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The San Diego Union-Tribune

A time to 'Howl'

'Good music' is still the root of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's new sound

October 6, 2005

Fire and brimstone. Shout and holler. Hand claps and foot stomps. These are the trademark sounds of American roots and gospel music.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – known for its fuzzy shoe-gazer guitar rock and 1960s psychedelia on its first two albums – draws on these inspirations for its latest album, "Howl," released in August.

As guitarist Peter Hayes speaks via cell phone from Los Angeles, he says he's having his faith tested by the trials of everyday life: "Right now, I'm standing outside a liquor store and waiting for a tow truck to tow my car. So be it."

From the opening harmonies of "Howl's" first track, "Shuffle Your Feet," in which Hayes and vocalist Peter Levon Been sing Time won't save our souls, it's easy to hear BMRC is traveling down a different road from its 2001's eponymous album and 2003's "Take Them On, On Your Own." It's a dusty dirt road traveled by troubadours from Leadbelly to Johnny Cash.

"It just comes down to trying to write a good song," said Hayes about the decision to focus on acoustic instruments on "Howl." "The spirit of rock 'n' roll lives beyond an electric guitar. I think Johnny Cash proved that and I think a bunch of other people proved it. It doesn't have a whole lot to do with how you play. It has to do with how you live."


Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, with Mark Gardener
9 p.m. tomorrow; Brick by Brick,1130 Buenos Ave., Bay Park; $16 in advance, $18 day of show; (619) 275-LIVE

Hayes has lived through his ups-and-down when it comes to his band.

After finishing the tour schedule in support of "Take Them On, On Your Own," the guitarist decided to go on hiatus from BRMC. In fact, the group's future seemed to be in jeopardy.

Part of Hayes' frustration came from constant comparisons to the 1990s alt-rock band Jesus and Mary Chain and misunderstandings about Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's image.

"I guess I was the first guy to say, 'I need to stop and take a break because I'm not enjoying it like I want to,'" said Hayes. "It didn't feel like people were really listening to what was being said by us in a way. There was a lot of talk about grumpy, moody musicians that didn't like to talk. "Either you like the music or you don't. I decided I would just go away for a while and keep the music to myself. But that's not the reason we started this band. We feel like we have a point: We want to get good music heard by people who are interested in hearing good music. That's the overriding thing; that's more important than any of our attitudes or politics.

"We'd always be asked what bands we were into, and we'd say 'Edith Piaf, Johnny Cash, Syd Barrett, the Beatles,'" continued Hayes. "And then they'd come out and say, 'This band sounds like Jesus and Mary Chain.' So why did I bother telling you what I liked then? So now, we get to talk about Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash instead of Jesus and Mary Chain."

The result is the joyous, transcendent sound of "Howl," 11 tracks timing out at just over 52 minutes, ranging from the foot-stomping rollicking good time of "Shuffle Your Feet" to the darker acoustic waters of the final track, "The Line."

Hayes said he feels that moving in a more acoustic direction is not a colossal stretch for the trio.

"This is the type of music we've been making since the beginning," Hayes said. "We'd start playing in the living room of a house and the neighbors would get (mad) if were still playing. So we'd have to turn (the amps) off and play acoustic guitars. We've had a lot of songs written on acoustic guitars. We were really subtle with the acoustic guitars on the other albums, but it's always been there."

The album has a flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants enthusiasm and is BRMC's best album to date. That enthusiasm has translated to the handful of shows since "Howl's" release.

"We were playing a club in London called Scala," said Hayes, who brings BMRC to Brick by Brick in Bay Park tomorrow night. "And I just remember looking up and seeing smiles in the crowd all the way to the back of the room. That's the way it's supposed to be." Chris Nixon is a San Diego music writer.


Johnny Cash "Blood, Sweat & Tears" (1963): "When we record, we really don't listen to any records," said Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Peter Hayes. "But on this one, when we were mixing, we were listening to 'Blood, Sweat & Tears' by Johnny Cash. We were trying to get the acoustic guitar sound from that album. We really wanted to steer away from the majority of acoustic music, even the new country acoustic guitar sound. That stuff sounds real jingly and shiny and high-tech. We wanted a warm real wood sound."

Little Walter, Sam Cooke and Sister Rosetta Tharpe: It's clear Hayes and the rest of BRMC listened to a lot of traditional gospel and roots music, leading up to the recording of "Howl," including the holy trinity of Little Walter, Sam Cooke and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. "Gospel music was in mind when we made the album, but it wasn't expected," said Hayes. "We really didn't want to go down that road, because so many people have done it and done it well. We thought about it, but it wasn't something we were going to go for. The point gets across, but we're just white guys living in Los Angeles. We're not trying to do anything but make good music."

Leadbelly, "Pick a Bale of Cotton": Huddie William Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, lived from 1885 to 1949 and twice sang his way out of jail sentences. Folklorists Neil and Alan Lomax ran across Leadbelly in the Louisiana State Penitentiary while traveling the South and recording traditional songs for the Library of Congress. The blues singer provided a link from Pete Seeger, the Weavers and the rest of the mid-century folk revivalists back to the original breeding ground of traditional blues and folk music in the South. Hayes says: "As far as using vocals in rhythmic patterns, Leadbelly is amazing."


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© Copyright 2005 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.