On Sept. 11, 2012, an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, left ambassador Chris Stevens and three other staffers dead. Barely a week later, Atlanta garage-rock revival quartet Black Lips kicked off a tour of the Middle East, supported by Lebanese post-punk-flavored rockers Lazzy Lung and including shows in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Before each stop on their current tour, the Lips will screen Kids Like You & Me, an hourlong documentary highlighting their experiences as one of the first American bands to tour the region extensively in decades.
In the planning stages since 2009, the tour was derailed multiple times by outbreaks of violence. Before protests against dictatorial governments turned into revolution in Egypt and civil war in Libya and Syria, the idea was to use Damascus as a home base through the spring of 2011. When the group finally touched down the following fall, multiple stops were canceled or rescheduled at the last minute due to government visa problems or shady booking agents. With heaps of determination and a positive outlook, the group made it through a month of dates. But why should a rock band volunteer itself for the role of cultural ambassador?
"I think most people [agree] that when you put religion and politics aside, everyone will pretty much get along and have the same outlook on life," bassist Jared Swilley tells the Scene. "Religion and politics get in the way, and we don't have either of those, so that's why I think we got along with people over there."
The Lips' lack of an overt political message is attractive in cultures where fractious politicians have warped the government badly out of shape — also possibly a factor in their popularity in America. However, along with their mandate to share good old-fashioned grungy rock 'n' roll with their audience, they hoped to dispel any misconceptions about Western culture in the region, as well as correcting their own media-borne biases.
"It'd be very simple to tour the usual markets," drummer Joe Bradley tells a radio host in the film. "It's almost better to have a challenge, and irk these people, and say, 'Here's this other culture that you may not know about, or may not know much about, or may have been given disinformation about, and here it is at your doorstep.' At the same time, we're trying to gain what we can from the places we're going, because we have a skewed perspective as well."
For audiences used to rock concerts on offer six nights a week — or who use the drunken sweat spattered and indoor fireworks ignited in the 2008 Atlanta scene doc We Fun as a benchmark — the shows captured in Kids may seem tame. But the Middle Eastern crowds' enthusiasm for even a toned-down, grown-up version of the Lips is unmistakable.
"Of all the cities, Beirut had the most established music scene," Swilley tells us. "In Egypt, we met a lot of good bands, and they had a good scene going in Cairo and Alexandria. Right now wouldn't be the best time to go, but it was great when we were there, and none of the stuff that you see on the news was happening. We had really good shows there, too."
The film backs that up. Eyes bugging in disbelief that they were actually seeing Black Lips and Lazzy Lung in person, jubilant Alexandria youngsters bounced like pinballs and clamored to take pictures with their phones. The only visible difference between the show at Cairo's El Sawy Culturewheel and a cheek-by-jowl night at Exit/In was the audience's skin tone.
"You can still put on a wild show — and what we did over there [by local standards] was super crazy," Swilley explains, regarding the balance between antics and respect that kept them from running afoul of the law as they did in India in 2009. "But a lot of the shows had children at them, and families. Even at a daytime show or a record store in the States, we're not going to expose ourselves like we would at a 21-up show at a bar or club. You know when to draw the line."
As they've become full-fledged world citizens, Black Lips have come to treat Nashville as a second home. Guitarist Ian St. Pé has a house here, and the couches of friends like Those Darlins and Natural Child are just an $8 ride from Atlanta on the Megabus. Their new record, which Swilley tells us is ready to be mixed, was recorded in part with The Black Keys' Patrick Carney in Nashville, at Blackbird Studio and Roger Moutenot's Haptown.
Though their goal of establishing a touring circuit in the Middle East for Western garage rockers is a long way off, Swilley is optimistic.
"Young people are pretty much the same everywhere," Swilley says. "Everyone's got the same urges and wants to be creative and have fun. I don't think that where you come from has anything to do with that."