The members of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, or BRMC for short, don't follow the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Over the course of four albums, the tenacious Los Angeles-by-way-of-San Francisco band has followed their creative muses wherever they've led—eschewing the paths of other bands who, once they find a method that maximizes returns, juice it for all it's worth. It's a path that nearly tore BRMC apart, but with their new record, Baby 81, BRMC is back, wearing black Wayfarers and leather boots to stomp on the overdrive.
When BRMC—Peter Hayes on guitar and vocals, Robert Levon Been on bass and Nick Jago pounding the skins—first started in 1998, the music press hailed them as the "next big thing." Their self-produced 16-song demo CD made the rounds as the last century was drawing to a close, showing up on KCRW FM—the tastemaker station in Santa Monica—and also in Oasis guitarist/songwriter Noel Gallagher's hands. Gallagher, having made millions via the world domination of the song "Wonderwall" a few years earlier, was starting a record label and wanted BRMC to be his first signing. The band politely declined Gallagher's advances and subsequently set off a label bidding war, in which Virgin Records came out the victor.
There was reason for the labels to be interested. At the turn of the century, music critics were penning tales of a "rock revival" and gushing about how bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes were going to win our hearts and subsequently save music. In short, good rock outfits like BRMC were predicted to be big moneymakers for the suits. BRMC was initially lumped in with the previous bands, but in the end, the comparison was moot. BRMC favored the Jesus and Mary Chain over the Velvet Underground, and droning notes to scales. With the release of their major label debut, BRMC, in 2001, listeners were treated to a stew that contained equal parts of The Stone Roses and The Verve. Publications such as the British music magazine NME had a new crush and devoted countless columns to the band.
BRMC followed their debut with Take Them On, On Your Own in 2003, a release that built on their earlier sound by channeling the shoegaze density of bands such as My Bloody Valentine and Ride. Every instrument on Take Them On, On Your Own had distortion: the guitars, the bass—even the drums. "I don't like to be able to pick out the instruments in the speakers," Hayes explained in a phone interview with Boise Weekly, describing his preference for a layered sound. "You don't know where everything is coming from" Hayes said. "Everyone in the band works hard to fill in the spaces. There are melodies on the bass, melodies on the guitar ... everyone is working hard."
An example of this can be found on Levon Been's bass playing on Take Them. His bass lines frequently anchor the melodic motif of a song, blurring the line between guitar and bass. "It's just how he plays—he's never been into just playing roots," said Hayes.
Unfortunately, the tour for Take Them left the band haggard and forlorn. Virgin Records, disappointed over the sales of BRMC's second release, asked the band to show themselves out. Fraught with tension, Jago decided to hit the road as well. Hayes and Levon Been, punchdrunk with confusion over what had happened to their rising star, snatched a little inspiration from the jaws of defeat and came up kicking with BRMC's third album, Howl.
Released in 2005, Howl was soaked in a sound reminiscent of Dylan's Bringing it All Back Home. The record found BRMC trading their vintage Gibson electrics for acoustic guitars, their high hat for a tambourine and their previous "wall of sound" for a porch-stomp swagger. It was a release that no one saw coming, and it left critics and listeners wondering if there had been a mix-up at the CD packaging factory. All Music Guide and Pitchfork gave the album love, saying that it featured top-notch songwriting and a more "honest" sound, but some fans wondered what happened to Hayes and Levon Been's distortion pedals. Hayes commented on Howl (the title's a nod to Allen Ginsberg and the band's San Francisco roots) and the internal strife in the band during its creation: "[It's nice] the album didn't destroy us. Our job is to be free and make music. People got it, and that's the best thing about it." Hayes continued, "We had the songs on Howl before the first record. We always knew we were gonna make a record like that."
Howl proved rejuvenating for BRMC. Before the record was completed, Jago was back in the picture. When Howl was released, the band hit the road to convert new fans. While on the road, they wrote the bulk of the material for Baby 81, which showed up on shelves last week. "Our songs are born out of jams for the most part," contends Hayes. "Many songs on the new record came from jams during the Howl tour ... sound checks and hotels. A lot of songs get written on acoustics in the hotel room. You can't turn up, so you use an acoustic to write."
Baby 81 represents another change in BRMC's sound. Howl is in the rearview mirror, but not completely out of sight. The band has picked up their electrics again, and there is nary a harmonica solo to be found. In some ways, the album represents an amalgam between the wood and steel sound of Howl and earlier records. But Baby 81 is a strut of loud drums and hot vintage tube tone that puts the VU meters on the mixing board into the red.
With the new record out, the band is back on tour, including a show in Boise on May 15. It's not BRMC's first visit to the City of Trees. They had a tour stop here last year—well, more like a tour rest stop. The band didn't play during their inaugural Boise visit. "I remember Boise," recalled Hayes, "I got a tattoo, a haircut and bought a bunch of records. We were all wondering why we had a day off in a place we had never played. We wanted to walk around and find a place that would just let us set up and play." Unfortunately, it didn't happen. This time around they have a place to play—or as Hayes puts it, a place to "be free and make music."
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club plays The Big Easy on Tuesday, May 15 with The Fratellis. Doors open at 7 p.m., show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance through www.ticketweb.com, $17.50 at the door. The Big Easy, 416 S. 9th St., 208-367-1212.