In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Cole Alexander is asleep in the Black Lips' tour van when I call him. That often means an interview needs to be rescheduled, but thankfully his tour manager Matt is there to act as his alarm clock. "Wake up! You're ranking all of the Black Lips albums!" he yells at the singer/guitarist of Atlanta flower-punks. When he picks up the phone, Alexander is yawning hard, but he's conscious enough to take on the challenge.
Black Lips just released their eighth album, Satan's Graffiti or God's Art? (Full disclosure: They're signed to Vice Records), which was recorded by Sean Ono Lennon, who they met while they were recording 2011's Arabia Mountain. "We worked with him briefly before. Mark Ronson introduced us to him, so it was formed out of that," says Alexander. "I sat in on that Fat White Family album they recorded in his studio [2016's Songs For Our Mothers]. I had a talk with him about possibly recording our album and he was into it. He brought a musicianship that we never had before. It was a technical upgrade. He talked to us about song structure and playing to our abilities. He pushed us to new heights that we couldn't have done technically even five years ago."
Satan's Graffiti or God's Art? marks the band's first album since long-time members Ian St. Pe and Joe Bradley left the band in 2014. Their departure was an amicable split, but nonetheless marked the end of an era that saw them become one of their generation's most notorious bands. "It was really hard to lose Ian and Joe, but at the same time, people grow out of it," he says. "So having Oakley [Munson] and Zumi, and then Jack [Hines] back, plus Saul [Adamczewski] from the Fat White Family join us felt like some kind of awakening."
The legend of Black Lips is mostly based on what they do on stage—setting off fireworks, barfing, pissing on the audience and/or into their own mouths, nudity, band member make-out sessions, and releasing a live chicken into the crowd are just some of the shit they've allegedly pulled over the years—but their reputation as being unpredictable and often dangerous tends to overshadow the fact that they've accrued an impressive catalog of some wildly imaginative garage rock.
7. Underneath the Rainbow (2014)
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Cole Alexander: I think we were just going through this phase of regrouping. So we were a little bit distracted. It's not like I dislike it or anything.
This album sounded pretty different from its predecessor, a lot rougher. Was it a reaction to the more polished sound of Arabia Mountain?
I think with Arabia Mountain, we were dabbling more with a straight sound to make it more palatable. But then I think we realized that we wanted to do it
Patrick Carney of the Black Keys produced this record. What made you work with him?
Yeah, we recorded it in Nashville. It was a lot of fun. I had never recorded in Nashville before. He'd worked with Danger Mouse and stuff, so he had these cool synths. We'd never used anything like that before. We also worked more efficiently with him.
This was your last album with Ian and Joe. What happened with them?
Well, we'd been playing with them for 16 years, so I guess they just wanted to try other things. They didn't want to do the same thing forever. I don't blame them. So we kinda regrouped.
What made Jack Hines rejoin the band after a decade?
He had been working in a factory and he was just read to come back.
The song "Make You Mine" isn't what most people would expect from Brett Hinds.
He's got a lot of the same roots as us in him. Plus, he's a really good friend, so that's why we worked with him.
I read that you once opened up for Mastodon…
Yeah, yeah. I don't think their fans liked us that much. They threw bottles at us. Metal fans are a tough crowd.
Don't your own fans throw bottles at you?
Sometimes, but this felt more malicious. The bottle-throwing from our fans comes from a place of love, whereas this came from a place of hate. But we love Mastodon. We loved playing with them, even though it was tough to win over their crowd. I think we won over some people though.
6. Good Bad Not Evil (2007)
I think it's a fan favorite, but I feel like we had figured out to produce stuff by ourselves, but we're much better at it now than we were then. So I feel like the songs are good, but the production is limited.
I always felt that "Veni Vidi Vici" was the song that made me realize Black Lips weren't just a garage rock band.
Yeah, I agree with that. We'd never really used loops before, so we liked that it was a bit like hip-hop. That was a thrill for us.
Is it true that American Eagle wanted you to rewrite "Bad Kids" as "Rad Kids" for one of their ad campaigns?
Yeah, yeah, they wanted us to do that. We thought it might be so stupid it could be funny, and we could get paid, but it was a bit too much of a compromise of our artistic integrity.
5. Black Lips! (2003)
This was us learning who we are as a band. The band was really young and full of wide-open possibilities. You never get that moment back.
You once told NPR, "When we first started, we were so bad, so we had to make up for it by learning the entertainment side." Do you hear that in this record?
Not so much, but I think if you saw us live back then, maybe. I probably didn't even know all of the basic guitar chords when we made that first album. I guess I had just enough knowledge to make a record.
You've always had this reputation as a killer live band. When did that become such a priority for you?
I think we always kind of did that.
This album came out while garage rock was experiencing a renaissance. Did it feel like you were a part of that?
I feel like we were there during the garage rock wave, but we sort of missed it. I think you had to be in New York City. It was harder for us to get in there being in Atlanta. But a lot of those bands weren't even garage rock. Like the Vines—they sounded more like a rehashed grunge band than a garage band. I think what was coming out of Detroit at the time, like the White Stripes, was actually garage rock. There wasn't much garage rock in Atlanta. There was the Subsonics and us.
4. Arabia Mountain (2011)
This one we didn't produce ourselves. From a commercial perspective it's one of our best. It's a solid album. I really enjoyed working with Mark Ronson. I really learned a lot from him. He taught me how to make each song have something unique about it. That's something I've tried to do ever since having the honor of working with him. It showed how eclectic he was; he can do a pop record but also a raw garage rock record, and I think that shows just how much prestige he has as a producer.
You called this your "more commercial" album.
I think it just felt like the right time and place to try and make that happen.
Is it true you reached out to Dr. Dre to produce?
No. I think we threw out some giant names, kinda jokingly, to see if anyone would get back to us. And Mark Ronson was interested.
Lockett Pundt from Deerhunter also produced a couple of tracks. Why go with him when you had Mark Ronson?
We wanted to do some raw four-track stuff and Lockett said he had a good machine for that. He was really interested in helping out.
You're credited as playing the human skull on the album.
Yeah, I got it at Obscura in New York. I used it like an echo chamber. It was a pretty normal thing to do. We like to dabble with the occult.
There's a song called "Dumpster Dive" on the album. What's the best thing you've salvaged from a dumpster?
That's a great question. Umm… One time early on our drummer Joe found a 1940s Hawaiian lap steel guitar. Another time I found thousands of these urinal tabs with Osama Bin Laden's face on them. They were poorly designed because when you peed, the sticker caused the pee to spray back on you. So it was kind of like Osama was spitting piss all over you. That was a hilarious and ironic twist.
3. Let It Bloom (2005)
This was a breakthrough for us. It was the album where a lot of people first heard us. Our first two albums were pretty under the radar. It was a total career-changer.
Let It Bloom seemed like a big step forward for the band. Did this album feel like you guys were growing into actual songwriters?
I know for a lot of our fans it's a favorite, for whatever reason. I think the production that Mike McHugh did was really fitting for our sound, and the stuff we did with King Khan on four-track felt just really natural for us. I think it was a breakthrough for both our songwriting and production.
The original album title was Last of the White Niggers. Looking back on it, you must be relieved you changed it to Let It Bloom?
We flirted with the idea of calling it that. That's actually a Lester Bangs quote. We often dabbled in crass controversy. The last few years we've made sense of things that may have been insensitive, and I really regret that because I never want to come off as a bigot. We are by no means a PC band. I think people accept that we're crass and rude. [Not using that title] was one of the few great decisions that we actually made. I know Lester Bangs didn't mean it that way. Times have changed. So a song like "Rock and Roll Nigger," that's not a racist song, it's the opposite. But that just wouldn't really slide now.
2. 200 Million Thousand (2009)
That was the first time we put ourselves into our own studio. We knew how to play and we were in our prime. I didn't like it much when it first came out. I didn't think it was right.
It sounds like it should have come out after Let It Bloom.
Yeah. If we had made Arabia Mountain after Good Bad Not Evil, maybe we would have gotten bigger. Because this one was more lo-fi and a step back commercially.
This was the album where you guys went to India and some major shit went down.
Yeah, I think I mooned the crowed and then I kissed Ian on stage. Homosexual behavior is illegal there, or was at the time, and it was considered to be public indecency. You can go to jail for years for male-to-male kissing. All of our shows after were cancelled. There was a chance we would be arrested, but we were just told to leave the country.
1. We Did Not Know the Forest Spirit Made the Flowers Grow (2004)
Why is this your favorite?
It's our most diverse, trashiest album. We have a jazz song, a classical song, a rap song. There is this diversity that makes it such a fucked up album. And that truly embodies who we are. The chaos really represents who we are, especially in those early years.
Did you feel more confident having already made your first album?
No, not really. We had a lack of budgeting funds. I think we had $500 to record it, so we did it with a boombox cassette player, four-track, and a little on reel-to-reel, which helped. And there was the stress of not knowing anything about a studio, it kept things really raw. It was a good example of where we were at the time.
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter.