Published Feb 21, 2009The Black Lips are alive and well and recording in Berlin. Not two weeks after some routine indecent exposure nearly got them thrown into an Indian prison, they're in surprisingly high spirits. King Khan, who is collaborating with the band on an EP partly inspired by the ordeal, answers the phone when I call. He makes toilet flushing sounds before passing the receiver to guitarist/vocalist Cole Alexander, who, like a true professional, gamely explains the fiasco:
"Basically we went nuts at this show. The kids were wanting to see something wild, so we just went for it.The financial backers got really weirded out by the public displays of affection between band mates - cultural differences." He's referring to his decision to strip nude, wave his dick around, and kiss his fellow Lips during a recent tour of India. The audience loved it, but the promoters did not: the tour backers pulled funding and demanded payment for damages, and their tour manager raised the spectre of arrest warrants. "[He] told us that even if it was an 80 percent chance that [the police] weren't going to get called, is it worth it to go to jail in Tamil? You can be killed in prisons - you want to take that risk? So we're not going to sit around like assholes and wait to see if they're going to come." Things got worse: under pressure from superiors, the tour manager confiscated their passports. The desperate band members surrounded him, got their documents back, and got the hell out.
Nudity and same-sex action is probably unwise when you're onstage in Chennai. But in the lead-up to a new album - the true-to-form 200 Million Thousand - you couldn't ask for better publicity, and this debacle is classic Black Lips.
"We knew that they're more conservative [in India], and we tried to respect that for a long time, but eventually... it seemed like people really wanted to see the Black Lips in one of our wild states, so we gave it to them." You might call it hubris, but the band's dangerous antics are well intentioned. When they toured Israel in 2007, they made sure that Palestinian youth got a piece of the action. "We felt like it wasn't fair to just play Israel, we should play for Palestinians too... It was kind of an impromptu, guerrilla-style show in the street," he says. "We're not a political band. We just want to be able to play both sides, you know?"
Though their live reputation gets the most coverage, the albums behind the chaos are just as notable: on their fifth album, 200 Million Thousand, they're diversifying their trademark sound and exploring new recording techniques. The album was recorded to vinyl before CD - "even if you buy our CD, you're still hearing the record," Alexander says - and as he mentions proudly, "Body Combat" contains a sample of the oldest recording ever found, extracted from a piece of paper from 1860. "It's the first recording ever known to man, it's pre-Edison," Alexander says excitedly. "And we're interacting with the sound - it's the first time that anyone from 1860 has been on a rock track. We unofficially collaborated."
This is the same raucous, light-hearted, and clever Black Lips who've been sparking audiences since they were teenagers, but the music is nuanced and conceptually charged, as strange as those words seem. In the studio, the band is in fine, civilized form: let's hope they stay free enough to keep the records coming.