Black Lips Bring Their Genital-Exposing, Puke-Spewing Punk Rock to Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon (Q&A)

7:50 PM PST 08/10/2012 by Colin Stutz
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Black Lips' Jared Swilley, left, and Cole Alexander

Frontman Cole Alexander mulls the cultural significance -- and potential security issues -- that comes with touring in the Middle East. Plus: what it was like for the world traveling rebels to get kicked out of India.

Punk rock purveyors Black Lips have a reputation for getting into trouble. Between bar brawls and madcap mayhem, the Atlanta quartet has made a name for itself as America’s top genital-exposing, shit-talking, puke-spewing makeout kings. They’re the kind of guys, at first glance, most wouldn’t want to take home to meet the parents, let alone ship off as American diplomats to the rest of the world.

But the quest for total rock ’n’ roll domination does not ask for permission. In the past few years, Black Lips have eaten ants in Thailand, brought holy debauchery to the lands of Israel and Palestine and been kicked out of India for tongue-kissing each other onstage. And all for what?

“It's like, why wouldn't you go there?” said bassist Jared Swilley in 2010. “If you have the opportunity to play in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or in Sao Paolo or in Mumbai, what's the reason for not going?”

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Now, the garage rock missionaries who played Coachella in April are preparing for a three-week Middle East tour starting next month that will take the band through Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Cyprus and the United Arab Emirates. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with singer-guitarist Cole Alexander to get a sense of what all this exploration is about and what it means to be America’s most adventurous band.

The Hollywood Reporter: Why tour the Middle East?

Cole Alexander: We've already toured so many places, we’d just sort of go everywhere we could, and we found success in going to new places. So the more we did, we'd be like, “Well, let's check out this place and this place now.” We just kind of want to go everywhere -- like, why not go there?

Especially when you start getting into the more predominantly Muslim countries, I find it kind of exciting because I feel like maybe the kind of music we do isn't as common in those areas, so I feel like we're really bringing something good to a new place and it's new for us just as well. We're taking in new experiences. So, yeah, we're kind of trying to bridge some gaps and stuff.

THR: There's a concept called soft power democracy,  a theory that includes the influence of things like arts and culture. You mention bridging a gap, is any of that sense in your going to these countries as Americans playing rock music?

Alexander: There's definitely some sense of that. We've never been much of a political band, but we've had some small political implications. When we go, I don't want to feel as though I'm representing the West or my country per se, but in a sense maybe we are. And I kind of feel like maybe we are in a good way because we're coming to bring music, as opposed to some other instances -- like maybe in Iraq -- where other Americans who have come have been there for war or something like that, which has a more negative connotation.

So I feel like it's definitely a good, almost diplomatic tie of just people meeting people and sharing music. It's something cool, so I think it does represent well on the West and on the United States. But we don't have any particular political messages for anybody; we're just there playing music.

THR: It's subtler, kind of showing that we're all citizens of the world.

Alexander: Yeah, and I think it might be in a way a strange diplomatic move from people to people, you know? People go on visits, and there's no tourist industry. … I'm really excited.

THR: How do you go about planning a tour like this?

Alexander: We approach these ideas by talking about what we want to do a lot. Like, we want to go to every continent, so we always talk about it. And sometimes word gets out and people, if they can help us, they'll contact us. We used to throw it out that we wanted to play Iraq and throughout the Middle East, almost jokingly, and so we met somebody, this guy Bill Cody; he actually produced a documentary about the Atlanta music scene called We Fun, and he did another one called Athens Inside Out that featured R.E.M. and B-52s and everybody in the early ’80s from Athens. But he actually did some teaching in northern Iraq at a university, so he had a lot of connections and friends there and throughout the region, and he knew we wanted to do it so he was willing to help us try and organize some shows. And he'll be filming it too.

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THR: Are there any sort of potential dangers you need to plan for?

Alexander: I don't really know what to expect at all, so maybe. I went on a travel site just the other day; I was kind of interested, and I was looking and in Iraq and northern Iraq and the Kurdish region. It's been relatively safer and less tumultuous lately. I saw there hadn't been a foreign fatality since 2003, so it's been relatively peaceful in the north -- and that's where we're going, so that's cool. Egypt, I know they just had their elections and they've had some stuff going on recently with the Arab Spring, but I don't know. The guy who helped us set up the tour says he feels confident it's going to go smoothly and we are going to be with locals. And we're touring with this band Lazzy Lung that is this alternative band from the region. They've toured around the region and had some success playing somewhat similar music, so I think it can be done.

THR: Do you know if you have fans out there or even if there's much of an audience for punk rock?

Alexander: I've heard that Lebanon had a pretty strong scene. In Turkey, we've played there, so I know we have fans there. But some of the countries that we haven't been to; I'm not sure. Bill Cody was telling me that in northern Iraq, where we're playing in the Kurdish region, that MGMT is popular. They have a little radio station at a university, and they really like MGMT. So I don't think it's completely far-fetched to think some people have heard of our music. But I definitely think it'll be new for most people. I think a lot of people will just be coming to see a band from out of the country, coming to check it out and learn about it.

THR: You infamously got kicked out of India for "lewd" behavior onstage, Do you think you could have similar cultural issues arise on this tour, or will you research customs and try to act accordingly?

Alexander: On that tour we were like, “We're going to be on our best behavior,” and then towards the end we were like, "Let's go wild!" So we kind of learned our lesson a little bit about just trying to be respectful of other cultures and not try to do something offensive. But it has occurred to me, what if I'm getting interviewed over there and they see what happened in India? They might be curious because even if we didn't do it [in their country], we have done some stuff that might be considered offensive.

But I really think we're just going to try to be on our best behavior and really just try to soak it all up, not try to cause any problems. We've been kind of known for causing riff-raff. And I don't want to not be ourselves; we'll try to still be ourselves and still be rowdy, but maybe take into consideration other people's feelings.

THR: I guess you can still be rowdy without making out or exposing your penises, some of those cultural things that might be culturally misconstrued.

Alexander: Yeah, it's not like we have to do those things. Music's our fullest passion. It's just in the energy of a show, we'll just get kind of animalistic, you know? And I feel like every culture probably does have some sort of art form that does that, so I'm curious to learn about different types of music for that region and try to maybe tap into some of that.

THR: And when you talk about music that does that, what kind of music are you talking about?

Alexander: Well, sometimes folk music can be kind of primal because it has old roots and stuff, so it can come from a time further back before the civilized time of today, so I'd be curious about a lot of folk music. … The Babylonians lived in the region where we're going, so I feel like I can kick it back to learn about some primal art forms. But I don't know, I'm kind of just speculating.

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THR: How has your traveling influenced the band’s music?

Alexander: We always try to take influences from around the world musically, so I'm going there not just to share my music but to also learn new things. Like when we first went to France we found out about Jacques Dutronc, and we incorporated some of those sounds into our music. So it's kind of like a cultural exchange program, in a sense. That's one other reason we travel these places; we like to find out about different ethnomusicology.

We're not like a world-music band, but there are definitely subtle influences like weird scales in our songs. We've used Eastern scales before, and we always use the pentatonic scale, which is just the blues scale. But actually a pentatonic scale is used in Africa and China. … I always like to listen for different scales in different places I go and just incorporate those the way their tones are set up.

THR: Not a lot of bands do this sort of cultural exploration. What is it about you guys that pushes you to travel and be so interested in other cultures, playing these far-out countries like you do?

Alexander: For us, I can watch stuff about a place on TV, but I want to see it for myself. We're kind of like punk-rock explorers. The fat cats on Wall Street, they're trying to globalize the economy and all this stuff, but I think the same should happen for art -- and hopefully with better results. Then the world will become a smaller place. And it is becoming that way with the Internet.

We feel definitely more adventurous than the average band. But also in the States we've only come so far as far as our success, and sometimes in these other countries they really appreciate us more. It's not as dense of a musical scene. There's a million garage bands in the United States, always has been, but we actually stand out a little more [overseas]. And, probably, some of the stuff that we might be doing is new to them and then some of the stuff that we learn and hopefully bring back will be new to us.

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THR: What do you think you've learned in playing all these different countries,  specifically these ones that are more off the beaten path?

Alexander: I kind of feel just like most people are kind of similar. There are a lot of cultural differences, but people are generally, to me, surprisingly similar, even though we come from different places and different cultures. I'm surprised by the similarity of all people.

THR: This tour that you'll be going on, do you personally feel like it's a big deal? Do you feel like there's any weight or significance in it?

Alexander: I think it's a big deal. I haven't seen any other bands try to do this. I've seen bands go on USO tours and stuff like that, and there are some big pop acts that have played Dubai, where we're also going. But I haven't seen any band, especially a punk-rock band, try to go to some of the places we're going. So I feel like we're doing something kind of innovative as far as tour experiences and travel. I think it's one of the most important things we've done, probably.

THR: After this trip, where do you think you might like to tour next?

Alexander: It'll probably be China. We had an opportunity to go to China, but that fell through, so I still want to go there. And Joe [Bradley], our drummer, was just talking to somebody from Antarctica. He said there's a bar down there where all the scientists hang out. Just to say we've played every continent. Because with Tunisia and Egypt, we'll hit Africa, and then if we do Antarctica, we'll have done all seven continents. I don't know if even The Rolling Stones have done that.

Black Lips' Middle East tour kicks off Sept. 14 in Amman, Jordan, and wraps Oct. 6 in Beirut, Lebanon. Watch the band's video for "Family Tree" below.

Twitter: @THRMusic

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