Like many rock bands birthed in dawn-of-the-millennium America, the psychedelic garage sound of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club won the band critical acclaim and a cushy spot on many a “Bands to Watch” list. Influenced as much by Spiritualized as The Stooges (vocalist/guitarist Peter Hayes was a former member of psychedelic peer Brian Jonestown Massacre), the band put out two albums’ worth of inspired scuzz-rock and were, by all accounts, destined for rock ‘n roll stardom. The future was derailed, temporarily, with both the departure of drummer Nick Jago and dropping of the band by Virgin in 2004. After releasing 2005’s acoustic-heavy Howl, Jago is back and Baby 81 stands as BRMC’s best album to date. Hayes called in from L.A. to talk about the album, label shifts and being awake for days on end (Settle down. It’s just music-related.)
How did the recording of Baby 81 differ from past albums?
We went about this one to try not to have any rules. We had set rules with the second and third albums as far as how many parts we would put on an album or what instruments we were gonna use. This one, we didn’t really wanna set any rules besides trying to learn from all three albums. So that’s what we did. We tried to bring all three albums combined in one.
It seems unusual for a band to put such concrete restrictions on themselves.
Yeah. For the first record [2001’s B.R.M.C.], I put upwards of 12 different guitar parts on just about every song. Then in the mixing process, it was really hard. So when the second album [2003’s Take Them On, On Your Own] came along, I said, “I’m not gonna f*ckin do that again,” so it came down to three. Then [2005’s] Howl came along and we knew we wanted it be an acoustic feel but full at the same time. Then it came down to, how can you get full without this big wall of guitars? So it’s about 4-part harmonies, 6-part vocals, trombones etc. That was just for the fun of it.
So looking back, do you consider Howl a “phase” of your career?
Not a phase. We’ve written acoustic songs from day one. When neighbors would yell when we’re practicing in the living room, we had to turn off the amps and play acoustically. It just makes sense to us. It’s a phase in as much as at that point in our lives, we had enough songs to release it that way. We don’t have that many songs now. So we don’t see it as a phase. We see it as part of our freedom as musicians.
You sequenced the album in the order in which the songs were recorded. Why?
It just worked out that way really. This is the first album where we didn’t have anything in our back pocket going into this as far as songs. All the other albums, we had at least half of it done already.
Did that change the dynamic of the band?
It was more collaboration than the other albums as far as having the songs written already for the others. Those were usually written on an acoustic guitar on a bedroom somewhere and then me or Rob would bring it to the band and say, “Oh I don’t have a verse.” But this album, every song was bounced around back and forth.
Was there any person you were consciously thinking of when it came time to layer all your guitars on the new album?
I went back to a bit of Zeppelin. I guess Jimmy Page did a lot of that. Once we cut the basics in the studio, I’ll take the tapes and go disappear in a hole for three or four weeks and just turn the songs into something they never started out to be. It was interesting to me that that’s what Page used to do. Y’know, the guys would come back in and wouldn’t even recognize the songs. That happens a lot with what we do.
So is there a lot of internal arguing when you bring the songs back?
Oh yeah, all the time. There’s no way really around it. You’re up for three days straight and you know every nuance of everything. You take a song [back] and they’re like, “Oh I don’t much like it.” Oh my God, do you know what I went through? I haven’t eaten for three days straight! But that’s just the nature of it. Then you’re like, “OK, let’s sit down. Do you like any of it?” (Laughs)
Given that, are you surprised that in 2007, all three of you are still together?
I think just working through that stuff is like any relationship in a way. The nice thing is that it’s more of a family than it is a band. You can have a fight in a band and that’s that. That’s happened a lot and the cliché is they never talk to each other again for whatever reason. But when it’s family, you usually are like, “Man, I got nowhere else to f*ckin’ go,” and then the other person swallows their pride and goes, “Yeah, well neither do I.”
You were dropped from Virgin. When you signed a new deal with RCA, did you have any apprehensions at the time about going to another major and do you still have them?
(Long pause) Ummm, we got into this trying to figure out a way to work within the system and do it the way we wanted to and do it differently from the way we see the system running. And it still holds true. As far as independent labels, you can have a massive hit on an independent label and it all depends on how you live within it. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s indie or major, but it does matter to me how you live your life within it. The way we want to do it is to try to have some self-respect and respect music as needed in a culture.
You were still touring a lot in-between deals, right?
Yeah. It was really frustrating. The guy we signed to on Virgin was let go six months after we were signed and he went over to RCA. It was a real drag though [in the interim]. There’s nothing worse than playing festivals where people are going wild and at the same time you’re not able to pay rent. It’s absolutely f*cked. We’re playing in front of 20,000, 30,000 people and there’s hardly any records in the stores in Europe. I’ve actually heard apologies come down from the people involved saying, “Oh yeah, we really f*cked over that band.” That was kind of a drag. Not that I give a f*ck about platinum records, but man, it’s nice to be able to pay rent.
That’s the other nice thing about a major label in a way. They give you the money upfront to not have to worry about rent for a year. It’s nice to be able to concentrate on music for a year knowing in the back of your head when that year’s up, you may be out of a job. I’m willing to live with that.
What advice would you give to a band being courted by majors?
I’d say look out for the phrase “artistic control.” I’d say be very clear on what your terms of artistic control is, and what theirs are. And it’ll work itself out on where you stand. It becomes real clear, real quick. It becomes easily thrown around like [sarcastically], “Oh yeah, we’ll give you complete artistic control. You can wear whatever shoes you want.”
Is it safe to assume you’re speaking from experience?
Baby 81 comes out May 2. Black Rebel Motorcycle Cub begins their cross-country tour May 5. For more info, visit their web site HERE
and Myspace HERE
By Jason Newman