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official site
By Kory Grow
Nearly destroyed by madness, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's roars back with Howl after run-ins with US Customs and an unwilling Virgin.

"Personally, I think I had my head too far up my own ass, so I had to pull it out and get some air," says an exhausted Peter Hayes, who plays guitar in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. "We just wanted to make sure we were all doing it for the right reason." After the title of their second album, Take Them On, On Your Own, became somewhat of a damning self-prophesy, Hayes had nothing to blame but his own pigheadedness.

Prior to everything falling apart, the jangly garage band had spent about five years on the road with only intermittent breaks. But as subsequent tours came and went, even those breaks became a private hell. At one point, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service barred drummer Nick Jago from returning to America, where he had been living illegally. As a result, Jago, along with the rest of the band ended up spending one of their precious few vacations relocating to Jago's native England.

At first, the Brits were reluctant to rent a flat to an entire band, but after some tenacity, the group managed to locate one. When they had to play US dates, Hayes and bassist Robert Been (son of the Call's Michael Been) employed the Verve's Pete Salisbury as a subsitute drummer. Finally, Jago was granted another US work visa, thanks in part to lobbying by none other than U2's Bono. After spending one break moving back to the US, BRMC dedicated their next one to the task of recording Take Them On, On Your Own. That's when things really began to self-destruct.

"It's no fun having to move, and then living with each other," says Hayes. "It doesn't really feel like a break… and then it kind of came out in a nasty way. Everybody's fed up. It's a hard line to walk." After months on the road, drug use and infighting started getting the better of them. In June of 2004, they tried to focus themselves in a Philadelphia recording studio and rejigger their post-Jesus And Mary Chain hum into a rowdy folk-rock romp. Despite churning out three songs, including the stellar "The Line," the three-piece jetted off to a handful of European festivals, only to return as a two-piece.

Jago had had it. In Spain, Hayes and Been were forced to recruit a diehard fan from the audience to play Jago's parts. According to Hayes, "Take Them On, On Your Own" was supposed to mean if you take on the big guy, or life for that matter, you have to start on your own until people rally behind you. Hayes is quick to point out that Virgin Records wasn't of the same opinion. The label dropped the trio-turned-duo, while on tour.

Back in the States, the twosome holed up in a Los Angeles studio and began recording songs they had written together as teenage friends, using timpani and other drums the studio had on hand. They had been saving these songs for something special, something more than merely B-side status. In fact, it was one song, "Complicated Situation," that would inspire the theme behind Howl.

"We wanted it to sound like stomping your feet on the wood of your wooden back porch or your fire escape, one of the two," says Hayes. "We drew from Sam Cooke and, I guess, gospel records." Despite Hayes's enthusiasm for classic R&B;, the song sounds more informed by pre- Newport Dylan, right down to Hayes's speak-sing vocals and freight yard harmonica. To boot, the band strived for '60s-styled production for the rest of the album, with George Martin-approved, radio-unfriendly stereo mixing (read: vocals in the left speaker, drums in the right.)

With their newfound vision, the duo soldiered on, recording another nine tracks before Jago came back into the picture. Hayes says that if Jago hadn't returned to the fold, he wouldn't have felt comfortable using the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club name. That's when he came to the realization that his head was up his ass.

"There's a lot more important things going on in the world," he says. "We try not to let our problems get in the way, but they kind of get in the way of seeing all that."

The pair got back in touch with Jago through family and friends. Hayes told him, "Do whatever you want to do, just don't take it out on me. We're here to accomplish the same thing." With one song left in need of drums, Jago returned to play on "Promise" and help mix the rest of the album. Since he wasn't emotionally attached to the songs—he hadn't been there to write them—he had fresh ideas for the mix, which the other two loved. It became the kind of storybook reunion you catch on VH1.

Hayes says he's starting to realize what he and his bandmates' selfishness had wrought. On an assignment for Britain's hyperbole-prone New Music Express, Hayes found himself looking up the word 'capitalist' in the dictionary. The definition that affected him most read "someone who is considered 'rich' by being greedy." Those words struck him deeply. He knew Black Rebel Motorcycle Club needed to learn humility in order to succeed.

Given that, Howl has become the band's most polished release to date. Their struggles paid off in ways the band never imagined. Jago's absence led to a greater understanding of percussion and new ears for the finished album. It also gave Hayes and Been the opportunity to overhaul the band's sound. By closing the first chapter in their life, the band has moved into adulthood. Despite losing hope in their darkest hour, the band ended up with a newfound optimism, in addition to new record companies, a new (cheaper) apartment and a new way of dealing with life and conflict.

Over the years, motorcycle gangs have shown up at BRMC's shows. They've threatened the band with hammers, and once, the Bridge Runners Motorcycle Club (BRMC, get it?), even told the band that they weren't allowed to sell their shirts, because they weren't "sanctioned." When these groups would come in full-force, BRMC belt buckles and all, Hayes's only reaction was "Oh my fucking lord!" Now, after everything his band has been through, nothing scares Hayes anymore.

"I think it would be more offensive if we were trying to sell the idea of a motorcycle gang," he says. Naturally, the band keeps fighting back.

Now, the only resemblance the band shares with any type of gang is their steadfast stance on staying together no matter what. Hayes gets dismayed when he reads about other bands replacing members and moving on. "To me, there's three of us, that's what it is," he says. "And if someone leaves, it's not that band." With that in mind, they will never have to take anything on, on their own again.

© 2005 CMJ Network, Inc.