Black Lipstick's notes from the underground

The Austin American-Statesman
July 11, 2002

By Joe Gross

You don't think of Texas when you think of the Velvet Underground. You think of Andy Warhol, drugs, leather, sunglasses, clanging guitars and New York. But not Texas. Black Lipstick aims to change that. The Austin quartet draws not just on the Velvets for inspiration, but generation upon generation of bands who genuflect at the Velvets altar: the Feelies, Television, the Modern Lovers. The group plays tonight at the band-and-a-movie extravaganza Jo's Rockin Reel, taking place at the much-loved South Congress coffee emporium. (Tonight's film, following Black Lipstick's set, is the punk rock classic "The Fabulous Stains.")

"The Velvets are just the perfect band," Black Lipstick singer/guitarist Philip Niemeyer says. He and his girlfriend, Lipstick drummer Beth Nottingham (who occasionally writes about music for the Statesman), are making Sunday brunch and passing the phone back and forth. "Each record is great, but each one is really different."

As far as bands who obsessively draw on the Velvets' sound, "I love 'em all," Niemeyer says. "Travis (Higdon, the band's other guitarist) and I were just talking about how all the good Velvets knockoff bands of the last generation have broken up, like the Jesus and Mary Chain. We're ready to leach off of that sort of thing."

"I already loved VU, but I think they're a lot more hard-core about it," Higdon says. His favorite VU knockoffs are the Jesus and Mary Chain, Opal and Stereolab. "My recording philosophy is, 'If there's something wrong with the song, add more feedback.'"

Black Lipstick formed in the fall of 1999. Niemeyer was still in local garage superstars the Kiss-Offs with Higdon, and Nottingham was new to rock bands, though she played in an Indonesian gamelan ensemble at UT. "I bought a guitar because I wanted to start a band with Philip, but guitar didn't come very easily to me," she says. A random encounter with drums convinced her that pounding on stuff was her bag (as she recently demonstrated for a national audience in one of those Pontiac Vibe ads that were shot at, yes, Jo's). "I didn't know how to play drums, but I sat down and it was very easy. I told Philip I wanted to play drums, we wrote our first song, "White Jazz," and started the band on the same day."

Higdon joined up in early 2000 after the Kiss-Offs dissolved, and bassist Kelly Martinez came up with the name Black Lipstick. (The group has gone through six bassists, the latest being the insanely affable Steve Garcia. "He's the funniest one in the band," Higdon says. "We'd love for him to do more interviews, but he doesn't have a working phone at the moment.") The band's first EP, "Four Kingdoms of Black Lipstick," was released last fall on Higdon's Peek-A-Boo Records to unexpectedly widespread critical acclaim, generating positive reviews from as far away as the Village Voice, Seattle Weekly and CMJ.

The band went back into the studio this spring to record an as-yet-untitled follow-up. Being in the studio can be an exhausting, humorless and deadly boring exercise, but meeting the band at Sweatbox studios in early June, it's clear that they're unusually happy. Sweatbox major-domo Mike Vasquez oversees Nottingham overdubbing some drums as the rest of the band looks on. They're in the mixing stage, and most of the heavy lifting is over. There's something inherently funny and cool about drum overdubs. Nottingham sits at her kit, head bobbing to the finished track in her headphones. Every 16 bars or so, she taps the big cymbals with both sticks. "That sounded awesome," Vasquez says, "Just like the ocean."

Nottingham looks back on the sessions with fondness, which is almost unheard of. "We had a wonderful time recording this record. Everything was relaxed and fun. I'm almost sorry to see it end." The band laid down 12 songs, 10 of which are slated for release, including the epic "Texas Women," which Higdon admits they recorded around five times before they got something they could live with.

"Texas Women" is Lipstick's set closer, the signature track, the song most likely to get the full-on, extended improv, noise-jam treatment. When Black Lipstick opened for the Warlocks at Stubb's in late June, "Texas Women" was their finest moment. Everyone opened up and let it rip. Nottingham pounded away like Moe Tucker, Garcia throbbed in the corner, and Higdon and Niemeyer roared away. It was beautiful and loud. But there's a small debate as to which track "Texas Women" corresponds to in the Velvets' oeuvre. Nottingham sees it as their "Sister Ray," the legendary 17-minute epic on the Velvets' second album, "White Light/White Heat," but Higdon is reluctant to accord it such a lofty status. "I think it's more our 'European Son,'" he says, referring to an earlier, shorter, Velvets blowout.

"I think we have better, even more insane jams in our future."

Black Lipstick
(L-R) Travis Higdon, Phillip Niemeyer,
Elizabeth Nottingham, Steve Garcia

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