Sam Villis

15:02 30th April 2007

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

“It’s just over information, I don’t know if it has that much to do with MySpace, it probably has more to do with punk rock actually. Because as beautiful as it is, it is the greatest and worst thing that ever happened. Everyone thinks they can play a guitar and write a song, be in a band. The problem is, you’d think that this is the greatest time in music and it’s not. I barely listen to anything new, nothing really inspires me.” Black Rebel’s bassist Robert Levon Been tells Gigwise while crouching precariously on top of a chair in a tiny suite at London’s Royal Lancaster Hotel. 

Slumped on the sofa opposite, guitarist Peter Hayes sucks on a cigarette then stubs it out only to relight it moments later; watching the room through half-closed, contemplative eyes, occasionally offering the odd cough, shrug or breathy chuckle. Both guys wearing their trademark black denim, Levon Been’s leather jacket (held together in places with duct tape), may well be the same one he’s been wearing since the band’s debut burst onto the music scene fuelled by Gallagher-based adoration and the chaos of NME’s vacuous hype-machine, back in 2001. While in appearance the band appear today the same as they ever did, its clear that these six years have had their ups and downs, with more than just jackets getting patched up along the way.

While Hayes describes being caught up in the feeding frenzy of the new rock revolution as quite simply, ‘fucking great!’, the band admit that they had suspicions about the British press. “You know the game, and especially the NME was quick to take on a band and get excited; and the more excited they get you know it’s only a matter of time before the other shoe drops.” Levon Been recalls. “But that’s rock and roll music. It’s hard, but it’s kind of this moment that happens and its beyond everyone’s control, this emotion takes over. It only happens for a year maybe where it’s really vibrant, so you’ve kinda just got to let it be what it is.”

Baby 81While their debut arrived to rapturous clapping of hands and stamping of feet, their second album ‘Take Them On, On Your Own’ saw the press that had hailed them as gods unceremoniously set them up with a stunt involving an inflatable cock at V Festival 2004. The band also “amicably” split with their label, Virgin before British-born drummer Nick Jago walked out following an argument with Hayes in Edinburgh, fuelling rumours of addiction and instability. This led to the conspicuously stripped down country stylings of 2005’s ‘Howl’, the band seeming to scrap the pretensions and posturing that had overshadowed their previous records. Levon Been used his real name for the first time, appearing on previous albums as Robert Turner, an attempt to diffuse any obvious link in the press, between himself and father Michael Been of The Call. It seemed that along with Jago the band had also lost some of that swaggering confidence. “The spirit of ‘Howl’ was the exact same as all four of our records.” Hayes states, “They all came from the exact same place which is, we’re gonna do whatever the fuck we wanna do, and our hopes were that the fans of our music were just fans of music and that they were gonna get it.”

The album was named after a poem by Beat-poet Alan Ginsberg, the first line of which reads, ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness… dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.’ Introspective, soulful and recorded without Jago, the drummer eventually rejoined the band in time to record on ‘Promise’. The use of Ginsberg’s work prompts the band to discuss the current battle between Kele Blocparty and the Gallagher brothers over whether or not it is cool to be clever or just ‘a band off University challenge’ prompting the most enthusiastic outburst from Hayes.

“It’s nothing to do with reading it has to do with spirit. I couldn’t give a fuck about reading, I don’t read that much and I couldn’t much care to read ‘On The Road’ [novel by Jack Kerouac] I tried, I couldn’t, I’d rather live it, you know what I mean? I never went to college, it might have been stupid but I’d rather live all those experiences that the college kids are reading about. So no it isn’t cool to be clever, not really because you not fucking living. Get out, and get your fucking nose out of a book and live life!” Levon Been remains notably quiet during this outburst, watching, a wry smile sneaking from the side of his mouth. With a quick glance in his direction and a wheezy laugh Hayes adds, “At the same time I say it ain’t cool to be a dumbass either, I have a bit of class you know. It ain’t cool to be useless.”

Six years on, with Jago firmly back behind drums, and the impending release of their fourth studio album ‘Baby 81’ it’s clear that the band have recaptured the energy and confidence of their first releases. New single ‘Weapon Of Choice’ is a sonic explosion and a great announcement of ‘We’re back!’ after an all too timely absence. They’ve had a lot of time to reflect. Three-strong again they seem ready and prepared to fight for what they believe to be rock n roll. Hayes recounts to Gigwise with a sneaking grin their experience of touring with The Killers, “It was great because we couldn’t tell if the audience didn’t like us or didn’t know who we were. But it was interesting because it meant we had to go out every night and fight.”

In a world of flashy media-savvys they retain the courage of their convictions. “When I was growing up,” Levon Been mumbles, “I would get pissed off when a band would sell something out. All of a sudden a song that meant something to me I would only imagine Nike shoes with it.” Referring to their recent decision to licence the band’s music to a car advertisement the band decided to confront this issue with fans by posting a message on their website. It read, “We hope our fans can accept this decision. We know some of you will and some of you won’t and we respect that as well.” Explaining that the profits would all be donated to charity, Hayes smirks dryly “I like the idea of putting the money into what’s being destroyed by the company that is offering you the money.”

The band clearlyfeel that they owe their fans an explanation for their actions. Hayes explains, “I really feel it now, after we’ve put out a couple of records. People have kinda stood with this music from the beginning, and even the people that are catching on now, the music has become as much theirs as it is ours. You have a little bit of a responsibility to that.” Levon Been continues, “We were trying to hold our ground and then realised that it’s a loosing battle. I like it that people are asking questions about it because it’s an important thing with music. It’s a new change, and a lot of bands would like you not to bring it up, a take the money and run kinda thing. Get it while you can.” He pauses, then adds “We would like not to have to take it at all, and we would love it if no bands took anything. But we’ll be happy to steal it from the next band just to give it to a good cause, because we know the next band won’t.”

Rebel sprit still firmly in place, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club remain suspicious of the trappings of fame and refuse to be labelled or boxed-in.  Enamoured with the music that they are creating, Levon Been’s eyes light up as he describes how ‘Devil’s Waitin’’ was devised in the stairway of an apartment building where they were living in London. “It sounded amazing! It sounded gigantic and warm!”

Hayes adds, “That’s what we got into music for, to bring back what we consider to be rock and roll. That can be debated ‘till the day you die what you think rock and roll is, but we got our version out and some people paid attention. We still haven’t changed our view.”

It has to do with spirit. Indeed.