BRMC are a curiosity. A rock band with no frontman. Musicians in an era of stars and celebrity. A zag to the zig of the zeitgeist.
There’s something defiant in their somewhat-unfashionable influences: dour 1980s acts such as The Jesus and Mary Chain, overlooked 1990s acts such as The Verve. Their new album, Wrong Creatures, finds the band experimenting with genres like an actor assembling a character’s wardrobe. They’re hard to box, so let’s not. Let’s instead explore a band that rocks so hard they broke the floor – the floor! – at a historic venue in Leeds. A band that split with the same drummer twice, and whose replacement developed a brain condition, Chiari malformation, that was operated away thanks to a crowdsourcing campaign. There have been drugs and thrown punches and bona fide hits: the anthemic Spread Your Love.
Founded in 1998 in San Francisco, California, USA, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are Peter Hayes, Robert Been and Leah Shapiro. The two men, who wore sunglasses like stylin’ blues men for much of the interview, split vocal duties: Peter on guitar, Robert on bass and Leah on drums. The trio crowded on a sofa in a living room above London’s South Molton Street and submitted to Disorder’s interrogation and snide Spinal Tap allusions.
Leah is the most relaxed and gregarious of the three. Both on stage, and in the room, the two men interact with her, just minimally with each other. Robert’s girlfriend, a tv journalist, lounged in a corner. The two men chilled considerably once the “interview” was over, happy just to chat.
In concert, Peter seems like the lead singer, the performer of the band’s big songs. But Robert is the rock star, the one who moves, who stage dives, who climbs on the amps, who talks to the crowd and puts on a show. Let’s call it constructive, semi-sibling rivalry and hear from them… in slow, measured tones.
DISORDER: It’s been almost five years since the last album. Is the pause because of Leah being ill or…?
LEAH SHAPIRO: We toured all over 2013 into the first half of 2014. That was part of the time between records. And, yeah, from end of 2014 and, like, up until that summer tour we did in 2015 I was mostly laid out. Even after that summer tour, after the whole brain debacle, I was still healing – so the intensity of working was a little more mellow than we’d normally start out.
How’s your brain now?
LS: [Laughs.] I don’t know. I think it’s working more or less the way it should. Not in pain or anything. I don’t have those weird neurological symptoms that I noticed while I was playing, like my brain was falling out of my head more or less. That’s a weird feeling to have while playing drums. It’s nice to be playing and touring now without that – that was a drag: in a whole year and half touring I had one show, in Washington DC, where I felt comfortable on stage.
You guys [to Peter and Robert] have to be patient with your drummers, huh? They go, they come [BRMC’s original drummer left twice], they develop a life-threatening illness…
ROBERT BEEN: Finding a drummer with a functioning brain has never been the easiest [laughs]; sorry I had to get a drummer joke in there. Every band sorta has its thing, I guess. We don’t suffer from the traditional frontman cliché syndrome issues, so at least we don’t have to deal with that kinda guy. Probably dodged a bunch of other stereotypes, too. That was a pretty serious, scary thing, all humour aside. If any of us were to be dealt that hand it stops you. A wake-up call. You just slow down and realise, you’re only human. The surgery was scary but then being patient with yourself in the recovery time… forcing us all to have restraint, which is not our strongest suit as a rock band. We usually just go as fast as we can for as long as we can.
What is the end-point of a record – when it’s released, when you tour it – at what point can you judge the complete work?
LS: The sequence is one. When the sequence is there and you can kind of look at the record. OK, this is a tangible thing now. That’s one marker. Then I guess when it’s fully mixed and mastered. And then when it comes out. And when touring starts.
PETER HAYES: There’s still an element, when touring, that changes what happened in the studio. A lot of [the songs] start out as live jams, then you get them recorded. There’s lots of experimenting on them as far as sounds and having fun that way. Then, back to playing them live, it’s another learning process – how do you put parts on that weren’t there originally or were done on the fly in the studio? And to figure out if we actually recorded them in the right tempo. A lot of times you can be real sleepy in the studio and then as soon as you hit a stage that just throws you into panic mode. Oh, this needs to be a little faster. Or a little slower even. There’s that learning process all along the way. Takes at least a few gigs to figure out how those things change.
Do you test the songs in front of an audience before you record?
PH: We do. We have. They can come out of jams we’ve played at live shows.
RB: It does help. There is a peace of mind when you know a song‘s initial spirit came from all of us jamming in a room. Whether there’s a thousand people there or not. You’re naturally feeling out the sound in the moment, so there’s a trust – no matter how convoluted this gets in six months from now, in terms of adding overdubs and stuff, you’ll be able to get back to that little thing that it started on, a beat and then a riff that adds a life to it. Working in a box, building something in Protools from the ground up, is more of a nervous energy; you don’t know if this will ever translate to playing live; does it feel too cerebral once you start fuelling electricity into it and seeing if it’s got legs or not? Some things that exist on record don’t always come back, don’t always feel that connection in a live world. Usually we let those songs go. We don’t play them very much live, or never sometimes. Records are different things and you let them be.
Are there influences specific to Wrong Creatures or are you not able to listen to other artists while creating new work of your own?
PH: We dig into some other bands’ things if there are some tones that we like. That’s one way. I remember one time going to a [Rolling Stones] record; on the second record is the only time we’ve really done that. Then gone back after to see how far off we are, how our vocals are laid in the tracks to see if we’re burying them too much. There’s a lot of other bands in the process that, just as you’re kinda travelling, become inspiration. But that all gets turned off once the writing gets going. That confusion of accidentally ripping somebody off on purpose, we’re our worst critics on that stuff. If we hear even a tone thing, we’re like – we can’t do that because the tone of the lick sounds too much like something else.
Do other bands have an influence when you’re touring?
RB: I don’t listen to anything when I’m writing and there’s a moment, an energy shift: from energy coming in and absorbing, to the mindset of getting things out. But that builds up over a few years and it’s a release to get stuff out. And then it goes song by song. You start on one and you never let it be in the brain like I’m going to do something like this. But then you notice, oh I’m writing something in the wheelhouse of, like, a Stooges song or Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen kindof world, or another that’s in a Verve or a Ride kindof thing. And as soon as I notice the room that I’ve found myself in, the conscious side goes, oh shit – how much am I going to take with me and leave from this place?
Showing respect to the music that’s come before?
RB: The older I get the more I like tipping the hat: [these acts have] got me here, the whole reason I’m playing music. Early on I’d try to disown it and try to think I’m doing something really original and kindof cover the trail up and trick a couple of things out, so I’ve covered my tracks. [Laughs.] But there’s a real gratitude for [great music]. There’s a song [on Wrong Creatures], Ninth Configuration, that really makes my heart sing because of the first time I saw The Verve play San Francisco, at Slim’s, and they just – knocking the roof off the building. And there’s this hint, this scent, tingly hairs on the skin that bring me back to that. And I didn’t want to completely remove that from the song, so it’s still there. There’s this song, Haunt, which surprised me. Musically, melodically it’s in the [Leonard] Cohen-esque, Nick Cave realm, which scared the shit out of me, because I thought you have to have balls to go there and to do it justice. And that was what I was most self-conscious of, not wanting to disrespect or phone something in, not bring your best to it lyrically, story wise. That puts pressure on when you know you’re trying to pass something on, because all of us are influenced by things, one way or the other, subconsciously or not. And then: doing it justice, respecting it enough. I can’t write more than one of those songs. They can write songs that are that level all day long, whole records. And it took everything to make one decent enough to go, I didn’t mess that up. Each song has its own story. Some I have no idea where they came from. Others are so much like us that I even get nervous that I’m referencing ourselves. [Laughs.] Sometimes it’s like, are we doing the BRMC thing too much? We are now our own influence.
The song Circus Bazooka is a fun shift on Wrong Creatures before a return to more introspective tracks. Was the sequence intended to surprise the listener?
PH: Each song was written in a microcosm. And then putting them together tells a different story. Wherever it landed in [rehearsals] always caught us in a little cheeky grin moment. So wherever that [was placed in the record] was going to have that sense of, oh it’s not so dark and taking things too seriously. I’d always do a silly dance when we started playing it, because it felt kind of circus-y and galloping…
LS: Weird, waltzy…
PH: Whatever makes you physically do that, that’s the best thing. Transform us into fools.
On the darker side, what are the obstacles the shaped you?
PH: Leading question. Personal conflicts… how far do you wanna go Rob, with that one?
RB: I don’t know. You can get pretty self-righteous with your pain, suffering and obstacles. Go back to the beginning. Just getting one album out and putting together a band that’s decent is a million to one in itself. So you get this mindset of, you guys against the world. And look at all the slings and arrows you survived. It starts off as a battle and it doesn’t really stop… it just becomes more surprising. We survived the first album, we survived getting dropped by this label, we survived changing our sound up for [third album] Howl, losing our drummer [founding member Nick Jago], then having the same drummer come back after doing the record on our own, and then losing the drummer again. Michael [Robert’s father, BRMC sound guru] passing. Personal stuff, just life that happens along the way. But then you sit back and go, oh by the way for two decades you’ve been a rock star travelling the world, is your stuff really that much more than anybody else has had to live? Two decades breathing oxygen and getting by. At least we’ve got music to show for it. And we’ve got to do something we’ve loved. So we could talk all day long about all the woes and challenges. But at the same time it seems a little egocentric to think we’re special. A lot of people have the same thing but don’t have a song to show for it. It’s nice to focus on this celebration, that we’re sharing. It’s a declaration of life, of fighting through. And we’ve fought and survived just about everything.
PH: I’ve probably fallen into every cliché possible in this business. That’s all it really is, a cliché. So I tend to try to leave it like that. Just pleased that I’ve come out the other side.
Do you have techniques and routines that keep you grounded?
PH: I personally haven’t found… I’ve come up with ideas that would seem to make life a little easier, but I haven’t followed them. [Laughs.] I’ve never been able to follow them, I don’t know why that is.
LS: If you are going to jump face first into all the rock n roll clichés, do it and learn what you need from it and come out of the other side. If that’s what you want to do, that’s what you’re going to do. I wouldn’t recommend it necessarily…
PH: It depends what level you want to live your life. If you come into it with the ideals of changing the system, oh I’m not going to play that game, I’m going to do it my way – that’s all fine but you have to be prepared that holding yourself to a particular line is going to beat the shit out of yourself. Because your ideals are going to constantly be tested. Then you play tricks with yourself. Or you find yourself losing it.
Do you feel connected to the wave of protest in the zeitgeist?
RB: It feels like a cheap shot, like a little too easy. It’s not that interesting to go, good and bad people, right and wrong people. That all seems pretty obvious. Once you scratch beyond that surface level, the way that it’s sold, there’s more interesting things to be said about it that are not as fashionable, they’re not as juicy. As a songwriter, making a statement – it’s trying to find those angles. Be careful who you think is on your side because we’re living in this conveniently black and white kindof world right now. All the people you think are your allies, and you need them to fight the oppression and madness going on… get to know the people that you’re supposedly locked arms with. And maybe people on the other side. Dig deeper than, everybody on that side is a racist, a bigot and an idiot. And maybe it’s a wake-up call that there isn’t that much more at the same time. Everybody’s been hit with a reality check that we’re not as far evolved a species as we were hoping. And it’s actually healthy to have to go down a few levels. OK, it’s going to take us longer to get to the place we thought we were at collectively. [Sighs.] I’m just trying to be patient with the human race right now – which I don’t want to be. I just want to dump all the riff-raff and get up to the next planet as soon as possible.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club play the 02 Forum Kentish Town on July 26, 2018.
Photography by Tessa Angus
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fangx to Paula, Disorder Magazine and OLIVER HORTON