Photo by Tess Angus
It’s been a long road for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The band’s first album debuted in 2001, framing them as one of the bright lights of the rock ’n’ roll revival of the early aughts—part of the same class that included the White Stripes, the Strokes, and a cavalcade of other garage-y outfits that inflated the prices of pawnshop guitars while injecting the pop-oriented mainstream with a much-needed dose of bratty energy and sound. While many of BRMC’s peers dealt in shades of vapid retro posturing, the trio from the Bay Area possessed a moodiness and angry undertone that separated them from the pack.
As the band’s discography grew, the substance and nuance rooted in BRMC’s early work flourished in albums that leaned hard on acoustic elements, blues, a flair for subtle electronics, and effects-laden psych-rock. Now with the release of Wrong Creatures, their eighth album—and their first in more than five years—Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s musical vision has matured into something altogether unique: a remarkably cohesive and timeless blend of the band’s many past selves that retains the piss and vinegar that earned the group its bones.
At the core of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s sound is the symbiotic musical relationship of co-frontmen and principle songwriters Robert Levon Been (the son of the late Call bassist and songwriter Michael Been) and Peter Hayes (formerly of the Brian Jonestown Massacre). Been typically handles bass, although he occasionally plugs an ancient Gibson archtop guitar into his bass rig, and Hayes plays guitar. However, it’s often hard to tell where Been’s sound ends and Hayes’ begins. The pair have spun an artform out of seamlessly weaving their unique playing styles to create a sound that is powerful, dynamic, and always propelled by an undeniably rock ’n’ roll attitude. Hayes’ guitar world is one of altered tunings, stereo rigs drenched in effects, and an interest in economy over fretboard histrionics. Been, on the other hand, shifts between treating his bass as a melodic instrument and a punishing, fuzz-drenched rhythm hammer—but always in service of the song. The pair, joined by drummer Leah Shapiro, have developed their styles almost entirely around the concept of three people making as much noise as possible. And with Wrong Creatures, one hears a band that has truly dialed in its identity and approach to guitar-based rock.
As the trio pulled into Brooklyn for a tour stop promoting its new release, Premier Guitar was granted an audience with the perpetually leather-clad Hayes and Been to discuss the writing and recording of Wrong Creatures, their unique brotherhood as musicians, the charms of vintage Gibson semi-hollow guitars and hollowbody basses, and how they go about corralling and taming their gigantic live rigs.
Robert, your live rig is massive and the sound you guys get live is almost combative in volume. How do you capture that sound in the studio?
Robert Levon Been: The studio’s very different for us. That ratty, overdriven sound I get live is something we can get in the studio with the old method of turning a small amp up really loud. Onstage, I tend to need as much power as possible—partially to compete with Pete’s rig, which gets bigger every year, but also to be able to fill the space in the room if I need to, and in a way I have a little control over.
How do you capture the sound of your complex stereo rig in the studio, Peter?
Peter Hayes: For the most part, once we’ve broken the song down to something out of a jam, I’ll bring the whole rig in and we’ll mike it up and do it live like that. I usually end up only keeping one track of the live rig and then doing some overdubs to get the stereo width I’m looking for. So I’ll do a lot of doubling tracks and panning them hard left and hard right. I like the sound of tracks played twice much more than faking a double track, where you copy and paste and nudge it in time a little. I’d rather just play over the top again. I’ve tried a bit of everything when doing overdubs, as far as amps go. A lot of it ends up going straight into the board. On the first record, it was all right into a Tascam board and trying to get a weird distortion out of that. So a lot of the guitars on this album are direct. I keep the amps in there for depth, but the direct signal thing works for us a lot.
Robert, what amps did you use for the bass tracks on Wrong Creatures?
Been: We used one of the SVT 8x10 cabs and an SVT 2PRO, but I also went direct a lot and tweaked the sound with plug-ins to dial in some specific tones. We did a hybrid of both a lot, which meant we weren’t committed to just what was coming out of the cabinet for the entire record.
In a three-piece, everyone has to be really hauling their weight and then some ... and then a little more after that! If we had had a second guitarist or a keyboardist from the beginning, the nature of my playing would be very different, because in those situations you can lay back and leave room for other people to do their thing. But as we are, there’s a lot to be done as a bass player. I do love the challenge, because it keeps the pressure on to be creative—not having extra support players—and it’s especially rewarding when you pull it off and find a unique way to make it work.
TIDBIT: To get the roiling guitar and bass sounds on their latest, Hayes and Been built their sonic foundation on small amps cranked up for natural breakup and distortion.
You constantly shift from lead work to rhythmic stuff. Tell us where you’re coming from as a bassist—what influences, beyond the necessities of a trio, went into developing your style?
Been: It always feels like it goes back to my grandmother, who was constantly humming something. When I was a kid, I’d always walk around humming melodies, kind of like a tic, but I think that’s why my brain always goes straight to melodic ideas—more like how guitar players probably think. So the bass has always felt like a natural extension of the melodies in my head.
Also, having a well-known songwriter and bassist for a father—who was something of a virtuoso—had a bit to do with it. He was much more technically gifted than I am, as I learned when I tried to pull off his parts for 20 songs in this Call tribute show we did. The forgiving thing about music is that you can do things in tricky ways or find your own way to do something, and the grand excuse is making it more about your own expression than technical skills ... which always applies.
And while I never really followed bassists, exactly, Peter Hook was a big one for me. I never really had bass heroes. It would be a song as a whole that moved me and that was a very sacred thing. So whatever I do is more to be in service to the song, whatever that may mean. And that’s what makes me push myself as a bass player or learn the guitar, just so I can get things out.
Peter, you’ve always cited guitar heroes like Hendrix as being really big influences, but you’ve never been one for lead guitar heroics. Can you explain where a Hendrix comes into your playing, since you’re more texture-oriented?
Hayes: Nick McCabe from the Verve was a big one, too. With Hendrix, I just loved that stuff so much I told myself it doesn’t need to be done anymore. There’s no fuckin’ way or reason to even bother trying to do anything like that, because it’s so singular. I never really got into the whole technical side of playing, or really learned how to play, in some sense. I got bored with the technical stuff so quickly that I just found my own thing.
My style stems from the fact that, when I first started playing, I didn’t understand that in a recording studio you play a part and then track another part on top of that. So, the only way I could figure it out was detuning the guitar in a way that allowed me to play a chord and then play licks over the top of that chord, so you have a rhythm and a lead going at the same time. That’s why I got into alternate tunings and have so many guitars on the road, but never really got much of the technical side of the guitar together. I never really learned how to play in standard tuning, and I still have a hard time figuring out other people’s songs.