At first, it might seem unusual that Black Rebel Motorcycle club’s eighth album Wrong Creatures should sound so assured, slick, poised and on-form as it does, given the talk of tumultuous times within the group. That is until you learn that tumult is in the group’s very nature. When we check in with guitarist and vocalist Peter Hayes he seems surprised that it’s even been a talking point - recording has always been a slog, he indicates, that’s just how BRMC do it.
It’s taken half a decade for the record to appear, their last being 2013’s Specter At The Feast, a wait aggravated by their drummer Leah Shapiro’s diagnosis with a condition known as Chiari malformations - where brain tissue extends into the spinal canal - and subsequent life-saving brain surgery. The rest of the band took months away from writing, recording, and even listening to music at all while she recovered, easing her way back into playing and eventually touring.
This means that Wrong Creatures has been a long time coming, a record that even after such a lengthy period away reasserts the group at the forefront of their craft. We caught up with Peter Hayes to get more insight into the trio’s gruelling process, how the band maintain their ceaseless relevance, and why he’d never go solo.
GW: A lot of the material around your new album seems to imply that recording was a tumultuous process, is that true?
PH:I guess we’re letting people into a bit of the band’s life by admitting to it this time round, but that’s every album. I don’t know about ‘tumultuous’, but none of them have been easy! Through the years the reasons why have depended on different things, with the first one it was the record company threatening to drop us in the middle of making it; that was stressful!
GW: If it wasn’t stressful would you feel like you were doing something wrong?
PH: I’d debate that! I always come out of the recording process saying ‘I’m gonna do a lot more’, ‘I’m not gonna get so wrapped up in my feelings and opinions,’ but as soon as they start it’s right back to getting wrapped up in it. The actual writing and jamming process usually comes kinda smooth, it’s when it gets into mixing, the details that aren’t sorted out, that’s when sometimes it’s best just to settle it with a coin flip. You think you know what’s right, and you get wrapped up into that during the process, but you have to keep reminding yourself that’s just not true, all the while all this emotional stuff gets wrapped into it but it’s best to let that go.
GW: Does it get any easier?
PH: It hasn’t gotten easier, but I wouldn’t say it’s gotten harder. Just along the way you’ve got to remind yourself ‘this is my opinion and my ego’. If you want to work with somebody else in music you’ve got to let that go and always remind yourself. If you’re really gonna go the route of ‘my opinion is right’, you may as well be a solo artist. And that’s not something I’m all that interested in.
GW: Why not?
PH: To be honest I get it all out in this band, when it comes to B sides and giveaway tracks we all give each other room to have those moments.
GW: At the start of a recording process how do you feel? Are you slightly dreading it?
PH: I always come into them with the hope that it’s gonna be smooth, and I guess if you really boil it down to the reality of it, I think the majority actually is smooth. For some reason the mind tends to wander to the things that don’t feel right or that you argue about, but that happens every time. Once it’s done and you let it go, when you go back and listen to them you don’t remember what the struggles were. I live by that, knowing that in the end you’ll just be thinking ‘who even wrote that?’
GW: You’ve said you’ll rarely go back to listen to your past work, why not?
PH: Once it’s out and for the public, I don’t know if it’s not mine to enjoy any more but my process is over. As long as I’ve done my job as well as I can at that moment in time, which is hopefully what you reach on ever album, then it’s about the next step.
GW: What are your thoughts on Wrong Creatures at this moment in time?
PH: I think like anyone would I’m waiting to see how people react, it’s a nervous experience.. From the point that it’s mastered and there’s no more choices that can be made, I’m trying to get myself to a place of ‘have I done the best I could’, even though there’s mistakes, or things I wished I could have changed. As long as I get to that point and I’m OK with it then I feel comfortable enough for people to judge it. I’ve done plenty of judging myself, whenever you put something out, that’s fair game. As far as my thoughts on it, we’ve done the best we could, I can’t go back and question it.
GW: Everywhere I read about this album it brings up Leah’s brain surgery, but how much did that impact the band’s process?
PH: I went to a place of not touching music when she was going through that process. No writing, no listening to music, just concentrating on helping a friend get through a tough situation. She took it upon herself once it was all said and done to continue. She’d play two minutes at a time for a week, then five minutes, with nobody else in the room, just building her strength back up and getting her head to a place where she could hear loud music without it hurting. It wasn’t even about writing for a month or two, just making noise and seeing if she could handle it. She got to a point where we went out and toured for six or eight months, but the effect of that, I think it’ll still be coming out on the next album even. We’ll have to see things from a bit of a distance to write about it clearly, what you’re thinking or feeling. I guess it takes time and distance.
GW: When was the last time you’d spent an extended period of time not touching music?
PH: Hmm… I think maybe the last time something like that happened was during [BRMC’s 2005 LP] Howl, when Nick [Jago, original drummer] left the band for the first time. That was a good eight months of just not playing music, questioning whether I had something to say whether I wanted to say it. I go through moments of that, sometimes it’s longer, sometimes shorter.
GW: You’ve said that you’ve been connecting more with the music than the words this time around, why do you think that is?
PH: I was more connected to the soundscape, letting that guide what the words would be. I come at it from a place of ‘it’s already there’, once I pile a few guitar tracks into a song, I sit down with them and I start to hear words, I hear a melody and I start to hear words come out of it. I’m of the opinion that it’s best not to jabber over what’s there, just to stay out of the way.s. From that starting point I was leaning more heavily on that. When the words come, you start to be a bit more connected to them, but I didn’t feel the need to overemphasise their importance. Just because I’m saying something doesn’t mean it’s interesting.
GW: What do you think has kept Black Rebel Motorcycle Club so in demand, two decades and eight albums in?
PH: I never feel comfortable using words like relevant or popular. That comes down to the responsibility that the listener has, they’ve got to want to give a shit about what they’re listening to, and I can’t take responsibility for that. Sure I like to think I’m giving something that has some use for people’s lives, but it’s really up to them what they want to experience. All I can do is be thankful and appreciate that there’s other people who like it, I’m amazed by it each time. Relevance comes and goes, it has done since day one, and I like that. I’ve had people come up to me and say stuff like ‘I liked this album more than that one’, keeping that in mind settles you back to earth.
GW: You’ve said that as soon as you finish an album you move straight on to the live interpretation, is that the case now?
PH: It’d be nice to see if you can get it almost exact with the album. That’s not particularly possible in a few ways, then you start to pick out the parts that are most interesting, or the parts that jump out, and you look to make those same jumps. If that doesn’t happen then you come at it from a different angle. We try to keep it pretty close to the album, we don’t like doing alternate versions of things. If there’s a big change then we’ll release the song that is the alternate version. And then it’s about drilling it into your head as much as possible, it takes a while to get that muscle memory, the subtle differences along the way. That becomes the fun part of it, different interpretations that people might not notice. I don’t know if that explains your question. Other than that, as far as the emotion in songs that changes from moment to moment, the words, lyrics and the aggression of the music itself, or the feel of things. The way a line twists in the head, one day it’s out of love, the next it’s out of hate, the next it’s out of questioning. It’s all the same line but for some reason you can keep seeing it in different ways.
GW: Are you a perfectionist?
PH: No… I don’t know… maybe? I know that that comes and goes, I think a true perfectionist doesn’t have the ability to let it go, and it’ll bug the fuck out of them for a long, long, long, long time. There’s so many details to that thought, if you’re talking the perfectionism of trying to get out what’s in your head into reality? Maybe I’m a perfectionist that way. In terms of getting into reality what’s in my head, I’ve never been satisfied, there’s moments that it happens, but that’s the fun of it, the want of that. So maybe in that way, I’m still striving to be able to do that.
Words: Paddy Clarke