Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
For a select few, rock’n’roll is a life sentence. It’s in every muscle in your body, it’s in every thought you have, it’s written all over your face. When you arrive at Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s headquarters in East Hollywood, you know you’re sidling up to the home of some of rock’s most primal prisoners. In the driveway there are motorcycles. In the living room there is gear splayed everywhere; random bits of drum kits, a pedal steel guitar, stacks of vinyl. Answering the door is a bleary-eyed, chain-smoking Peter Hayes (guitar, vocals) and his co-habiting bandmate Leah Shapiro (drums). In walks bassist Robert Levon Been too, Hayes’ BRMC co-founder, dark shades on, an even darker all-black ensemble. As a trio, they seem forever unsettled, even in the safety of each other’s companies. They take time over answers, seeking for perfect responses. It’s the same approach they have to rock’n’roll. If the end result is not flawless, they’re not interested.
In this house is where they put the finishing touches on their recently released eighth album, the follow-up to 2013’s ‘Specter At The Feast’. Titled ‘Wrong Creatures’, it began in the summer of 2015. Shapiro was six months clear of a brain surgery. The trio had come off a tour and began sketching out new songs in their private lockout space appropriately nicknamed ‘The Bunker’ in North Hollywood. “Just mumble tracks, inside big walls of noise” explains Hayes, lyrics would often morph out the sounds later.
For Hayes, in particular, this record proved to be one of the more tumultuous given the length of time it took from start to finish. “This one’s been so long I have come around the other side,” he admits. “I’ve gone from hating it to enjoying it.” A hesitant sense of pride is shared among them. On a good day, BRMC remains a democracy. Their lifestyle is anti-establishment, and it’s reflected in their approach to being a band, too. There is no chief lyricist, for instance. That makes for a delicate balancing of egos. “We’ve always been anti frontman,” reasons Hayes.
Sharing the load, however, doesn’t necessarily make the task at hand any easier. The longer BRMC exist, the deeper they have to search to mine the gold dust. The difference between them and your typical band is that they work themselves into the ground to get there. “Every record gets a little harder figuring out what to say, trying not to repeat yourself,” admits Hayes. The reason for their cantankerous relationship with critics is a result of being their own harshest judges. “We beat the shit out of ourselves trying to come up with something meaningful. So when someone else beats the crap out of it we’re like, ‘Yeah that’s fair.’”
Back to ‘Wrong Creatures’ though… Once the trio had enough “mumble” tracks to get going, they’d move into their LA studio to record properly. Where most of this album could be described as an Angeleno affair, some of the songs are older. ‘Spook’, for instance came from writing sessions in Santa Cruz and was recorded out in Joshua Tree. ‘Bandung Hum’ was started in Indonesia on tour. Writing on the road, however, is never the most optimum place. It was back home where they toiled and drove themselves to breaking point. Producer Nick Launay came in to assist. Famed for his work with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire and most significantly here Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Launay became a fundamental part of the BRMC machine, providing the band with a sounding board.
“Your perspective goes away when you’ve been down the rabbit hole for too long,” admits Shapiro. “Having someone come in and say that it’s good and you can stop working yourself to death… If we don’t have a sounding board like that we’ll never stop working. We’ll stay in that rehearsal studio forever.” Hayes chuckles to himself. “We’re stuck up our own ass a bit much.”
Despite the travails of pushing themselves to evolve, this time they found that they could lean on all the different iterations of BRMC over the years. As a band that’s refused to be locked into one genre, they found a sense of freedom in their abilities to float from bluesy rock’n’roll, to psychedelia and back to a more rootsy Americana sound. ‘Wrong Creatures’ takes a journey throughout rock’s history, taking unlikely twists and turns, both peppered with historic influences but also having one foot firmly in the present. Their biggest focus remains in developing their own musicianship, never resting on their laurels, preparing to enhance the live experience they can offer fans. “We caught some cool performances on this record,” says Hayes.
‘Little Thing Gone Wild’ – a dirty, rollicking ride of big licks and heavy bass – is the first taste for the album. It’s also the inspiration for the LP’s title, drawing on a lyrical passage. “Lord you hear me loud into my soul speaker, why won’t you let me out, you’ve got the wrong creature’. Somehow this was a reoccurring theme throughout this album though,” says Been. “That feeling of always being locked inside yourself, and you’ve always gotta scratch and claw your way out. With some gnawing sense that maybe we’re all just built wrong? Maybe we’re not all these precious divine beings, and we want to believe we’re cut from some sort of better cloth, but we usually just wind up like all the other pigs rolling around in each others shit fighting over a few truffles. Who knows though, maybe somewhere along the line god just got us wrong.”
Provocation aside, ‘Wrong Creatures’ is an exercise in getting back to the core of BRMC’s alchemy. From the Cave-esque murder balladry of ‘Haunt’ to the garage punk of ‘Little Thing Gone Wild’, it runs the gamut of classic rock, allowing BRMC to flex every muscle in their armour. They remain opaque about the songs’ greater meanings, fearful of past misunderstandings. “I find myself writing about death a lot,” says Hayes. “I find myself having a discussion with death, which sounds dark. For me, it’s dark humour.” Talking about mortality allows Hayes to explore life’s great mistakes and regrets. Channelling them through rolling riffs and dirge-laden rhythms, however, extolls the demons within. It’s a great catharsis for the band, and it’s a great unifier for their audience who can also seek solace in the emotional heft.
Ultimately, BRMC are survivors during an era where rock’n’roll can often be overshadowed by garish pop and domineering hip-hop. Having come out the other side of years’ worth of internal drama and their fair share of good and bad press, BRMC have learned how to cut out all the noise and concentrate on what matters. “We are truly an island – insular and our own thing,” says Been. “Most rock bands are like couples that got married way too young, knocked out 12 kids immediately, and eventually ends up hating each other sooner or later, but you also share this magic and history that can’t always be measured. Your kids are the songs though, and no matter what band fights there are, you keep coming back, you keep falling in and out of love together, because of this thing that you share and love.” They half-smile at each other. “It’s brutal but it’s also beautiful.”
The most beautiful part of it is that even this far down the line, they can still surprise themselves. “There’s a strange thing that happened on this record where I connected more to music rather than words and that gave me something,” says Hayes. “It pulled on my heart string.” As dark and heavy as things get for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, there’s still a ray of light.
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