BRMC speak through their music
When it comes to interviews, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club vocalist and guitarist Peter Hayes is a man of a few words. It is well documented and today his will to answer questions had gone astray, too. I waited five minutes to be connected to the singer’s cell phone. You didn’t try to do a runner? I quizzed. “Nah...the phone kept showing no caller id and I don’t answer in those cases but then I was told the conference call comes up like that so I answered.” He offers in his thick drawl, then after a brief pause, continues. “Aggghh…who’s listening anyway?”
It’s a good thing then that this Los Angeles via San Francisco trio – with Robert Levon Been on bass and vocals and Nick Jago on drums – picked up their respective instruments back in 1998 and let their music do the talking. Since they burst onto the music scene in 2002, they have voiced their social, personal and political opinions over four albums. They have been an enigma: reserved, non-conformist, determined in their own ways, mysteriously shrouded in dark tunes and black attire. Yet some of the stoner, punk rock on their stunning debut album, BRMC , led the band to be lumped wrongfully as part of the rock revolution with the likes of The Strokes and The White Stripes. Following trends wasn’t the plan for these guys, and they retaliated against being labelled on 2003’s hard-hitting Take Them On, On Your Own . And if you think that sounds very – “us vs them’ you’re right. The band then ‘disintegrated for a while’. Although copious accounts of their falling out have been reported, Peter takes the opportunity to set the record straight. “It was blown out of proportion for a while. I was gone from the band for four months, Nick six months. But somehow it all got put on [Nick’s] back. We started recording with Nick on Howl so he was around most of the time.” Howl was a shock to the senses of fans worldwide: the band explored their gospel, folk and roots background and came up with a classy album that proved a winner. On this year’s awesome Baby 81 , they returned to their fuzz rock beginnings, while taking on board some of Howl ’s softer moments and new punchy beats and sharper tracks.
Despite countless good reviews of Howl in Australia and their strong fan base, BRMC never made it here during their tour of that album, much to the disappointment of fans. “Yeah, we couldn’t get down there. I know it didn’t go down well with you guys. But we were in a situation . . . we couldn’t make it,” he offers almost apologetically. The band will finally be touring Australia in December and January for the Falls Festivals and Southbound, after a four year absence. Surely I speak for all fans when I state that they are forgiven. I mean, it’s not like we’re going to revengefully throw spears at them at the show... “Oh I love spears, bring – “em on. Especially the big ones. You can throw one at me, aim straight for the throat,” he chuckles dryly. I don’t.
I asked Peter if Howl is still a part of their live set and how they tackle its largely stripped back content. “Yeah we play a good amount of that stuff. We kick [Nick] off the stage. Well, we don’t tell him to go away but say – “take a break, have a cigarette’ and we play the acoustic songs. I like it. I don’t know how other people take it but I like having that in the show. Like with other shows, I get a little on the bored side if the band plays a lot of the same stuff. I like when the show gets broken up with some acoustic. If it’s all the same, it can be...yeah, as I said, a little bit boring.”
Dry humour, brooding music, dark lyrics, black clothes: they are traits that characterise BRMC. Their comments wrought with sarcasm and irony and abrupt responses have led to many misconceptions about the band. They get labeled as rebels, harbouring an anti-everything attitude. Peter offers, even if slightly, an insight into what drives them and thus forms their – “image’. “In the past we’ve come across as trying to blame everything around us. That’s not true. We’re just doing our part not to be involved in the useless information out there, the dumbing down of society, the destruction of culture. It all goes back to why I’m playing music. Why I’m in this band. I listen to the radio, I’m not hearing what I need to hear. I’ll try to say what I need to hear in my music. If anyone else agrees and understands what we are trying to get at, great.” I tread carefully when asking the next question, knowing fully that Peter can interpret it as a lazy, irrelevant one. Does this view also manifest in their uniform black attire? “Nah...you just don’t have to wash it!” we laugh in agreement. “It comes down to, err, I cut all the tags off my clothes before I wear them. I don’t wanna be a walking advertisement.” But considering black is a shade that doesn’t absorb things – “Black absorbs sunlight,” he quips back. Um, I mean it’s like a barrier, a filter, things can come your way and you can push them away. It’s not welcoming. “I’m welcoming. BRMC is very welcoming,” he retorts with a cheeky tone in his voice. I rest my case!
Their do-it-yourself approach is working very well for them. They have produced their four albums and have been touring, to strong reviews, on the back of Baby 81 since its release in May. They have also maintained their cool, eye-catching black and white photo gallery on their CD covers and booklets. This is always a highlight of picking up a BRMC CD and it definitely captures the vibe of the band. That aspect, too, is also within the control of the band and Peter explains the importance of this to him. “To a point we want to get involved but not too involved. We try to get out of each other’s way but at the same time we try to involve each other. We want the stuff to come from us and people who understand us so we can get out what we’re trying to. It’s important to us that it’s not done. Well, agghhh I dunno....I’m always wary when producers… even The Beatles , not that I don’t like The Beatles, but how much of their stuff was just George Martin and The Beatles were only along for the ride. So when I listen to their albums is it George Martin or The Beatles I’m hearing. So I’m not a big fan of producers. Not that I don’t like producers, I like some of them but I’m a fan of bands and I wanna hear bands when I listen to records.”
There’s no doubt one hears BRMC through their music, and the care they take in creating their albums is reflected in the well documented pride they feel for each album release. However, this is not a band to stop and revel in the work they have created. “I try not to look back at things – it doesn’t help matters!” he laughs. “Maybe that’s something you do when you’re 80 or 90. We just move along. It’s still going great now, I mean, holy fuck, we’re still here! And if we’re still here in a week, great...” he trails off.
With less than a minute to talk, I offer Peter the chance to close, to perhaps impart some of his well-formed views to the world. “I dunno, is anybody listening, is anybody reading? Ah, I dunno. (pauses, searching for a profound suggestion). Come tap me on the shoulder, give me a bit of wisdom” he concludes, as a subtly welcoming gesture.
Don’t miss Black Rebel Motorcycle Club when they land on our shores for Falls, Southbound and a string of headline gigs around the country.