Black Rebel Motorcycle
Famously taking their name from the Marlon Brando-led biker gang, in the classic 1953 film, The Wild One. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Robert Levon Been (vox / bass / guitar), Peter Hayes (vox / guitar / bass) and Nick Jago (drums / percussion) - formed in San Francisco, California in 1998, but struggling to get gigs, recorded a 16trk demo and relocated to Los Angeles in 1999, as "the scene for new music there was more evolved." After regularly playing live, selling CDs at their shows and gaining radio airplay, they were soon noticed by The Music Industry, and in due time, signed a major record deal with Virgin Records, which importantly, allowed the three men who dress in black to produce their own albums.
Then, in 2001, when the NME was smitten with US bands, including The Strokes and The White Stripes (who formed part of the music paper's New Rock Revolution). BRMC, with their intoxicating brew of garage rock 'n' roll, introspective lyrics, effortlessly cool style, iconic imagery, brooding dark heart attitude, and a fuzzy / psychedelic guitar wall of sound - indebted to great British Shoegazer bands such as The Jesus And Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine - found themselves in the right place at the right time! One journalist accurately wrote, "The songs' multiple sonic layers, inhabit a landscape of squalling feedback and pop-tinged white noise that's seriously addictive."
With Noel Gallagher also lending his support, endorsing the three-piece as his "favourite new band," Black Rebel Motorcycle Club were invited to tour with Oasis, and combined with the release of their self-titled debut album, they begun making waves on this side of the Atlantic. Big things were expected, but then 2003's follow-up LP, the politically-charged (in places) Take Them On On Your Own, received mixed reviews and ultimately, a muted reception. With life on the road also taking its toll on each band member, Nick was on the brink of despair, and quit BRMC in 2004, having been absorbed by a whirlwind of drink, drugs and inter-band conflicts.
High School friends, songwriters and twin vocalists, Robert and Peter, had also seen their relationship with Virgin Records come to an end (due to business disputes), but were promptly picked up by Echo in the UK, and RCA in the USA, who they would then go on to deliver an album for in 2005. Steeped in country-tinged Americana, folk and blues, the universally-acclaimed Howl, was a stripped-down, rootsy, spiritual and acoustic affair, and signalled an understated departure from BRMC's trademark snarling sound / early sonic assaults.
Most importantly though, it's a record which saved the band, as it also saw Nick making amends and returning to the fold in the final stages of recording. Interestingly, both Took Out A Loan and 666 Conducer, were recorded at the end of these sessions, but were held back for the band's fourth album And bringing us bang up-to-date, is 2007's Baby 81 (named after the Sri Lankan baby rescued in the 2004 Asian Tsunami Disaster), which is not only a return to the musical world in which the band originally resided and thrived. But, it has also reawakened the beast in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and for me, is the best record of their career so far, as it masterfully fuses all 3 of their previous efforts together, whilst still exhibiting a noticeable edge and musical progression!
Released through Island Records / Drop The Gun Recordings, the LP features an assortment of wondrous songs, which are nearly all sequenced in the chronological order in which they were recorded. Robert elaborated, "I know a lot of bands don't do that, but I think it makes the album feel more alive, it's like a living, breathing organism. I think we all took a leap of faith a little bit more on this album, writing more current songs. We used to hold on pretty tight to new songs, but it kind of feels like people are finally going to hear where we're at right now - we're much more in the moment."
One reviewer enthused, "Baby 81 is a 13trk rollercoaster of a record!" Another, "I don't believe there is any greater thing in life, than seeing a really good band mature and grow into a truly great band!" While Peter describes this particular album as, "The sister of Howl." As a long-time BRMC fan, I had the pleasure of meeting the whole band fresh from their recent support dates with the Kings Of Leon in America, before interviewing Robert prior to the group's thunderous and gripping show at Bristol University. Which only served to heighten the fact, that this is a collective who still demand your full attention!
"What happened to the revolution?" With
Baby 81 it's back in full-swing
A very special thanks to Robert, Peter and Nick, to BRMC's Tour Manager Harv, and to Claire @ Hall or Nothing, for all of their time and help.
Lucy: 'Taxidermy' and 'Drink Me' are quite drastically different in their
styles, so what kind of sound can we expect from the 3rd album?
KJG: We don't know yet. We're playing a lot of new material tonight so you'll be able to judge that for yourself. When I'm this close up to it, it's really difficult to tell. I'm on a bit of a negative slant today, but usually with our music I can only hear the bits that have gone wrong rather
than anything that went right. When you reflect back on something it's very difficult to give an objective opinion, and I don't believe in objectivity anyway, I think everything's subjective. I just throw a deck of cards and
wherever they land, that's where she finds herself. I'm not really the one to explain my part in it, you must do that as the observer really, and of course that will reflect your part in the grand scheme of things.
Lucy: Do you enjoy playing live more than the creative process in the studio?
KJG: (Laughs) I don't enjoy any of it. It comes and it goes, ok? There's nothing like when you're writing and you manage to catch something by its
tail; when you're looking for those things underground that are skittering out of sight just when you're about to catch them. And when you catch them it is worth it, but it's a momentary pleasure. I've got so much noise upstairs, and I can hear things in my head that to me are absolutely devastatingly beautiful. I'm always trying to download them and get them
here, but they never get here in the right state, they're always very disabled and they don't even begin to imitate what I can hear in my head.
It's a frustrating process in the main.
Lucy: Your lyrics are simultaneously emotionally expressive and cryptic. Are you looking to be understood by your audience?
KJG: I'm always trying to understand myself, but it's like there's a point in the centre of the room, and there's a hundred windows to look at the same point from. All I can do is give you different angles on the same thing. God, you know, if I could find one conclusive thing in anything I would probably have something to put an anchor down on. But I cant, and I haven't met anyone that can. You can pick out anything you like in my lyrics, I don't seek to be cryptic. I love words for the sake of words, for me they're kind of free standing, and they don't really need to be explained. I think every word has its own character and colour and picture and the result you get with lyrics just depends how you put them together. You could just do it in a William Burroughs esque way, or throw the deck of cards, and you'd probably still find something that our tiny little minds would latch on to in order to gain some kind of emotional understanding. I don't think there's a constant, the only constant that there is for me is that there is no constant. I use myself as my canvas, I gut myself and fillet myself the whole fucking time, I'm always hooking myself out of the water, I'm always cutting my own head off and disembowelling myself, and as you can probably tell I'm quite angry about it at the moment. I'm very tired of it all, of my
process and how I find life, because it always seems to be about living and dying all in one breath. I'm getting pretty fucking tired of that.
Lucy: Do you think drugs stimulate or hinder creativity?
KJG: Well that depends on the drug, because I think most things arrive in the form of a drug really. I know in myself that if anything I am, much to my greater expense, an adrenalin junkie. My synapses don't work well enough to put pills in my mouth, I can't do that, despite popular opinion. I don't need any help breaking down, put it that way. There's not much holding it
together. If there was a drug that could put aline between two polar opposites and make them in to one thing I'm sure I would have it
intravenous, but I haven't found it. I think drugscan be a bit of a lazy way for creativity anyway, you're better off in the cold light of day in the mirror.
Lucy: As a band, you are distinguished by the extreme physicality of your
live performances. Do you consciously make an effort to put on a show or do
your performances just naturally come to you, and whatever happens, happens?
KJG: It's a bit of both, because you see, I think taking the stage is one of the most unnatural things anyone can do. In a way, just walking on stage actually creates an altered state - its not right, no one's meant to do that, unless you're a priest or a magician, or something like that. To put somebody who's very incapable in many ways in to that position creates a combustion reaction inside me. I know that, and I take the stage knowing that. Obviously there's all the usual things that affect my performance; if I'm on my 45th day of a tour I'm probably gonna be pretty fucking tired, so I'll be dictated by that. If I'm doing new material like tonight I don't
know what's going to happen, because we haven't built the train tracks yet. The beauty of playing live is when my drummer goes in to 5th gear or in to 10th gear, and for some reason there's something that hits me in the base of the spine and I'm gone, and that's Halleluiah for me. During the last few months a lot of strange things have been happening onstage, I think the process is changing. I don't know what's going to happen tonight, I've been having quite a tough time on stage, I feel like something's pulling me under, as if something's got me.
Lucy: So does the crowd influence your performances on stage?
KJG: Yes they do. I'm unkind enough to be pretty impersonal about how I do it, so I use them for me to kick against in effect, or to surf on, (I don't
mean physically surf). If you're in an empty roomand there's a couple of people at the back, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll have a bad show -
they might get the show of their lives. And then again when something's really heaving and going off, I get quite a distorted view of it, because I
can feel quite overwhelmed lose my sense of place in the situation. I lose control of myself. I don't know, I probably wasn't meant to do this, I
wasn't built for this. It wasn't a career option, I didn't start there and go there, I didn't pick up the things on the way. I've sort of gone round
Lucy: As the lead singer of the band, most media interest is focused on you.
Do you feel pressurised by your position or do you enjoy being the centre
KJG: I've been here on this wheel long enough,(and I say this with a little bit of trepidation because I think you have to be really careful with this kind of thing, because the motivation to do it in itself I think is usually pretty corrupt) I'm not doing it for anyone else, I need a cheque through the door like anybody else does, you have to keep eating, you have to keep living. I'm looking for some sense of going home on my own terms, and people's critique of me is not relevant, whether it's positive of negative.
I do need a cheque through the door though, otherwise I'll have to go and be a butcher or something.
Lucy: What is the religious meaning behind the song "For I am the way"?
KJG: If you use the word religion in its truest sense, all it means is communion, it hasn't got any of the attachments to any written word. My
understanding of the word communion is loss of the sense. Another way of looking at it is you've got to get in to get out, and the only thing that I
know to be true is me, is this tiny little dot in the centre of the universe. It's the only thing that I know feels pain; I can see other people's pain and I can feel it in an emotional way, but not in a physical way. I find myself in the unfortunate position of feeling like I am the
centre of the universe and that everything is a projection, made by me - i.e. you two don't exist, you're something that I created. I don't wish that
sense upon anybody because it's not a good one. Through 'For I am the way' I'm saying that you've got to get in, because the only thing one knows to be true is oneself. And on a good day, if you stand on top of a mountain or go to the desert or stand in the ocean, and become completely inconsequential, linear time stops and you become everything and nothing. That for me is
communion, that's how I define religion. I thinkthere's a line in there which goes "Today the only bridge I have I burn" which sums it up really, because it is about cutting all lines of communication in order to really truly commune.
Lucy: Do you think that in the future your creativity will move from the sphere of music in to literature for example?
KJG: It's real hard to say. In a way, that sounds like a much easier life. But for all I know I'm deluding myself. I'm looking for someone to help me frame something at the moment, and someone is actually, someone's being really good to me. I would love to write, but I don't know if I'm good
enough to do it.