The men of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have changed. After nearly imploding in early 2004, when inner band tensions came to a head, the group—best known until now for their update on the Jesus & Mary Chain's wall-of-sound, rainy-day styles—reconvened last summer to make their latest album, a delightful smorgasbord of folk, country, blues, gospel, and pop.
Built on a foundation of inventive songwriting courtesy of founders Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been, and recorded before a new pact with RCA, Howl finds BRMC—who also count British-bred drummer Nick Jago in their lineup—charting unexpected terrain. In fact, the differences between their latest disc and its predecessors (2001's eponymous debut and '03's Take Them On, On Your Own) are so apparent that even the loyalist fans haven't quite known what to make of these tunes.
"A lot of people I speak to don't say how they feel about it," Been says of tracks like the country rocker "Ain't No Easy Way," the back-porch blues of "Shuffle Your Feet," and the harmonica-laced winner "Still Suspicion Holds You Tight." "But for us it's completely natural. Since Pete and I started playing guitar together back in high school, we've always dug folk and the blues. To simplify it, there have always two versions of our band. One was the 'pretty out-there,' loud rock-and-roll band, and one was this kind of down-home kind of music."
Been—who formerly went by the stage name of Turner to distance himself from any recognition brought by his semi-famous father, the Call's Michael Been—admits that when the pair joined up with drummer Jago, "it made sense for us to hit harder. With our first two records it got to be pretty easy to be that kind of band. In the back of our minds, though, we always kind of loved this side of ourselves."
Although they had an arsenal of material in the rootsier, stripped-back style, they weren't quite sure where it fit in with the electric roar of BRMC. "Finally it became pretty clear that if we didn't make a record dedicated to this sound we'd never have the chance," Been explains. "And we didn't want these songs to slip away—they're too good. So while it may seem like we've changed our sound, it doesn't really feel like it to us."
Been says the shackles were off after the band left Virgin Records last year. "It was really freeing to make the record of our own devices without any label pressure," he says. "We wound up second-guessing ourselves—but only for a moment. Once the songs started taking shape as an album, we were convinced more and more that it was the right move."
Around the same time, the future of the band—which was in question after the temporary departure of Jago—began to look brighter. "A lot of it was clichéd," Been confesses of earlier problems. "Basically we were at each other's throats. I don't even know how the fuck it happened. We were touring for a long time and needed to take a break, but we didn't. You just start to get burned out, and then you start trying to numb the pain by any means necessary. Then the communication sort of stops, and then you don't even enjoy playing that much. One day we just snapped."
"There was like six months or more where we didn't even know if Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was going to still be a band," he adds. "Eventually me and Pete put things aside to make this record. Nick took a lot longer, and I guess he just needed that time to get his perspective back. Now we're all a lot more grateful that we have each other. Knowing that it could have come to an end gives us a better appreciation now."
BRMC's U.S. tour behind Howl lands at Neumo's with former Ride frontman Mark Gardener in the opening slot. "We're reconstructing the entire set and we don't know how it's going to work out," Been says of the apportionment between old and new styles. "We'll probably divide it up where we play one half electric, do an intermission, and then do the other half acoustic."
Armed with Howl, the resuscitated Black Rebel Motorcycle Club offer a must-see gig for fans and curiosity seekers. Change is good, firstname.lastname@example.org