Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

Posted: October 21st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Feature story | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

What Can A Poor Boy Do?

Background note: BRMC were notorious for monosyllabic responses to interview questions, but once we established some common ground, they gradually warmed to my queries. The ice breaker? Chiefly Nicolas Roeg’s film Performance. The band originally considered calling themselves the Turner Purple Orchestra, after the fictional band fronted by Mick Jagger’s character, Turner, in the movie. Bassist Robert Been was performing under the pseudonym “Robert Turner” at the time of this interview, in 2003, and I called him on it. Still love this group. I feel like I’m transforming into a werewolf the second I hear one of Been’s bass lines. Hopefully they’re working on something awesome as I type.

They brought it upon themselves.

Call yourself a rebel and the question is bound to arise: What are you rebelling against? The members of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club know it well. The question has come up repeatedly in interviews since the San Francisco-based trio released its 2001 self-titled debut and captured imaginations with feedback-wreathed drone-pop gems like “Whatever Happened To My Rock ‘N’ Roll (Punk Song).”

B.R.M.C.’s recent follow-up, Take Them On, On Your Own (Virgin), has only fueled the queries. The title itself is a challenge. The artwork features a menacing shot of the band silhouetted in a dark tunnel. And the group seemingly recorded propulsive songs like “Six Barrel Shotgun,” “U.S. Government” and “Generation” while balancing an immense chip on its collective shoulder.

So what are they rebelling against? The band took its name from Marlon Brando’s gang in the 1953 biker flick The Wild One, but unlike Brando’s character, Johnny Strabler, the trio’s response is a little more involved than “Whattaya got?” That is, of course, when they care to respond at all.

The scruffy, black-clad musicians–bassist-vocalist Robert Levon Been, guitarist-vocalist Peter Hayes and drummer Nick Jago–are famously insular and notoriously tightlipped in interviews. Jago once accepted an honor for the band at a British awards show by standing stock still and mute at the podium for an uncomfortable duration.

But under the right conditions–when they suspect they won’t be misinterpreted–they gradually open up. And so it is we find ourselves turning once again to early 20-something rock musicians for answers to big questions about war, generational apathy and exactly what did happen to our rock ‘n’ roll, in this case the post-punk variety.

“We’re not saying our rock is better than anyone else’s,” clarifies Hayes. “It’s just–what happened to an attitude and a way of living and thinking that’s a bit different? The industry has turned every kind of art into straightforward entertainment. We’re fighting against that, and trying to see if there’s anyone out there who’s thinking the same thing.”

On “Generation,” though, you sing, “I’ve been feeling alone in this generation.” That suggests you have your doubts about finding solidarity.

“We believe in this generation and this time,” says Been. “We’re more optimistic and hopeful than anyone thinks we are. We sing a song like that because we’re hoping someone out there feels the same way and connects with it. It doesn’t do anyone any good if you’re just saying it all sucks and no one cares.”

Is the album title, then, an incitement for those people to rebel? If so, what against?

“We were trying to tell ourselves [to take them on] more than anyone else. We were searching on the first album a lot. We still are. But I guess there’s a way of hiding forever behind questions and never speaking your own mind. We were afraid of that a little. What is our truth? What do we have to say? Time’s running out nonetheless. This is it. This is all the time we have.”

In “U.S. Government” you sing, “I spit my faith on the city pavement.” And in “Generation” you sing, “I’m keeping up with you and your invasion eyes.” Did the newest Iraq war inspire the songs?

“This is our time. This is our fight. But it’s no different than [other wars]. It’s just all coming around again,” says Been. “It’s the same as writing a love song. The details are always forgotten. It’s the feeling that you carry with you for the rest of your life. The girls come and go, but, sorry, I ain’t gonna give them credit. The names and the dates and the corners of the streets… hell if I remember.”

Of course, there is something absurd about turning to rock musicians for answers. As Mick Jagger posed in “Street Fighting Man,” “What can a poor boy do, ‘cept to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band?” And Been, while grateful, doesn’t entirely understand the scrutiny surrounding B.R.M.C. But in coming up with an analogy for the sensation, he inadvertently provides the best possible description for his band and his music.

“You know those cartoons when a bunch of people get in a big fight and it’s like this big cloud of dust with arms and legs sticking out? And then one person steps out of the cloud and walks away and everyone else doesn’t know he’s left? That’s the way it feels. There’s all this chaos going on and we’re outside it all.”

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