The Black Lips Were Told They’d End Up Working at a Gas Station

Black Keys

This post was written by Jill Krasny, a new contributor to the blog. Jill is a freelance journalist based in New York covering lifestyle and culture. Her work has been featured in Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and Jezebel.

Though they have yet to hit the Top 40, the Black Lips could easily take credit for bringing garage rock into the mainstream. Since their inception in 2004, the Atlanta-based quartet has managed to put their stamp on the retro-punk sound, progressing it from mere imitation to party-ready anthems helmed by the likes of producer Mark Ronson.

Lead bass player Jared Swiley spoke to Opening Lines last spring about what inspires him to create the kind of unhinged punk that reflects the band’s low-key interests. Making music was less about achieving stardom and more about building a fan base that would allow them to keep doing what they love, he says. Mainly: skateboarding and booze-soaked destruction. So it’s no surprise that in early 2007, when the band was just blowing up, The New York Times dubbed them the hardest working musicians at SXSW. Their beloved tour van, Big Pinky, clocked nearly 176,000 miles, and they never said no to a gig.

This tireless work ethic is what sustained the Black Lips in their darkest hours, particularly in December 2002 when, just days before the band was to embark on an East Coast and Midwest tour, guitarist Ben Eberbaugh was killed in a freak auto accident. When Eberbaugh’s parents urged the band to continue, the band decided they’d never look back, and it’s been mostly uphill from there. Banned from a long list of reputable venues and chased out of India in 2009, the band has become just as known for their stage antics as they are for creating great music.

Swiley talked to Opening Lines about being told he wouldn’t amount to anything in high school and why giving 110% isn’t good enough for bands just getting started in the music industry today.

Opening Lines: When did you first become interested in music?

Swiley: Most of my family members are musicians, so I was always around it. I knew from a very early age. My dad was really into soul and stuff, and I thought that was really cool. Then in elementary school, or early middle school, I started getting into skateboarding and the older kids were playing punk stuff, and I thought it was super badass.

I think around sixth grade, I decided that I wanted to be in a band. I used to make cassettes and stuff. Eventually, I started to learn how to kind of play bass, so I played a lot, and never stopped. And I always kind of knew that was what I wanted to do.

OL: What drew you to the bass guitar?

Swiley: The guitar seemed too hard. I didn’t like to play guitar. We started setting up a band and one kid really knew how to play guitar, so we had that down, so I was just like, ‘I’ll be bass.’ It was a last minute decision, but I can play guitar now. I can play drums. But yeah, in the beginning, I played bass pretty badly, but I got better.

OL: What was the band like that you started in school?

Swiley: Kind of like us, but really, really, really shitty. And really offbeat, out of key and sloppy. It was in the same vein and same spirit that we have.

We were all told there was no way we would amount to anything, we’d be working at a gas station. It’s kind of cool now because we’re more successful than the teachers who told us that.

OL: How did skateboarding culture impact your sound?

Swiley: Well we were around a lot of people who were into punk rock. When I first started, Thrasher Magazine was really big and Notes from the Underground, and that’s where I found out about a lot of bands. They used to do these mixtapes of like 80s hardcore and stuff. That’s what the other kids who skateboarded listened to — primarily punk and stuff like that — and in the suburb where I grew up, everybody skateboarded. You’d meet after school.

OL: Do you think growing up in the suburbs of Georgia had any impact on your sound? You’re pretty rebellious for a group of Georgia kids.

Swiley: Yeah it had a big impact on us because Georgia is very religious and very,very conservative, so it was very easy to offend people. Things are real strict and sometimes backwards, so then it’s kind of like you automatically want to kind of tell everyone to fuck off. We had a lot of redneck jocks and stuff at our school so everyone would make out with each other at school and freak them out and like get naked and stuff. But that was a big part of it. The suburb we grew up in was kind of upper-middle class, so it was real strict and it was fun to break stuff and try and get in trouble because, I guess that like every teenager, somebody tells them not to do something and they want to do it and we kind of took it to the next level.

OL: I’m guessing your parents weren’t exactly pleased with this, right?

Swiley: No. (laughs) We get along great now, but I feel sorry for them. I put them through a lot in high school. One Christmas eve, my mom woke me up because the garage and the driveway and my bedroom were filled with stolen Christmas decorations, just tons and tons of them. And apparently a bunch of the neighbors houses were smashed in the front yard. Right before we were about to go to my grandparents for Christmas dinner, a detective and a few neighbors showed up and I got in a lot of trouble for that.

When I was 16, I got sent away to a boot camp in Montana for three months. So I put my mother through a lot of stress during those years. And I’ve apologized to her since.

OL: I’m sure she forgives you. So when you were sent away to camp were you playing music at all? What role did music have in your life at that point?

Swiley: Well, during that time we were actually recording the first Black Lips’ single, and then I got taken away, I got kind of kidnapped, and they had to finish the first single without me. I don’t even know if I’m on the first single. I might not be. I can’t remember. They had to get someone to play for me. And when I got back from it, they had booked a house show around town and they had me on house arrest and I wasn’t allowed to leave. But Cole [Alexander, the band’s singer-guitar] came over and I jumped off my roof and snuck out, went downtown and played a house party.

OL: Do you think that music plays the same role in your life that it always has, or has it changed as you’ve gotten older?

Swiley: No, no it hasn’t. I mean I still feel the same as when we first started playing. It’s just been like a continuous thing. We’ve been doing it pretty close to 11 years now. It’s still important to me and we’re still every bit as passionate about it, if not more so.

OL: Is the music still tied to a sense of rebellion for you?

Swiley: Now, the rebellion is kind of like a ‘fuck you’ to everyone who said we couldn’t do it and all our teachers who said that. A few of us got kicked out of high school and we were all told there was no way we would amount to anything, we’d be working at a gas station. It’s kind of cool now because we’re more successful than the teachers who told us that. And it feels really good. That’s kind of a rebellion in a way: they say you can’t do it, we’re like, well, we can.

OL: What would you say to kids hoping to get their start in music?

Swiley: I would say just do it, and if you’re going to do it, put in 120 percent, because 110 percent isn’t good enough anymore. There are a lot of bands out there. And do it for good reasons. Honest reasons. We didn’t set out trying to become famous. We wanted to be able to do it for a living and we’ve done better than that.

OL: You lost a band member early on in your career. Was there ever a moment where you thought, Maybe we should quit now?

Swiley: No, not at all. In fact, it brought us together. His parents were very encouraging. Right before our first album came out, we had a big tour and we canceled the first couple dates because we had to go to the funeral, but his parents were pretty adamant about us going on the tour and keep doing it. They were very supportive about that. There was never a moment where we thought we wouldn’t do it.

I don’t even know if I’m on the first single. I might not be. I got kind of kidnapped, and they had to finish the first single without me.

OL: Authenticity is such a huge theme for you guys. Why is that?

Swiley: It just goes with everything that we stand for.

OL: Do you think the sounds that you identify with also play a role? For example, Southern hip hop, the 13th Floor Elevators, these really gritty 60s garage bands. How do they shape your music now?

Swiley: Well, 13th Floor Elevators is definitely like a sound, an aesthetic. They’re psychedelia and how far ahead of their time they were and how timeless it still sounds. Southern hip hop doesn’t totally affect our sound. We like it a lot. I guess we’ve used samples and stuff and we like their attitude, I guess. Outkast for sure, they were so advanced. It wasn’t just like money, bitches. They were really creative.

OL: How do you guys feel about the hipster label? Is that something you embrace?

Swiley: A hipster is just an individual. I’ve never thought of that as a bad thing. I mean, we’re on Vice Records, so we’re going to get that no mater what. I don’t really care.

OL: That’s a good response. Do you feel more mature now?

Swiley: No, honestly, I still feel like I’m 21 years old or 18 or whatever. We don’t do as much. Our first few years were ridiculously immature. Now we’re adults — adults with responsibilities — but we still have the same spirit that we did when we were trashing the homes.

OL: You’re still smashing bottles, though, right?

Swiley: We still smash bottles.

OL: Is there anything you wish you could change about your career?

Swiley: No, not at all. I have no regrets and am really happy with where we are now. I think there’s been bumps along the way, but I’m very, very, very happy at the place where we’re at now. I couldn’t ask for more. To quote my man Charlie Sheen, we have a 100% success rate.

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