“It takes all three of us to make this band,” says Robert Levon Been, vocalist and bass player for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the band that by all accounts was lucky to survive the writing and recording of their last release. With drummer Nick Jago having quit the band before the recording of 2005’s Howl, leaving Been and guitarist Peter Hayes to assemble the leftover pieces into an album that was every bit as homespun and intimate as their others have been brash and loud, the duo was so relieved when Jago returned-to the tune that they started their next album on that very day.“It takes all three of us to make this band,” says Robert Levon Been, vocalist and bass player for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the band that by all accounts was lucky to survive the writing and recording of their last release. With drummer Nick Jago having quit the band before the recording of 2005’s Howl, leaving Been and guitarist Peter Hayes to assemble the leftover pieces into an album that was every bit as homespun and intimate as their others have been brash and loud, the duo was so relieved when Jago returned-to the tune that they started their next album on that very day. If Howl was the sound of Been and Hayes reconnecting with the roots of their collaboration-as songwriters-Baby81 is the sound of BRMC starting over and rediscovering the joy of turning their amps to 11.
“It was kind of the obvious answer to Howl, I think, because we had just gone for a little less than a year making a really delicate record, just always trying to use the limitations and make a bigger sound with less instruments…and letting lyrics fill in the spaces in the story rather than the big sonic boom,” Been explains. “It kind of felt like those little ships that you build in glass bottles, and you’re being really delicate with tweezers. It just drives you nuts after awhile, and you just want to smash it all. That was the record. You just want to turn it up and break everything. Your nerves start going after awhile.”
Their moment of catharsis arrived before the paint could even dry on Howl, as Jago returned to add his drums on the last day of that album’s recording and was welcomed back into the fold with two songs that formed the framework for what would become their next release. “We just turned up loud and didn’t really say a word. Peter had this bluesy little guitar riff, and he had a line for “Took Out a Loan,” and we’d been playing that riff for three years; it was getting kind of annoying, actually,” Been laughs. “But he started riffing on that, and we all just kicked in, and from there on out it was all improvised. Everything was pouring out of us. No one was steering the car. It was steering itself. And we did it in one take. It was like, ‘I guess we should be playing together,'” he says in a moment of atypical understatement. And just like that, the band was reborn.
“So we tried another one, and we did ‘666 Conducer,'” he continues, mentioning the album’s darkly rumbling centerpiece. “Peter had all the verses written, and we just kept it simple and put in a Led Zeppelin beat. We had those two songs, and I held on to those more than anyone for the next year, just listening to them and trying to imagine what it would be like if we finished the thought and made a whole record like that. That really kept me going, because even with Nick coming back in the band, there was still a lot of pain and doubt and nervousness to be putting ourselves back into the fray again. But when in doubt, look to the music. When all the light has gone out, just hold onto that, and it steers you along.”
Of course, with the obligations of touring and promoting a new album keeping the band on the road the following year, the newly reformed San Francisco trio couldn’t jump right into their next album. Chomping at the bit to develop their new ideas, they had only their nightly soundchecks to capture the emerging muse on tape. “You can even hear it in the tapes where people go, ‘Hey, can you stop playing? We have to soundcheck now,'” says Hayes with a laugh. “So that would cut it short, and you get to the next day and sometimes you have two minutes to do a soundcheck, and sometimes you lose those ideas. You have them on tape, but coming back to them is harder. It’s completely new for me to do it that way. My old school way of doing songs is sitting with a guitar for as long as it takes, and you don’t move until it’s done. It’s a fine line between creating something and imagining something is being created. It made up for all of the times that I was lazy and didn’t want to get up and write down that thing that I heard in my head. It made me respect it a little more. I should have walked off stage and played acoustic guitar and worked it out instead of walking off stage and walking to a bar.”
Returning home with a box of tapes that contained songs titled by whichever city they were recorded in, the trio set upon making an album that would unite the three phases of the band’s music. From the smoldering riffs of “Lien on Your Dreams” to the murky piano chords of “Window,” it sounds like they succeeded. Most surprising might be “It’s Not What You Wanted,” a summery pop song whose catchiness made the band a bit uncomfortable. “We’re not known for that, and we don’t particularly like the sound of pop songs,” Hayes admits. “We usually throw them away or say, ‘What the hell are we going to do with that? That sounds like a pop song.’ As far as being catchy, that’s what makes a pop song, and it’s usually in a major key. But they come along, and it’s like, ‘Well, how do we fuck this up as much as possible?'” For Hayes, the answer came over three sleepless night of adding backwards guitar lines and murky harmonica overdubs. “We did the big power pop version with big distorted chords, but that’s just not us,” he sighs. “We like to be a little more creative with it.”
Even more of a departure is “American X,” a darkly political jam that just happens to last nine minutes and eleven seconds. “That’s the spooky shit about the song, and we were actually like, ‘We should change that, because it’s kind of hokey,'” Been admits. “But then we thought, well, maybe it’d be some kind of curse if you change it. It’s weird, because it originally wasn’t even meant to be a government thing. It was called ‘American Sex’ for the working title, because I was obsessed and dumbfounded by how obsessed the whole country has become with selling skin, basically. If you walk by any magazine rack, it’s just totally demeaning to women. I’m not even that uptight of a guy, but I still think it’s pretty fucking shameless. I just wanted to write a song that was unearthing all of that. As I started writing the lyrics, they kept steering more and more toward the bigger picture, toward the system as a whole…and people as primal beings. Then it became more of a government thing. The 9/11 thing at the end-it was like, ‘Oh, well, if it wants to be that kind of song…'”
Ultimately, that willingness to simply follow the momentum of the moment continues to define the band, and the fourth Black Rebel Motorcycle Club album must be especially satisfying for a band that came so close to slipping into the rock’s great hereafter. “I just see it as a constant painting, as if every album is adding to this picture somehow,” Hayes explains, turning serious. “Its completion, I can only imagine, is done when you’re dead. And even then it keeps on growing. Everyone is adding to the same mural. I just want to add a piece to the wall and have it be a good piece out of respect to the people that came before me. And that’s all I need to say about that.”