Music: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

Apr 27, 2010 1:31 PM, By Blair Jackson



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Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are guitarist/singer/songwriter Peter Hayes (left), drummer/songwriter Leah Shapiro and bassist/singer/songwriter Robert Levon Been.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are guitarist/singer/songwriter Peter Hayes (left), drummer/songwriter Leah Shapiro and bassist/singer/songwriter Robert Levon Been.

The band takes its name from the leather-clad biker gang in the classic 1953 Marlon Brando film, The Wild One—the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club (BRMC). The group’s sound—an amalgamation of hard rock, blues, neo-psychedelic and even some Americana—can be as noisy and aggressive as a swarm of Harleys (or, sticking to The Wild One, Triumphs) or purr like an idling chopper. Since the BRMC got its start in the fall of 1998, they have put out six studio albums (and one live set), with the most recent, Beat the Devil’s Tattoo, released in March; it’s “a record that does a pretty good job of tying all our other ones together and showing who we are,” according to guitarist/singer/songwriter Peter Hayes.


"Beat the Devil's Tattoo" MP3

Hayes is joined in what truly is a power trio by bassist/singer/songwriter Robert Levon Been—who co-founded the group with Hayes—and recent addition Leah Shapiro, who previously toured as drummer for The Raveonettes. (For most of BRMC’s history, British drummer Nick Jago was part of the group.) With influences including everyone from the Stones and the Jesus and Mary Chain to T-Rex, Sonic Youth and the Stone Roses, BRMC bring together melody, drive and crunch into a potent sound that is uniquely its own.

Hayes and Been went to high school together in the Northern California town of Lafayette (an East Bay suburb of San Francisco), and made their first recordings in the Bay Area, but soon relocated to L.A. and have made that region home ever since. Through the years, they have built a dedicated cult following around the U.S.—and an even larger fanbase in the UK (perhaps because of some of the aforementioned influences). They’ve made a couple of interesting detours from their basic sound along the way—with the largely acoustic-based Howl in 2005 (which credits T Bone Burnett for “recording assistance” and was mixed by Burnett’s engineer, Mike Piersante) and the 2008 experimental download-only instrumentaBeat the Devil’s Tattoo manages, as Hayes suggests, to touch on most of the group’s diverse sides—the layered, wall-of-noise squall andtheir more delicate folk side.

Relations between Hayes, Been and original drummer Jago had been strained and difficult for a number of years, so Hayes says that bringing Shapiro into the mix “was healthy and gave us a new focus both onstage and in our writing. Breaking in a new drummer can be hard, but we were lucky in a way because we started off just touring. We did six or eight months of touring with Leah. She got thrown in the deep end real quick. She learned 30 songs or so and we rehearsed for a while and then went straight on tour. From there, we got off the road and went straight to Philadelphia and started writing. So the transition was pretty smooth in terms of going from playing live to recording.”

Along the way, the trio started writing songs in earnest for the album that would become Beat the Devil’s Tattoo (which takes its name from a phrase in an Edgar Allen Poe story called “The Devil in the Belfry”). “They were written in every way imaginable—hotel rooms, back of the bus, soundchecks. It could be just me and Leah, or Rob and Leah, or Rob will come walking in and want to try something. There were some that had been around for a while [pre-Shapiro] and others we wrote on the spot, more or less. The songs mostly come from just playing music together and everyone listening to the others as much as possible.”

When Hayes refers to going to Philadelphia, he means The Basement Studio in one of that city’s suburbs, in a house owned by friends of the band; the group also made Howl there five years ago. BRMC lived in the house while they worked there, which added to the project’s group vibe; Hayes did the engineering on the writing and demo sessions and then the later overdubs. Hayes says he developed his engineering chops through osmosis and experimentation through the years. In his early days of playing with Been, for instance, they rehearsed in a place “that had a little Tascam board with DA-88s and DAT players, but none of it was hooked up,” Hayes says. “So we’d be playing and we’d record our jams on a 4-track cassette player, which we did know how to operate, but eventually I got it in my head to try to get the board up and going and I started plugging things in and out until it worked, basically. From there, I’ve just kept trying things. I’m not a great engineer or anything, but I know how to get some of the sounds I’m after.”

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