Interview: The Black Lips on Stage Presence

Talking with the band before their Festival d'été de Québec performance

It’s difficult to affix a genre to the type of music made by the Black Lips. There are elements of punk and garage rock; there’s potency and power—and an immediacy. But at the core, a lot of their tracks are just plain fun. While it may be tricky to place them in a musical box, there’s one thing that’s very easy to understand about the band: they deliver raucous, wild and turbo-charged live shows. Ahead of the band’s upcoming show at Festival d’été de Québec—which features 300 shows across 10 stages, over 11 days of music in downtown Québec City—we spoke with Jared Swilley on what it means to put on a good live performance.

How important is the touring experience these days for your band? What do you look to deliver in a live performance?

It’s extremely important because it’s our only source of revenue and the most interaction we get with our audience. It’s always been of huge importance to me, even when I was just going to shows before I was in a band. It made a huge difference to me as a performer. All the people that I like—Jerry Lee Lewis and guys like that it, that era of music—is the stuff I like the most, because it was before people were doing albums. Those guys are true showroom.

For a live performance you always have to give it your all. If you’ve got a broken leg, you still have got to get through it somehow. If you are feeling sick it isn’t everyone else’s problem. You get through it. You put your all in it. It’s what used to happen and it’s what I try to do.

What are your feelings about being on the stage?

Emotionally, it is like bliss and it goes by, sometimes, real fast. You miss a lot of things. Someone could throw a brick at your head and you wouldn’t see it. It’s that fun. If you can make eye contact with a kid in the crowd, and you can see how much fun they’re having, that’s very memorable. I can pick out certain shows I was at as a kid—where I made out with a girl or did something crazy or got in trouble. Things like that, the experience and being able to feel the energy, I remember that and we try to give that.

Your band has a reputation for powerful live shows. What do you think expectations are?

Pretty much that they’re just going to have fun. We’ve gotten really lucky over the years, where a lot of the times the audience does the work. There will be crazy stuff going on down on the floor. People have this expectation, that has preceded us a little, but it’s really cool. I’m just happy that we connect. A band needs to connect with the audience. It’s hard to do a show if you aren’t making a connection.

Do you remember your first time on stage?

Yeah. It wasn’t really a stage so much as a tile floor in a warehouse. I’m surprised I remember it because I was probably 14 and it was one of the first handful of times I ever drank. This was a night where we all ended up getting in a lot of trouble. Our band was terrible and I’m pretty sure everyone hated us. There were people in their mid-20s and over. But actually if I saw that now, 14 or 15 year olds making music and going crazy, I would be so happy—even if they were just awful. It’s important.

You’ve been doing this for 15 years now. How have things changed?

We can eat now and don’t have to save up money to go on tour. That’s gotten better. It’s where we can make this—if we want to—all we have to focus on. Our band dynamic has actually been more of the same as it used to be. We are back to almost our original lineup, all the guys from the neighborhood. This has happened so slow for me, but the shows have gotten better and touring has gotten easier.

You’ve played around the world. Was there a memorable venue or experience where everything just felt, for lack of better words, different?

I mean, playing in the Middle East was pretty powerful the whole time we were there. Just the fact we had gotten there and were playing this rec center. It hit me: wow, we’ve came a long way. There were people there coming to see the Black Lips.

Lead image by Philippe Ruel, band image by Zach Wolfe, other images courtesy of Festival d’été de Québec