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They Did It Their Way
A band so contrary that it rebelled against rebellion.
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Sept. 12, 2005 issue - They're named after Marlon Brando's roustabout gang in "The Wild One," and their new record, "Howl," takes its title from the indelible Allen Ginsberg poem. Their hair is a mess and they look as if their jeans and wrinkled shirts serve as stage wear, street clothes and pajamas. Their first two CDs featured dense walls of reverb. But two years ago the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club made their most rebellious gesture: they decided the hell with it all—and went acoustic. Their label dropped them, they broke up, and reunited to make "Howl": an emphatically nonrock record that's not only gotten them a new record deal (with RCA) but new respect from both fans and critics. So much for calculating your next move.
"Howl" is all about Americana—folk, gospel, soul, you name it—and the band's transition from their earlier dense, narcotized noise to this harmonious, almost spiritual music is surprisingly graceful. The CD is largely acoustic, with layers of mandolin, trombone, piano, tambourine and earthy vocal harmonies. (It could pass for the work of a pricey producer like Daniel Lanois, but BRMC produced and mixed it themselves.) And behind it all is the band's renunciation of rock-star attitude. "Music in general has turned into 'I'm the singer, you're the listener, now listen to what I have to say'," says guitarist Peter Hayes, 29. "It's standoffish, untouchable. What we tried to do is pull listeners in, kind of like a congregation in a church. You come to a rock show to share some sort of similar thought or spirit. The only difference is that one involves beer."
The band started in 1999 in San Francisco, when high-school friends Hayes and bassist Robert Turner met drummer Nick Jago (a British transplant) through a newspaper ad. They rehearsed in Turner's bedroom for six months before finally working up the nerve to play live. "Our first show was a joke—there were four people there, we forgot our cymbals, we almost got electrocuted and we played all the songs 20-beats-a-minute too fast," says Turner, 27. "That's the irony of waiting until it's just right."
The following year they moved to L.A., where their psychedelic din gained them a local following and the attention of the influential radio station KCRW, which played their demo on air. It caught the ear of Oasis's Noel Gallagher, who called them his favorite new band. They soon signed with Virgin, and thought all the hard work was behind them. "That's the good thing about being young enough when you're signed," says Turner. "It's bliss when you don't know how bad your odds are." BRMC's 2001 debut album got good reviews and small sales; their 2003 follow-up was more polished, less well received. Soon the band was gone from Virgin—and then just gone.
But, free from major-label pressure, Hayes and Turner began writing again. Jago rejoined, and they began putting together "Howl." You could say this was a story of how artistic integrity led to a band's resurrection, but it wouldn't be entirely true. Though BRMC may not sound like a rock band anymore, they've still hung on to some of the old attitude. "You gotta have a little bit of an ego to say 'I'm better than that,' and you have to believe it," says Hayes. "If you don't, it's back to your day job. Me, I'd be fixing cars, and believe me, no one wants that. I was a terrible mechanic." If for no other reason, this story has a happy ending.
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