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It's often said that hindsight is 20/20, but attempting to put Black Lips' local influence in perspective five years after Good Bad Not Evil catapulted the group onto the indie world stage is a dubious endeavor. Black Lips came to define Atlanta garage rock — and much of the world's view of it — throughout the aughts, but things weren't always wine and roses. Not everyone was head over heels for the group's chaotic, three-chord rock mania. While legions of fans were converted at every show, just as many foes came crawling out of the woodwork. But history has proven that Black Lips' polarizing legacy played a key role in the group's notoriety and ultimate success. Now touring on the heels of the band's most successful outing yet — last year's Arabia Mountain (Vice Records) — singer/guitarist Jared Swilley took a few moments to ruminate on his coming of age in the shadow of the church and the Internet, the fiery passion he encountered with both, and how Black Lips' haters have only boosted the band's career.
The Rob's House era (circa 2005-'09) was a boon for Atlanta's garage-punk scene, which kind of eclipsed a lot of music that wasn't part of that scene at the time. When I wrote about the Atlanta magazine photo shoot at Variety Playhouse in 2008, people complained that amateur-sounding, three-chord bands were getting too much local media coverage. Can you see how that might breed contempt in more accomplished musicians who felt they were being overlooked because they didn't fit into a more buzzed-about scene?
The Rob's House era was a blast. There were so many bands and people doing cool things — kind of a less fucked-up, more fun Die Slaughterhaus. I don't see what there is to complain about when a big group of people are having tons of fun making music. I love three-chord rock: Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, the Ramones. Those are all three-chord musicians that are pretty damn good. I don't get the complaint. It probably got "local media attention" — meaning CL and Stomp and Stammer — because there were a bunch of young, fun rock 'n' roll bands playing parties and shows. A lot of people came out, so there was stuff to write about. Blaming local media for any lack of success is really whiny and lazy. Only you can make things happen. If things aren't happening you probably aren't very good or you aren't trying hard enough. If you don't like what someone is doing creatively then start your own thing doing what you like. That's how a lot of good art is created.
Now that Black Lips are seasoned local vets, does the group feel any sense of responsibility to Atlanta's indie music scene?
I love a lot of Atlanta bands, and there is a sense of camaraderie within the scene. We're on tour with Gringo Star in Italy, and we're doing shows with Atlas Sound in Spain and Portugal next week, and have toured all over with tons of Atlanta musicians. But we aren't totally a part of a local scene anymore. It's time to pass the torch to a younger generation of bands that will hopefully create their own cool thing. [Black Lips] and Deerhunter brought some outside attention to Atlanta's indie scenes, which probably helped draw some attention for other local bands, whereas before, I don't think many people were looking at Atlanta for any kind of indie rock stuff.
You've said that you grew up around your father's church watching people shouting, praying, and crying, and wished that people had the same kind of passion at rock shows. Have you reached a point where you create an environment in which people lose control in similar ways?
You can never re-create the passion of people at church. They aren't drinking — they're thinking about the universe. People at our show do have fun, but they don't believe that when they die, they'll get to hang out with us. Church was always my biggest influence before rock 'n' roll. I thought, "How the hell did all these people get to be so insane?" We're trying to keep that going. And now when we go to countries and places where we've never played before, because of YouTube, audiences act the same. People in Bangkok were doing the same kinds of things as people in Chicago, even though most of those Thai kids hadn't seen us play before. I don't know how people charging the stage at the end of the set started, but now all the kids expect it and they do it.
Black Lips emerged around the time when music in general was finding its place on the Internet, and when people began fuming on online comment sections. Prior to that, when people felt so moved that they had to say something, they'd take the time to compose a thoughtful letter to the editor. How do you think the digital forum has changed the way audiences experience and critique music?
You know that picture of Iggy Pop standing on the edge of the stage, pointing at the audience? That picture says so much, and is so mythologized, because there's no grainy YouTube video that someone shot with their phone. Now, anything you say and any show you play is on the Internet the second you're done. And people have left comments — which can be good and bad. There's nothing you can do about that, and I'm not about fighting change or progress.
Does Black Lips' music attract an inordinate amount of haters?
Haters are great! When Black Lips first started, I'd get kind of bummed about things people said, but at least they were saying something. Hating is a form of jealousy, and really, it's a positive thing. Haters don't realize that they're actually boosting the confidence of the people they're trying to slag. You're doing something right if you have haters, and it's too easy to be an Internet troll, which is the most cowardly thing you can do — post anonymous messages because there are no repercussions.
If you create something that gets people that worked up, you've created art.
I guess so. Deerhunter isn't a super controversial band, but Bradford [Cox] has said and done hilarious and outlandish stuff that people have gotten pissed about. He creates that kind of controversy, which divides people. I remember going on tour with Deerhunter, opening for Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Not many people knew them yet, and during the first show Bradford got heckled by a guy who asked, "What's wrong with you?" He had the perfect comeback, "I have the same disease as Joey Ramone — a broken heart!" Then he started the song. After that tour, people were on MySpace writing hateful shit about how Bradford looks like he was in a concentration camp, or that he needs to eat 10 steaks. He posted these hateful things that people were saying about him as his bio. He's really good at owning his thing.
Black Lips get tagged as a hipster band a lot.
We've gotten the hipster thing real bad, but I don't see how it's an insult. To me, a hipster is a youngish person in their 20s or 30s who's into music, art, or fashion — which is pretty much everybody I know. You know what a hipster isn't? It isn't a dude that's like an accountant who listens to Creed and stuff. He's probably not a hipster. Anybody who uses hipster as a bad word is probably a hipster.
People say things like, "I hate going to Black Lips shows now because there's all these fucking hipsters." Well, are they accosting you? Are they trying to steal your shit? Are they hurting you? Do people's clothes really make you so mad that you can't go out where they go? It's always funny on the Vice website when commenters say things like, "You fucking hipsters. I fucking can't stand this!" Well, why are you on Vice's website? I don't go to Christian websites and say, "I can't stand you Christians, you really get on my nerves!" I don't read a lot of conservative news sites, either, because it doesn't appeal to me. If I don't like something, I don't look at it or listen to it or buy it. I don't like Nickelback. I think they're a shitty band, so I don't listen to it and it doesn't bother me. But people waste so much time devoted to Nickelback-hating! If you hate them that much, don't listen to them.
— Chad Radford
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