Rebel, Rebel

The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club may be indie rock's Next Big Things, but, like a little black dress, they're also perfectly classic

Aug 15, 2001 at 4:00 am
Like any proper rock star, singer/guitarist Peter Hayes of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is drugged up and dogged by vicious hallucinations -- and it's not even lunch yet. Actually, he obtained the chemical in question from his dentist earlier this morning and just woke from a turbulent nap to take our phone call. "I had horrible dreams that all my teeth were falling out," he says, sounding a little shaken.

Dentistry probably doesn't figure largely in most people's idea of the rock & roll lifestyle, but this sonically fierce San Francisco trio resists such easy stereotypes. The Club's debut, B.R.M.C., is a mix of dirty Electric Warrior-styled rock mayhem and swirling, aggressively distorted guitar riffs that recall the Jesus and Mary Chain's angrier days. It manages to live up to the "black" moniker in both its bleakness and its ability to sound perennially fashionable. Though BRMC is one of this year's most celebrated alt-rock debuts, earning comparisons to such equally dark artists as the Velvet Underground, Joy Division and Radiohead, the Club is maintaining a level head about the recent critical buzz. "I keep myself sheltered from it," Hayes admits .

Bassist Robert Turner takes the praise in stride, without the feigned humility common to Next Big Things: "We always thought it was a great album. We'd have been more surprised if it hadn't [gone over well]," he says. Yet he admits the recent tour, which has lasted for the better part of the year and has afforded them opening slots for more established bands such as the Charlatans UK and Guided by Voices, has been "pretty daunting."

The band started in 1998, when longtime friends Hayes and Turner met Nick Jago, a drummer who shared their musical aesthetic. Though they started in San Francisco, they moved south to Los Angeles to seize their big break. After their demo started circulating, they became one of the most hyped bands in the city and objects of a bidding war. "[Los Angeles has] this stigma that no one really gets behind music and goes to shows," Turner says. "But everyone really got behind us."

B.R.M.C. may sound like an unpolished record, but that rough feel was the result of a long and perhaps obsessive stay in the studio. When asked what they'd change for their next album, both Hayes and Turner agreed that they'd be less intense about their recording process. "We'll relax a bit more," Hayes says. "We got wrapped up in the details."

Turner admits this drive comes from a clear mutual vision of how the band should be: "It should sound the way we want it to. It's not always perfect, but it's our taste." The album's content reflects this drive for perfect imperfection: Half the record is taken straight from their early, limited-edition demo, and the other half comes from last year's recording sessions. Despite all the major-label money they had to work with, the Club decided to make the older, rougher material the template, with the newer songs conforming to that aesthetic. "We didn't want these to never get heard," Turner says of the demo tracks, which include the haunting "Red Eyes and Tears," one of their most dynamic songs.

Although the record has a distinctly moody feel, Hayes says that it wasn't intentional in his songwriting: "Whatever comes, comes. At the same time, I don't make it all that personal; I try to keep it kind of inclusive. It hopefully goes with a story." He also denies any overt shoegazer influence in his throbbing, narcotic guitar lines: "I try to keep it simple. I never got into playing very fast." In his view, their style represents an attempt to create an overdubbed sound without actual overdubbing.

Another influence the band denies is the '50s pop nihilism suggested by their name. Yes, it's the same as that of Marlon Brando's gang, from the 1950 film The Wild One, but don't expect any greased-back hair or James Dean retro-chic. All Turner will say on the subject is, "I'm not a fan of the era in particular." Their frequent use of the abbreviated form of their band name suggests another possible attempt to divorce themselves from that association.

Before they were Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, or BRMC, they called themselves the Elements -- a name that was not only completely nondescript but also taken, as they later learned. They decided to choose a name so obscure that no one would think to use it. And even if its associations aren't apt, it does sound cool and dangerous. It also hints at BRMC's thick-as-thieves solidarity. They truly are a club, insisting on collective interviews to produce a more balanced "band view." This ethos also means keeping as much control within the band as possible. "We have a pretty set way of how we want to be presented," Turner explains. Not only was BRMC produced entirely by Hayes, Turner and drummer Nick Jago, but this creative collectivism even extends to their video work; the three members assembled their own video for the Stooges-inspired lead single, "Whatever Happened to My Rock 'n' Roll? (punk song)," out of old concert footage.

Turner admits that the lo-fi, concept-free video may not be what the new silicone-enhanced MTV is looking to put on TRL. "It's probably going to be a huge un-success," he laughs offhandedly. But if he's right, it would only make the song's message -- that rock & roll may not be dead but it's certainly misguided -- that much more powerful. After all, what greater proof could there be of rock's corruption than a video being rejected for being too much about the music? Yet there's nothing ironic or snide about the song that would reduce it to a bitter whine. Instead, its power lies in its obvious passion for rock & roll: Like anyone who's ever loved the music, Hayes sings that he "lost his heart to a simple chord."

When asked to answer his own song's question, Hayes suggests that cynicism and irony might account for the sorry state of contemporary rock & roll. "A lot of people blame it on that there's nothing to be angry about, but there is a lot to be angry about," he says. "It could be idealism got kinda lost in it. You're wrong or right, but at least you're hanging onto something, fighting for it. People are just mean and jaded now."

For anyone who's feeling mean and jaded, BRMC's live show may be just the thing. Without relying on clichés or rote irony, their music burns with a white-hot intensity. Go to the Duck Room on Tuesday, ye of little faith, and leave knowing exactly what's happened to rock & roll.