Atlanta’s Black Lips made its name on a history of well-choreographed punk antics and a decidedly DIY approach to recording. Vice Records wanted something a little different for the band’s sixth album, Arabia Mountain. Asked by the label to provide a list of possible producers, the Black Lips responded with everybody from GZA to Rick Rubin, probably not expecting that Mark Ronson would be up for the job. The album dropped on June 7, and reviewers predictably credited Ronson with taming the band’s wilder tendencies. They must have missed the song about Peter Parker getting molested. We talked about the album with guitarist Ian St. Pe.
Why did you choose Arabia Mountain as the name for your album?
I think, most importantly, Pet Sematary Two was filmed there, which is totally badass. It’s also really close to Atlanta, and sounds kind of cool when you say it.
The L.A. Times characterized Arabia Mountain as DeKalb County’s imposing 950-foot summit. Would you say that’s accurate?
It’s totally accurate. That mountain is amazing. We named our album after it.
The other pretty obvious Atlanta connection is Chief Noc-A-Homa. Why did you decide to write about him?
That’s another call back to having been a kid in Atlanta. He was a great mascot for the Braves until they decided they didn’t want a stereotype of an Indian dancing around out in the outfield. It must have been tough to be him, though. It’s not hard to imagine him as this terrible drunk in a costume.
If someone is inspired to come to Atlanta after hearing the record, what else should he or she check out?
If you find just the right strip mall off of I-285, you’ll arrive at what may be the greatest single thing in Atlanta: a honky-tonk and a strip club sharing the same parking lot. You can go in and have as much beer as you want and then walk over and spend a reasonable twenty dollars to get the nastiest lap dance in the city. If you go on the right night, you might even see us taking part in this stellar nightlife option.
You also have a song about Spider-Man on the record. What makes him a good subject for a Black Lips song?
Well it’s not so much Spider-Man, but something that happens to Spider-Man. It’s about him getting touched on the pee-pee.
There was a comic handed out to kids in the ’80s, and in it Spider-Man was invited to a guy’s house, who took a few liberties with him. Spidey had to decide whether or not to tell an adult about what happened to him.
Okay, well not actually Spider-Man. It was Peter Parker before he became Spider-Man.
Do you think that this record looks backward?
I wouldn’t say that this record looks backward. We’re in the now; we’re all about what’s happening out there. We do like to sound retro, but that’s because we like those sounds. There’s nothing specifically about the time music is recorded; it’s more about how it sounds.
What appeals to you about those sounds?
The authenticity of the way things sound is what is most appealing. Everything that’s on the record is a sound that was actually made in the studio. That’s not true of a lot the music that’s out there today. We were committed to the process- we used an actual human skull in the studio to get the right sound. It’s supposed to sound exactly like it does inside your head. We’re not opposed to all the things going on in music today, but
Was working with Mark Ronson a part of getting this sound?
We were of course blown away by the Amy Winehouse album, and the wall of sound thing appealed to us. I think it was more about getting a fresh set of ears to hear the album and make suggestions. When the label said that it wanted us to work with an outside producer this time around, we gave them a list of people we thought they couldn’t possibly get. The idea was that we could say we tried and then produce the album ourselves. Then Mark said he’d do it, and we were stuck with him. I’m only joking.
A lot of reviewers are saying that he “cleaned up” or “polished” your sound. Is that okay with you?
That’s totally fine. I think that you have to be looking for something like that to hear it. I think it’s more that he heard these songs in a different way than we did. We know what we think the song should sound like, and we’d stop at that point. Mark would want us to do multiple takes or bring in a totally different point of view that we might have missed. It’s not he changed our sound- he just expanded the approach to what we could do.
Were you concerned at all when he brought in the saxophone and Theremin?
That didn’t phase us a bit. We had played around a little bit with some other instruments with varying degrees of success. We’re not a bunch of one trick ponies that are married to guitars and drums. We’re all for opening it up, and that’s what Mark brought to the party.
What role did Lockett Pundt play in the process?
He has a great studio in Atlanta, and we went and played a couple of songs for him. We ended up using a couple of them on the album. The ones we recorded with him are a lot more like we’ve recorded in the past. He was more there to work the boards and record us in all our glory.
Do you think it’s possible to hear the differences?
I was there for the recording, so that’s a hard question for me to answer. I think that all of the songs work together on the album. It’s not like you can single out one song and say that it sticks out from the rest of them. It doesn’t matter who produced it; it’s still us playing on the record. There’s only so much that can change, but even with that I think that this album holds together in a good way.
What makes you proudest on this album?
I think that remains to be seen. Albums are like children, and you never know how one is going to turn out. We’ve had a few of them, and the one you think is going to be your college graduate ends up in jail. Do you love the kid any less? No you don’t. Do you love it in a different way than you do the kid that’s never any trouble? Sure. I don’t think we know what kind of kid Arabia Mountain is just yet.