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Atlanta punk band Black Lips live at the Fluffer Pit Party all-dayer in LondonPhoto by Carla Salvatore

Catching up with Atlanta’s most notorious flower-punks

Before a triumphant comeback gig/riot in London, we meet the Black Lips to talk global subcultures, trap rappers and the importance of DIY music venues

When I told friends I was maybe interviewing the band the Black Lips, their reactions were less than supportive. “Loool!”, they chimed, “Those guys are going to crucify you.” Their reaction might have something to do with the band’s reputation for being outspoken, uncompromising and raucous in all the wrong places, revelling in the mayhem and destruction left in their wake.

Formed after two members got kicked out of high school, the band rose out of the DIY punk scene in Atlanta, as centred in the infamous ‘Die Slaughterhaus’ (a house that became a DIY venue, hangout for underage kids and, in the long view, the stuff of legend). The hugely influential early albums Let It Bloom, and the excellently named Good Bad Not Evil, were my first loves – the kinds of records where live show and recording blur into one. They’ve famously toured in every continent but Antarctica, the Middle Eastern portion of which was chronicled in a documentary. But while they are seared in my mind as the ultimate (Good) Bad boys, the Black Lips are in fact one of rock’s most consistently touring, dedicated bands, whose sound has freewheeled across seven albums into poppier, psychedelia-leaning territory with an enviable ease – after all, the landscape of guitar music is a very different one to the one they came up in at the turn of the millennium.

As a teenager, this band represented everything that simultaneously terrified me and fascinated me about men. Spitting, puking, pissing, and yet magnetic – it was the kind of powerful, aggressive pull that comes from engaging with something you don’t normally see anywhere else, and maybe shouldn’t be enjoying so much anyway. It was a magnetic force-field used to full effect at the Fluffer Pit Parties show they played this month, where the band smashed through all the hits in a round: crowd 360, stage in the middle. Sweat-drenched, madcap and instinctively joyful, it ended with most of the crowd on the stage too.

It’s a truth universally understood that you’re never going to have the ability to love a band as much as you did when you were a teenager. Me taking my top off at Black Lips concerts is probably the closest thing I have to an indie amnesty. Anyway – I caught up with the bad kids, and spoke to singer-guitarist Cole Alexander, before the riot kicked off. Turns out they were pretty nice guys.

It’s great to see people getting excited for something like the Fluffer Pit Party all-dayers in London. They have a real DIY feel to them, right down to the idea of having bands play in the middle of the audience. But in an atmosphere of authentic live music venues closing down, it’s also an exception. Do you guys have a sense of this shifting landscape?

Cole Alexander: Sometimes it could be good for creativity for people to come up with a newer spot. Some things have to die for other things to be born again. But it’s still annoying when something amazing gets taken down, because sometimes it’s not replaced properly.

I feel like the real, visceral enjoyment of live music that feels like it’s having a moment for young people in London right now is at grime shows.

Cole Alexander: I remember when we first came to England, that was kind of bubbling up! Then maybe I thought, ‘Oh, it’s fallen off.’ But it’s still going strong – that’s cool.

“(Not compromising is) the only thing we know how to do” — Cole Alexander

There’s a huge light on your home city at the moment with the popularity of Atlanta trap music. Are you guys into it?

Cole Alexander: We kind of grew up with that. That was essentially the music back in 1997, when I was a little kid. Now they’ve updated the sound – it’s a little more ethereal, the technology they’re using, so it’s more weird. But essentially it seems tough like old Three 6 Mafia and Pastor Troy. I’m excited – I’ve always liked that kind of music and I’m happy that the mainstream actually like it.

I get the sense that you’ve never compromised your views or your vision as a band. You’re one of the most rock’n’roll bands out there, but you’ve also lasted a long time. I guess I wonder how you guys have managed to not compromise what you do, and how you’ve kept your head above the water all this time?

Cole Alexander: I guess that’s just the only thing we know how to do. As far as the trends go, when we first started it was punk, and then it kind of became garage rock – but we didn’t catch the wave, we kind of missed it. Now, we haven't had an album out for a while, so I feel like it's been cooling off. But we just go with the flow, up or down, not trying to read too much about it, trying to appease people and changing ourselves. Sometimes it lines up (with trends), but it’s not always lined up.

With you guys, the live show and the record have always seemed closely linked, whereas one prevailing trend with musicians seems to be to create a wall of extra production and sound between the live show and the record. Is that something you’ve always been consciously trying to avoid?

Cole Alexander: I think we’re known as more of a live band, and I wanted it to be a recording band, so we try and get them up to the same level. There are some bands that over-produce (their music) and it’s all fancy, and when you see them live it’s not the same. There are other bands, on the other side of the spectrum, who are super lo-fi, recording in their bedroom on a cassette, and when you see them live it sounds way better.

“When we played in the Middle East, I didn’t feel like they had a million subcultures – there were four or five. It was dense, or the subcultures seemed dense, because it was spread thin. I think in the future it will be less and less that way” – Cole Alexander

You’ve always played in unusual places, especially for a band with your on-stage antics – like when you played in India and the Middle East. I get a sense now that it’s those kind of countries, those that aren’t western countries, that subculture is forming more strongly.

Cole Alexander: When we played in the Middle East, I didn’t feel like they had a million subcultures – there were four or five. It was dense, or the subcultures seemed dense, because it was spread thin. I think in the future it will be less and less that way. In Malaysia there’s a great street punk scene. I’ll say though that in Beirut, their scene was strong enough that they could probably get us to some festival, whereas in the other places we were kind of going out on a limb or doing it out of our own pockets because we just wanted to. It takes a lot of time and stress to do that.

What are you guys working on at the moment? What’s next?

Cole Alexander: I think a couple of (studio) sessions – one in LA and one in New York. But we’re just taking our time and seeing what (happens). It’s a lot of uncertainty; you just figure it out. Like last time, we took two years between (albums). I hate to make it take that long, but I’d rather be able to write than just rush it out. 

You can buy tickets for Fluffer Pit Party NO. 8 with TRAAMS, DEMOB HAPPY & ABBATOIR BLUES, this Saturday 18 June, here. This time: no stage, bands in the middle