to discuss the climax of project Arabia Mountain: The album release after months of dedication, and the resulting 24/7 party that is The Black Lips’ current support tour.
Kids Like You And Me: So first of all, how is the tour going?
Joe Bradley: The tour’s going great, much like the past two months in key locations across the globe. It’s been a party every night, and we’ve been getting a decent response from the audiences. You can’t complain when you’re enjoying your lifestyle.
KLYAM: Prior to the release Arabia Mountain, there was the inevitable album leak and you guys played songs off the new record at live shows. Now that the album is readily available to the fans, have you noticed a change at the shows now versus before, when the album wasn’t out yet?
JB: It would be hard to have a conclusive observation of that. We’re still playing a new market, including songs that we hadn’t played before the album came out. But I imagine that when audiences have access to the new material, even in the two weeks before the drop date when the album is leaked, it allows them to become more familiar with the songs and perhaps enjoy them even more during the live set.
KLYAM: Did you guys intentionally play a lot of yet-to-be released songs at live shows before the album dropped?
JB: We’ve never been a band that gets together and practices. We’ve probably only practiced about 20 times in the past ten or eleven years we’ve been around. So we try the new songs at soundcheck, and if we think we can play them well enough to perform then we will. There’s always room for improvement, but that’s what the live show is for.
It’s good to get used to playing your new material. As far as doling it out, we don’t wanna play all new songs. When you go to see a band you wanna hear the songs you know. So we try to get that mix in there.
KLYAM: Your last album was well received by several media outlets, but interviews with you guys have indicated that the band wasn’t satisfied with 200 Million Thousand as a whole. What sparked these sentiments?
JB: I’ll go on record saying that I love 200 Million Thousand. I don’t know if that opinion is shared across the board, but I think there’s some really great songs on that album. Sure, the production might have been a bit hurried along, and we may have put it out before it was really done…but I think parts of that album are really memorable. I’m not going to slag something that we worked on, even if it wasn’t the best that it could possibly be, I think it’s a great album. I mean, “Starting Over” is a great song.
KLYAM: With all the extra time spent recording Arabia Mountain, was the ultimate goal to become better musicians or to make the album more commercially successful?
JB: There weren’t any media goals, well, media-conscious goals. Going back to your last question, we had kind of rushed to put out 200 Million Thousand. For this album we wanted to be sure that it was the best it could possibly be before we put it out. We didn’t put a deadline on it. It took four recording sessions to get 33 songs recorded, and then narrow those down to 16.
We have four song writers, so we just kept writing songs and recording until everyone in the band and at the record label was satisfied. They wanted us to work with a producer, so we asked Mark Ronson and he was totally down to do it. He brought a great 80s-pop sensibility to the studio and has a great ear for sound preferences, like instrument tones. He has a vast knowledge on old microphones and… just knew exactly what he wanted us to sound like. With all those elements together, the final product was really consistent and everyone was happy with it.
KLYAM: What was the most significant input that Mark Ronson had on the album?
JB: There’s a track on the album titled “Mister Driver“. Originally it started out as as punk song, and Mark came in and said it wasn’t going to work. So he had Cole do more choppy guitar strokes and sing the chorus in a different way. He also had Ian tune his guitar down, and I came up with a new drum beat. The formula for the song completely changed.
KLYAM: Other members of your the band have expressed the desire to achieve commercial success on a larger scale with the release of this album. Do you think this approach affects the art of the overall writing process?
JB: That’s always going to be a possibility, but was it a conscious effort on our part? No, I don’t think so. If you review anything from our back catalog you’ll find various mixes of everything we still do today, and that includes pop songs. A pop song doesn’t have to be machine made and massed produced. It can just be something that’s catchy, gets stuck in your head, and is easy to listen to. We like to keep it simple. One of our slogans from back in the day was “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. Don’t overthink things. Don’t try harder than you really need to, because then you’re just wasting energy when it’s all going to come out alright. We don’t try to second guess ourselves either. I don’t think a commercially successful album was our main intent when writing these songs.
KLYAM: Do you have a preconceived vision of how you want songs to sound before writing and recording?
JB: Sometimes songs need to start out as a melody in your head, or you may have some really cool ideas for lyrics. Honestly, trying to force songwriting is difficult. I prefer the method of letting various parts of the composition come together at their own will. There’s a lot of times when you can have all of your music recorded but you’re stuck on the lyrics, so you’ll end up singing nonsense sounds or made up words over the music itself, and from that you can achieve some type of cohesive lyrics. It’s like reaching into a pile of goo and pulling out a diamond. It could happen! We don’t have a particular method of songwriting, it goes either way.
KLYAM: Is there a lot of contribution and input from the other members when you write your own songs?
JB: That, too, is on a song to song basis. There are various songs we’ve worked on together by writing different parts, but occasionally one of us will write all of the parts to a song and then show the other members how to play it. Everyone has their own touch and puts their own feel into it. Everyone contributes at least something to every one of our songs. As a general rule of thumb, people can tell who wrote the song based on who sings it. This isn’t the case when we write songs together, or when someone writes a song and someone else ends up singing it.
KLYAM: You play guitar, bass, and keyboards in addition to drums. Did you try to utilize all of these talents in the studio?
JB: I played bass, guitar, and several different organs on this album in addition to the drumming. On “The Lie” I do finger-picking on an acoustic guitar. I’ve played brass instruments on past recordings of ours, but I don’t think I did anything like that on this new album.
KLYAM: The bands that you guys play with seem to possess the same aesthetic value as Black Lips. Is there a particular act that sticks out that seemed to best compliment you guys for a particular tour?
JB: The Spits, The King Khan & BBQ Show as well as King Khan & the Shrines, The Demon’s Claws… that’s the old family right there. But there are some new bands coming up right now. I don’t know if they’re necessarily complimentary, but the band we’re on tour with now is Cerebral Ballzy. They’re this hardcore punk band from New York. It’s more contrasting than complimentary, but I think it’s great. We always like to bring out new support acts that won’t necessarily highlight or accent what we’re trying to do. We want to offer some diversity to audiences, but also something enjoyable and familiar.
KLYAM: Is there anyone you really want to tour with that you haven’t?
JB: I can’t really think of anything… we usually end up playing with- Well wait, Ian’s saying King Tuff. Our buddies Gentlemen Jessie & His Men did a tour with King Tuff about a year and half or two years ago. They said it was really cool.
KLYAM: How does the band decide upon which new songs to add to its usual set-list? From your most recent tours, you have seemed to enjoy playing “Family Tree,” “Modern Art,” “Go Out and Get It,” “Raw Meat,” and “Dumpster Dive”.
JB: It depends on how often we’ve played a song. Sometimes it depends on what the audience is looking like. If it’s a punk audience, we might skew our setlist to be a little more upbeat. If there are more indie rock, artsy fartsy types of people we might play some of the weirder songs we have catalogued. Or, just whatever we damn well feel like, really.
KLYAM: What’s your favorite song to play live from the bands’ current discography?
JB: I like to play “Dumpster Dive” a lot. “Take Me Home (Back to Boone)” off of Let it Bloom is fun to play too. It’s fast, and gets people dancing.
With that, the interview rounded off, leaving me with a newfound perspective on the Black Lips’ approach to band growth.
For more than a decade, the Black Lips have built a cult-like following without relying on insincere, label-generated tactics that some artists use to build a fan base. Known for its unpredictability, the band might play a relatively tame set one night only to have members at the next show vomiting, urinating, and brandishing their dicks like swords. In a similar fashion, The Black Lips approached recording their last album with little time and editing, then took ample time to meticulously perfect Arabia Mountain.
Ronson’s highly-publicized affiliation with the album is warrantable. The songs admittedly have a better sound quality than past productions, but the fine tuning doesn’t overwhelm the album. The jarring stylistic quirks that personify The Black Lips still shine through and characterize the album.
The relatively unprecedented mainstream hype surrounding Black Lips in the wake of its new release might prompt some changes. The band might venture into a realm of popularity that spans beyond underground music scenes. And honestly? Good for them. Whether you’ve permanently inked “Panama City Beach 3003” to your body or are just seeing the Black Lips for the first time on the cover of Spin Magazine, know this: No bullshit, this band is the real deal.
Arabia Mountain‘s mainstream success might be the key to penetrating the hearts and creative minds of kids who need to hear a band as gritty and influential as The Black Lips. Diehard Black Lips fans needn’t worry about what these guys will do next. They’re still acting like the Bad Kids they’ve been all along…at this point in the game, they’ve just perfected the art of doing so.