Friday, March 12, 2010 on BRMC...

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club returns with new energy

Los Angeles-based rock group Black Rebel Motorcycle Club will play
 at the San Diego House of Blues on March 13, 2010.
Courtesy of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

In June 2008, the drummer for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Nick Jago, left in the middle of an international tour. The other two members — Robert Levon Been and Peter Hayes — played the remaining shows after picking up The Raveonettes’ touring drummer Leah Shapiro.

“The truth is that I was scared out of my mind,” Been said. “We dodged a bullet and were able to finish the tour.”

Shapiro filled in well, but it was still unclear if they had the right chemistry to write music together. The trio flew to Philadelphia and recorded in the same place where BRMC crafted its biggest success, 2005’s “Howl.” The result was “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo,” (released March 8) mixing stripped-down sounds of “Howl” with the raw, electric garage rock of 2007’s “Baby 81.”

“Leah kept us going — it gave us a new energy to make a whole album with her from the ground up,” Been said. “There was no Plan B. We didn’t know any other drummers.”

Jago was not enjoying playing with the band anymore, and had already left the group once before, in 2004, after an argument. Been admits that the tension within the group not only made life more stressful, but also harmed the music.

“I was devastated by the way things went down with Nick,” Been said. “I didn’t have heart to start rehearsing people. We felt kind of defeated ... it was like breaking up with someone and you don’t want to start dating again. You want to be alone for the next 5 years. Things have been effortless with Leah, any other way it wouldn’t have worked.”

Shapiro infused new energy into the band during the sessions for “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo”, and Been and Hayes fed off her passion and professionalism. In some cases, she even helped the band re-imagine old tunes written long before she joined.

“We were doing the song River Styx on the last tour.” Been offered as an example. “Then Leah came up with a new beat, a loungie, weird, voodoo sex beat that we all kind of made fun of. None of us was getting laid that month, and I think that’s where that rhythm came from. You make much better music when you aren’t getting any. But we used that beat on the album version.”

While Shapiro helped the Los Angeles-based group enjoy making music again, the band has also taken other steps to insure that their energy is focused on crafting songs and performing, not other aspects of the music business. After being dropped by their first major label, Virgin Records, in 2004, the band signed with RCA. After that relationship failed to work out as well, the band decided to form its own label “Abstract Dragon” and distribute their own albums with assistance from Vagrant Records.

“We were just tired of being broke and in debt to major labels,” Been said. “So we decided to go with the do-it-yourself label and partnering with Vagrant. They are just really cool people who are not trying to force us to be someone else, and aren’t spending money frivolously where it doesn’t matter.”

The first album released on the label was an all instrumental, experimental album titled “The Effects of 333” with proceeds going to benefit Riders for Health, and aid organization that seeks to provide transportation for the poor living in isolated areas so they can receive medical care and other services.

“We wanted to do something for no commercial reason,” Been said about “333”. “I don’t know if I can call it an album. It’s not a piece of art, it’s a creation. There’s no specific reason other than that what’s we felt like doing at the time. It sucks that you have to explain yourself so much when you want to do those things.”

“Beat the Devil’s Tattoo” was the first traditional album put out on the new label. As the band gathered on Thanksgiving Day 2008 in the Philadelphia house where the band Ty Cobb offered to let them sleep and rehearse, Been was nervous. During the first session after turkey dinner they were still feeling each other out.

"It’s one thing to play the parts someone else wrote and another thing to be fully part of the band," Been said. "It was our first time ever writing without Nick in the band. It was an important component because we write so many songs as free form jams, someone starts and the rest of the song is written in the moment. That’s how some of the best BRMC songs come. It was important that we could still keep that feeling in the albums ... Me and Peter didn’t expect that to come so naturally with Leah, but it did."

The new drummer even provided the inspiration for the album’s title, which is lifted from an Edgar Allan Poe book that Shapiro gave Been while they were recording.

“It is one of my favorite albums,” Been said. “It sounds free, and we stood out of the way and let it be.”