Bad Kids: A conversation with Cole Alexander of The Black Lips
This article was originally printed in Bad Luck Magazine Issue 001.
It’s taken me a while to go back and properly listen to my conversation with Cole Alexander. He’s one of the founding members of The Black Lips, known to be one of the rowdiest garage rock bands to exist. I’m not sure why, maybe I just hit a little patch of lack of motivation, or maybe it was because my talk with Cole was one of the realest and most genuine conversations I've had with a band in some time. He’s suited in a cowboy hat and boots and has an unmistakably rock and roll persona about him, a real character of a man; not just a façade created through the band’s sound. We stand at the bottom of a staircase leading to street-level and get chatting about Bristol.
The Black Lips have a notorious reputation surrounding their antics. Which stretches beyond the band for Cole, and other founding member Jared, when as kids they found themselves in trouble more than once. “We were rebellious, you know,” Cole laughs. “It kind of goes hand in hand with rock and roll.” This could be noted as the start of The Black Lips, even though they may not have had any idea of what the band would bring them in the future. Cole takes a drag of his cigarette that he bummed earlier; “It was a more constructive way of being rebellious,” he recalls about the early days of making music, “we would cause hijinks at the shows instead of vandalising our school.” The band have been known in the past for their on-stage antics which have included instruments on fire, fireworks and at one point, a chicken. This has certainly died down a bit now, though their shows are still rammed with energy and rough crowds. “I’d like our records to be more important, but it seems as though for us the live shows always have been [more so],” Cole admits. Their early day performances have always been picked up on the most by the media. “I think recording is more important for me, but the live shows just give people the chance to see the music. I always wanted to just record, but the shows just helped us get the music out there more, I guess it’s been a promotional tool.”
The Black Lips have always had a DIY background. “I think just growing up these big-budget things seemed unfathomable for us,” Cole states. He reminisces about his first hearing Nirvana, and their being one of the first bands he could relate to. After seeing them live in Atlanta at 12 years-old it made music seem more possible. Specifically, Cole recalls a compilation tape he got, Sub Pop 200, that contained the likes of The Walkabouts and Mudhoney. That’s what turned him onto the garage scene. “I think we always had this amateur-esque quality, our sound was the imperfections. We still design all our own t-shirts, we record our own records from time to time, so DIY is very, very important. You don’t need a lot of money or a lot of production, that’s what’s cool about it.” Their do-it-yourself background was a necessity; they didn’t have funding of any kind, but it was also something that was more tangible. “We turned on a boombox and tape recorder and recorded one of our first seven inches in the bedroom,” Cole says. Now, the band have gone on to work with the likes of Mark Ronson, which Cole found to be a really beneficial experience. “We had never worked with a producer, we were adamant about not working with a producer, but when we finally got talked into it I found it to be a really rewarding experience. Some producers try to make you into something that you’re not, but Mark didn’t really do that. It was one of my favourite experiences,” Cole admits.
Flash forward ten years and The Black Lips find themselves playing in places not many bands play, for example, Palestine. With the boycotts of Israel and the political tensions in Palestine, this show stands out in The Black Lips’ history. “We didn’t have political intentions, we’re not a very political band,” Cole admits. It’s definitely difficult to detach being political and playing in Israel. “We got some acoustic guitars and met this Palestinian guy, he took us across the wall and we played in front of a mosque in Bethlehem. I’m actually against the boycott…” he pauses and glances away, “I realised when I was there that all the people that were at our show were young people that hate what’s going on. They’re not Zionists and they’re not anti-Zionists, so it’s just punishing them.” Cole is very open about his thoughts and opinions on the boycotts and I find myself listening attentively to what he has to say. “You could boycott America too because of Trump. The U.S.A is backing Zionists, we are giving millions of dollars to their defences. They’re nothing without us.” It seems to me as though Cole has been holding this back, so I give him the time to think and speak. He continues, “Roger Waters can claim he’s anti-Zionist, but when he makes millions of dollars at these American festivals, that gets taxed and goes directly towards the Israeli defence. I think he needs to put his money where his mouth is and boycott America too if he’s so adamant about this.”
It’s interesting listening to Cole being so open and strongly opinionated on the topic. There’s been multiple artists outspoken about it, recently Radiohead have been under fire for having a show in Tel Aviv and whilst writing this I learnt that Lorde has cancelled a Tel Aviv show. “Radiohead just want to play for people, they’re getting sucked into this political thing and they just want to play for people and that’s how we feel.” Cole tells. “I do think we went the extra step by playing for those Palestinian people also, but we don’t get as much shit. I guess we aren’t as big as those bands. By playing for the Palestinians people gave us a little more respect.”
Coles words are ones that provoke thought, he comes across as genuinely caring and truthful when he claims that he just wants to play for the fans. “For other bands that just want to play for people I can’t really fault them.” The Black Lips have also found themselves playing in Eygpt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. Cole finds these experiences valuable to him as a person and admits to them having impacted the band. “People told us not to go to Iraq. We weren’t playing for troops or anything, we played for the Kurds,” he recalls. “We played at a Muslim community centre, and the kids had never seen a rock and roll show, so it’s all really rewarding experiences for us, from playing in front of a mosque in Palestine to playing a little community centre in Iraq.” Cole pauses before finishing, “I almost feel like we did a diplomatic duty. Our country [USA] isn’t doing very good with diplomatic relationships so by going there and meeting people I feel like we represented our country in a better way than others have.”
Cole dips to his dressing room now to get ready for the show in a couple of hours time. I take this moment to collect my thoughts and feelings about all that he opened up about over a beer with Table Scraps who are first on the bill. Later that night The Black Lips power through a rowdy set with toilet roll being thrown into the crowd, a pit opening up at the front and an over excited fan invading the stage. It’s typical Black Lips style and no one would expect anything less.
I’m outside the show afterwards when Cole comes out to bum another smoke. “What’s going on tonight?” he asks, to which I respond that a few of us are heading out for some drinks.
Thirty minutes later we are bowling after sharing some rum, and whilst Jared is aiming for that perfect bowl, Cole and I get talking again. I tell him I understand why they would play in Palestine from the viewpoint that 20 kids having a mosh to the band, or one kid watching them with a juice box on the street isn’t anything political, it’s bringing the power of music to people who likely have never seen or heard anything like the Black Lips. “I’m glad you get that,” Cole tells me. “You could pretty much take anything I said and spin it against me.” This is a statement from Cole that proves that his words are serious and he confronts a topic that so many artists will shy away from. “I could get in trouble over the things I say, but you know, I don’t care.” It seems to me, that in the past Cole has felt restricted when talking. “We’re more like a cult band now rather than a new hip band, and it is what it is. We aren’t the Mac DeMarco and we aren’t the Ty Segall, but we probably inspired some of them,” Cole continues, “I just trust you when I talk to you. I’ve had people that just really burn me when I talk to them. I’m not honest with most people because I just feel like I can’t trust them.” Maybe this is a reason why the Black Lips don’t do many formal interviews these days, but Cole’s words to me are something that will always stick with me.
My time with Cole proves that despite him realising that the Black Lips aren’t the hip band these days, they have never strayed away from their roots. It’s clear to see their growth and development as a band but more importantly as individuals. They’ve grown since their early days getting kicked out of school but there’s something still young and childish about them, maybe it’s the desire to keep on doing what they do, which is something to aspire to. Their career has been rich and fulfilling and seems to be nowhere near it’s end and their rock and roll attitudes will certainly never die. The Black Lips are here to stay.