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Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: beating the devil

California psych-rockers talk about their latest album and tour...and why German cops are scary

By Andy Hermann

Metromix February 19, 2010
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: beating the devil
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are (left to right): Peter Hayes, Leah Shapiro and Robert Levon Been
If “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo,” the fifth studio album from California psych-rockers Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, sounds like the work of a hungry young band that’s just starting out, that’s because in a way, it is. Despite over a decade of success, BRMC’s co-frontmen—guitarist Peter Hayes and bassist Robert Levon Been—finished 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. “Every dime we made, we put in to going to crazy places like Israel and Russia and South America,” Been explains by phone from the band’s Los Angeles rehearsal space. “So when we got home, we were strapped.” Hayes and Been didn’t 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 pair—along with new drummer Leah Shapiro—retreated to the same house outside Philadelphia where they had worked on “Howl,” their bluesiest and most acoustic-based record. “A lot of people think we went there to recapture what we had before,” says Been, “but really, they just offered us a free bed to sleep on.” Conceived and recorded in that suburban house’s basement, the songs on “Tattoo” find Been and Hayes at their loudest and grittiest, unleashing tangled layers of reverb-soaked guitar and fuzzed-out bass over Shapiro’s martial drums. Released through Vagrant Records on the band’s own Abstract Dragon label, it’s BRMC’s rawest record since their 2001 debut, but still informed by the classic blues and folk they explored on “Howl” and the arena-rock swagger they perfected on their last album for RCA, “Baby 81.” Been took a break from rehearsals to talk about the new album’s “Twin Peaks”-like genesis, finding inspiration in Edgar Allen Poe, and getting arrested while performing a little guerrilla marketing overseas. You worked on “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo” at the same house where you worked on “Howl,” 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 they’ve 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 he’s right above the ceiling, just sitting there watching his sports games. We thought we’d get kicked out within a couple weeks. But he’d come down with a scotch in hand and just start rockin’—and he’d bring his friends over from the bar. He’d be like, “Play that one that’s got the thing.” [Laughs] He’d want us to show off to his friends. It was the coolest, weirdest, “Twin Peaks” experience. So you’re down there in the basement working on some new songs—and 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, that’s a shorthand way of putting it. I asked her for it because there was a poem called “Annabel Lee” that I wanted to make into a song. And then there was a short story in that book called “The Devil in the Belfry” that’s kind of amazing—and one [phrase], “beat the devil’s tattoo”…I didn’t 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, too—you know, like me and the devil at the crossroads. And then you know, of course, we’re all wrestling our demons all the time. I don’t think that’s 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, that’s for sure. I think somebody asked us, if the devil had a tattoo—which is pretty much the worst question we’d ever been asked—what would the tattoo be? And I think Peter said, “Well, of course, it would be a full body tattoo of Christ.” The first two stops on your tour are Sacramento and Reno—is that coincidence, or are those high on your list of favorite places to play? I think we’re 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. “From Reno to Berlin”—that should’ve 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? In Berlin. A lot of shit goes wrong in Berlin. We were doing a press tour—doing interviews in London and Paris and Berlin and Copenhagen. And I’ve been really into graffiti art for years, and we don’t really have a proper label anymore—so everywhere we go, we’re tagging our album title, just for fun. So me and Leah went out, and it was 18 below zero… So fairly deserted. Fairly—except 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 wasn’t 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 scrambling—because it’s German police. You’re freaked the fuck out when anyone talks to you in German and they’re like an authority figure. It’s not like “Hogan’s Heroes”—it’s the real shit. So we started saying—‘cause we only got the “B” and the “E” done—so we tried to say, “Well, it’s just our initials.” I think it got us out of the ticket, ‘cause they were like, “Oh, when’s your wedding?”
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