Written by Dave Jasmon Sunday, 15 April 2007 14:01
We got into music to change the world, you know? To change everything. And we're still of that opinion, but you can't really force that upon anybody, that thought. We're just trying to figure out what's best for us, and what's best for us is to live in the world the way we want to live, the best we can, and let everyone else breathe.
In the days leading up to the release of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's fourth album, Baby 81, PLAYBACK:stl had the opportunity to speak with the band's songwriter/guitarist/vocalist, Peter Hayes. The album features the full-time return of drummer Nick Jago, as well as the artistic revisiting of the group's well-known garage rock stylings, albeit with the learned incorporation of previous release Howl's folksy attributes. The San Francisco-based trio reflects a number of influences from bygone eras, yet their application of vocal swagger, rich layering, and potentially biting lyrics define their explosively balanced individuality. Part wild ones and part thorough pundits of cultural introspection, BRMC continue to challenge themselves and their audience, however it may be defined in a given moment.
I'll start by asking about the significance of the title of the new album [Baby 81], obviously referring to the tsunami survivor. How did you come to choose that title, and how does it relate to the whole message of the album?
Nick came up with it. He kinda ran across the story. It was his turn to name an album, and we didn't have another name. The question, you know...we didn't want it to be taken the wrong way. We don't mean any disrespect. I kind of like the idea of leaving what it means up to the audience. You can't create a meaning.
I was just wondering what you thought of it yourself.
Out of respect for that tragedy, I like to leave myself out of it.
I understand. You mentioned Nick [Jago], and obviously he has come back to the full recording of this album. Did that change, in any way, how the album was going to sound? Was his presence a big factor?
Yeah, yeah. Definitely. His drumming. All of that. I played some drums on Howl, and I'm not all that great at playing drums, but you know at the same time, we were trying to get another feel out of Nick, because he was involved in the beginning of the recording of that. We were just trying to go another way with recording the guitar parts first, and having him record drums to the guitar parts to get a certain feel for that album. On this album we just went back to...you know, we have songs, we lay down the drum tracks, and we play to him. That's what we do kind of best. But it depends on the song, you know what I mean?
You recorded a couple of songs for this album back at the end of the Howl sessions, right?
Yeah, "Took Out a Loan" and "666 Conducer."
Did you know at that time that they were fit for a different album? Or, that you wanted to save them for a time when Nick would've been more of a contributor?
Yeah, yeah. Those songs, for us, didn't quite fit on Howl, and we needed somewhere to go for the next album. So, we thought we'll use these as the guide, or whatever you want to call it, for the next album.
Howl had these obvious musical themes that made it stand out. Are there any themes that you see in Baby 81 itself, or is there ever a conscious effort to make an album sound a certain way with you guys?
The only conscious thing from this album was, we wanted to take what we learned from Howl and add it to, you know, what we do loud. [Laughs] That was the only conscious thing, just figuring out when to add vocals, when certain parts drop out, and creating space. As far as a theme or anything, that comes with the songs, and we don't really have a choice in the matter. [Laughs] The songs come; I don't know how to explain that any better.
It makes sense to me. In terms of the lyrical content itself, the themes I've gotten in the time I've been able to listen to Baby 81 are: standing on your own, helping yourself, and rebellion in a personal sense. Are there any significant events that brought these about, or, if a lyrical theme repeats in several songs, does it just happen on its own?
It's just another way of looking at the world, I guess. We got into music to change the world, you know? To change everything. The whole deal. And we're still of that opinion, but you can't really force that upon anybody, that thought. Sometimes that thing will come off as "we're better than everybody else," but that has nothing to do with it. We're just trying to figure out what's best for us, and what's best for us is to live in the world the way we want to live, the best we can, and let everyone else breathe. Then it's: take them all on your own, one person at a time, and if we get them all together, you know...a change is gonna come, hopefully.
When I listened to the vocal tone shaping some of these lyrics, especially in these moments where it's a personal rebellion that might have been misconstrued, I thought...the more I listen to it...I think the tone inspires: "You all should do this too, in your own way." Is that intentional on your part?
The intention is to inspire another way of thinking, as far as what seems to be a lack of culture. Culture used to mean that it was one nation's art. Art is culture. And that seems to be disappearing. I'm not talking about just in music, you know? It's poetry and painting. All art. We're in music. We play music, so I guess that's partially where we're coming from. But, the culture has been destroyed by capitalism, and that's partially the musician's fault. You know what I mean? You see someone with twelve cars in the garage, and you know, you don't fuckin' need it. That's capitalism. That's money. That's a whole other thing that just ain't right. That's fine and all, but it's not how I wanna live. We're looking for who thinks the same way, and trying to give a voice to that thought, because I'm not hearing a voice to that thought. I just don't hear it. I don't see it. Where is it? So, I'm sure as fuck gonna talk about it. [Laughs]
No doubt. Obviously what you've been doing with your band is trying to right that wrong—the way culture is going, in relation to art—so is there a certain part of you that wants to project that idea towards your audience? Or, do you think it has more weight if you present it as, "this is what we're doing"? Is there a way to do that without seeming pretentious?
Yeah, well, that's a fine line. I think it's gone down the road of excess, so much, that nobody has any faith in it. So, it kind of needs to be talked about. It needs to be said: "This is where we're coming from." It's just assumed that if you play music, you're about money and fame. You know? And it's not true. I want that to be known. The assumption is not true. And as far as being taken the wrong way, you kinda have to trust...um...
...You have to trust the audience to do their part in being able to tell the difference.
Yeah. Yeah. At the same time, I completely understand part of it being about money. You always have to pay rent. Everybody's struggling to pay rent. I'm struggling to pay rent. We're not condemning that. We're just saying, "Let's rearrange it a little bit." We have a little more respect for other things...other than money.
Yeah. One should come before the other.
Yeah. It seems a little flip-flopped nowadays. But, so be it. That's the way I live. If somebody else does, great.
I thought your closer, the older song, "Am I Only," could've been taken a lot of different ways. I thought it was an interesting choice as a closer. This album seems definitively newer, and some of the track listing is chronological. "Am I Only" has some self-doubting lyrics, at times, and sonically it makes sense because it can be moving, thought provoking, but also confusing. Do you have any thoughts about this song's use on the album?
When we first did a track listing, we kind of put it there [at the end], out of...we didn't know where to put it. [Laughs] Because it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the album. And then, I had put on that little piano part at the very end, the little toy piano. Who's the piano player from Peanuts?
Yeah. We just didn't know what else to do with it. It made sense for it to end gently.
I was thinking when I was listening to it, because of the significance of the album's title, that it turns in the end to this sort of lullaby that's eerie, in a way. It's this very odd moment that I think is very fitting. What do you guys think when you stumble upon instances like that in the creation of an album? Maybe these things aren't done on purpose, but they can incite these reactions in your audience.
Well, they incite the same reactions in us. You know? It's all an experiment to us. Sometimes it comes down to...if you happen to listen to it on a bad day, or maybe you come back to it on another day when you're in a different mood and it's like, "Oh, shit. Yeah!" That's the thing with us. It's the exact same thing. You know, everything's really fair in music. Every thought is fair, and I think that's what's great about it.
That's excellent. In that same vein—about the songwriting process—there's obviously a few songs on this new album with some new ambition, like "American X" or "All You Do is Talk," in terms of its deep layering. How much of it is, "I have this really big idea," and how much of it is an experiment, like you were talking about?
"American X" was a jam that we did, and that's basically how it was recorded. It was a random thought that was...well it's basically how we write a song, that song right there. We just sort of play it forever. That thing probably went on for about 20 minutes, and then we come back and try to put words to it.
How do you go about putting words to a random thought like that?
Well, a lot of this album was done on a mini-disc. We'd just record a jam we had on sound check. Then, it was just going back and listening to mumbling. Every song just starts with nonsense, usually. It's just a mumble, [song noises] and slowly a word will start to form, and then a phrase, and then the thought of, "Okay, where is that going?" Then you try to catch that idea and continue with it and finish it out. That song was called "American Sex" to begin with, from Robert [Been]. He was going through this thought of, "Why are humans obsessed with sex? Why is it so taboo at the same time, but constant in everything?" The more he went with that thought, the more it became political, and he kept trying to rearrange it so it wasn't political, but it just kept getting more [political]. That's when it went to "American X."
That just reaffirms the fact that you have songs and albums as, kind of, these living things that adapt. It's pretty cool, and it's obviously worked so far. It's interesting, to this point, how you can create these definitive sounds, like in Howl or in the previous albums, and then decide to marry them after all of these adaptations.
Yeah, it's fun. You know? You don't know what else to do. It's hard to explain and talk about. That's another great thing about it. It's not tangible. That's what makes the assumptions, and all that stuff, get in the way. You can't really make assumptions about music...anybody's. I guess what we're talking about helps, a little bit. [Laughs]
It's interesting that you say that you can't make assumptions with music. Do you think that may be the problem? We were talking about music as a dying culture. Do you think too many people today are making assumptions with people‘s music?
Well, you can make assumptions on people's actions, though.
It's safe to assume, if you see a guy who's got a hit record and all of a sudden has got fourteen cars, that he's consumed with money and doesn't really give a shit about much else. I mean, that's what he's in it for. It's safe to assume that. But, if you see somebody who's an artist and isn't flaunting whatever money or fame they get from it, kind of keeping to themselves; it's not about that for me. I won't talk about it; it's safe to assume that that person is probably respectful. It seems to be accepted that—well it's not really accepted - but, it makes sense to me why it's become useless to people. Because musicians themselves have made it and come out flaunting what they get from it. It pisses me off the same. It's like, okay, I bought your album, and now you're gonna throw it back in my face? Like, look at me, look at the nice big house I got. Fuck you man. [Laughs] I spent my hard earned cash and I could've bought a sandwich that day. It makes sense why music would be worth less to people. Why would you want to support that?
Yeah. I saw from your website that you were lending one of your songs to a car commercial but donating all of the money for some charity work that you might not have had the money to give freely to before. Is this a direct reaction to what you're talking about?
Yeah. We're reacting to that thought. I don't know how many other musicians do it, but we felt a need to put it on our website out of respect for our fans because we know our fans respect that...that we don't buy into the corporate world as far as making money off of somebody else making money. We just don't dig that. But, we also see a way to help with that. I don't know if I'll get in trouble for saying this, but we've turned down $3 million in the past. And we look at that, and it's kind of like, who gives a shit? We didn't really want it, and I feel good about it. But at the same time, it's like, we could've fuckin' helped somebody. I mean, we wanted to help out during the floods in New Orleans, but it's like, what could we do? We could ask our fans for help, but they're in the same position we're in. They've gotta eat, too. We can't keep asking them for stuff. This is just the way we've found to help.
Do you think it's important for musicians—we were talking about the guy with 14 cars—do you think it's important for them to present this?
Nah. It's important for me. This is how we work through it. I don't condemn anybody for doing it. I want to get that across straight. I don't condemn anybody for getting their money and getting out. You know? That makes sense. Part of me wants to do that too. Part of me wants to take the money and run and get the fuck out of the world. I think everybody's got that in them.
For me personally, and us as a band, that's just how we want to do it. I want to have an affect on the world in different ways. It's for my spirit, and nobody else's.
I understand, and that is definitely clear.
I want to get back to the album for a second. In terms of musical influences on this album, are there any direct influences?
No bands really. What I was trying to do on this album—as far as musically—I've been really obsessed with the thought of creating music as like: You're looking down a hallway, and right in front of you've got, whatever, a guy on acoustic guitar and behind him...I've been obsessed with the idea of looking down this hallway while you're listening. I haven't gotten to that point yet, but I want to create that. That was one of the goals for this one, and it's gonna be a goal for the next album: trying to find a way to get this strange depth within the music. It's hard. How do you create this depth within it, so now you can visualize? Other than that, we're really pulling from our heart, as far as sound...what we learned from Howl, and from our first record, our second record...
I do think your music has always had depth in terms of layers, and the inherent depth in your guys' voices and playing, but this album seemed to have a few more songs and riffs that were maybe a little less bluesy or folk, or maybe crawled a little bit more. Do you just think that's part of the development of what you're going for on this next album?
I don't know what's gonna happen next. We start out with an idea, and it just kinda finds its own place. | Dave Jasmon
See Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on tour through June 2007.
PHOTOS: Tessa Angus
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