Last week's interview with Metromix Cleveland
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are (left to right): Peter Hayes, Leah Shapiro and Robert Levon Been
If âBeat the Devilâs Tattoo,â the fifth studio album from California psych-rockers Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, sounds like the work of a hungry young band thatâs just starting out, thatâs because in a way, it is. Despite over a decade of success, BRMCâs co-frontmenâguitarist Peter Hayes and bassist Robert Levon Beenâfinished their most recent world tour flat broke, having self-financed their last several months on the road after parting ways with their label, RCA Records.
âEvery dime we made, we put in to going to crazy places like Israel and Russia and South America,â Been explains by phone from the bandâs Los Angeles rehearsal space. âSo when we got home, we were strapped.â Hayes and Been didnât even have any place to live, having given up their apartments in anticipation of spending nearly two years on tour.
With nowhere else to go, the pairâalong with new drummer Leah Shapiroâretreated to the same house outside Philadelphia where they had worked on âHowl,â their bluesiest and most acoustic-based record. âA lot of people think we went there to recapture what we had before,â says Been, âbut really, they just offered us a free bed to sleep on.â
Conceived and recorded in that suburban houseâs basement, the songs on âTattooâ find Been and Hayes at their loudest and grittiest, unleashing tangled layers of reverb-soaked guitar and fuzzed-out bass over Shapiroâs martial drums. Released through Vagrant Records on the bandâs own Abstract Dragon label, itâs BRMCâs rawest record since their 2001 debut, but still informed by the classic blues and folk they explored on âHowlâ and the arena-rock swagger they perfected on their last album for RCA, âBaby 81.â
Been took a break from rehearsals to talk about the new albumâs âTwin Peaksâ-like genesis, finding inspiration in Edgar Allen Poe, and getting arrested while performing a little guerrilla marketing overseas.
You worked on âBeat the Devilâs Tattooâ at the same house where you worked on âHowl,â right?
Yeah, but we lived at the place this time. We have these really good friends that are in this band called the Cobbs out in Philly, and they had a house, which is just their family house they grew up in. And theyâve got a little rec room, halfway-studio in the basement. And the father, Wally, he still lives there. He was the only one we were nervous about, because we were rehearsing in his basement at ear-piercing volumes, and heâs right above the ceiling, just sitting there watching his sports games. We thought weâd get kicked out within a couple weeks. But heâd come down with a scotch in hand and just start rockinââand heâd bring his friends over from the bar. Heâd be like, âPlay that one thatâs got the thing.â [Laughs] Heâd want us to show off to his friends. It was the coolest, weirdest, âTwin Peaksâ experience.
So youâre down there in the basement working on some new songsâand at some point during this process, Leah brings one of you guys a book of Edgar Allen Poe stories, and that winds up becoming the inspiration for the album title?
Yeah, thatâs a shorthand way of putting it. I asked her for it because there was a poem called âAnnabel Leeâ that I wanted to make into a song. And then there was a short story in that book called âThe Devil in the Belfryâ thatâs kind of amazingâand one [phrase], âbeat the devilâs tattooââŚI didnât have any idea what it meant, but it just kind of jumped out. The thing I loved about it the most was that the original, original meaning of it was the military tattoo drummers would beat at night, calling soldiers home, back to the camp. And I liked that image. And it felt like a blues title to me, tooâyou know, like me and the devil at the crossroads. And then you know, of course, weâre all wrestling our demons all the time. I donât think thatâs anything special to this album.
Yeah, I think God and the devil make cameo appearances on all of your albums, in one way or another.
One way or another, thatâs for sure. I think somebody asked us, if the devil had a tattooâwhich is pretty much the worst question weâd ever been askedâwhat would the tattoo be? And I think Peter said, âWell, of course, it would be a full body tattoo of Christ.â
The first two stops on your tour are Sacramento and Renoâis that coincidence, or are those high on your list of favorite places to play?
I think weâre just trying to comb through the country from left to right. [Laughs] And then further right, because we go from New York, and then London, and then continue east to Berlin. âFrom Reno to Berlinââthat shouldâve been the name of the record.
Well, you guys do already have a good Berlin connection, having a song named after it. And you filmed part of your DVD ["Black Rebel Motorcycle Club Live"] there.
And I just got arrested there last week.
In Berlin. A lot of shit goes wrong in Berlin. We were doing a press tourâdoing interviews in London and Paris and Berlin and Copenhagen. And Iâve been really into graffiti art for years, and we donât really have a proper label anymoreâso everywhere we go, weâre tagging our album title, just for fun. So me and Leah went out, and it was 18 below zeroâŚ
So fairly deserted.
Fairlyâexcept for a squad car of fucking [cops] are driving by when we were shaking, trying to do this thing. Yeah, we got a little in trouble, but it wasnât too bad. [Laughs] We pretended to be engaged. We tried to tell them we were just putting our initials on there as like a honeymoon thing. We were so scramblingâbecause itâs German police. Youâre freaked the fuck out when anyone talks to you in German and theyâre like an authority figure. Itâs not like âHoganâs Heroesââitâs the real shit. So we started sayingââcause we only got the âBâ and the âEâ doneâso we tried to say, âWell, itâs just our initials.â I think it got us out of the ticket, âcause they were like, âOh, whenâs your wedding?â