What do garage rockers the Black Lips and Southern gospel preachers have in common? Turns out, they have plenty in common. Black Lips singer-bassist Jared Swilley and his bandmates have spent the last decade preaching the gospel of fuzzy, jangly rock and bringing it across the world on tour. He would know.
Growing up outside Atlanta, he attended a gospel church, which he describes as a fervent place, full of glossolalia and led by frantic preachers. "You [would] see these people on a Sunday morning, no alcohol, going crazier than I've seen anyone go at a show," he says.
In fact, Swilley is the son of one of these preachers. But don't fill in the blanks with a story of the prodigal, punk playing son of a preacher man. In truth, his family served an important role in his rock 'n' roll (mis)education. It was his father who first introduced him to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, piquing his interest in rock music.
"My family's definitely on the more liberal side of it. They're all musicians too," he says. "My dad's a homosexual."
Perhaps more important than any music or ideology that his family pressed upon Swilley is the sense of showmanship that his upbringing imparted. Watching preachers, as he puts it, "putting on a hell of a show," he knew that if he could put together a live show that harnessed a modicum of that energy, it would be something incredible.
If the Black Lips do anything well, it's just that: They put on a hell of a show. Their live performances are raucous affairs, known to feature bodily fluids and nudity. It might not seem like the stuff of godly men but, hey, have you read the Old Testament lately? And beneath the rock 'n' roll shenanigans of the Black Lips lies perhaps another holdover from Swilley's gospel upbringing: a deep sense of purpose. Though he says he's not religious, Swilley also says that there's a spiritual aspect to his relationship with music. "People need stuff to believe in, and I believe in rock 'n' roll," he says.
Moreover, says Swilley, their antics aren't meant as fingers in the eyes of anyone, but as a service.
"We never go out of our way to be rude or outrageous or anything," he says. "Our whole bottom line is we're entertainers. We just want to put on a show. Sometimes people take it the wrong way."
If his remarks seem flippant, consider the lengths to which Swilley and his bandmates are willing to go to bring their music to those who usually wouldn't get to hear it. They spent 2012 on tour in the Middle East, which was chronicled in last year's documentary Kids Like You & Me.
Fittingly, it started out as a joke, says Swilley. After goofing around about trying to be the first American punk band to play outside Iraq's green zone, the group asked themselves in earnest why bands didn't tour the Middle East more frequently. They began reaching out to people they knew in the region and began putting together a tour.
As it happens, there are a couple of very good reasons more American bands don't tour the Middle East: It's expensive, as all transportation must be done by plane, and there isn't much of a touring circuit to depend upon, says Swilley, as only a few cities in the region, such as Beirut and Cairo, have something that resembles an American music scene. "I'm still kind of surprised we did it," he says.
While in the Middle East, Swilley, of course, managed to find the rock 'n' roll in the religious, regularly recording calls to prayer on his phone.
"They're going through a really crappy speaker at the top of a minaret. It just sounds really awesome," Swilley says. "Obviously we would never use that in our music 'cause it's pretty disrespectful."
Swilley says the tour influenced the Black Lips' music, albeit subconsciously — thankfully so, for those concerned about cultural appropriation and letting the sleeping dogs of psychedelia's sitars lie. Instead, their latest album, Underneath the Rainbow, released last month on Vice Records and co-produced by the Black Keys' Patrick Carney, finds them up to the same old tricks, searching for the sacred in the scummy. "Smiling," the album's standout track, is a song about what a bummer going to jail is — pretty standard tough-guy rock fare. But with lyrics about disappointing one's mother and losing friends, all set to a nostalgic, Ray Davies-esque melody, one gets the sense that it's about more than any of that. Perhaps it's about getting older and still being the kind of guy who writes songs about going to jail.
Though Underneath the Rainbow adheres to the same garage rock thump of their previous efforts, it's part of an overall trajectory within the band's recordings, one in which they grow increasingly hi-fi and ambitious — check the sax and weird noises on "Boys in the Woods." It would appear that their career is following a similar trajectory, emblematic of their appeal, in which the crass gives way to the divine. In a few years, the band has gone from the kind of guys who show their privates onstage to the kind of guys who consider the accessibility of rock music worldwide. Then again, maybe they were both of those kinds of guys the whole time. Hopefully, as their music continues to evolve, they'll keep that part the same.
The Black Lips with Natural Child and Chomp
8:30 p.m. Friday, April 25, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $13 ADV, $15 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.
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