Garage full of energy

September 28, 2007


  Weird, over-the-top bands tend to attract weird, over-the-top fans. Witness the incident that recently greeted Atlanta garage-rockers and self-proclaimed "flower punks" the Black Lips when their tour stopped in New York.

With no prodding from the musicians, a 57-year-old fan wearing Rollerblades climbed to the top of the giant stainless steel globe in front of the Trump International Hotel and Tower at Columbus Circle and tossed fliers advertising the gig to the passersby below. The New York newspapers reported that he was arrested for disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing. The band says the man got out of jail and came right to the show.

"That was really, really surreal," bassist Jared Swilley says. "He was just a fan, and he was really old. He reminded me a lot of Sky Saxon. We actually did four shows with [Saxon] and the Seeds a while back. I'm not sure he really knew who we were -- he wasn't all there -- but it was cool."

With their 2003 self-titled debut on Bomp! Records and their new album, "Good Bad Not Evil," on New York's hipster Vice label, the Black Lips have emerged as proud inheritors of the raucous garage-rock sound pioneered by the Seeds, the band that gave us the immortal "Pushin' Too Hard." At the same time, the Georgia group's relentlessly high-energy gigs -- which have been known to include vomiting, urination, spontaneous nudity, fireworks and other forms of drunken debauchery -- have marked it as a band that must be seen to be believed.

"I've always considered the live show the core of what we do," Swilley says. "Touring gets old sometimes -- it seems like we're about two years into this tour right now, and we won't get a break until the holidays -- but this is what we do."

Given their reputation for incendiary antics, is it ever hard to meet the fans' expectations night after night?

"No, and I wouldn't want to play a show if we didn't give it everything we have," Swilley says. "Even if I'm exhausted and everything's gone bad that day, I wouldn't want to play a show where we didn't go all out. Why should anybody in the club care if the band doesn't? Like I said, playing shows is what we do, and we like what we do. Even if we've had 23 [crappy] hours before, this is the one we've been looking forward to."

Swilley, guitarists Cole Alexander and Ben Eberbaugh and drummer Joe Bradley formed the band in 2000. Although they were all still teenagers, they embraced the classic "Nuggets" garage bands of the mid-'60s, updating that sound on several indie singles and building an audience on the road. Just before the start of a tour in December 2002, Eberbaugh was killed when his car was struck by a drunk driver. His bandmates forged ahead, convinced that their friend would have wanted them to continue. (The group is now completed by guitarist Ian "St. Pe" Brown.)

"I think about what Ben would make of the band now all the time," Swilley says. "We've come a long way, and it's kind of hard to believe. I can't believe how many people have been coming out to see us in these places where the first time we played, there were, like, four people. It took a long time, but it's really nice that it's finally happening."

The group memorably played 12 shows over three days during last year's South by Southwest Music Festival, and "Good Bad Not Evil" has been lauded in the pages of Spin and Rolling Stone, with good reason. Songs such as "O Katrina!," which addresses the hurricane as a woman and asks why she had to be so mean, and the country spoof "How Do You Tell a Child That Someone Has Died" offer driving rhythms, memorable hooks, endearingly humorous lyrics and a timeless quality that marks the Black Lips as much more than clowns or mere revivalists.

"The garage crowd is kind of a limited audience," Swilley says. "I still love Bomp! -- that's what got me into all the cool music I'm into now -- but I was never into all the '80s revival stuff. We were never like garage purists, or any kind of purists."

It's true: The words "pure" and "the Black Lips" should probably never be used in the same sentence. But fans, with or without Rollerblades, wouldn't have it any other way.