By their own estimation, the members of the Black Lips caused $1 million in property damage during their formative years in the northern Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody. And when they weren't defacing the walls of their high school, guitarist Cole Alexander and drummer Joe Bradley would spend evenings drinking 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor at the 513, an all-ages club situated on a spooky industrial strip not far from the railroad tracks near downtown Atlanta.
"A newborn baby could drink there," Mr. Bradley said. "There was a one-eyed homeless guy pushing a shopping cart stuffed with an AC unit. So we'd give him some money and ask him to get beer for us." Once properly inebriated, the budding musicians would go nuts bouncing off the walls to live hardcore punk bands, or watch the neighborhood skinheads go toe-to-toe with the runaway street kids who begged for change in a nearby plaza.
Good times. And, as destiny has revealed, fine training for a booming career in garage-rock mayhem. Though they've bounced from obscure indie label to slightly less obscure indie label in their seven years as a band, the Black Lips are sitting pretty these days. The group's fifth album, "Good Bad Not Evil," was just released on Vice Records, an imprint of the stylishly irreverent Vice magazine empire, whose roster includes the French electro-pop act Justice, songwriting actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Japanese noise band The Boredoms. The notion of a scruffy, anarchic bar band from the deep South rubbing elbows with such hipster-approved company may seem a touch odd, but the Black Lips are far weirder than they look.
Though Mr. Bradley commands a manic, driving beat, the band's songs skip from groove to groove like a bumpy phonograph stylus. Beneath the blare and buzz, they'll evoke lovelorn doo-wop homilies with sincerity, swallow them whole in a roar of amplifier distortion, and then pause for a twangy homage to truckdriver balladeer Red Sovine, as they do on "How Do You Tell a Child That Someone Has Died?" Taking it a step further, "Najavo" recounts the tale of a man who "fell in love with a little Indian girl," and finds Mr. Alexander stringing together an unlikely, tongue-twisting rhyme from the polysyllabic names of about a dozen tribes. It's sheer novelty. Any perceived political incorrectness is redeemed by the singer's whack-job earnestness.
"We were never really good enough to actually play garage," Mr. Alexander said, explaining how the band's lack of the formal mastery necessary to be fully "retro" led it to begin absorbing influences from psychedelic rock as well as marginal sources like Peruvian rock bands collected on bootlegged 10-inch vinyl. "So we just tried to be eclectic."
The mustachioed singer, who sometimes performs in red shorts that are perilously loose-fitting and has been known to French kiss his bandmates when the mood strikes him, was sharing a corner of the rooftop at the Vice complex in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Someone was fetching a carton of coffee, despite the early afternoon sun, and the overpowering scent of fresh croissants spilled from a bakery next door.
The Black Lips, who will return to New York for concerts tonight (at the Bowery Ballroom) and Wednesday (at the Music Hall of Williamsburg), rarely sit still long enough to savor such aromas. Their 1991 Chevrolet conversion van was recently retired — at 187,000 miles — though much of the band's touring is far from any interstate highway. In the past year, the Lips have gigged in so many time zones they deserve their own American Express commercial — like globe-trotting snowboard champ Shaun White. They headlined a Vice party in Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, and worked the beach circuit on southeastern Sardinia, where the road food included a cheese made from maggot vomit.
"I think you're supposed to wait until they die," Ian St. Pe, one of the band's guitarists, said. "But we were eating it with them still in there."
Such fearlessness doesn't only play to trashing punk clubs or gobbling a "Fear Factor" menu. The players also did some rock ‘n' roll diplomacy earlier this year when they went on a 10-day tour of the Middle East. Tour stops included Tel Aviv and the West Bank. "There's a demand," Mr. Bradley said. "Not many Western bands go there."
"They're scared," Mr. Alexander added, "we're not scared. We took our acoustic guitars into Bethlehem and set up on the street. We played for some Palestinian kids. It was cool."
Seasoned road warriors who are cheerfully unfazed by much at all, the performers sipped their coffee and smoked their cigarettes. And then someone admitted it. There was this one gig they could not escape fast enough. "Our first show in Boston on our first tour was some kind of vegan hardcore house party," Mr. Bradley said. "And we didn't really fit in that well at all."