In a just world, the Black Lips would be as popular now as the Beatles were in their 1967 pre–White Album era. There are four of them, median age 25, and all are known for being cute (one-upping the Beatles). Each member has a unique, identifying personality: Joe Bradley is the quietly handsome, steadfast drummer. Cole Alexander is the pretty-faced, potty-mouthed front man with the vomiting problem. Ian Saint Pe is the smiling guitarist with the full gold grill and the numerous visible tattoos. And Jared Swilley is the bass-playing preacher's son, eternally decked out in short shorts, and occasionally a Freddie Mercury-thick mustache. Like the other quartet, the Black Lips released a massive amount of work early on in their career; the current tally is four studio albums, two live albums, 14 singles and four split 7-inches. And they have an upcoming movie project with Springboard Films, titled Let It Be.
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There's a good chance that none of these cuties is wearing pants.
Apparently, the film title is an allusion to the 1984 Replacements album rather than the Beatles' final opus, but the trailer alone provides bountiful comparisons to Richard Lester's 1964 classic A Hard Day's Night, from the mockumentary style to the self-referential script to the inane journalistic questions. Their onscreen band is called the Renegades, which was the name of Alexander, Swilley and Saint Pe's pre–Black Lips band. During a recent phone conversation, Bradley explained that they suggested this moniker to the filmmakers because the script's original band name, the Buck Privates, was less than thrilling, but it's clear that the movie's major theme — making it in the 1980s DIY-era post-punk world responsible for spawning bands like Sonic Youth and Husker Du — finds a kinship with the Black Lips' arduous self-made career, just as A Hard Day's Night depicted the Beatles' frustration with their frantic lifestyle.
A career trajectory such as the Black Lips' seems to bear the imprint of a seasoned record-company impresario, but when I asked Bradley about the existence of a puppet master, he wanted to be clear that their Vice Records G.M., Adam Shore, is no Brian Epstein or Colonel Parker: "Vice provides a lot of opportunities for us, but we know that the hard work won't be done by anyone but ourselves," says Bradley. "We won't ever be forced to do something we don't believe in." There's evidence to support this assertion: Even though much of their time seems spent tumbling, spitting, cursing half-naked, the young men in the Black Lips seem completely self-aware, evident in their sly, upturned grins and sideways glances during interviews (check the hysterical off-the-cuff interview the band did with iFilm at the 2007 SXSW festival).
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But their damn good musicianship seems to be eclipsed by all the press they're getting about all the press they're doing. Documentary videos are available of the Black Lips making interview videos after posing for Rolling Stone photo shoots. Perhaps it's a dose of lingering survivor's guilt from the loss of an original band member, Ben Eberbaugh, who was killed by an asshole drunk driver in 2002, that drives them to nonstop heroic displays of rock & roll stamina. Or maybe it's just a desire to succeed: As Bradley told The New York Times in March of 2007, "I ain't makin' no tortilla sandwiches no more for no yuppies."
As collaborative songwriters, the Black Lips have grown tenfold since their self-titled 2003 Bomp! release. Their newest album, Good Bad Not Evil, is a stylistically wondrous record that begins with experimental garage rock, thrives on Southern roots influences and ends on bare choral harmonies. The catchy, bouncy way with which the Lips perform songs on topics of colossal weight — death in "How Do You Tell a Child That Someone Has Died," religious warfare in "Veni Vidi Vici," natural disasters in "O Katrina!" — is incredibly intelligent. It requires an innate understanding of human emotion to successfully reflect on pain so cutting and transform it into party music without losing a shred of integrity. Sure, it's fantastic to be named the hardest-working band at SXSW, but most press coverage regarding the Black Lips gives their tired feet and blistered fingers more acclaim than the increasingly impressive content those sore appendages have been producing.
Unfortunately (and not surprisingly), the Black Lips' October appearance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien didn't create the same effect as the Beatles' performance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, and there's very little to be done about that. America will probably never unite around a single band that way again; the market's too fragmented. But the lack of unity does make it significantly harder for bands like the Black Lips, and can lead to more focus on the work schedule than on the actual work. "I'd like to think the Beatles had it a lot easier than we did, because the market wasn't so saturated then," says Bradley. "Those types of media outlets were freshly opened for bands. The Beatles were some of the first people to get up and do that circuit. We have a lot more to work against. Plus, the Beatles didn't have to worry about journalists constantly asking questions about them pissing on each other." True, but they did have to answer a shitload of questions about their hair.
For readers picking up the L.A. Weekly on Thurs., Feb. 14, the Black Lips play tonight at the El Rey with Pierced Arrows. Doors open at 8 p.m.