Rebel Intuition: How Sean Lennon electrified the Black Lips’ sound
Over an intensive ten-day period, lo-fi psych-rock agitators the Black Lips severed themselves from the outside world to record their eighth studio album. Promisingly entitled Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art?, the Atlanta band have described it as their most evolved record in a career bordering almost two decades.
Shadowing the group from his private hideout in upstate New York was Sean Lennon. Alongside collaborating with Lana Del Rey, in recent times Sean (yes, as in the son of John and Yoko) has immersed himself with the scuzzier fringes of the rock ’n’ roll underground, working alongside Saul Adamczewski of Fat White Family for his solo project, Insecure Men. He’s also released an album as the Claypool Lennon Delerium with Primus’ Les Claypool and collaborated with Sheffield’s Eccentronic Research Council for the album release of their ‘fictional’ offshoot band The Moonlandingz. It’s an increasingly totemic pool of artists and affiliates that Sean endearingly refers to as an ‘incestuous family’. And currently heading this inbred collective is Black Lips.
We hooked up a call with the Black Lips members Jared Swilley and the recently re-enlisted guitarist Jack Hines (Cole Alexander was supposed to be involved, however, his whereabouts were unknown) to speak with Sean about first encounters, Beatles comparisons and their powerful chemistry with the Fat White Family.
Sean Lennon: So I’m not the latest? That’s good.
Jared Swilley: Cole’s in LA. I think it’s early for him.
Jack Hines: I’ve sent the instructions.
Sean: [Laughs] That’s Jack. You can tell because he sounds like Johnny Cash or something. How you doing man?
Jack: I’m well.
Sean: This is the first time we’ve all been together for a long time. Very weird. About two months? Considering how much time we spend together, it’s been a long time. I just miss y’all.
Jared: Yeah, I miss you too.
Sean: The record sounds fucking amazing though. That’s all that matters.
Jared: I remember when we all first met. We were doing a record [2011’s Arabia Mountain] with Mark Ronson and Sean was at the studio a lot.
Sean: Yeah, I was there. Mark needed a theremin player and, of course, I’m not a theremin player. But when Mark thinks of a weird instrument he thinks ‘maybe Sean can play it’. So I came in without a theremin but with an app on my phone that made a theremin sound. Did you guys even end up using that sound or did you get a real theremin player?
Jared: I’m not sure actually. We might have blended it with a saw player.
Sean: Oh right. I remember you really wanted a real theremin in there and I just showed up with my cellphone… but other than that session, we all had a lot of mutual friends. It’s a small world of people we like who play music. We were all playing the same stages at festivals. But Austin Psych Fest, which became Levitation Fest, was a significant moment. My band, The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger were playing with the Fat White Family, Temples and Black Lips were headlining. We all hung out that night. That was actually the day we all met Saul and Lias [Sauodi, Fat White Family singer]. Saul and I have been really close since that moment. So that’s how this whole incestuous inter-band family happened. In fact, I remember saying to you guys that night that the Fat Whites Black Lips should tour.
Jared: We actually did end up doing that.
Sean: That was my idea. And then you guys played that huge show in London. Which venue was it?
Jared: Brixton Academy?
Sean: Exactly. I have to take credit for having the idea first. I was supposed to play with the Fat Whites for that show but I couldn’t make it out. Literally one of the things that I’ll regret for the rest of my life.
Jack: We’re going to be taking them around the South. Memphis. Alabama.
Sean: That’s cool. But still, playing that fucking place in London. I missed that boat. Sounded like a really fun party. I also remember there was a session at my place with Saul. I’d been doing projects with him on and off. Cole was working on some material with Lias, which ended up as the single Breaking Into Aldi. By this point, we realised we wanted to work on a Black Lips record together.
Jared: Before that, we were really lost; in a transition period. We’d made a couple of false starts on the record. Nothing was clicking. It just seemed like we needed some guidance. Someone to put some fire under us. Saul was pretty much in the studio with us throughout the recording. He wrote some songs and played on almost every track.
Sean: I describe him as the Billy Preston of the band. You know how Preston came in and gave The Beatles some mojo when they were feeling depressed? Not that you guys were depressed, but Saul came in almost as another band member.
Jared: I second that. I didn’t even know Saul was going to be there. Literally only found out on the first day of recording that he was. I was so stoked. It was perfect.
Sean: I’d been making tonnes of music with Saul. We worked on the Insecure Men and Moonlandingz records. So everybody was already hanging out. Again, it was pretty incestuous.
Jack: It wasn’t exactly extreme, but it was totally immersive.
Jared: I don’t think we strayed too far from the normal pool of influences the Black Lips usually draw from. But Sean, your knowledge and instruments at your disposal made everything way more free. Limitless.
Sean: I don’t want to sound cocky but I remember saying ‘Look, this is your eighth album. Dark Side of the Moon and Sgt. Pepper‘s were eighth albums. You guys are going to make an amazing record but we have to take it to another level.’ That’s something we all agreed upon. We went into it with the ambition like ‘This is the eighth album. We’ve got to bring it’. That’s what bands do when they’re growing up and they’re adults. They’re not finished. They have actually figured things out and are ready to make the best music of all time. This is it, you know? Let’s do something serious.
Jack: I felt that when Crystal Night came together. It was the eleventh hour and we were all about to go home when Crystal Night crystallised.
Sean: That was a magic moment. We didn’t even need that song. We already finished the album. Then you guys produced that with Saul weaving in all of these Joe Meek references. There were all these trippy background vocals on the chorus.
Jared: The Joe Meek thing was actually my idea.
Sean: Oh, well we got the Joe Meek flavour from that, which was the icing on the cake. Joe Meek was in the air. I love that shit. Very analogue. We tried to use that 8-track tape machine as much as possible. For instance, Cul-De-Sac was totally a live performance recorded straight to 8-track with only one guitar overdub. Nothing else. Live in one take.
Jack: Yeah, it’s definitely one of the best tracks on the record.
Sean: That and Electric Spiderwebz. I’m really glad you guys chose to use everything we did. I don’t think there’s anything we didn’t use, right?
Jared: Two we didn’t use.
Sean: Oh yeah, Wolfman we didn’t use… Wolfman is sexy. It has a weird French pop thing.
Jared: To be honest, I’m happy with everything. We didn’t do anything bad out there. No filler.
Sean: I’ll say in terms of mum she really got on well with the Black Lips and we had a great time together. As for her performance I’ll just say it was a no brainer because she is always up to rock out at the drop of a hat. She’s always turned up to 11 right out of the gate, so I knew Occidental Front would be right for her. I’m really proud of it guys. You brought the songs. There was no figuring out how to write this record. It was more about how to make everything better. And the fact you were open to having me co-write. The best records are collaborative. We were all learning. It was a very open factory kind of environment.
Jared: I mean everyone would love to have more time but this process has been my favourite because we were all 100% focused… It’s pretty usual for us to work until the sun comes up.
Sean: In terms of the political landscape in America and in the world, we were all working the night the pinhead was elected, and it is amazing how political the Black Lips and the Fat Whites are, there were tears and gasps and hugs and moans of agony. I personally just wanted to get back to recording but Zumi and most of the boys were all just like stupefied in shock. I wasn’t quite as shocked per se, I knew Trump was going to win from the day he announced his candidacy: you can’t compete with a TV celebrity, not in America, it doesn’t matter if you’re Jesus himself, reality TV rules this county, and now it rules the world.
Jared: I remember Billy Miller passing away the last day we were recording the record. He was a huge inspiration and a good friend. He saved and documented some of the most important rock ’n’ roll records of the past 60 years. He’s an incredible guy. Always looked up to him since I was young.
Jack: Yeah I really don’t think his influence on us could be overstated. A hell of a man. He knows the most mythic people in rock ’n’ roll to me.
Jared: Yeah, the true unsung heroes and weirdos.
Sean: On the rock ’n’ roll thing, I’ve just got to say because Cole isn’t here and he’s the ayatollah of rock ’n’ roll, the reason this record even happened was because he was here. He wrote that song Breaking Into Aldi with me and Lias. Cole looked at me and I suggested for Black Lips to record here. It all really came from Cole. He really initiated the concept. I think he would want people to know that. After hearing the first five demos, I knew I didn’t have to worry about this record. The magic was already there.
Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art? is released 5 May via Vice Records