It’s still a pretty bad deal, and I’m glad to be in the middle of it at the same time.
story by Jay Gentile
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club bassist/vocalist Robert Turner is in a car speeding down the highway while talking to Chicago Innerview after cutting a slate of new tracks in Philadelphia. Heading off to catch a plane to Germany on the cusp of a 1-month European tour, Turner once again finds himself enmeshed in a rapidly unfolding event that he doesn’t really have to time to fully comprehend and doesn’t seem to entirely enjoy – yet he wouldn’t have it any other way.
This could serve as a metaphor for the San Francisco rock trio, if only it cared about metaphors. On the heels of an April breakup with label Virgin Records – which signed the band in 2000 and released both of its offerings to date: 2001’s Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and 2003’s slicker, more sinister, harder rocking Take Them On, On Your Own – BRMC finds itself in the midst of an uncertain period that it seems to be relishing.
“We didn’t feel they were behind our music the way we were, and we didn’t feel there was any reason to stay,” explained Turner of the recent split from the label. “It took a bit of trying to get out, but then somebody played golf with somebody” and it all got worked out, according to Turner. As for a new label, BRMC is keeping all options open. Its only criteria is “finding someone that believes in our music, that understands where we’re coming from.”
Understanding where BRMC is coming from is difficult and easy at the same time, if that makes any sense. With lyrics such as “I’d kill you all but I need you so,” “We don’t like you, we just want to try you,” and “We’re all in love with something that we can’t see,” BRMC sings somewhat dark songs that somehow feel positive and upbeat.
Music has a way of putting the listener in a certain mood, and the mood created by BRMC’s music is, for lack of a better word, “cool.” I can’t really explain it, but I just feel cool when I listen to it. The only record I would say makes me feel quite this way is an album that I consider to be one of the best ever made: The Rolling Stones’ 1972 epic Exile on Main Street.
Perhaps coolness is defined as taking difficult situations and reacting to them with a certain stoic nonchalant shrug, a c’est la vie attitude of “whatever happens, we’ll get through this.” It’s a confidence in oneself that seems to be reflected in the hard rocking Rolling Stones/Interpol/Joy Division/Jesus and Mary Chain-esque sound of BRMC’s Take Them On.
“BRMC brings a Goth vibe, Brit-pop buzz and touches of the Doors’ poetic moodiness to the dark corner of garage rock,” according to USA Today. NME declared Take Them On “a masterpiece,” Stuff described it as an “explosive mix of Stooges groove rock, Pink Floyd (circa Meddle) and the moody atmosphere of the Verve.” Maxim called the band “one of the genre’s best hopes for salvation.”
BRMC, which dropped its debut around the same time as the major label offerings from the Strokes and the White Stripes, were initially lumped into the “rock is back” media orgy over “garage” rockers “saving” the dying genre. “We got lumped in with it, but it never totally followed us,” said Turner. “It was at a distance, which is where we wanted it to stay…Everything gets compared to something that’s been around for only the last five minutes. It seems to be more about looking at who’s on top at the time instead of who made the best music.”
The core of BRMC formed in 1995 in San Francisco when loners Robert Turner and Peter Hayes (guitar, vocals) bonded over a mutual love of U.K. early ’90s bands like Ride and My Bloody Valentine, along with a mutual alienation with their surroundings at upper crust Acalanes High. The band, at the time known as the Elements, added drummer Nick Jago (an English art school dropout who had recently moved to the U.S.) in 1998. They soon changed their name, taking their moniker from the biker gang in Marlon Brando’s 1953 classic The Wild One, relocated to L.A. and attracted radio play on Santa Monica’s KCRW. The band signed to Virgin after a bidding war because, in part, they were promised complete creative control.
One example of the label’s idea of the subjective notion of “creative control” was when Virgin had Limp Bizkit/Linkin Park producer/engineer Andy Wallace sample a few tracks for Take Them On, which the band summarily rejected. “Thanks for reminding me of that one” laughed Turner, whose band has self-produced both of its albums thus far.
“We like it to sound the way we want it to sound,” he explained of their self-producing nature. “We have a sound in our head and we can’t see getting in too close with [the label’s] own idea of what it is. Mixing is as important as anything. When you start settling in ways that might be more traditional, you kind of lose sight of the whole point of the thing.”
Turner and Hayes spilt the band’s lyrical duties, basically singing what they write, but in the beginning the group auditioned a few singers. When asked if this reflects the band’s philosophy of not having a front man so that the music can shine through without being tarnished by image, Turner had this to say: “Maybe coincidentally…We just couldn’t sing when we started.”
Prone to sporadic bits of poetic ruminations, Turner called the lyrics “last grasps of air, before the plunge…The words in the last record were hard. You had to pick yourself up and take a swing. It takes a lot of your spirit to [sing lyrics.] It’s not just singing about being happy.”
One song from Take Them On, “U.S. Government,” features lyrics such as: “I bought my legs from the U.S. government / To keep me in line / We are the ones that keep you down / We are the ones that warm the ground / While our arms surround.” The song was originally intended for the first album, but was delayed after the Sept. 11 attacks. Oddly, the very day the band was mixing the song for inclusion in Take Them On, the U.S. invaded Iraq.
“That was just bizarre,” said Turner, who recalled watching the news from the TV in the studio. “It really tripped us out. We had to shut it off. It seemed like more than a coincidence.”
When asked about his thoughts on the Bush administration, Turner called it “a fucking joke. They’re turning the world upside down. If we don’t take a look at what’s really going on, then we’re all fucked.” He said it’s understandable to want to support the troops and turn a blind eye towards U.S. mistakes and indiscretions, “but at the same time, if you go too long with blinders on, everyone’s gonna be in more trouble than they think they are.”
BRMC is looking ahead to a new album to be released in early 2005, which promises to be a bit of a departure from Take Them On – which itself was a bit of a departure from their tamer, more melodic debut (a record that Oasis’ Noel Gallagher declared himself a fan of.) Turner says the group is “kinda going for a rootsy sound” on the new record, which he said will be more experimental and will include old blues and country tunes.
“There’s no end plan,” Turner said of the band’s goals for the future. “Just get through the day, get through the end of the record. It always moves so fast…I enjoy a bit of mystery too.”
As for the mystery evoked from such lyrics as “We’re all in love with something that we can’t see,” Turner offered up this explanation: “It comes from a conversation we had one night about being fucked over by a girl or something,” he said. “You feel as low as you can feel, but at the same time there’s something in your gut that thinks it’s okay. It doesn’t feel as empty as it should.”
Turner, whose real name is Robert Levon Been, (who took on the surname Turner in homage to Mick Jagger’s character in the 1970 movie Performance) is the son of a now-divorced lifelong rocker and a Lutheran pastor. His father, Michael Been, was most noted for his involvement with the spiritual big ’80s group the Call, whose career was marred by problems with labels and management. As a child, Turner was thus turned off by the rock lifestyle.
“It seemed like a pretty bad deal,” Turner said of the rock and roll life as viewed through the experiences of his father. Has his attitude changed now after BRMC’s worldwide critical acclaim and its significant commercial success in the U.S. and U.K.? “No, it’s still a pretty bad deal,” he said, “and I’m glad to be in the middle of it at the same time.”
A cooler statement has scarcely been uttered.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was scheduled to play on the main stage of the 2004 Lollapalooza tour, which had planned a stop at the Tweeter Center July 29, before the entire tour was cancelled in late June due to low ticket sales. If you still want to see them live and don’t mind a little road trip, they will play with The Von Bondies and The Datsuns at The Annex in Madison, Wisc., July 31.