Throughout their career, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has been famously touted as the second coming of the Jesus and Mary Chain—the next bunch of moody, beautiful, young things to rattle the walls with gritty guitars and good intentions, and then….what exactly? Any scholar of rock history will tell you: you’ll either burn out or fade away.
Thankfully, BRMC didn’t fall victim to either rock cliche, though that’s not to say they didn’t come close. Over recent years the band parted ways with both their label and longtime drummer Nick Jago; moves that could most certainly spell defeat for a band. They emerged from the changes to create a new album on the Abstract Dragon label, then hit the road with a new powerhouse behind the kit: Raveonettes’ touring drummer Leah Shapiro.
Years ago during his nightly radio broadcast, Alice Cooper announced that AC/DC were going to be releasing a new album. “I haven’t heard it,” he joked into the mic, “but I already know what it sounds like.”
Similarly, before I was able to treat my ears to the latest album from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, I had a sense of what was about to hit them. This is a band that has been creating thrilling volumes of uncompromising, intelligent rock and roll for the last decade, which is why the sound on Beat The Devil’s Tattoo did not inspire surprise on first listen as much as head-shaking bewilderment at the consistent magic of their music.
The darkly mysterious steel strum and stomp of the title track immediately takes you back to the dusty gospel folk of 2005’s Howl, while the following song, “Conscience Killer” could easily be an outtake from their neo-psychedelic shoegaze debut. The straightforward heavy-hitting rock of Baby 81 and Take Them On, On Your Own are represented in songs like “Shadow’s Keeper” and “Evol” as well.
Equal parts sinister, sexy, and savage, “River Styx” is an especially memorable cut. The murky pulse of Robert Levon Been’s bass creeps across the soundscape before Peter Hayes’ guitar slices through the fog with a banshee scream.
“Sweet Feeling” is reminiscent of “Devil’s Waitin’” from Howl. Hayes’ tender, reverb-soaked vocals and harmonica swells recall the primitive wilderness of a lost soul. This may very well be the most beautiful song you’ve heard in a long time.
After playing to an ecstatic St. Louis crowd, Peter Hayes was kind enough to indulge my curiosities about the band, their music, and their philosophies, with a late-night chat. Enjoy!
Being able to travel as much as a band does is a fairly unique experience. What do you value about your life on the road?
Everything, really. It’s pretty great, you know? I guess what I appreciate the most is being able to get out of the U.S and experience other cultures. It’s keeps you from having that tunnel vision. I don’t mean to be rude to Americans at all. I think it can probably happen with any culture—Italian, English, whatever. It gets pretty easy to have tunnel vision for your own area and your own problems that you’re dealing with.
What thoughts occupy your mind on the road? Are there certain ideas or inner conflicts that you find yourself repeatedly struggling to understand no matter where you go?
Yeah absolutely, you can’t run from your problems. You can try, but they’re right there with you.
I didn’t mean to get too personal. I just meant, whether it’s philosophical or political, is there anything that you keep revisiting?
Oh yeah, all of it’s still there. You can try to run from the philosophical by traveling. You can get this zen thing, zoned out, staring out the window, but it all comes creeping back in.
Do you think your drive to keep making art stems more from your satisfaction from the truths you have discovered, and personal enlightenment, or does it come from the frustration that your values are still alien to a large population of people?
I don’t really want people to think like us. That wouldn’t be all that great really. I’m not trying to convert anybody. I’m really just lucky enough to play music and people that like the band have afforded us that. I’m not sure if we’ deserve that or not. I like to think that a little bit, you know? We’re doing our best. I guess what that entails for us is being respectful to who came before us to play music. We’d like to someday be somewhere within the family tree of musicians and artists.
The American political landscape has changed pretty significantly since your last record, Baby 81 was written. Has that had any effect on your music?
It all seems to be kind of a strange disguise. I hope it’s not. It hasn’t been proven that Democrat means anything different than Republican really. They sure make a big stink about how different they are, but at their roots I don’t know if they’re really that different at the core of it.
A lot of the same frustrations still exist?
I’m not particularly frustrated by it. You got hopes still, you know? Well, I guess that’s the dude’s [Obama’s]major running campaign–hope and all that–but I had that without him anyways. I wish him luck. If he means well, then great. I just don’t know if meaning well actually gets things done. It’s just kind of a big machine. I’m not really sure what would make it run a little differently. I still think [government] is a little too concerned with itself. I think the whole thing’s a little too self-indulgent.
Switching gears to talk about the album, were most of these new songs written on the road?
There’s a pretty good mixture of everything. The majority was written with Leah in the basement in Philadelphia, where we rehearsed and put the record together. Some of it was started on the road with her, and there’s probably two or three that are older ones, written years and years ago. Actually, two of them were left off of the first album.
Which were those?
Well one of them is on the album. That’s “Evol,“ and the other one is a B-side for Europe, I think. It’s called “1:51.”
You recorded Beat The Devil’s Tattoo in the same house as Howl, right?
We did a bit of Howl there. Robert did two or three songs with them. I came in and did a version of “Ain’t No Easy Way.” We ended up losing that version of it. We ended up erasing it by accident in the middle of the night. But yeah, not the majority of Howl was done there, but everything was done there this time.
Did living in the same space where you were recording affect the music? Was it a more intense experience?
It kinda needed to happen, you know? We needed to eat and breathe and live together in the same house and make music. It was a great opportunity that our friends let us have with their place there, so we couldn’t really pass it up. Not a lot of bands get that, besides maybe when you’re first starting out you’ll rent a place together, but getting back to that was great.
How did you guys meet Leah? Did you see her drumming for The Raveonettes?
No, we saw her with a band called Dead Combo. It was a New York band. We toured with them and she was out doing drums for them somewhere towards the end of Howl or the beginning of Baby 81, I’m not quite sure. We got her number then, just in case.
She seems like a really great fit. From an outsider’s view it seems like she’s very much a kindred spirit.
I find a lot of similarities between the philosophies of the Beat poets, and your music. (Seeking truth, freedom, movement, non-conformity, rejection of materialism, etc…) Were these principles always important to you as a band, or have your philosophies evolved and emerged with your music over the years?
It’s all kinda borrowed ideas really. It was also the thought of “Where is that nowadays?” Not that we’re holding any torch all that well, if we have a torch at all. Those dudes probably lived it a lot better than we are, you know what I mean? I mean, some of them lived it to a T. They wouldn’t be caught dead making money off their art, and the ones that did, they thought were sell-outs. I guess we were a bit naive about it. We just had an idea about what we thought those guys were trying to do, and we took that and kinda made it our own, but at the same time it turned into what they were already trying to do.
You mentioned the money thing. It seems as though your band operates pretty modestly, is that fair to say?
Yeah, most of the dough that’s made goes back into music and traveling, really, and paying rent. [However] it’s pretty easy to sit back and look at yourself and go, “Man, I wasted a lot.” I’ve got a computer and an iPod, you know?
I guess there’s always something that you could give up, right?
Yeah, kinda. I try to keep it to four pair of pants, four shirts, a couple pair of socks…that’s about it. Just keep life simple like that.
So living simply kind of stems from both a philosophy and also the nature of being a touring musician?
Yeah, it’s a whole lot easier to travel when you ain’t got a whole lot. Less stuff to carry. You kind of got to learn to live like that. It was actually a mushroom moment. (laughs) One of the first tours I did, I had a suitcase full of crap—all the stuff you think you might need and the just-in-case stuff that you pack into the suitcase. I ended up taking mushrooms and I walked into my room and it kind of kicked in right around there. I looked at the suitcase and thought, “Fuck man! Why the fuck do I have that much crap?” I ended up pulling out just a pair of pants and two shirts, and then did the whole tour just with that. After that I figured I’d try to do that every time.
I want to talk about some other recurring themes that have been present in your music over the years—specifically on this last record. Guilt, sin, the devil, redemption, chaos, and hope are just a few that seem to appear quite often and are also commonly associated with religion. What is your relationship with religion and spirituality?
Well, I grew up going to church every Monday and Wednesday and a bunch of that stuff. And of course I went through that whole “never do it again” thing. I still haven’t gone to church in a long time, but no matter if you don’t believe in anything like that—like there is no God—there’s a whole lot of people that do believe in that. They have assumed power. As Dylan says, “God on their side,” you know? So no matter how much you don’t want to believe, you’re stuck with people that are killing for it still..…Luckily enough we can sing about it and yell about it onstage, and sometimes give voice to other people that don’t get to yell about it.
There’s a quote that I really like, and I’m curious to get your take on it. George Orwell said, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Do you feel that artists have a responsibility to take a revolutionary stance with their art?
That’s a hard way to put it. The only thing I’ve thought of in that realm lately, is that it’s real obvious to me why people don’t respect art that much. Besides the paranoia…I can jump into the whole conspiracy theory of it. If you control the art, you control the people. I don’t think that’s a new thought either, but I think that’s dead true…I think there’s a certain thing that has to be held on to, which is, at it’s most simple, is just not be an asshole. (laughs) That’s the simplest way I can put it…You see that dude wearing a $30,000 coat, $2,000 pair of pants, four cars—there’s no respect in that. Music’s the easy way to do it. I sure wouldn’t bother buying their album. They got theirs, you know? And they proved that they couldn’t fucking handle it, so why give them any more? It’s gone that route for so long, I think it’s a good thing that [music] is pretty accessible on the internet right now. It keeps it down to earth, hopefully.
I wanted to ask you about about your song “Evol.” Naturally it makes you think of the words evolution and evil, but it’s also “love” backwards. Similarly, The Manic Street Preachers have a song called “Revol,” which can be interpreted as revolution or the inverse of “lover.” Is there anything to that, or am I reading too much into it?
Yeah, it was meant as love being a bastard every once in a while. Just the basic duality of it.
We’ve talked before about how you guys always get labeled as dark and moody, but that’s clearly not who you are all the time. What are some of the biggest misunderstandings about your band? Is there anything you want to clear up?
I guess I kind of gave up on that really. I don’t really want to fight that fight. The judgment is going to be there one way or another. You can be as happy as a fucking clam, smiling in every picture and people will give you shit for smiling. It’s a silly fight. People are going to pick you apart if they have the need to, and I’m OK with that. It’s understandable; it’s just how it is. I do the same thing. I get shitty about things (laughs). Having it thrown in my face is fine.
Ha! That’s the quote we’re going to use for the title of this piece: “I get shitty about things,” by Peter Hayes.
Concerning songwriting, what continues to inspire you? Are there certain topics you find yourself returning to again and again?
Nah, everything’s fair game. It’s all kind of different each time even though it’s the same idea, really. Love song, breakup song, song about death, religion—-you could be talking about the same thing but in a slightly different way that, for me anyways, makes it new, even though it ain’t. There’s nothing really new about any of it, but that’s just great. It’s a new day so you kind of feel a little different I guess. I can’t really explain it all that well. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. You’d figure you’d get bored pretty fucking quick, but it just doesn’t happen…to me anyways.
No, that makes sense. I’ve heard people say that by the time you’re 16, you’ve gathered enough life experience to have material to write about for the rest of your life.
That’s probably about true, depending on your life I guess.
Are there any books, bands or movies that that you’ve been exposed to recently that you’ve been enjoying?
This girl, Courtney Jaye has got an album out. She sang on our album, on ‘The Toll.” I really like her album. She’s had it forever, but I think she just released it earlier this year. It’s like a Phil Spector, country, Hawaiian—it’s pretty interesting. Black Ryder and ZaZa…what’s another one? Haven’t heard Big Pink that much, but Robert’s still talking about them. I still got to check that out. As far as books, I haven’t really dug into anything. That’s kind of my little curse on the road. I love to read but I get sick as a dog if I read while we’re driving. I just can’t do it, and then when we stop we’ve got shit to do. When the TV’s on I’ll stare at anything. I’m just there to zone out. I’m not a big movie buff, I’m just there to get rid of my brain. (laughs) That’s just the worst thing possible. I feel guilty about it the whole time—like I’m just being a vegetable, but I have to do it.
Back Rebel Motorcycle Club return to Madison tonight to rock The High Noon Saloon as only they know how. Band of Skulls will kick open this incredible night at 8:30 pm. Don’t miss it. Tickets are still available here, but they won’t last long.