Photography: Danny Dodge
Have you heard Jared Swilley’s voice? It’s raspy like a rust encrusted kazoo chewed up by hedonism, cigarettes and a lack of sleep. His voice rattles. Rich with life’s truest currency, he's got stories. You can tell by the crackle of his hello.
Black Lips are chaos. Atlanta born, the foursome have been in the same band since 1999. They grew up together, they got kicked out of school together and they've been homeless together. They wear crooked smiles and vulturous attire. They are the envy of every man and woman who’s settled for comfort. They are the living.
Their dust scuffing lo-fi garage rock and country songs may not conjure up a typical image of zen, but Black Lips induce clarity. They’re that rare moment of elated calm when you’re on your way somewhere, alone. Maybe you’re on a bus, heading out. The sun splinters your eyes and you smile. You realise things are okay. You are young and you are free. No matter how long Black Lips make music for, they will continue to channel this tender age. Sit, tilt your head back, then rustle up some chaos of your own.
It’s 9am in L.A. and I’m speaking with Swilley [bass, vocals] about growing up, being homeless and avoiding the military. He’s just returned home from a late night recording session, having not yet slept, and we talk about that too. Here is our uncut interview in full.
Black Lips with 'Can't Hold On'
"We don’t really get sick, because we live like cockroaches. I think our immune systems are impervious to everything."
Cool Brother: When you look out at your audience, what do their faces look like?
Jared Swilley: The kids in the front row, you can look in their eyes and see just sheer bliss – and I never know where that’s coming from. Everyone who’s twenty-one, twenty-two is in the very front, and those are the ones who have the most fun at the shows. Like, I go to shows still, but you’ll never see me in the front row. The front row’s for them.
CB: What can you liken that feeling to?
JS: It’s great! I mean, literally, my dream came true. I get to make people happy doing what I love, so it makes me feel blessed and it makes me feel thankful.
CB: What’s more important to you, performance or sound?
JS: Well, performance is everything – I think the live aspect is the most integral part, but I actually prefer the sound. It’s hard to say how we ensure every performance is good though. It’s not something you consciously do… I mean, we wouldn’t be around for this long if we thought about that. It’s just what you do.
CB: What about on a really bad day? Do you have to force it, or does it just come spilling out once you’re on stage?
JS: You can’t be a baby. You’re out there and you have the privilege of being able to perform in front of people, and they’re coming to see you – so you don’t really have that. And we don’t really get sick, because we live like cockroaches. I think our immune systems are impervious to everything. But let’s say you didn’t go to sleep the night before… Well, you just get through it and you let your adrenaline take over. You don’t really have the option to not. I don’t give a shit if I’m feeling tired, or if I’m having a bad night. Someone payed to see you? You better fucking perform, and that’s just the way it is. I don’t care if you have to do a line of something, have a Red Bull, psych yourself up… It’s not your time – you’re there for the people, so you’re just gonna have to do it.
Black Lips with 'Bad Kids'
"I would tell any American kid to drop out of high school. Donʼt go. College is a mafia, professors are evil and tenure is a bad thing."
CB: What did you get kicked out of school for?
JS: Oh, really silly things. The part of America that we’re from is in the south, so it’s a lot more conservative. There’s a whole wave of schools that are just tightening their grip. School shootings started happening, so they started this zero tolerance policy. Cole got kicked out for being late too many times, so he was tardy. I got kicked out for almost the same thing – just, getting caught smoking too many times, or cutting class. It was just a bunch of little things. We weren’t really all that bad, but they started cleaning house. And I wanna thank them for that – they did the best service they could have done, ‘cos they got us out of there earlier and filled my heart with spite. They said that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, and we did – so they really did do us a huge favour.
CB: What did you get up to during your days of expulsion?
JS: Got a job!
CB: What, straight away?
JS: Yeah! Because I was sixteen, so my mum was like, “Fuck you, you’re not living in the house if you’re not going to school…”. We’re hard workers!
CB: Was it creatively enriching?
JS: Oh, hell yeah, it was. Because now we had to do it! They were basically setting us up for either going to the military or going to prison, and I didn’t wanna do that…
CB: If you could give someone dropping out of school some good words of advice right now, what would they be?
JS: I would tell any American kid to drop out of high school, get your [General Equivalency Diploma]. I would tell 90% of American kids, don’t go to college. I mean, go if you’re gonna be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer… Don’t go for any sort of creative degrees, because there are no jobs and you’re going to be in debt forever. You can learn that in your own time. None of these kids need to go to college. I think college is a mafia, I think professors are evil, I think tenure is a bad thing. It’s a factory that they put kids through, and it’s a racket made by the baby boomers.
CB: You said one of the ways you got to where you are now is you wanted to prove everyone wrong. Have you run into any of these people since?
JS: No, unfortunately not! I mean, the closest I’ve come is running into kids I went to high school with. Years later, they’ll either come out to a show, or you’ll see them somewhere. Someone who was kind of really mean to me in high school, but now I’m super cool… But I’m not really mad at them – I just go, “Hey, how’s it going? Good to see you.” But no teachers or anything like that.
CB: It would be great if you got invited back to do a talk at your school. You could make everyone quit.
JS: [Laughs] They would never, ever do that. They hated us, and the feeling was mutual.
Black Lips with 'Raw Meat'
"Yeah, we were homeless, but we chose that kind of life. I was like, ‘Good, now I have an incentive to do my own thing... I wonʼt be spoiled and thereʼs no turning back.ʼ It taught me a good lesson."
CB: Despite having been middle-class kids from suburbia, you chose to be homeless when the band first started out. Can you talk about that?
JS: Yeah, we were homeless, but we chose that kind of life. Our parents said, “Well, if you wanna do this, you can, but you get zero support from here on out.” And I was like, ‘Alright, good, now I have an incentive to do my own thing… I definitely won't be spoiled and there’s no turning back.’ It taught me a good lesson. I think all kids should have that kind of tough love. We didn’t really have another option, but we weren’t living in a tent under a bridge, or anything like that. Homelessness is relative. It’s like middle-class homelessness [laughs] – you’ll always have some place you can stay, couch surfing.
CB: Do you think you’d be where you are now had you not experienced poverty?
JS: Erm, probably not, I don’t think so! Because, if we hadn’t, we probably would have just been lazy or losers and not really had any aspirations.
CB: What are your fondest memories from this time?
JS: Just being in the band. I remember the first time we saw the desert all together – like, wow! I mean, I’m in the desert right now, but when you’re a kid and you’re seeing that for the first time… I really remember that feeling of elation. Or the first time we went to Europe! Just that feeling of being with your friends, like “Oh my God, we’re in Europe!” I don’t think you can recreate that kind of high. I think you only get that in youth and when you experience certain things… I bet having a kid’s like that feeling.
CB: Can you describe your first ever show?
JS: Our first ever show was a real mess – a lot of bad things happened. We were in high school and we played this warehouse party with older punk bands. One kid from our school found out about the party, but his mum followed him there… He kicked out her car windshield and she hired a private detective to fuck with the warehouse, which made us look really bad. A girl fell off a half pipe ramp and broke her spinal chord. To this day, she’s still paralysed from the neck down… It was a big deal. I mean, it was an illegal warehouse, so chaotic things like that always happened – but that was our first gig. We didn’t really know how to play. We just tried to dress cool and got naked and stuff.
CB: What’s been the coolest achievement to date?
JS: I think getting my parents’ approval, that was a big thing. When I finally realised that my parents were proud of me. It was probably when they saw us on TV. For them, that was their legitimising thing.
Black Lips with 'Make you Mine' (Live on KEXP)
"I think weʼre gonna do this one on our own, because we know how this kind of musicʼs made. Weʼre making super simple Southern
shit-kicking music. No-one knows how to do that better than we do. Weʼve got like five songs down already."
CB: I heard you’re working on a new album with a country flavour. What can you tell us about it?
JS: It’s sounding so good! We actually only got back from the studio about three hours ago.
CB: Oh no, again?
JS: [Laughs] Well, I have to fly back to Atlanta in a minute anyways, but, yeah, it’s sounding really good. We’ve kind of always been a country band… It’s not gonna be pure country, but it’s our interpretation of country. But, damn, we’ve got like five songs down already – and this is just the start.
CB: What does a late night recording session always consist of when you’re in the studio until 7am?
JS: Things get hazy towards the end, but we’re always having a good time. We work the whole time – it’s just, we always start late. Like, we always say we’re gonna start at six, but that always means eight, which means you don’t actually start making music until ten… Time goes by real fast when you’re there! I kind of get in a delirious mode, because I’m not used to this schedule. Like, Cole is – but you start conforming to it. It makes you a little bit crazy, but in a good way – like, being sleep-deprived and not really knowing what time it is, or anything.
CB: I know you had Mark Ronson work on the last album, after having produced every other one of your albums yourself. What’s the plan for the next release – are you gonna go back to your old ways, or keep working with producers from now on?
JS: I think we’re gonna do this one on our own, because we know how this kind of music’s made – I mean, it’s rock ’n’ roll and country. It’s super simple stuff, it doesn’t really need production. I think we know that better than anyone else! When we’re making a rock record, I like working with producers, because that helps a lot – but we’re just making simple Southern shit-kicking music, so no-one knows how to do that better than we do.
CB: Where do you get your inspiration when you’ve got nothing to write about?
JS: Well, that’s kind of like always! I mean, I’m constantly searching for things to write about – or what to write about, or how to do a song. It gets quite discouraging a lot of the time, but you keep doing stuff until you find what’s good. I’m around a lot of weird people all the time, so that helps. Just living a weird life and reading.
CB: What are you reading at the moment?
JS: Right now, I’m reading this book called Great Balls of Fire. It’s a Jerry Lee Lewis autobiography. And I’m also rereading Gone with the Wind.
CB: Are you always reading two books at the same time?
JS: Kinda, cos sometimes one gets boring – so like a fiction and non-fiction is good. I’m also starting Dr. Allen Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking, which I heard is a miracle, ‘cos I’m also trying to quit smoking too. I lost one of my front teeth recently, and that’s really expensive over here. Plus, smoking is annoying and everyone hates it now… I mean, I like it, but no-one else likes it – and it’s pretty dirty! My mum just quit after forty years of smoking, so I think it’s just going out of fashion.
CB: Please don’t tell me you’re gonna start vaping…
JS: No, no, no, hell no, no, no… Absolutely not! I have too much pride for that. And I can’t chew tobacco anymore, because that’s also bad for my teeth. You’ve just gotta get the power and stop. You’ve gotta suck it up!
Black Lips with 'I'll Be With You'
"Even if youʼre doing yard work, you have to have leather shoes on..."
CB: Who will you be in twenty years’ time?
JS: Well, when I’m fifty-four… See, it’s great, because in country music, you actually age like a fine wine. The older you are, the better you are. I’ll dress my age when I’m fifty-four. I will always have. You wear jeans sometimes, but you always have to have on nice shoes. Even if you’re doing yard work, you have to have leather shoes on. I’ll probably wear braces. Nice haircut, nice Stetson cowboy hat, I’ll just dress like a really cool old man. Sometimes you see these Southern guys, or old Scottish guys who dress like old men and sit in the pub all day, and it’s like, ‘Huh! That looks like a good old man that has some cool stories…’ That’s kind of how I wanna age.
CB: Would you wanna go solo?
JS: I mean, I’ve spent my whole life with Cole. So far, it’s been twenty years professionally playing music together, so we’ll still play. I mean, I play with so many people. Every member of my family is still a musician to this day and I still play with them, so I’ll be playing with someone. It’s my calling.
CB: And what’s your energy gonna be like?
JS: I mean, more mellow than I was when I was eighteen, for sure, but my energy would be pretty good for an old man. I’m not gonna be bouncing off the walls… My energy will be in the way I express myself and the way those goddam kids respect me for being out for so long. But, yeah, my energy will still be of someone who got to really experience life in a cool way – and who got the most out of it.
Catch Black Lips play in the U.K. soon
25th May 2018 – The Garage, London – Black Lips + Friends
Friends, including Insecure Men and other special guests, will DJ back-to-back with Jared Swilley. Tickets available here
26th May 2018 – Strange Waves Fest @ Albert Hall, Manchester – Black Lips w/ Deerhunter, UMO, Sam Evian
3rd June 2018 – All Points East presents, London – w/ Nick Cave, Patti Smith, St. Vincent, Shame
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