With Good Bad Not Evil, the Black Lips seem driven to alienate just about everyone.
In the name of good sportsmanship, it's only fair to reveal that the Black Lips occasionally worried about taking things too far on Good Bad Not Evil. The best example of this might be "Navajo", where, over swamp-fever guitars and galloping drums, the Atlanta-based quartet rattles off a laundry list of First Nations tribes. In the album's liner notes, the lo-fi garage deconstructionists make a noble attempt to explain where they're coming from, noting, "During the old days many pioneers of our great country procreated with Native Americans. Their pure blood lives on in some of the Black Lips today." That's all fine and dandy, but thanks to the cartoonish war whoops that roar up halfway through the track, one can't help wonder if the Lips aren't being a bit smart-assed with their homage.
Reached on the road in Omaha, Nebraska, soft-spoken singer-guitarist Cole Alexander pleads innocence when asked if the Black Lips–which include bassist Jared Swilley, drummer-vocalist Joe Bradley, and guitarist Ian St. Pe–are trying to push the buttons of the hard-core politically correct.
"We were worried that people would think 'Navajo' was racist or something," Alexander admits. "But it's really about the early Puritans that interbred with Native Americans. A lot of them got killed off, but some of them managed to score with the Indian chicks. I think more scoring with the Indians actually went on in South America, but that's because the Catholics were more down with fucking and breeding.
"But anyhow," he continues, "we were worried people would be offended by the song, but me and Jared actually have Indian blood in us from the local Indian tribes in Georgia. I've got some Creek in me, and Jared has Cherokee in him. The song is based on the interbreeding that went on. Where we got worried was in the solo section where we go 'Whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo.' We were like, 'That's too much,' so we took it out. But then at the last minute we went, 'Fuck it' and threw it back on."
Fuck it might as well be the unofficial slogan of the Black Lips, who've been anointed by Rolling Stone as one of rock 'n' roll's must-see acts. That is, of course, if your idea of must-see involves vomiting, sprays of blood, and Alexander's willingness to drink from his own golden fountain on-stage. Add the fact that Alexander sometimes plays his guitar with his dick, and that various members of the Lips have been known to amuse themselves by making out with each other mid song, and you've got the kind of spectacle that turned the Stooges, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Butthole Surfers into legends.
"There's a buzz going on about us, because it's easy to write about our band," Alexander admits. "There are definitely a lot of stories out there about us. But at the same time we're trying not to do that stuff now so we aren't seen as a one-trick pony like GG Allin or GWAR. Sometimes people will see us and go, 'Why didn't you throw up?' It's like, 'I didn't throw up because I didn't have to.' That's a bodily function that only occurs when necessary. But if some people go away disappointed at those shows, most of them understand that we're here to play music."
Good Bad Not Evil makes it abundantly clear that, five albums into their career, the Black Lips–all of whom are still under 25–are determined to play music on their terms. Considering that the hype has led to appearances in every music glossy that matters, the band couldn't have been better positioned to break out of the underground before the album's release. Instead, it's almost like Alexander and company took pains to make sure they didn't become 2007's version of the White Stripes, the Hives, or Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Entirely by design, Good Bad Not Evil is calculated to alienate everyone but lo-fi obsessives.
"What's funny is that this record is really clean-sounding compared to our other ones," Alexander offers. "We made a conscious effort to turn up the vocals so you could hear the lyrics. But it still sounds fucked-up, I guess. Maybe that's because my goal has always been to bring lo-fi music to the masses. One of my personal dreams is to turn on the radio and hear a song recorded on a four-track."
There are moments on Good Bad Not Evil when you can almost imagine that happening. As on past discs, the Black Lips' primary ambition still seems to be out-scuzzing the Gun Club, the Velvet Underground, and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Heavily opiated doesn't even begin to describe how the band comes across on "Step Right Up" and "Lock and Key", both of which sound like '60s garage rock mixed with two litres of cough syrup and a brick of hash. Any suggestions that the Black Lips lack hooks, meanwhile, are shot down by fuzz-blasted retro rockers like "Off the Block" and "I Saw a Ghost (Lean)". Ironically, Good Bad Not Evil finds the Black Lips best positioned to storm the charts of oldies-oriented country radio; in the tradition of Red Sovine's 1976 four-hankie classic "Teddy Bear", the pedal-steel-fortified "How Do You Tell a Child That Someone Has Died?" takes shit-kicker music to tearjerking heights, with Alexander half-singing, half-talking his way through a tale no long-haul trucker could resist.
"I'm big into truck-driving music," the frontman says. "So I was a little worried about how 'How Do You Tell a Child?' came out. It's hard to be convincing when you're talking, because it's almost more like you're acting, which I don't have a lot of experience with. That was hard, man–to get into character I had to sit there and think of sad things."
Hurricane Katrina wasn't evidently one of the things he sat there dwelling on. Give the Black Lips full marks for having the cojones to turn a national tragedy into the embittered love song "O Katrina!" Yet while they were recording Good Bad Not Evil, the band's members did consider whether or not they were taking things too far with lines like, "O Katrina, why you gotta be so mean?"
"We wondered if people would be pissed off about that song, but we're actually really tight with New Orleans," Alexander says. "Ian grew up there, and his family is still there. In the end, though, what I worried about most was that people would think that the song is old news."
The Black Lips play Richard's on Richards tonight (October 11).