Let’s Get Ready to Mumble: An Interview with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are back. And we still have to lean in to hear what they’re saying.
"You think I'm lying?" asks Peter Hayes. At which point the semi-spaced guitarist shows us across the hotel suite Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are currently residing in and proves that London's K-West Hotel really does have a clearly labelled "Smut Drawer", supposedly containing "material of a sexually explicit nature". Although sadly, this particular smut drawer is empty.
"It's the first time I've ever seen that," drawls Peter in his slightly stoned half-chuckle. "Kind of disappointing, seeing as there's nothing in it."
"You ever seen The Alan Partridge Show?" asks bass player Robert Been. "You know when he kicks the drawer shut. That's what I thought he was talking about."
It turns out Black Rebel Motorcycle Club like a laugh after all. After half a decade revelling in their role as the most inscrutable band in existence, the revelation that they're partial to the Partridge comes as something of a shock. As does the reality that despite doing their level best to alienate record companies and the media, they still have the musical firepower to ensure they're put in the star room in London's premier rock and roll hotel. Drummer Nick Jago has disappeared behind a dividing glass panel with an enormous tray of food, leaving Peter and Robert gazing around at the plasma screen TVs, PS2 and surround sound system.
"The rooms are normally much nicer than this," smiles Robert.
"Twice as big," adds Peter. "With a full smut drawer."
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club remain musical enigmas. They've produced three albums of hard-edged, unpretentious rock and roll brilliance, and are on the verge of launching a fourth, Baby 81, that may be their best yet. Their shows are mythic events of intensity and swaggering virtuosity that have led to support slots with Oasis, U2 and The Rolling Stones. And yet, six years on from their debut eponymous album, they remain resolutely outside the mainstream. It's can't be the music. Everyone who knows music knows what they're capable of.
It has to be the personalities. Robert's the most effusive of the trio, but still gives the impression that he'd rather be enduring root canal surgery than a simple interview. The chain-smoking Peter is possibly friendlier, but is still given to enormous, impossible pauses between words, occasionally giving up answering questions halfway through. Nick just vanishes at the first sign of an interview. It's relieving to hear it's not just us.
"We were just on tour with The Killers," explains Peter. "Twenty dates."
"The first couple of days were a little bizarre," admits Robert. "We were trying to feel it out and we didn't speak to the band for two days. We said hi but we didn't really get to know 'em. I wasn't feeling the warmest welcome from the crowds. All the shows were sold out before we started so there was no hope of getting any of our fans in. But then we got into the idea of appealing to new people for the first time. Steal as many of them as possible. They weren't like our shows would be if we were headlining. Although you do feel the awesome power of success. The Killers crowd was full of the Top 40 listening average person. As opposed to our crowd -- a bunch of goth kids. I went to a Nine Inch Nails show last night and it was a sea of black, which was really nice."
"It gave us some good ideas if we ever get that big," adds Peter. "No offence to The Killers or their fans or anything, but it can be real sterile, you know? It would be nice to have an arena thing where you could somehow create the atmosphere where the stage was only three feet high..."
"Don't tell him all the good ideas," interrupts Robert. "I don't want anyone to steal it before we do it. All I'm saying is that if we ever get to do it, it'll be a little more human and you won't feel like the band is here and the fans are here. And I can't really tell you it but there would be something after the show. Maybe ice cream and cotton candy."
There are plenty of bands at the arena stage of their career less deserving than Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. But, tempting as it is to list them, we'll resist. If it doesn't bother BRMC, why should it bother us?
"It feels like we're still just getting started," reckons Robert. "It still feels like we're introducing people to the band. We don't feel like we're through the door yet. Maybe if we could make a record like Howl without feeling we have to make an excuse for it. That's the dream -- to make the music you want and not have to answer for it to the label or whoever. But in some way with music it's better if you feel like you have your head on the chopping block each time. Because it makes you panic and write like you've got to save your own life."
By their own admission, BRMC have failed to crossover to the mainstream. Although Baby 81 has plenty of tracks that would be perfect soundtracks to TV ads or those action montages that always accompany the credits on football broadcasts. If one of them caught on it could send Black Rebel straight to the top. If only.
"We'd never allow it," shrugs Robert without a moment's hesitation. "Not for commercials and that shit. That's our big thing and why the label and publisher remind us we're not a big band. We always say no to that stuff. It's as important how you're giving it to people, as what you're giving them. Almost as important."
"There's nothing worse than when you see a band that's got their hit on The OC or whatever the fuck it is, the TV show or the car commercial," agrees Peter. "And they go out and they're playing their set and people are clapping. And they play that one song and everyone goes ape shit. And they do the next song and everyone claps politely. That ain't music, that's a ham sandwich. That's not fans. That's not people loving the music or loving the song. We've always tried to have fans of music. So when you say, can we see ourselves being that, no, I can't. We're trying to go about it in a different way, in terms of presenting our music to people. In this time and age maybe what we do is too old school for people. It used to be respected but maybe now things have come round to consuming and it's just about money. It's more respected how much money you make instead of what music you make. Our idea is we signed to a major label and tried to keep our ideals of how things should be done within that system and we've held to it pretty good. Because of that maybe we won't have millions of records sold. But at this point in time I'd rather have respect for ourselves."
"You can look at it as part of the disintegration of people having anything of substance that matters," adds Robert. "Once Bob Dylan starts doing Victoria's Secret ads, it's like, who do you look up to for the answers? The standards keep getting so fucking low. You want to daydream about this perfect utopia, especially when you start out making music. You don't just want it for drugs and money and girls."
"Well, the drugs and girls…" grins Peter.
"Music can be more but it doesn't seem that anyone is fighting for that," continues Robert. "And as soon as no one is fighting for that and it's accepted that it's alright you could just be selling toothpaste.
"It's kind of like being in love with a girl. You could fuck her and get it over with and it could be a one-night thing, or you could try to try to build something and make a connection that means a little bit more."
"There's this consumer happy capitalist world striving to stay in this room," reckons Peter. "What happened to the other side? People saying no, it's not about that. To me, that was art and music's job to say, that's a bunch of fucking bullshit and everybody knows it. Where the fuck did that go?"
There's a lot of talk about attitude nowadays. You've either got it or you haven't apparently. But in an era where indie rock bands can appear as manufactured as their boy band brethren ten years earlier, it's cool to know that despite the social discomfort involved, some people stick to their rock and roll guns. This story, related to us by BRMC's tour manager (the band themselves are hardly anecdotalists) may or may not be true, but it still illustrates, in an awkward, uncomfortable way, that the rock and roll spirit lives on.
The band are in a major label meeting in Los Angeles, listening to a label vice president discuss the band's latest tracks. Throughout the entire meeting Nick Jago sits silently, never once removing his sunglasses or the headphones covering his ears. At one point the vice president, presumably getting tired of the silent treatment, leans over, lifts up an earphone and politely asks for Nick's input.
"For starters, it's BRMC, not BMRC," says Nick. "And you'll get my input when you start calling the songs by their names, not Track 1 and Track 2." At which point he silently replaces his headphones.