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Return of the Flower Punks: Meet Cole Alexander of Black Lips
Black Lips: Cole Alexander, Joe Bradley, Jared Swilley, and Ian St. Pe I Photo by Daniel Arnold
The infamous reputation of the Black Lips' live show stretches far and wide. Their music itself is actually pretty straightforward, by the book, catchy garage rock (or as they describe it "flower punk"). There are the usual songs about teen angst and political strife, but nothing too shocking. Black Lips' shows, however, cover everything that would make your mother die of shame. Public urination, vomiting, crowd surfing, stage diving, eating firecrackers, inciting riots, and nudity are all not only possible events at a Lips show--they're expected. Last year they were kicked out of India for exposing themselves in public. (Although why the promoters booked a band who is famous for nudity in a town where it's considered a crime is a mystery.)
We caught up with guitarist, Cole Alexander, before their show at the El Rey to talk about their upcoming album, learning chords from Buddy Holly, and what it's like to flee a country in the middle of the night. Here is some of what was said.
How old were you when you first picked up an instrument?
I was like twelve or thirteen. My dad played a little guitar and he taught me, but he couldn't teach me anything, but slide guitar.
Well he only had seven fingers. He had lost three of them in a motorcycle accident. So he would play with a metal slide because he couldn't hold the chords. So I learned a really simple version of guitar and I played that way for about five years. Then I moved to Columbia with my mom, she's Columbian, and the kids there taught me how to play more chords, but they used this Spanish rhythm that I haven’t been able to use yet. It sounds pretty cool though. But I learned mostly from Buddy Holly’'s "Peggy Sue." I would watch this tape of him playing that song and push my head really close to the television to see how he held his fingers. (laughs) I basically had a séance/guitar lesson from Buddy Holly. Teaching me chords from the grave.
Is the Black Lips a democracy or a dictatorship?
It's a democracy. We all write songs. Although sometimes it's too democratic and sometimes we get split, two and two.
Black Lips I Photo courtesy of Vice Records.
What happens then?
We fight.What’s your writing process like?
One of us will get some idea on the road or somewhere and then bring it to the band. Then we all add something together. But usually we take old obscure songs from the 1930s to the 1960s that we like it a lot and rip them off. (laughs) We'll start out covering songs that we like and change the rhythm slightly and steal them without giving credit.
How do you know it’s been a good show?
Our shows are totally chaotic and unexpected. Every single one. I guess we know it's good if we start to sweat. Or if it sounds good. If it sounds good then it's a good show.
Why is your album called 200 Million Thousand? What sort of quantity is that?
That name came from our tour manager. He was from the Czech Republic and he had the hardest time with numbers. So when he was talking about the money we made or how many people were in a room it never made any sense. He would say things like, "There was a lot of people tonight. Two hundred twenty three thousand." So the album is in honor of those numbers that doesn't exist.
What song are you most proud of on this album?
The last song, "I Saw God." Ian wrote the music for that. I kinda like that song. It's got a good narrative and has a pretty harmony at the end.
What was the worst show you ever did?
It was in Spain, in Valencia. We partied a little too hard . We were a little giddy. It was a big show too. We felt bad about it later because we were paid well and we didn't play our best. I think it was partly to do with the fact that it was a big stage. You can't hear everything that well on festival stages. I like small shows. There are less people to disappoint.
Have you started recording your next album?
Yeah, we've started recording it. We're doing it with Lockett (Pundt) from Deerhunter in his studio in Atlanta. The game plan is that we're not gonna have a deadline. We're not going to put it out unless it's amazing. We're really a live band. I don't really care if we ever put out a record again. If it sucks, we're just going to tour. I'm not too worried about our marketing plan. I mean our last records have some great moments, but they all could be better. We're not putting out another record until it's all great.
What one of the things that you disliked on the last album that you want to change?
We didn't let enough people hear it before it came out. I guess we were too worried that it was going to leak, so we hid it from our friends, and you need friends to tell you things. They'll let you know if it's bad. This time we're not going to be so scared to show it to people.
Can you talk a little about getting chased out of India? Did you learn any important lessons?
You know, we knew the cultural rules in the back of our head, so we played a couple tame shows. But then we got really frustrated being so polite, because people would come to our show and left disappointed. So we decided to play a normal show and show everyone who we really are. Uh, but I will say fleeing a country is stressful. Those first twelve hours were rough. We had to get out of that state immediately.
It's weird that they would book you in a place that's so sensitive to nudity.
I know! It's like they'd never seen us before. Although it was really cool putting on a show in India that had never been seen before. In America public nudity is less of a big deal, but in India that had never been done.
How did you guys end up on Vice Records?
We used to read the magazines all the time. One day they came to a show and we were hoping for a write up. Back then we didn't have much press, but they weren't interested in a write up, they wanted to release us on their record label. We were really surprised because all the other artists on Vice were a lot different then us. So we asked for a write up and got one, and then things sort of fell into place. They're one of the best things that happened to us. They gave us a much wider audience.
If you could change one thing about the music industry what would it be?
I wish people would play more low fi recording on the radio. For some reason people have a standard of what they think people should play on the radio and it sounds really stiff and still. Lo fi is much more endearing. Even the old Elvis recordings sound warmer than his new ones. I wish they’d open it up to different forms of production.
What album have you been obsessed with lately?
There’s this record I got by this guy named Pete Drake. The amazing and incredible Pete Drake, who was a pedal steel guitar player. He was mostly a studio player, but his solo stuff is really cool. He ran his pedal steal through a proto talk box and the effect is this kinda cheesy, digital sounding sound. It's really haunting and dreamy. I'm trying to recreate it, but I haven't figured it out yet.
Well I hope you do! Thank you so much for talking with us.
Be sure to catch Black Lips tonight at the El Rey Theatre. Doors are at 8pm. Tickets are $17.