By Mark Guarino
When bands like the Strokes, the White Stripes and the Vines were considered the vanguard of the “new rock” movement earlier this decade, they signaled a renewed appreciation of 1960’s garage rock. Further back in the spotlight was Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Los Angeles trio that single-handedly resurrected the dark, psychedelic rock of celebrated British bands like Jesus and Mary Chain, Stone Roses and My Bloody Valentine.
B.R.M.C.’s first two albums are today considered classics, a streak they toyed with two years ago with “Howl” (RCA), a more experimental album of backwoods American blues, folk and country gospel. Again, the band made an album that placed them on critic’s choice lists but relegated them under the radar of a mass audience. Even though they built a bigger audience in the U.K. (partially thanks to the endorsement of fans like Noel Gallagher of Oasis and receptive radio programmers), the band remains a cult favorite on these shores.
“We’re not really on the radar but not really off the radar. It’s given us this freedom to make records in our own little way,” said lead singer and bassist Robert Levon Been. “If we had a huge hit or people thought they could make a lot of money off us, we’d be screwed because we’d get all sorts of people coming in and suggesting thing. It’s weird when you’re fighting to break even. If you think about it, it’s the best way for music to be.”
“Baby 81” (RCA), the band’s recently released fourth album, is a step back to the loud and heavy sound of their earlier records. It incorporates the atmospheric lessons learned from “Howl” with the slash-and-burn energy the band displays on the live stage. As its name suggests (a band name borrowed, incidentally, from the name of Marlon Brando’s motorcycle gang in the hog classic “Wild Ones”), B.M.R.C. is invested in scouring dark matters, from suicidal tendencies to cultural erosion. Likewise, the music on “Baby 81” stretches across a wide palette, including the brooding psychedelic “Windows,” the hypnotic blues of “Berlin” and the nine-minute song “American X,” which swirls into different incarnations of psychedelic rock and blues boogie.
The band is interested in different textures and creating a physicality to the music. On “Howl,” they concentrated on finding a way to make quiet instruments sound sinewy and larger than life — an effect partially created by using the same mixing board the Rolling Stones used for “Exile on Main Street.” Borrowed from producer T-Bone Burnett, the board worked because of its “big, fat knobs,” said Been. “It’s good to have your hands on a computer, but with a laptop and Pro Tools, they make you feel you’re not doing anything. I think physically you need to feel you’re kind of involved. Big faders and knobs make you feel like you’re rolling up your sleeves. It’s just a subtle thing but for mixing, there’s a physical aspect of it.”
“Baby 81” took the same kind of trickery, but in the opposite direction. In order to capture the raw sound that comes from playing live, Been and guitarist Peter Hayes and drummer Nick Jago, figured out ways to compress the band’s enormous sound into the miniature grooves of a digital process. “We decided the best way to make an honest sound live on record is to fake it on an album,” Been said. “You have to double the voals and triple and quadruple the guitar, all of those things. You hate to admit it but we had to learn it the hard way.”
Been and Hayes met in high school while living outside San Francisco in the mid-1990’s. Drummer Jago, who grew up in the U.K., joined soon after. The band prefers the aesthetics and visuals of an earlier age, where black leather jackets and reverb created an immediate sense of danger.
But over the course of the band, Been has become less enigmatic. The first two B.R.M.C. he was credited as “Robert Turner,” only recently using his real name to acknowledge he is the son of Michael Been, the lead singer and frontman of The Call, the 1980’s hitmakers (“Let the Day Begin”). The younger Been grew up backstage, during his father’s tours when the Call played with Peter Gabriel, ZZ top and others. “My first taste of being a rock star was being about eight or nine and having an all-access pass, cutting in front of lines. It’s the only time when you’re ever able to go in front of any adult at that age and it was about the coolest feeling I ever had,” he said, laughing.
Although he abandoned his real name early in B.M.R.C’s career (“I wanted to make a name for myself and the easiest way was to have all three of us have a clean slate from the first record”), he came clean for practical reasons.
“Every other plane flight or hotel was under the wrong name,” he said. “I never had an I.D. for ‘Robert Turner’. So I was always waiting in a hotel lobby for 40 minutes for the tour manager to come back and vouch for me to get any sleep.”