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Brothers of Reinvention

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club switches gears on latest album, Howl

Photo By Ken Schles
Together again, naturally: (L-R) BMRC's Nick Jago, Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been return to tour behind their sound-shifting new release, Howl.

The members of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club gave no thought during the making of their latest album, Howl, as to how they would perform the new songs in concert. This became apparent when band members Peter Hayes, Robert Levon Been and Nick Jago began rehearsing for the touring that followed the fall release.

"When it came to rehearsing, it sounded terrible," Been says. "It was one of the scarier things we ever had to do. We didn't really know how to play a lot of the instruments that we played on the record. We knew how to play them, but we didn't know how to master them in any real respect live."

That BRMC was caught off guard by the difficulties in translating the new songs to a live setting was understandable. Hayes and Been, in particular, had other, more pressing issues on their minds -- namely whether Howl would even get released and whether BRMC would still be a band once it was finished.

"We didn't have a contract," Been says. "So it was kind of like, well, this might be all we've got, so ... we have to enjoy the process (of making the album), as much as any part of it, because that might be the only thing we get out of it. And we actually did have fun making it, kind of for the first time in the studio. If that's all it had been, it would have still been worth it."

Been isn't being overly dramatic in talking about Howl. The future of BRMC was very much up in the air following a period of major turmoil within the group. In 2004, drummer Jago abruptly quit the band during a European tour after a blow-up with guitarist/singer Hayes. It was the culmination of tensions that had been simmering within BRMC for some time, says Been, who plays bass and sings.

"It's funny because it was always me and Nick that had the problem," Been said. "But for some reason, the final blow was this conflict between Pete and Nick one night over the tempo of a song, which had nothing to do with it really. Yeah, we were all really burned out from touring so much that we just didn't have that restraint. We didn't have a perspective that it's not that big of a deal."

The group's recording future was already up in the air following a split with Virgin Records, which had released the first two BRMC efforts, neither of which had enjoyed anything more than minimal success in the United States. Despite being unsigned, Hayes and Been had begun working on songs for the third CD two months before the split with Jago. Been says they liked the songs enough to return to the project that fall as a duo -- playing drums themselves on the tracks -- despite the real possibility BRMC might not exist after the record was completed.

As it turned out, Jago eventually approached Hayes and Been about rejoining and returned to the fold in time to play drums on one song from Howl.

"We didn't speak for a long time," Been says. "Nick came back around and wanted to be a part of the music again. I don't know, we didn't hold anything over him really, which we could have. We needed what we got, which was time apart to clear the air. We also got a better perspective on what we had and what we wanted. All we needed was a break, and it was kind of never given to us."

BRMC then got new life on a career level when RCA Records signed the group. The deal happened even though Howl was not the kind of disc anyone who heard the group's first two CDs would have expected.

Those impressive albums, a 2001 self-titled release and 2003's Take Them On, On Your Own, were both fully plugged-in, glammy efforts, built around dynamic, ear-grabbing guitar riffs and surging tempos. Howl is an altogether different beast. Drawing on a love of classic Folk, Country and Soul that dated back to the childhoods of Hayes and Been, the duo goes acoustic and remakes their sound. On "Shuffle Your Feet," they go to the bluesier side of the Folk spectrum, building a song around a rock-and-ramble melody accented by handclaps and layered vocals. A similar rough-and-ready vibe fills "Ain't No Easy Way," whose stinging slide guitar leads head-on into a stomping harmonica-filled instrumental break. "Promise" brings in a touch of Gospel, as piano and horns team up to form the primary backdrop to the song's mournful vocal melody.

Been says he knew BRMC risked alienating existing fans with the "new" sound. But, at concerts, he says he notices that the band seemed to tap into a whole new audience with Howl.

"Walking through a crowd at a show, I'm noticing a lot more broader age groups, from younger to older, and not just 16- to 20-year-old kind of kids," Been says. "It feels good that we're kind of appealing to more than one type of person."

As for performing the Howl songs live, the trio overcame the initial difficulties in translating the material to the stage by taking a couple of months to practice on instruments certain songs required, including piano, harmonica and slide guitar. When they reconvened for rehearsals, the newer songs not only began sounding better, the new and old material began to blend well together and the live set took on a greater sense of dynamics.

"It was actually a big challenge, but it was a good challenge," Been says of learning the additional instruments. "We had Nick back in the band, and he didn't play on the record. So when he stepped on the drums, the songs started gluing together with more of the old sound. So live it actually feels more like us to people, I guess, because the old songs blend with the new songs."

BLACK REBEL MOTORCYCLE CLUB performs at Bogart's on Feb. 9.

E-mail Alan Sculley

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