It seems strange to rely on a second century spiritual proverb to give meaning to the story of a rock ‘n roll band in 2005. But the tale of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club , and the arduous circumstances surrounding the making of its third and finest full length, Howl , requires just such a reference. Translated from the ancient Coptic language, the phrase in question reads:
“If you bring forth what is within you,
what you will bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you,
what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
For Peter Hayes, Robert Levon Been, and Nick Jago – the three individuals collectively known as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – those words could easily have served as a bitter epitaph. But instead, they became a kind of rallying cry for the new record. For Howl is the sound of a band reaching deep within its soul in order to save itself; the sound of a band giving up its rock ‘n’ roll meal ticket and finding salvation and sustenance in a rich banquet of folk, country, blues, gospel and pop; the sound of a band finally owning up to itself and its vast limitless potential.
In content and form the 13 songs are as far removed from BRMC’s previous albums–partly by design, partly because of the process–as they could be. Strain and grope for adjectives all you want, but the best and most accurate way to describe Howl – its title inspired by group’s own vulturine spirit as much as the work of the beat poets — is simply to say that it’s a line of demarcation in the band’s catalog. It’s the same line that the Stones drew with Beggars Banquet ; that the Clash drew with London Calling . It’s both a summation and a turning point, a nod to the past and a look into the future as well.
Yet, not so long ago, it appeared very much as though BRMC itself was on the eve of destruction.
The initial sessions that produced Howl began in June of 2004 in a basement studio outside Philadelphia with old friends Ryan and Paul Cobb, frontmen of Mad Action. “It’s just their parents place,” says Been. “But it has an amazing fucking sound. We did it on an old one-inch tape recorder, no tricks. We’d get up and their mom would fix us spaghetti and we’d go down into the basement and record.”
The material they began essaying, a set of gnarled and emotionally raw songs drawing on various roots traditions, revealed a different side of the band. “But it’s a side that’s always existed, just not on our records,” says Hayes. “These were songs that we’d been writing and collecting over the years. Some of them we actually thought about putting on previous albums. But we didn’t want to make it seem like they were filler tracks or novelties in the middle of a rock record. We felt like they were too important for that.”
Although most of the tunes had been written on acoustic guitar (“in various stairwells and back porches” as Hayes puts it) BRMC didn’t want to simply make an “unplugged” album. “We were experimenting to find an approach on how to record these songs, how to make these songs translate,” says Been. “With all due respect, we didn’t want to just make a Bruce Springsteen Nebraska -style acoustic record. It felt like it could be more. We just weren’t sure how to get there at first.”
Although their efforts in Philly produced a handful of exquisite tracks – including the joyful album opener “Shuffle Your Feet,” the languid “Sympathetic Noose” and the haunting minor key rumination “The Line” – the record was far from complete.
In August, BRMC took a break from the studio to play the European festival circuit. Owing to years of relentless touring, their notoriously tough work ethic, and some personal excesses, tensions within the band had slowly been building. Been explains, “We were attacking each other, it was insane and nobody wanted to be there; too many drugs, too many things pulling us down. We just didn’t know how to say ‘no’ anymore. We were running on empty.” Near the end of the tour the group came apart – quite literally – on a stage in Edinburgh, Scotland. When the dust had cleared Jago and the band decided to separate. Hayes and Been limped through the remainder of the dates, canceling a couple concerts and playing one surreal gig in Spain where a fan was practically pulled from the crowd and onto the drum kit.
By the time they got back home to L.A., BRMC was in a state of total disrepair. With Jago out of the group the delicate chemistry that had carried them for so long had been disrupted, leaving the future of the band unknown. “We’d lost the meaning of what we were doing, all of us” says Been “I don’t know, thinking back on it now I guess we had to burn it all down to build it up from scratch, to make it matter again. You just never want to learn the hard way.”
Deciding to push forward, in November Been and Hayes holed up at The Sandbox, the L.A. studio of longtime friend Rick Parker. Without a label, they’d long since parted with Virgin, and without a drummer, the title of their sophomore album Take Them On, On Your Own , was starting to become eerily prescient.
Paying for studio time out of their own pocket, Hayes and Been resumed work on the album, determined to finish it – in order to prove something, if only to themselves. As they began crafting new versions of the gauzy pop masterpiece “Howl” and the dark country rumble “Devil’s Waitin'” a profound creative freedom, borne of desperation, had suddenly found its way into the songs. “I can’t explain how inspiring it was just to hear what we were able to do,” says Been. “It was this incredible feeling. It kept us alive.”
Encouraged by their initial efforts, Hayes and Been decided to carry on, to see how far the momentum would take them. Although they’d loosely conceptualized their third record for some time – even giving it the working title The Americana LP – they ultimately decided to let the songs themselves determine the album’s sonic direction. The only thing they knew for certain was that it wouldn’t sound like any previous BRMC recording.
“If we made another rock record, it would’ve been hard to find a new place to go because we’d thrown in the kitchen sink for our second album,” says Been. “This was the genuine challenge that we needed. I think that’s a big reason why the band had been deteriorating, ’cause we weren’t pushing ourselves. We knew there was a lot more we were capable of.”
“When you listen to old records, from the Beach Boys to Beatles to Stones to Neil Young, it sounded like they were going by the seat of their pants a little bit,” says Hayes. “So that kinda became the guiding principle for this record. It really sounded like those groups were having fun, never knowing where they were gonna land.”
Much of the inspiration for album was found in the distant youth of its creators: you can hear literally the country and folk music Hayes was weaned on a child living in the farming community of New York Mills, Minnesota; or the old classic soul and R&B records Been had spent a lifetime collecting.
Hayes conjures wounded moods with a series of affecting narratives, bleeding ragged soul all over tracks like the album’s storming first single, “Ain’t No Easy Way” and the autobiographical, vaguely Dylanesque “Complicated Situation.”
Been looked beyond BRMC’s signature riff-fueled style and found direction in the ethereal vocal work of old gospel. “Early Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, the Staple Singers, that’s my favorite stuff,” he says, an influence clearly reflected in cuts like “Gospel Song” and “Promise.” “On those [songs] Me and Pete would go in and thrown eight or nine vocal tracks, do this whole sorta gospel, choir thing. And for us, it achieved the same orchestration as having wall of guitars on it, but it was just more unique. But a lot of instruments were sub-ed out, anything that was expected wasn’t allowed”
In addition to choir vocals and various other instrumental accoutrements – autoharp, piano, congas, slide guitar, timpani’s, harmonica, etc. – Hayes and Been reached back into their earliest musical exposure, breaking out trombones for a couple songs. “I took four years of trombone in school, and Peter took six years, totally coincidentally” says Been, laughing. “We never wanted to add them because we always hated bands that had to go through their ‘strings and horns’ phase. It just always sounds too slick and professional. I think the only reason we got away with this shit is because it sounds rough and pretty amateur.”
The essential elements of country, soul, folk, and gospel had always played a part in BRMC’s music. Yet, because they’d been so successful as a slash and burn power trio – giving the “Return Of Rock!” revolution a pugnacious anthem in “What Ever Happened to My Rock and Roll” – the public, and perhaps the band itself, felt it needed to adhere to a single sound or stylistic niche. Howl , then, represents an escape from a prison of their own making. “That seems a lot harder thing for bands to do nowadays,” says Hayes. “You can get trapped in one sound, and that’s what a record company wants from you. As soon as you veer off into something too different the label or the business people try steer you away from that.”
“In a way, it was helpful that we weren’t signed to a label while we were making this,” continues Hayes. “There was no pressure coming from anyone – which was important, because you don’t want to second guess what you’re doing. There was a little bit of that on the last album. We tried really hard not to think about what people were expecting, but there was no way around it. With this record those thoughts weren’t there. This album was for the music’s sake and no one else’s.”
“We weren’t trying to find a new identity with this record. This really is our history and our voice,” adds Been. “I actually left my stage name, ‘Turner’ , behind this year. I guess I’d been afraid of being in the shadow of my father [former Call frontman Michael Been]. But I’ve taken back my birth name to remind me of where I come from. Sometimes it’s better to know where you’ve been in order to know where you’re going.”
Completing the album over a scattered six month period, the energy in the studio was relentlessly positive (“It was the most fun we’ve had recording,” says Been), and inspiring, as several new songs – including the thrillingly visceral blues of “Restless Sinner” – were penned in the midst of the sessions. Another tune, the album’s gorgeous centerpiece “Promise,” was written and recorded in a single weekend late in the process, originally intended as a b-side.
By the time they’d actually come to cut “A Promise,” that band had reconciled with drummer Nick Jago and were back to form. “It was great,” says Been, “the record was pretty much finished but at least we were able to have him play on one of his favorite songs. It brought things full circle.”
With a powerful album in the can, label suitors were soon lining up to secure BRMC’s services. Fittingly, the group elected to go with RCA’s Ashley Newton, the same A&R man who’d originally signed them to the Virgin back in 1999. RCA/Victor – home to Blind Willie McTell, Jimmie Rodgers, Sam Cooke and Waylon Jennings, all in their own way influences on Howl – seems a perfect place for BRMC. The group also secured a deal with ECHO in Europe.
“We’re lucky little bastards, RCA in the states and the cool thing with the ECHO arrangement overseas is that were linking it up with our own imprint, Abstract Dragon,” Been adds “We’ve taken a goddamn beating for having a D.I.Y. ethic regarding our music the last few years, now it’s finally paying off”.
Ultimately, it has to be understood that BRMC is a band that believes in the rock ‘n’ roll mythos – the saving grace, the excess, the exquisite burn, and all the rest of it. The experience of the past year – the highs and lows, the tumult and triumph – has only strengthened their understanding in the precious human alchemy that occurs among the great rock groups, that same unique power that exists between them.
“I guess there was this unspoken thing between us that was finally spoken,” says Hayes. “Sure, we questioned each other for a while. But the band is bigger than the three of us. From where I came from, and how the three of us ended up together, it just doesn’t…it just doesn’t happen like that very often. You don’t get the opportunity to grow up together in this way. That should be respected and it shouldn’t ever be thrown away. We had to dig pretty hard and deep to figure that out, but it was all worth the wait.”