Life, Liberty, and the Concept Album: A Chat with BRMC’s Robert Turner

Sometimes things can slow down and you can get inside your head and just kind of over-think it, and I think that we just wanted to keep that energy and focus through the whole record.


San Francisco band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club first got together as a band in 1998, heading to L.A. the following year to record their self-titled debut. The album gained critical acclaim, and they landed some heavy rotation on college airwaves and MTV2 with the anthem “Whatever Happened to My Rock ’n Roll (Punk Song).”

Comparisons to bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain brought a lot of attention to their live shows, and they’ve toured extensively in the past few years. In September, BRMC released their latest album, Take Them On, On Your Own, adding a darker, more threatening sound (and lyrics) to the heavy distortion on the first album. Playback St. Louis caught up with vocalist and guitarist Robert Turner for a conversation about concepts, politics, and Americana music.

Your fans are familiar with the fuzzy tones and distorted sound on Take Them On, On Your Own, but the overall feel of the album is darker and even more menacing than your first album. Was that a mood you hoped to inject in the album while you were recording?
Well, that wasn’t a concept or anything. I think when we let it be whatever it was supposed to be. We didn’t try to skew the record to be one way or another, and the songs that we’d been writing together on stage and on the road…that’s the feeling that was coming across then, and we weren’t gonna change it. The only thing we tried to conceptualize in some way is to keep an energy and direct kind of raw sound that we had on the road. You know, we were on the road so long playing and things changed a bit. We got a bit tougher and more forceful with the sound, and we didn’t want to lose that feeling in a record, because sometimes that can slip away. Sometimes things can slow down and you can get inside your head and just kind of over-think it, and I think that we just wanted to keep that energy and focus through the whole record.

Was it difficult to capture that live sound and energy in the studio?
Yeah, it’s hard to think about it like that. All you want to do is sound like yourself on record and sometimes that’s the hardest thing in the world to pull off—just to make it sound natural like you’re just standing in the room with the band, and the way we play isthe way it sounds. You work harder to not fall back on just doing whatever you want and just coming out with whatever random sound comes. Because you can do that. You can play around with tone, you can play around with effects, and you can get some bizarre other-worldly mix, but that wasn’t the idea.

Is that the reason you choose to produce your own albums? Keeping that under your control?
That’s how we were on the first record. Right from the beginning, we’ve always wanted to do it ourselves, because I just don’t think we could really communicate what we wanted with someone else. Not the way we can with each other.

Lyrically, there are some political themes running through this album, most obviously with “US Government.” Were the political atmosphere and the actions of the United States government at the time a driving force while you were writing this record?
That song was written before any of that happened. It was one of the first songs we ever wrote as a band. It was meant to be a b-side on the first record, but we ended up taking it off because it was around 9/11 and it seemed rather inappropriate because people had lost friends around that time. We didn’t want to come out with a song that was just like “Fuck it. Burn it all down.” It wasn’t the right timing for that kind of message. So we waited on it, and we kind of threw it away for a while, and it always felt like the song never had a chance, never had its own time. So we put it on this record just to let people hear it and see what they think. It’s good, because now things have cooled down a bit, after the heat of the moment of war, and this and that, and this regime, and this war, everything is kind of backing off a bit. And I think that’s the best way for the song to get through and have its own voice.

It seems a lot of the songs touch on the idea of overall corruption in society, as well.
Yeah, but I don’t know if I’d sum it up like that too fast. I definitely know what you’re talking about, but it’s always hard to put a stamp on an entire album, an entire body of work. I don’t think every song is about that, and that’s a risk you take by defining something in one way. There’s a tension in the record, and its kind of a feeling of running out of time. I actually do hear that in every song, you know? There’s something in the voice, and the kind of urgency directed in the words, and even the music. It’s kind of the last chance: the last chance that this can be heard and this might be understood and without it we’re nothing. That’s the scariest thing about the record. It’s the hardest thing, seeing it released, and put out for people to hear it and judge it, because it’s pretty close to our heart. It’s pretty close to this last fleeting optimism that we have. That’s the last vulnerable stuff inside we have. It’s just this hope that there might be something better out there, something more.

A few months back, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, another band with that same kind of tension, played Mississippi Nights. At the end of the show, they ran a visual of the word “hope” scrawled against the back wall. During the encore, the band spoke out against the war, using the stage as a way to present their views. In your situation, do you feel comfortable actually speaking about politics on stage, outside of songs?
I think that’s great that they do that. For our band, it just feels like…I don’t know. [Pause] The last thing we ever want to do is preach to people and force anything down someone’s throat. The idea of the record was that if this isn’t for you, then walk away. We didn’t make a very universal sound and message in this record, and it doesn’t appeal to everyone. The last album I kind of felt was more that way, where everyone could find something in it. It was more questions, and something everyone could kind of recognize. There’s something familiar in that. This album, it’s different. Yet I don’t know if we’re ready to become that kind of band. Speaking out for something…it’s hard to explain. Music is like our weapon of choice. It is the way that we can communicate. Right now, I’m saying a bunch of shit and I don’t even know what it sounds like. Right now, I don’t even know how to explain things. But in music, there’s some kind of harmony in it where all words and thoughts seem to come together. I wouldn’t pick any other place besides that to really talk to people, know what I mean?

In the last years, you’ve spent a lot of time in Europe and played a number of huge festivals. Are you looking forward to playing some smaller clubs again in the States?
We got to do a small tour a couple months ago of probably a dozen shows in America that were really small rooms, and that was one of the most fun things we’ve ever done, just because it’s been a while since we’ve done that. We had all these new songs and they hadn’t ever got their feet wet, and that’s the best way to introduce people to music. If you have a new song that’s never been heard before, and introduce it to people, you don’t want to do it at Madison Square Garden. [Laughs] It needs to learn how to walk just as much as anybody; it needs to find its ground and footing. That’s what was really special about that tour for me, was all those songs kind of grew up on the road with us. And then now we’re playing all these pretty big places in America. We didn’t know what to expect coming back home…if anybody would give a shit anymore or what.

How’s the reaction been so far?
It’s trippin’ us out, you know? So far we’ve been lucky that the people remember us from when we started touring a couple years ago, and more are coming. It doesn’t feel that different anymore. It doesn’t feel like we’re really just doing well overseas in Europe and Australia. It feels like things are starting to balance and we’re being heard by everyone. That’s a nice feeling.

It sounds like you guys have been fairly prolific in writing on the road and at home. Can we look forward to another new album anytime soon?
Yeah, we’ve had a pretty cool idea of what we want to do for the next one for a while now. All these songs that Peter and I have written have this back-porch feeling, kind of acoustic. Just structurally back down to blues and country, Americana…kind of a gospel feeling. Those kinds of songs. And very, very fuckin’ different from anything we’ve done. We have these songs we’ve written, and we just wanted to make a record just like that. The one thing we didn’t do on this record is make a concept album. And that’s the only way we can get away with it. It won’t fit if we try to do what we do now and mix it together, because there’s just no in between. We’re just going to do a record that’s really a back-to-basics, down-home album. And probably alienate every single one of our fans. [Laughs]

Or pick up a whole new group you didn’t expect.
[Laughs] Yeah, we’ll be playing at the Tic Toc Inn by the next one.

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