Trailblazing Flower Punk in the wake of the Arab Spring
This summer Atlanta based garage rockers Black Lips took to the Middle East for a string of tour dates, with music documentary maker Bill Cody hot on their heels.
The Black Lips are no strangers to performing unconventional shows in exotic parts of the globe. Their 2009 gig in India left them fleeing the country with a warrant for their arrest after on stage antics didn’t go down too well. This latest tour, the biggest of its kind in the Middle East, marked a departure from the band’s previous approach as they sought to gain access to new audiences by adapting their on stage presence and achieving musical outreach. Supported by underground Lebanese band Lazzy Lung, the tour hit up such recent headline-grabbing locations as Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq. The self-titled ‘Super Tour’, a collaborative project between the band and Bill Cody, had been waiting in the wings since early 2010, at which point their plans had to be put on hold following the destabilizing outbreak of the Arab Spring movement. Though the tour eventually became a reality, plans to play in Syria had to be completely scrapped as the country fell into a state of Civil War.
With the ongoing trial of female punk band Pussy Riot engulfing our media outlets, the continued resonance of punk ideology is prominent in the public’s consciousness. A Black Lips tour such as this, although not overtly political in its intentions, demonstrates the capacity of punk to reach beyond cultural and political boundaries. Attempts at censorship create a barrier for movements of progression such as the Arab Spring, yet a new youth culture is emerging in this part of the world, fueled by the interconnectedness of a post-globalized digital age. The tour’s diverse range of locations, from more liberal cities such as Alexandria – which is home to an underground youth culture – to Erbil, the less youth-centric capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, shows a desire to reach out to areas where no such proven audience exists.
We met up with the band during the leg of their tour in Iraqi Kurdistan as they set out to play a gig which by all accounts should not have taken place. Upon viewing the Black Lips conceptual music video Family Tree, which displays nudity and same sex kissing, the government cancelled the originally billed show, declaring that the Black Lips were ‘too much for Kurdistan’. Not to be deterred, the band rolled into town anyway. After a last minute scramble to find a spot to play and some cautiously limited promotion, a low-key show ensued, which for me really revealed the non-commercial nature of the band that demonstrably stands in contrast with the band’s recent studio produced work alongside prodigious producer Mark Ronson.
Walking into a small hall with rows of white plastic chairs and a stage which was still adorned with decorations from a recent poetry reading, the band seemed hyped with the vibe of the building, which was a space used by young Kurds to create and share art. Frontman Cole Alexander, who was sporting a football shirt for the local team ‘Hewler’, insisted on leaving the hanging stale chapatti bread in frames on the stage. When asked about the tour so far, drummer Joe Bradley described the whole experience as a learning curve and he expressed the band’s desire to reach out and form new connections while gaining fresh perspectives themselves. An hour-long set which primarily consisted of songs from their most recent album Arabia Mountain was performed to a mixed crowd of students and families. Although the set didn’t result in an outbreak of frantic dancing, it clearly left a lasting impression on the unexpectant crowd, and for many audience members it marked a tacit turning point for contemporary culture in the region.
Exposure of this kind documents the creative essence of a band such as the Black Lips and casts a limelight on their adventurous wanderlust. The tour itself serves as a quest stitched together through a tapestry of narratives brought into focus by a filmmaker’s vision.
Bill Cody is a filmmaker who previously produced the groundbreaking Athens, GA/Inside-Out, which explored the arts and music scene in Athens and Two-headed Cow, a film about North Carolina-based musician Dexter Romweber, which featurs Jack White, Neko Chase and Chan Marshall.
We caught up with Bill after the tour as he explained the motivations behind the unified project.
So what gave you the initial idea and inspiration for making a music documentary about an American garage punk band touring the Middle East?
The idea was actually the band’s. They knew I had taught in Iraq and they said “We want to go there, too!” They really believe in going out and meeting new people. They’re much more thoughtful than the press often gives them credit for.
So as well as their determination to travel to new places, why do you think that the Black Lips as a band were particularly well suited for this adventure?
I think the Black Lips are the perfect band for a number of reasons. All too often the bands that come to the region are either some people playing 17th century German music sponsored by the State Department, with a lot of dignitaries attending the show and pretending they actually like “classical” music. The other bands that tour in say, the UAE and up until recently Beirut are senior citizens like Madonna, the Chili Peppers and the like. The idea of a band that is actually breaking right now in the US coming to play in the Middle East doesn’t happen. But it should.
Considering that most of the audiences had never seen bands like the Black Lips perform live before, how did you find their reactions to the band differed across the various countries?
The only real difference was the size of the crowds. There were maybe 100 to 150 skate kids in Alexandria, Egypt but they were completely nuts. That was an amazing show and the young people were so thankful that we came to Egypt. One of them told us after our final show there in Cairo that things would go back to being boring after we left. I thought that was a bit of an overstatement. They are going through exciting times there. Still, we were very touched by the sentiment.
The band were supported by the Lebanese band Lazzy Lung and other local musicians during various shows. What effect do you think having local support acts had on the tour?
We had so much fun with Lazzy Lung and learned so much. They were really great to tour with. And we had a very nice session in Cairo with local musicians there as well. I think it will take time to see how everything goes, but I know that we’ve got lifelong friends in the region now.
Coming to perform in this part of the world was never going to be an easy endeavor. What particular challenges did you face during the whole process, from putting the tour together to individual shows?
Obviously we had a lot of difficulties. We had a promoter drop out because the band had played Israel in 2007. There is a boycott movement now and even though it wasn’t going on in 2007, they held it against us even though that show was for young people and the band also went into the West Bank and played. We ended up meeting with them for dinner. I’m not going to speak for the band, but I will say we believe in people and that is why the band so strongly believes in playing for everyone.
We also lost a show because of a video they shot that was based on an Austrian Art movement that featured nudity and other things. I don’t really want to say much about that other than to say that I don’t believe in censorship and I think when you give in to the elements of society that want to censor you’re headed in the wrong direction. Obviously I don’t have to deal with the politics of those kinds of decisions so I can be in favour of anything I want. It’s just that I always meet people that talk about how much they want to move to the US because of the freedoms we have. Well, we have freedoms because we fight for them. If you want freedom, it will take the same kind of courage in your country.
Having said that, we followed all the rules that were laid out for us, and there were a lot of them. In Dubai the band can’t talk to the audience unless the members of the audience talk to them first. At the El Sawy Culture wheel in Cairo we had to submit lyrics and follow a lot of other directions.
It’s funny. There’s a big Muslim Cultural Center in Cairo and they saw all of the band’s videos and only requested that we behave while we played there. It was a great show and I give them a lot of credit. They really understand that they have to reach out to young people and not stifle them. I have great hope for the future of Egypt after some of the things we saw there.
Having previously spent time in the Kurdistan region in Iraq teaching film, how did it feel to return to this part of the world with this project and how do you feel about the current political climate there?
It was great. I will always love my friends in the region. So many people trash people there and it’s really unfair. The people are great. It’s just the politics. And when I say that I mean both of the various countries themselves and the politics of other countries as well. The US, Britain, etc.
Just look at Kurdistan. We almost visited a Syrian refugee camp up by Duhok when we were there with a friend from the UN. I hear it’s the same camp that housed people who fled Baghdad back in 2003 and 2004. They told us there will be 750,000 people displaced by the fighting by the end of the year spread between Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Kurdistan. That’s a lot of people. Since we left there has also been a bombing in the center of Beirut. We just played there a couple of weeks ago. How is that going to play out? How will it play out in Jordan and Kurdistan? Did anyone think about any of this when they started flooding the country with arms last year?
As for the people. I just love everyone there and wish them the best.
As much as the tour was about the band performing, there seemed to be an importance placed on bonding and spending time with the audience before and after shows. Before the Erbil show Cole Alexander was being taught by a local how to play the Quana (an ancient Egyptian Harp) and it really felt like a collision of cultures with this American punk band playing ancient instruments in the city which has the longest history of civilization. How do you think this affected the overall tour and filming?
I was watching some footage of the show in Erbil with my new editor the other day and it was so wonderful to see the interactions of the young people and the band after the show. As you know we had to scramble to get any place at all to play in Erbil and it was a small crowd. Coming after Dubai where we had a huge crowd and made a lot of money that could have been a real comedown, but watching the smiles on the faces of the young people who were there and the band taking picture after picture with them will be a real highlight in the film. We would have loved to play for more people. Hopefully we can come back and do that in the not too distant future.
One more quick thing about Kurdistan. I love my friends there and they really helped us in so many ways. It didn’t always turn out the way I wanted it to but they never stopped helping me right to the end. Also, a lot of props to the Black Lips. They insisted on finding a way to play in Erbil. They really kept after it even when we had setbacks. Playing Kurdistan was important to them.
As for the other countries, it was always important to interact with the people. That was what this was all about. As an American I believe we have a lot to learn from other people around the world. I just wish it could happen more.
What do you think is the most important thing that you achieved from the whole adventure?
That’s a tough one. I’m a filmmaker and I kind of want to wait and see the film that comes out of all of this. But even if the film never got made I think the whole tour will have a lasting impact on the band and the people we met along the way. I know they said they had never seen anything like it in Cairo or Dubai. Beirut obviously has much bigger acts. But even there people said they were surprised that we came and played.
I guess I’m kind of a wait and see person. I’m hoping the situation in Syria doesn’t engulf the region because it would be great if our tour was just the first of many by bands that are up and coming in the US and Europe. Whether they be punk acts, indie or whatever. Hopefully there will be more acts coming the other way as well.
And less 17th Century German crap. I played that as young man and have no need to ever hear it again! Except Mozart. He’s alright.
Can you give us information about the narrative route the documentary will take?
Not sure I can answer that one. It is a little like those early Bob Dylan docs in my eyes. A performance piece mixed with everyday interactions with people
When can we expect to be able to see the film?
I’m hoping to have it playing in the spring festivals here in the US. After that hopefully the world. And Kurdistan!
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Words: Natasha Linford