You can call the band garage rock. You might even refer to the group by its self-coined "flower punk" designation, which conjures up images of psychedelia and savageness that are equally fitting.
Despite its ramshackle image and sound, the one thing you can't call members of the Atlanta-based outfit Black Lips are slackers. Its penchant for punk is also done with an awareness of its Georgia rock 'n' roll heritage, which produced show-stopping performers like James Brown and Little Richard. So, at a Black Lips show, a performance is what you get.
"I'm an entertainer. Musicians are the ones that sell me strings at Guitar Center," said bassist Jared Swilley. "We all give 130 percent every night because 110 percent don't cut it anymore."
It is this attitude that got the Black Lips its initial swarm of music-media coverage when it first broke through in the mid-2000s. Its reckless, fuzz-boxed fury indebted to '60s garage bands — captured on five self-produced studio albums and the band's notorious 2007 live offering Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo — was amplified with live shows featuring everything from nudity to the expulsion of various bodily fluids to the occasional open flame, firework or stray chicken.
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But when it came time to record the band's latest album, Arabia Mountain, Swilley, singer/ guitarist Cole Alexander, guitarist Ian Saint Pé Brown and drummer Joe Bradley made a move that even its most die-hard fans might deem unconventional: It hired a big-name producer.
Before recording Arabia Mountain, Swilley said the group decided to seek outside help with the recording, partially due to the band's overall disappointment in the sound of its 2000 recorded-on-the-fly release, 200 Million Thousand.
After making a list that half-jokingly included the likes of Dr. Dre, Pharrell and hit-making team The Matrix, the one they genuinely wanted was Mark Ronson, the man most notably behind the retro-grade production of Amy Winehouse's 2006 soul smash Back to Black.
The pairing turned out to be a solid fit. The Black Lips and Ronson shared a love for analog recording and vintage equipment. Swilley was blown away when Ronson whipped out the exact same types of microphones Black Lips used during its previous recording sessions.
Even though Black Lips falls on the lower end of Ronson's ridiculously long list of famous collaborators, which includes Adele, Duran Duran and Christina Aguilera, Swilley said he still felt a bit of pressure and an obligation to the band's original essence.
"The first thing he said when he called me was, 'I don't want to be responsible for (expletive) up the Black Lips sound," Swilley recalled.
A quick listen to Arabia Mountain shows a mostly if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it approach. With additional production assistance from Deerhunter's Lockett Pundt, the production is a bit cleaner, wiping away a layer of grime (albeit, just a layer) and incorporating instrumental touches like the occasional saxophone or musical saw. But what comes to the forefront is a tighter band keen on crafting two-minute-plus tidbits of surfer rock/dark psych-punk and some of the band's catchiest tracks to date, like the dance-worthy, pop-tinged freakout Bicentennial Man.
On the other hand, the lyrics are as outlandish as ever, whether the group is waxing poetic on superhero molestation (Spidey's Curse), hazy tales about a girlfriend's appetite for drugs despite being pregnant (Don't You Mess With My Baby) or a drug-fueled, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-esque recount at the Salvador Dali Museum (Modern Art).
"We have really weird lives. We write about weird stuff, and we think about weird stuff all the time," Swilley said of the band. "I guess the stuff that happens to us doesn't happen to most normal people."
Now that Arabia Mountain is behind them, the band has gone back to its relentless touring. After hitting Japan and Europe earlier this summer, Black Lips is back in the States and will come to Lexington to perform with Night Beats on Tuesday at Busters Billiards & Backroom. Swilley said he wouldn't be surprised if his band's pairing with Ronson on its latest release is a way to jockey for mainstream status and leave behind its punk roots. He said he would happily refute that claim — and, apparently, has before — chalking it up to progression and not assimilation.
"People have been calling us sellouts since we got out of the homeless shelter," Swilley said. "We don't change, but we're still willing to experiment with anything."