It was like, 'aw, what are we gonna do?'" says Black Rebel Motorcycle Club front man Peter Hayes, referring to the 2005 exit of drummer Nick Jago. What Hayes and BRMC bassist and cofounder Robert Levon Been did was to carry on as a duo and put out the acoustic, roots-oriented album Howl, which received ample kudos for its departure from BRMC's electrified psychedelia and muscular blues-rock stomp. Jago, however, rejoined his bandmates in time to tour behind the album. He might have been listening to the band's new material from the perspective of having nearly derailed it, because he claims to have been in tears during the bulk of time that Baby 81 was being recorded.
A riveting return to form, the just-released Baby 81 finally captures the band at full stride and arguably delivering on its potential for the first time. For years, BRMC skillfully suggested mystery and ambiguity in a slightly dark aura awash in guitar effects. From the get-go, coming up with a distinctive sound wasn't a problem for BRMC. But on its first two records, B.R.M.C. and Take Them On, On Your Own, Hayes, Been and Jago seemed like they were stuck in a perpetual cycle of accentuating mood and image over tunes. While the elements on Howl made for a compelling palette-cleansing exercise for both band and audience to recalibrate their sense of direction, Baby 81 makes a once-and-for-all statement by epitomizing everything that listeners would look for in records by the likes of the White Stripes (and, well...BRMC). But it also sees Hayes and company expanding their creative horizons in almost every direction.
In doing so, BRMC has simultaneously set a higher bar for blues-based, analog-heavy garage rock and laid waste to the very same fad that would have people clamoring to buy the record. Opening tune "Took Out a Loan," for example, should give a moment of pause to any musician out there looking to parlay Zeppelin drummer John Bonham's oft-quoted big-bottomed groove into songwriting gold. It ain't gonna happen. In fact, Baby 81 serves an achtung to all bands wallowing in their own limitations to evolve or die.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
BRMC even manages to evoke the likes of Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland, Robert Palmer, John Lennon and, of course, the Jesus and Mary Chain without once succumbing to clichés or stooping low enough to just plain rip 'em off. And what distances Baby 81 even further from the been-there-done-that vibe of so many like-minded records is the band's clear insistence on sonic variation. The mix on the album contains many subtly disparate elements and, unlike the band's first two albums, intentionally shifts tones from song to song.
"There's a lot of little parts hidden away," Hayes says. "We learned a lot about production on Howl I still don't know quite what that means, but we've learned to have fun with production."
BRMC's roots go back to San Francisco and to the friendship between Hayes and Been, which formed in high school. Been (who used to go by the stage name Robert Turner) has described Hayes as being like a brother, while Hayes says that the Beens "invited me into their family."
"The first time I met Robert," Hayes recalls, "I was playing at a bar in a town nearby. I had told all my friends to come see me play. I didn't really know him at the time, but of everybody that I told, Robert was the only one that showed up. That was the first thing about him that stuck out! All these other people that I knew blew me off, but he meant what he said. That meant a lot."
Indeed, BRMC operates somewhat as a family business, with Been's father, Michael Been (formerly of the Call), handling much of the production. Which begs the question: What is it like to make a record with your dad?
"It's everything!" Hayes answers with a laugh. "It's beautiful. It's ugly. It's intense. It's really everything you think of when you think of anybody's family and Michael's been a mentor and father to me too. It's exactly what you'd imagine having your dad in the room to be. You know, you kind of beat up the ones you love the most and that goes both ways as far as us beating him up as much as him beating us up. It's hard, but the outcome is worth it."
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The sequence of songs on Baby 81 more or less follows the order in which the songs were recorded.
"It made things a little easier," Hayes offers with a chuckle. "You can go on and on and on about what the right sequence is. You can think too hard about keeping people interested for the whole album versus putting, you know, the singles up front. We learned about that early on. We'd call a club owner and ask, ‘Did you listen to the CD?' and the guy would be like, ‘Oh, I'm listening to it right now' and it'd be like, ‘skip...skip.'"
"But," Hayes confesses, "I skip too!"
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club performs on Thursday, June 14, at the Meridian, 1503 Chartres, 713-225-1717.