BRMC: Whatever happened to my rock n roll?

Although best known for their 2001 hits 'Love Burns' and 'Whatever Happened (To My Rock 'N' Roll) Black Rebel Motorcycle club - titled after Marlon Brando's gang in 'The Wild One' - have been quietly knocking out high quality dark-tinged rock 'n' roll gem

Ben Sebborn

Date published: 5th Feb 2010

Although best known for their 2001 hits 'Love Burns' and 'Whatever Happened (To My Rock 'N' Roll) Black Rebel Motorcycle club - titled after Marlon Brando's gang in 'The Wild One' - have been quietly knocking out high quality dark-tinged rock 'n' roll gems under the glare of the mainstream radar.

In the space of four albums the group went from being the dark alternative to The Strokes, to recording country-fied acoustic blues stompers, then back into a more experimental vein, releasing the dreamy 'The Effects of 333', a wordless album of sonic soundscapes.

Formed by school friends bass player Robert Been and guitarist Peter Hayes in 1998, shortly after Peter quit disastrous rock 'n' roll group The Brian Jonestown Massacre, the group quickly set up their own manifesto for musicianship which they have stuck vehemently to ever since: Music comes first, do it all yourself, no outside influences allowed to could corrupt their musical ideal and ethics, and to ignore all emphasis on image.

The group's sound settled into a scuzzy, rock n roll groove, heavily indebted to later 80s UK noise pop bands, such as the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Verve; this Anglo-centricity justified when they met and added English drummer Nick Jago to their line up.

The group rose quickly through the ranks and signed to major label Virgin records. Perhaps partly because of their sound, the buzz around the group caught on first in the UK, where their debut album, titled 'B.R.M.C', released in 2000, was huge success. This buzz caught then took the group home to the US, where they also packed a mighty punch and soon found themselves on magazine covers.

The band were at this point second on the bill to groups such as The Strokes - who at the time were at the peak of their success and ruling the pop as well as rock charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

Groups like The Strokes ushered in a new era of indie rock, marrying fashion to their music, and this emphasis on look and clothing of the bands, alongside the sudden rise of BRMC to fame put pressure on the group, who disliked this and retreated into themselves, holing themselves up in the studio to work on their second album.

'Take Them On, On Your Own' was a darker and more pensive effort, politically motivated and swathed in a new wave of noise. Released in 2003, the record was initially hyped as the triumphant return of one of the great hopes of nouveau rock 'n' roll. This wasn't to be, however, reviews were mixed, sales slower, and it was almost unanimously agreed it failed to live up to the gargantuan heights of its predecessor.

With the pressure off - and a major label behind them, as Virgin dropped them - the group tore up the past with their next effort, 'Howl'. This third album took the group - particularly fuelled by Peter's ambitions - in an acoustic direction and the resulting album gave up the scuzzy blues rock of previous for a blues and Americana tinged, reflective sound.

Internal problems started to set in with the group too, as drummer Nick became increasingly drawn through gigs and performances.

One particularly memorable episode saw him appear onstage at a magazine awards where he stood motionless and silent for nine minutes, until he was pelted offstage.

The drummer left the band during 'Howl' although he reappeared with the group intermittently, the reasons for his departure are rumoured to be drug related, though Robert and Peter insist the door is still open for his return.

The group returned to a more aggressive sound with their 2007 album 'Baby 81' and by this time had assessed their core, cult, audience and continued to tour.

Never afraid to experiment, in 2008 the band released their 'dream' album of musical soundscapes, 'The Effects of 333', a low-key album on their own label, but 2010 sees the band back in full form and firing on all cylinders, as they return to the rough and ready rock n roll sound that made them, with 'Beat The Devil's Tattoo'. BANG Showbiz caught up with Robert in London to find out the inside track?

Q: So you're in England, you've had a long relationship with this country, what are your favourite parts of it?

A: We kinda got our first break here, so we owe the fans here a lot for giving us the chance. I always think of that when we get here. Even though you've got to earn it every time. For us it was a long time coming. And who knows where we'd be if we hadn't had that and a little luck on our side.

Q: There's a discernable influence of UK 80s drone bands, particularly on the first album, which is unusual for a US group - where did that come from?

A: I grew up in the East Bay of San Francisco and I got into a lot of, like Ride, - they were one of the first bands I really fell in love with. Then there's the Verve's 'Storm In Heaven', and the Stone Roses' first album, and My Bloody Valentine. They're like first loves, psychedelic rock 'n' roll, wall of sound bands.

It's funny because it has a great mystery to it, like all things do, when it's far away from you. And I think when we showed up; we were kind of... not disappointed but it's just one of those things where, like, my fantasy of it was a bit different to the reality of it. It's the same way Van Morrisson daydreamed of American bands, because they were exotic. The reality has issues in music.

Q: Where did the title 'Beat the Devil's Tattoo' come from?

A: Originally it was a phrase in an Edgar Allan Poe short story called 'The Devil in the Belfry'. Leah [BRMC drummer] gave me this book of Poe stories and I really got into it in the last few years and it kinda crept its way into this record a couple of times.

The phrase leapt out at me from this story, and I didn't know what it meant, so I looked it up and found it out that it's an old saying that's been lost. It means being restless and tapping your foot, drumming your fingers on the table obsessively. It also, originally, comes from colonial wartime when a soldier would beat a drum to call soldiers home at night back to the garrison, and that was said to be beating the devil's tattoo.

And I found all this weird s**t about it, like tattoo originally means tap too, like tapping your toe, but they were tapping ink into you.

I like origin of words as I find most people use these sayings and words all the time, but have no idea what the f**k they are saying.

Q: This record also marks the return of words to your recorded output again.

A: We really reluctant to try and define 'The Effects of 333' or box it in, in as far as saying it's an album. I don't even know if it's an album, it was more of this experiment in the true sense of the word. It started off as the idea where we just wanted to make some music we could fall asleep to, as we are really bad insomniacs Peter and I. We'd always trade Brain Eno songs and stuff, and just put that on and calm ourselves down and drift off into a dream, so the idea was to create a dream and words get in the way of creating dreams a lot of the time.

But it changed half the time and it kind of became more sounding like a nightmare half the time. Some of it's beautiful, some of it's the other side of the coin.

Q: Has your experimentation come at the expense of further commercial success? And is that something that bothers you?

A: We just always wanted to make music our way, without compromise; or at least without compromise that matters and affects the music and what it means to us. In the beginning, being young and idealistc and full of spit and vinegar, we insisted on producing our own record. Which, looking back, was a ballsy arrogant thing to do and we didn't have a clue what we were doing at the time. I'm not sure we know that much more of what we're doing now - but it's kind of forced us to learn.

Q: Would you agree with the description of you as a 'dark' group?

A:We've been called a lot of names - gothic, dark, rock n roll, alternative, murky, dirty, new rock revolution, all of it seems like people are having a hard time listening and understanding it, and it has to be categorised. It's a hard question to answer.... We are pretty dark. The only difference of opinion is that I see a lot of hope and compassion in the words and songs than the people that name call us really.

Q: Well you do wear a lot of black and leather onstage, do you prescribe to a certain look for the group?

A:The only conscious thing about clothes or image we had was we didn't want to look like. We wanted to be transparent, to be no label, simply for the music. And I think it was a young naive thing, as we learned rock n roll is obsessive compulsive with image. It's kind of a bitter pill to swallow for us, but we learned it the hard way. It backfired, it was frustrating, we didn't want to exist in any time or place and to be outside of all that. Then it became our thing, wearing leather jackets, then it was like, if you wanted to be in a rock 'n' roll band you had to wear a black leather.

Q: You've been around a lot longer than a lot of the groups that were all about the image in 2001 though, so that proves something, right?

A: It looked like it was going to come and go and it did. To be fair I think that has something to do with bands who were around, who had a pop music element, and usually that has its time, it captured a moment beautifully and passionately, but it leaves as soon as you go shopping for something new.

Q: You're on tour with the album in April, what can we expect from it?

A: We're coming to the painful realisation that we'll never make everyone happy again. We were rehearsing last week with the new songs from this record, and it's our fifth album [sixth proper] and we're not able to play even a little bit from each album, and make everyone happy. But that's kinda liberating. We're just going to play. There's a freedom in that.

By Andy Tillett