Naming your band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has its disadvantages. For example, it inspires real biker gangs — who may not recognize the name as an homage to the 1953 Marlon Brando film The Wild One — to threaten you with carpentry tools.
“There’s another club called BRMC, the Bridge Runners Motorcycle Club, in New York,” says singer-bassist Robert Levon Been. “They came to a gig, and they were ready for something. They came with two hammers — their logo is two crossed hammers, and they carry hammers with them. So that was kind of frightening. But we gave them some beers, and we told them where we got the initials. They’re actually friends of ours now. They come to the New York shows and drink all our beer.”
Outlaw bikers aren’t their only fans. Over the course of four records, the San Francisco-based band has transcended the Jesus & Mary Chain comparisons which dogged them early on even as they were being praised one of the shining lights of the so-called new millennium “true rock revival,” due mostly to the success of 2005’s Howl, an album in which the group stripped its sound down to a bluesy, roots-inflected base. With the recently released Baby 81, the band has gone back to the dark, stomping psychedelia of its great self-titled debut and its follow-up, Take Them On, On Your Own, and find themselves with a bigger audience than ever — even though not everyone knows what they look like yet.
“We always like the fact that we’d come into a club, especially when we were starting out, and people would expect burly old guys dressed in leather riding up on bikes, or African-Americans — all the things that would throw people from expecting three skinny white kids who play in this atmospheric rock band,” Been says from backstage at Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival, where they shared the stage with the likes of Sean Paul and Fergie. “It’s good to fuck with people.”
VCR: Looking back, do you consider Howl a success?
Been: In the end, it really went beyond where we attempted to go. We were trying to push ourselves with writing and recording, and there were a lot of places where we were willing to settle. I’m glad every time we got to one of those [moments], we pushed it a little further. It inspired us as a band to not be afraid to go with a different sound. In the end, people embraced it, and that was the beautiful thing about it.
How much of Howl’s sound was influenced by drummer Nick Jago leaving the band?
It’s kind of an impossible question to answer. The whole time we were deconstructing the idea of what a three piece rock band was and trying not to do something because we were supposed to. We were just trying to do what was right for the songs. Nick actually started the recording with us, and he was on the same page, so I don’t think it would’ve been that different, but I can’t say for sure. It won’t be the last time we try to tackle that kind of sound. It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out with Nick with us.
Did Nick’s return reinvigorate the band for Baby 81?
We didn’t know where else to go with a wall of guitars. You make two records like that and we felt, especially after the second one, that we threw everything and the kitchen sink into it. When your imagination gets stretched so far, we weren’t sure if we could go somewhere new with it and inspire ourselves to make that kind of record. Howl came just at the right time to let that breathe and wait for those songs to come. When Nick came back in, that same day we wrote “Took Out a Loan” and “666 Conducer” because we were dying to jam together, and the songs came through really naturally, really fluid. It was nice to know we had the blueprint for the next album in our hand already.
Is it odd for you guys to be getting to the point where you’re sharing the stage with people like Fergie?
I’ve got to close my eyes to a lot of things these days and listen for the things that are real. It’s getting harder and harder to hear them. There’s a lot of music that’s holding strong. Pop music is holding strong for a lot longer than it was supposed to. It’s hard to stomach — Fergie being the only exception [laughs]. It’s a nice feeling to know, if nothing else, that there are a handful of bands will keep it going through pretty dark times. It’s almost more important [to be making music today] than being around in 1969 when great music was just coming out of the woodwork. It’s important to keep it going. People need it.