‘I remember a real Dalí painting, swimming, ten bedrooms, and playing with Weimaraners,” says Black Lips guitarist Ian St. Pé of a particularly lavish after-party at an oil kingpin’s mansion in Houston. “Most people spend their days waiting to go to the party. We just happen to be the goddamn party.” Indeed. Shortly before the Weimaraners, St. Pé, 33, and his bandmates—bassist Jared Swilley, guitarist Cole Alexander, and drummer Joe Bradley, all in their late twenties—had “a little altercation” with a club owner for setting off firecrackers during their set.
In the spirit of “practice makes perfect,” Black Lips have diligently worked at debauchery for more than a decade. Swilley, Alexander, and Bradley founded the group in 1999, when they were still in high school in Atlanta’s suburbs. By the time the older St. Pé joined in 2004 (he used to buy the then-underage trio beer), Black Lips had released two albums and were touring virtually nonstop, peppering their shows with vomit, blood, make-out sessions (among themselves), and the flashing of private parts. Their 2007 album, Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo, was recorded live in a Tijuana mariachi bar with an audience of drunks pulled off the street.
The story could have ended there, with the Lips going down in rock history as a band of guys who occasionally pee in each other’s mouths. And that would be quite a legacy. But then Mark Ronson stepped in, having heard, beyond the wild stage antics, some of the grimiest, most joyful garage rock around. He agreed to produce their latest album, Arabia Mountain, the group’s first collaboration with a major producer, out June 7. “Mark Ronson didn’t change us,” says St. Pé. “He just made us sound bigger and badder.” Known as something of a sonic shrink, Ronson typically catalyzes the strengths of the artists he works with—in this case, careening harmonies, seething guitars, and singularly disturbed and witty lyrics.
“Black Lips might be better at being rock stars than Guns n’ Roses or Nirvana,” says Spin’s Charles Aaron. “They’ve just lacked the monoculture and payola.” A Ronson-produced album might change that. Perhaps in anticipation of almost-mainstream notoriety, the Lips say they’ve toned down their shows, though not enough to endanger their hard-won reputation for depravity. “Entertainment is a dying art,” says St. Pé from the band’s Econoline van, en route to a show in Baton Rouge. And so, for that matter, is touring. “We’re about to stop at Waffle House for the All-American Breakfast,” he says. “Down the road, we’ll check out this gas station that has a live tiger in the parking lot. We’re trying to raise money to free him. And waiting for us in our next dressing room is Cheetos, Coors Light, Mad magazine, and free socks.” St. Pé pauses to consider that eventuality. “I guess living out of a bag for most of our lives is kind of a downer, but it’s not that much of a downer. We get to do awesome shit.”