Known for their Brit-flavored, supercharged rock, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club may surprise some fans with their latest album, Howl. A wide-ranging, heartfelt collection of songs, Howl proves that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are just as at home playing stripped-down folk, clap-your-hands gospel and blues as they are amped-up rock. Robert Been of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club recently talked with Ticketmaster about the new album, the band's U.S. tour and how a group of rockers came up with such a soulful tribute to Americana music.
Ticketmaster: The new album, Howl, is very different from your previous work. It has blues, folk and even gospel on it. How did you guys reach that kind of sound, coming from straight-ahead rock albums beforehand? Robert Been: I feel that we're still just introducing ourselves. We've played these kinds of songs in our bedrooms—in the studio even—since we began. Whenever we thought about it or recorded it, we couldn't make it sit on the earlier records. So we always had it in the back of our minds that we'd get to it soon. And then we came to the realization that we'd have to dedicate a whole record to this sound. It was pretty cool. We were kind of nervous for a while because we kind of felt there was an impression that we had made, and people wanted us to do one thing. But I guess it's not the case.
TM: Howl features instruments we haven't heard from you before—harmonica, horns, piano. What was it like to add so many new sounds to the mix? RB: Yeah, we're playing trombone, piano, slides and harmonica. We've got a friend of ours who's helping us with three- or four-part harmonies. It was the best challenge we've had for a long time. It was actually pretty cool. We enjoy working. We enjoy learning new instruments and new ways of doing things. I think it would have killed us pretty fast if we kept doing the same thing over and over or if we were forced to. There's a lot of air to breathe. It's nice.
TM: Did you borrow the album title, Howl, from the Allen Ginsberg poem? Were you inspired by the Beat poets and their generation? RB: Yeah, that was why. We wanted to somehow say thank you to that time. I think when we started writing this record, we took a lot more from ourselves to put into the work. Through doing that, I started writing a lot more and reading a lot more novels, poetry, anything I could get my hands on. I really fell in love with words again. And it was pretty great. A lot of the Beat poets' stuff was an influence and inspiring. All of those guys: John Clellon Holmes, Neal Cassady, Carl Solomon, William Burroughs. I kind of wish there was more of that spirit today. Maybe that's what we're saying. Just remember it, if nothing else, and think about it. It was a time when words had a little bit more weight, a bit more meaning. That would be good.
TM: You're starting your tour in San Francisco, which is a great place to start, considering so many Beat writers were based in that city. It's also your hometown, right? RB: Yeah.....It's nice to go home. That's all. It's nice to start in your home city. Hopefully people will be nicer to us there for any mistakes we might have in the beginning of the tour that will not be there by the end.
TM: Are there any other cities you're really looking forward to playing? RB: New York is always good to us. They're a hard city, but we've put in our hours there. Boston's pretty cool. There are a lot of little ones that are good. Places outside of Chicago that are good. But the truth is that anywhere that is not a major city is fun, because they don't have any kind of attitude like you may get in New York. Like, "We've seen it all before." They kind of collapse into their emotions more, which is always how I wish it was. With live music, that's kind of the idea. It's not meant to be closely scrutinized and examined and looked at like it's behind glass. It's pretty cool. People tend to really give themselves to the music when you get outside of the metropolitan cities.
TM: You've promoted a do-it-yourself approach to making albums. When you were making Howl, you weren't signed to a label. Did that give you a greater sense of freedom? RB: We didn't have a label. Our drummer left as well. We were doing it for ourselves. The biggest difference was no one was asking us to make the album in some way. We were kind of in a dark time. We felt that no one even wanted a record, because no mountains were being moved to have it made outside of us. So it just felt like you either do it because you want to, because you love it, or don't do it at all. And that being our purpose, trying to find our own meaning for it was all that mattered. And that makes you think that's all that might really matter at the end of the day. If you truly love it, and if you're truly putting yourself into it, then hopefully that's going to come across. If you're making something for someone else because you're told to, or because you think someone else will like it but you're not quite sure, or if you're doing it to make other people happy, then I don't know if the real spirit is ever going to come through. That's the reason why you sometimes forget to even ask yourself. But that was the pretty great thing about recording this album. There was only one reason to do it, and it was pretty selfish: we love this music.
TM: There's a spiritual theme to many of the songs on Howl. There's a gospel flavor to some of the songs as well. Where did the inspiration for these songs come from? null RB: I'm always surprised when people get so much from this record in that way. I guess we just wrote it from a real innocent place of loving soul and gospel music— Otis Redding and Sam Cooke and people like that. I always wanted and tried to write a song as good as those guys'. Those are just songs that come from your gut. There's a lot of passion and a lot of heart in them. I just wanted to somehow get to that place. To me, it doesn't feel like it's necessarily about spirituality or religion as much as universal themes of struggle and pain and freedom. Just things that everyone relates to. I think it's talking on a bigger level than that. For me, it's not trying to preach anything. I don't even know what religion I'd align myself with, if any. I know it's not coming from that place. Our band's never really been about that. It's always more about asking questions and not being afraid to talk about anything. As long as we're doing that, that's all that really matters. And the point—the why and where and who and what—is for other people to determine.
In-depth Biography The seed that became Black Rebel Motorcycle Club -- or B.R.M.C. for short -- was planted in 1995, when Robert Turner (aka Robert Levon Been) and Peter Hayes met while attending high school in San Francisco. The two formed a solid friendship and camaraderie based on a mutual love of early-'90s U.K. bands like Ride, the Stone Roses, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine. Despite such similar tastes, both joined different bands and spent several years working apart, although they occasionally kept in touch by attending each other's gigs. In 1998, however, Turner and Hayes rejoined and added British drummer Nick Jago to the fold. The group began performing live in November 1998 as "the Elements," a name they quickly ditched after discovering many other bands that shared the same title. They purloined their new moniker from the Marlon Brando-led biker gang that stormed into that dusty California hamlet in The Wild One.
By 1999, B.R.M.C. had recorded a polished, 16-track demo CD and relocated to Los Angeles. The Santa Monica-based radio station KCRW jumped on the band's demo first, giving them their initial airplay, but interest in the band eventually spread across the Atlantic, where BBC Sheffield named the demo their "Record of the Week." Oasis' Noel Gallagher even expressed interest in signing the band to his new Brother Records imprint, telling MOJO magazine that they were his favorite new group. After inking a lucrative Warner/Chappell publishing deal, however, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club began fielding offers from several labels, and they ultimtely chose to sign with Virgin Records in March 2000.
Following a short U.S. tour with the Dandy Warhols, the band entered the recording studio and eventually emerged with a self-titled debut, B.R.M.C., which was released in March 2001. Two years later, the trio returned with a slicker edge and a new album, Take Them on, on Your Own, which peaked at number three on the U.K. charts. They severed ties with Virgin Records eight months later. A deal with RCA surfaced within months, and the acoustic, Americana-influenced Howl arrived in August 2005. The band moved back to the loud rock & roll approach favored on their first two albums with 2007's Baby 81, and the resulting tour was documented by the band's first concert DVD, LIVE, in 2009.
Nick Jago left the band after Baby 81's release, ostensibly to focus on his solo career. With the Raveonettes' touring percussionist, Leah Shapiro, now handling drum duties, B.R.M.C. decided to change their direction once again, this time embracing electronica and ambient noise on The Effects of 333. Indepedently released via the band's own label, The Effects of 333 failed to gain either commercial or critical acclaim, and B.R.M.C. chose to partner with Vagrant Records for the release of their next album, 2010's Beat the Devil's Tattoo. ~ Bryan Thomas, Rovi