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The Black Lips bring retro rock and onstage hijinks to Mr. Small's

Even more than the fury of The Stooges, it was Pentecostal abandon Swilley wanted to replicate onstage

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Infamous is when you're more than famous: The Black Lips - COURTESY OF ZACH WOLFE
  • Courtesy of Zach Wolfe
  • Infamous is when you're more than famous: The Black Lips

The Black Lips play a raw, gleeful, bouncy style of rock. Though their songs sound more simply primitive than consciously retro, most wouldn't stand out if slipped into a retrospective of '60s garage rock.

And while they were toiling away on their six typically rock albums, it seemed as if the Lips were working as hard to forge a typically rock image. In the band's earliest days, its two frontmen, guitarist Cole Alexander and bassist Jared Swilley, were expelled from their high school in suburban Atlanta. Tales of smashed bottles, on-stage urination and projectile vomiting have followed the foursome wherever they go. At a club in Chennai, India, in 2009, Alexander stripped nude and jumped into the crowd, leading to a near-riot and an abrupt cancellation of their Indian tour, as they fled the country to avoid arrest.

So legend has it. But Swilley says the band's hell-raising reputation has been overblown. 

"If you were on our tour bus most days, you'd see us listening to NPR and reading and stuff like that."

He says their notoriety extends from their younger, house party-playing days -- and even their early history seems less scandalous when put into context. For example, there was no big prank or fistfight that got Swilley and Alexander expelled; they both racked up a series of small infractions and ran into a senseless post-Columbine zero-tolerance policy. (The principal kicked them right into their careers: Swilley was on tour at age 17, and The Black Lips' self-titled debut was released when he was 19.) 

Swilley, who comes from a family of Evangelical clergy, notes another youthful influence on his life and career: the church. Every Sunday, "I'd see people go nuts and pass out and roll around and speak in tongues," he recalls. Even more than the fury of The Germs or The Stooges, it was that Pentecostal abandon he wanted to replicate onstage.

(Incidentally, Jim Swilley, Jared Swilley's father and the pastor of a nondenominational Georgia mega-church, was the center of a minor national news story last year when the twice-divorced father of four came out as gay. "I was completely happy for him," Jared Swilley says. "[Being gay] is a tough thing in that environment, but he's happy now.")

But after a decade of bashing through clubs and house parties, The Black Lips are straddling the mainstream -- insofar as one exists in 2011. They play a carefully selected regimen of small venues and festivals, and have loaned songs to films and TV shows. Their latest album, Arabia Mountain, is the first to feature a producer, Mark Ronson, whose credits include such Top 40-ready acts as Amy Winehouse, Adele and Lily Allen. 

Swilley says the goal of that session was not to find a more palatable sound. "The only thing we were trying to do is keep recording until we were happy with [the album]," he says. 

And burgeoning maturity and reputation-versus-reality dissonance aside, can we expect The Black Lips to light an on-stage fire or whip out their dongs at Mr. Small's? 

"People should come to the show expecting a good time," says Swilley. Everything else "depends on how we feel that day, how the crowd is, how much we all have had to drink."

 

THE BLACK LIPS with NIGHT BEATS 8 p.m. Mon., Aug. 1. Mr. Small's Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $12. All ages. 866-468-3401

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