Angry Young Men
Robert Turner is apologizing profusely. The soft-spoken singer-bassist for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is admittedly "scatterbrained" at the moment. It's the night before the trio -- which also includes singer-guitarist Peter Hayes and drummer Nick Jago -- is set to embark on an all-important U.S. tour in support of its sophomore effort, Take Them On, On Your Own. Squeezing in a last-minute interview may not be the best way to spend some precious time this evening.
Still, he never tries to rush along the proceedings. In fact, the attitude that many journalists have taken for disinterested reticence could be in fact just Turner's careful, staccato way of explaining himself and the band's music so that the reporter (and hence the reader) takes away things as he sees them -- even if it's hard to express.
"The songs on this record came from a very different place than the first it's tough to talk about," he says. "We changed and did a lot of traveling. The biggest difference between this record and the last [2001's B.R.M.C. ] is that we're creating music on the inside now rather than outside, hoping we'd get let into the building someday."
Or, to put it in easier-to-comprehend terms: "The other night, it was about 3:30 in the morning, and I just needed to come down. So I put on the first record and played it softly, and it was exactly what I needed. I couldn't have fucking done that with the new one. No way."
And indeed, Take Them On, On Your Own is a far louder, more aggressive effort. And it's not a matter of which one is "better" (although B.R.M.C. was criminally undervalued), it's that they are truly different beasts. The dreamy Jesus and Mary Chain/Velvet Underground-fixated psychedelic dirges from the first record are mostly replaced here by more deeply textured, ballsy tunes. And this time around the band is pissed off -- targets include the government, hype-driven fandom and Generation X, among others.
And the album rocks, for lack of a better word, rocks with a driving forcefulness, punishing beats and withering summations. "I kill you all with a six barreled shotgun / I kill you all but I need you so," they say on one song, which also has the narrator contemplating turning the business end of that unique 12-gauge around.
"This record is a lot more of a collaborative effort and works much better as a whole. The first one was a bit scattered" musically, Turner says. "On this, we wanted to cut through I don't know, there's so much shit going on, so much confusion we wanted to speak directly. If you have an hour to reach someone with a show or a CD, you have to make it worthwhile."
Highlights include the guitar-drenched "Stop," a forceful "We're All in Love," the psychedelic "In Like the Rose," and the menacing "Suddenly" and "US Government." The last was actually written for the first record. "It just seemed to fit better here, so it wasn't written in response to any one issue or one man," Turner explains. "But the kind of frightening thing is that it makes as much, if not more, sense now than it did before."
People born in the '70s come in for a slamming too, on "Generation" -- the polar opposite of the proud rallying cry of the Who's paean to their contemporaries. Though laced with a shred of hope, the song chastises superficiality and callousness for those outside one's immediate circle.
"The song isn't talking about just throwing [our] generation away, it's about one last hope, one last reaching out to a thing and hoping it will turn out okay," Turner says, before catching himself sounding ponderous. "I don't know," he laughs. "The whole album is about reaching out to people."
The band was formed in 1998 and, after a brief stint as the Elements, became Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, taking their name from Marlon Brando's biker gang in The Wild One. Peter Hayes had grown up on a small farm in Minnesota and Turner in the mountains around Santa Cruz, California, where he lived with his father, Michael Been, who is better known to music geeks as the front man of '80s new wavers the Call. (Been is now the sound engineer for his son's group.) Hayes and Turner gravitated to San Francisco, and once they met, they formed what Turner believes is an almost telepathic bond.
"By now we have this communication without using words. And after years, we're at a place where everything comes together," Turner offers. "I remember when we found Nick, everything had to be explained at first, and that was different."
Jago, an Englishman, grew up in Devon before coming to the States as a teenager. Jago overstayed his visa by almost a decade, and in a post-9/11 world wary of such things, he found himself getting deported after the release of B.R.M.C. Rather than find a new skin-thumper, the band had Verve drummer Pete Salisbury fill in for a time, and then Turner and Hayes set up shop with Jago in England. They gigged constantly there and on the Continent and recorded Take Them On at London's Fortress Studios. Happily, Jago has been deemed free of terrorist ties and can now move in and out of the United States.
One unexpected by-product of their enforced exile was that the Brits went nuts for the group. Much like the early trajectories of the Strokes and Kings of Leon, BRMC's commercial sales, concert attendance and media saturation have been far greater in the U.K. than over here.
The record was a minor hit on MTV2 here -- the video for "Whatever Happened to My Rock and Roll" briefly lumped the band in with the great "Rock is back!" media hype of 2001-2002.
"I didn't think about it; it was all one big mess," Turner says of the fad. "But there is a new spirit going around in rock and roll that I recognize, and it's far removed from what's happening with hip-hop, boy bands or metal."
Still, when a magazine article intimated that Turner and Black Rebel would actually prefer a smaller group of "real" fans in the United States rather than a much larger, but fickle, base in England, Turner got upset.
"It wasn't really what I said, and it came off as elitist," he says quickly, giving the impression that this is not the first time it has been brought to his attention. "We appreciate every fan we get. It's not like we just want the cool kids to like us or play just the cool clubs. It pissed me off that the reporter tried to make it like that. We want everyone to be part of this music."
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club hopes this tour and record will really break them in the United States to listeners who missed out on the first record. "We really fought to get back in the U.S.," he says. "And now we're ready."
One thing they aren't ready for, though, Turner admits, is the heat and humidity of Houston. "That really gets to me, but Houston is really cool. Its salvation is that people who come out to the show are less guarded and really themselves, and that's a lot better than some other cities."
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