By Mark Guarino
Sometime after their first, second or maybe third album, bands that are considered sure things receive what they’ve long sought after, to help realize their perfect sonic dream: A fat, larger-than-life recording budget.
Then there are bands like Atlanta’s Black Lips. The band takes refuge in lo-fi recording aesthetics, making albums that push the lead vocals to the forefront, leaving the music to clatter in the background with unvarnished energy and excitement. Out of place in the digital age where everything, especially vocals, can be manipulated and polished by the click of a mouse, the band is best compared to The Troggs, the 1960’s British garage rock band best known for “Wild Thing,” the iconic 1966 single that, to this day, still sounds fresh despite the primitive recording used committing it to tape.
“I’ve heard a million covers of ‘Wild Thing’ but none of them captured that original recording,” said Black Lips lead singer Cole Alexander, 25. “There’s something magical in the tape. The (guitar) riffing on ‘Wild Thing’ is so choppy, it never sounds as great as when they play it. The production technique is what makes it great.”
The Black Lips have no better aspirations than to match that vintage artistry, with songs that sound less produced and more unearthed from a dusty trunk. On “Good Bad Not Evil” (Vice), the band’s fourth album, the guitars stick to simple riffs, sounding as if played from far beyond a hill. The effect dirties the music up and is later transcended by slight psychedelic touches like looped music spiraling in reverse and noisy electronics dissipating into the music like engine exhaust. Despite the grime, the songs remain incessantly poppy, the band’s loopy humor is high on charm. On “Transcendental Lights,” Alexander snarls upbeat lyrics about mortal matter — “death is like birth/and then you’ll fly/a new beginning/let’s give it a try”— while caked in reverb, making the entire experience sound like a keg party thrown by skeletons.
Alexander, bassist Jared Swilley and drummer Joe Bradley met as teenagers, encouraged by the underground punk scene in the Atlanta suburbs. By then, Alexander had already been enamored by cheap recording techniques: He created his demos by playing along to a boombox while a second boombox recorded the results. After releasing a debut album in 2002, the band was poised to hit the road for their inaugural tour when tragedy struck: Original guitarist Ben Eberbaugh was killed instantly when an out-of-control driver smashed into his car after going the wrong way down the highway. The rest of the band canceled the first date of the tour to attend his funeral but hopped into the van the day he was buried.
“We knew he really wanted to do this band and tour, it was his dream,” said Alexander. “After everything we worked for, if we gave up, he would have been bummed.”
Despite the hooligan humor, death is always nearby in Black Lips songs, haunting the music through devastating lyrics and twisted production. On “Good Bad,” the band transforms into a shuffling country band for “How Do You Tell a Child Someone Has Died?” Dense with dark humor, the song recites all the clichés children are told about death.
The Black Lips gained national notoriety with “Los Valiente Del Mundo Nuevo,” the band’s Vice debut. Despite the mariachi band and crowd chatter in Spanish, the album’s claim that it was recorded in a dive bar in Tijuana, Mexico was immediately disputed and considered a prank worthy of Andy Kaufman. Alexander blames the perfect recording skills of producer John Reis whose concentrated efforts to capture every breaking bottle and vocal noise, made it sound too much of a replication.
Despite the band’s reputation for unhinged live performances (shows include psychedelic projections created by oil lamps), Alexander said he wants to cut down on touring to turn the Black Lips into a studio band. His dream? “Bring lo-fi music to the masses,” he said. “To have a four-track dream cassette recorded on a boombox played on the radio.”