Long Way Down
For almost a decade, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has released sharp, musically atmospheric records weaving through a variety of genres from hard rock and goth to country, gospel and psychedelia. Yet they've never managed to quite break through to a wider national audience.
With the band's fifth studio record, Beat the Devil's Tattoo, singer/guitarist Peter Hayes hopes that the trio — which includes singer/bassist Robert Levon Been and new drummer Leah Shapiro — reaches that elusive level. And more than any other release, this one combines their patchwork quilt of styles onto one disc.
"We tried to mix all the records together on this one, if that makes sense. At least that's what we hope comes across," Hayes says from a stop on the current tour. "Our last couple of records had an agenda, but with this one, we didn't come in with too much planned."
The 13 songs on Beat the Devil's Tattoo indeed run the stylistic gamut from hard and heavy ("War Machine," the amazing "Aya"), shimmering alt-rock ("Evol," "Bad Blood"), punk ("Conscience Killer"), dirty blues ("River Styx," the title track) and acoustic Americana ("The Toll," "Long Way Down"). It all ends with the ten-plus-minute epic "Half-State," wrapped in the band's familiar sound that piles on guitar tracks in more layers than a Dagwood sandwich.
Hayes says the band fleshed out the material in the Philadelphia basement of some friends, where they lived and rehearsed for six months. And while the writing on BRMC's songs is credited collectively to the group, he does admit to a usual Beatle-style split with Been: Whoever had the larger hand in the song's genesis usually ends up singing lead. It was a conscious decision to have Shapiro, formerly of the Raveonettes' touring band, be part of the creative process from the start.
"She's just...solid." Hayes says. "And pretty powerful. I can't wait for our audience to meet her."
Shapiro is a permanent replacement for original drummer Nick Jago, whose purported substance-abuse problems and personality clashes were responsible for a couple of previous hiatuses from the lineup.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club formed in 1998 when San Francisco Bay Area high-school friends Hayes and Been met English transplant Jago. Hayes had just left the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and the trio began playing as the Elements before changing their name to that of Marlon Brando's biker gang from the 1953 film The Wild One.
The year 2001 saw the release of their debut, B.R.M.C., and the breakout track "Whatever Happened to My Rock and Roll?" followed by the denser Take Them On, On Your Own two years later.
Both records had journos (this one included) comparing them to the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Verve, often applying the "Goth" term that has dogged them since, despite plenty of sonic evidence to the contrary.
"Well...it could be a little [bothersome], but I've gotten used to it now. It's kind of going the easy route to call us that," Hayes says. "But I think we've proved our point by now that we're much more. I mean, we've got influences from Sam Cooke and Édith Piaf to Johnny Cash and Little Walter."
With 2005's Howl, BRMC surprised even their biggest fans with a quieter record steeped almost entirely in country, blues and gospel and a depth of lyrics. It was a risky move, but one that was well thought out.
"We had a couple of songs in those styles earlier like 'Gospel Song' and 'Complicated Situation,' and we wrote more," says Hayes. "We just held onto them until we had enough to make a full record."
There were so many that the band released outtakes on The Howl Sessions, available only from their Web site. It's something they've done for two other records, as well as releasing the all-instrumental The Effects of 333. But Hayes says not to expect a new one anytime soon.
"We're gonna try, but I'm not sure what we have left on this one," he offers. "And there's always a very, um, passionate debate about which ones we'll hold onto for the next record. We don't want to give them up too quickly! But those records are special in their own right."
One track that made the transition to another level entirely was "Done All Wrong," which landed on the soundtrack to last year's teenage vampire-girl-werewolf love triangle flick The Twilight Saga: New Moon.
And while it has certainly exposed the band to a new audience, Hayes doesn't expect a situation where BRMC shows will be filled with frat boys and their cell-phone-chattering dates that now populate Kings of Leon shows.
"Well, we don't worry about something like that too much because...we're not all that palatable!" Hayes laughs. "I don't think that one song appearing there is going to give us that huge career boost, and we're okay with that."
On previous Houston dates, the band has played Fitzgerald's, Mary Jane's, Numbers, the Engine Room, Meridian and Warehouse Live. Hayes recalls at one show the band broke out Marty Robbins's "El Paso" and was surprised that the crowd knew most of the words. Another time, he remembers cowboying up by shooting bottles behind the tour bus with a pellet gun.
So whether Beat the Devil's Tattoo is the record that finally elevates Black Rebel Motorcycle Club to a status they deserve will unfold over the next year. However, don't expect the group to change one aspect: their penchant — planned or not — for never, ever, ever smiling in official photographs.
"Yeah! We don't want to give people the wrong impression!" laughs Hayes, not denying the observation before adopting a salesman's patter. "But hopefully, our music will leave you with a smile!"
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