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When Atlanta garage punks the Black Lips went into the New York City studio to record their latest, Arabia Mountain, they brought with them the dried-out skull of some dude once possibly known as Ronald Cornhands, which they bought from one of those freak antique shops on the Lower East Side that sells all kinds of fucked-up shit such as two-headed baby remains and glowing aliens in jars of jelly. The skull—the honorary fifth member of the band, as evidenced by its appearance on the album's cover—was used as a creepy echo chamber during the recording of the disc in what might be a genius musical innovation but is more likely yet another stunt from the wild men known for pissing, puking, stripping and occasionally eating firecrackers onstage.
"I don't think it's legal to have one without documentation, but we just thought it would be so cool to have a skull reverb tank," says bassist Jared Swilley. "The reverb is literally going on inside someone's head."
Even in high school, founding members Swilley and guitarist Cole Alexander were known for their crude antics, and when they formed the Black Lips with drummer Joe Bradley and guitarist Ben Eberbaugh in 1999—barely out of high school at the time—the Atlanta music landscape wasn't entirely welcoming to the young flower punks. "We were just too young," Swilley says. "We couldn't play in bars, so we played house shows and warehouses and stuff like that, and for a long time, there weren't that many bands for us to play with.
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"We just played wherever we were able to play," Swilley continues. "Then we all moved to this house in the city and started having all-ages shows there and started our own scene."
It was around that time that they met Greg and Suzy Shaw of Bomp! Records, the independent LA label that once boasted a string of massively influential bands, including Iggy & the Stooges, the Germs, and the Modern Lovers. After trading mixtapes with the band, the Shaws signed the Black Lips and released their debut, 2003's Black Lips!—with Jack Hines replacing Eberbaugh, who had died when his car was struck by a drunk driver just before the band's first tour. Ian St. Pé, the Black Lips' current lead guitarist, joined when Hines quit in 2004.
Over the next few years, they slowly built a fan base. They also ended up playing a staggering dozen shows at South By Southwest in 2007, and rave reviews by everyone from The New York Times to Rolling Stone started pouring in. And, thanks to a new alliance with Vice, who released the Black Lips' Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo that year, there were also appearances on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and ad placements with Virgin Mobile. By the release of their fourth album, Good Bad Not Evil—their second for Vice—the Black Lips finally started to rise above the garage-rock underground.
After several world tours—including a particularly memorable trip to India in which the band were forced to flee the country for fear of being arrested and imprisoned for "homosexual acts"—they returned to Georgia to record their fifth studio album, 200 Million Thousand, a sprawling mess compared to the chiseled production and songcraft of their new record, Arabia Mountain, which was named for DeKalb County's imposing 940-foot summit.
Recorded around the band's grueling touring schedule, Arabia Mountain, released in June, took nearly a year to complete. Compared to the Black Lips' typical two-week recording timetable, it was practically an eternity. They chose to bring in an outside producer for the first time, enlisting British celebrity DJ/music producer Mark Ronson—best known for his high-profile collaborations with Amy Winehouse and Adele—to tighten up the record without smoothing out the band's trademark rough edges.
"He has a really good ear for music," says Swilley, "so even though he produces different kinds of stuff than us, he still has the same sensibilities that we do, and it worked."
Sharing an affinity for retro recording techniques, the partnership was a mutually respectful meeting of minds, and A-lister Ronson gave the Black Lips the best faux-'60s sound money could buy. "We like using old tape machines because [they] just sound the best to us—it's warmer than computer gear, and that's the sound we wanted," Swilley says.
"We've been a band for a really long time, and we've put out a lot of records," he added, "so it was about time to change things up."
This article appeared in print as "Black Lips Slick It Up: On their sixth release, the Atlanta garage punks eschew messy for sophisticated. Well, kind of."