B.R.M.C. bring intelligent rock back to the majors

By Jon Garrett

It’s 4:00 p.m. on May 16, and somewhere between New York City and Philadelphia, the three members of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are just waking up. Of course, they have a right to their nocturnal sleeping habits, having been on the road for a solid month in support of their self-titled debut album. But still, there’s something odd about waking someone up at 4:00 p.m. on a weekday. But if it bothers Robert Turner (vocals / guitar / bass), he certainly isn’t showing it on this particular afternoon. In fact, he sounds downright eager to discuss everything — the album, the tour, Noel Gallagher. At least, until their cell phone lost its signal.

How did you guys wind up on Virgin? Was signing to a major label something that was important to you?

Well, we were really fortunate. We got a lot of attention from majors, which we weren’t expecting at all. It just kind of happened. Actually, early on, we thought we were going to sign to an indie.

How did you go from that to being pursued by Noel Gallagher?

[Laughs.] Rick Rubin went to one of our shows and picked up a copy of our demo. And he handed a copy of it to his friend who’s friends with Noel. And on a plane flight he gave it to him and, apparently, he fell in love with it. It was definitely something that tripped us out. When he came to us, we were already pretty deep into our talks with Virgin though. So we said thanks but no thanks. He has mentioned us in Q and Kerrang!, which is pretty cool.

It seems like there are a number of bands getting major label attention that wouldn’t have been given the time of day a couple of years ago. For example, both you guys and The Strokes, who you’re playing with tonight, were snapped up by major labels. Do you think the public’s taste is changing right now? And do you sense that major labels are more receptive to pure rock bands?

I don’t think there’s a change [happening] right now. But there might be soon. You keep hoping that you can get a bigger audience. But we’re happy right now. We’ll keep making the music and hope that [the climate] changes.

I noticed you thanked Alan Moulder in the liner notes, but he didn’t get credited for producing, engineering, or mixing any of the tracks. What role did he play in the making of the album?

He remixed a few of the tracks for us. Tony Berg at Virgin mailed him some tapes, and Alan mailed us back his versions. But we decided not to use his mixes in the end. For some reason, it just wasn’t working. I love some of the stuff he’s done with Ride and we’d like to work with him in the future, but I think we need to have him in the room with us.

You guys have decided to release all your singles on vinyl as opposed to the CD format, which is pretty rare these days, especially for a band on a major label. What was the thinking behind that?

I’ve always liked vinyl the best. You just don’t get the same sound or feeling from a tape or CD. And vinyl really demands full concentration, so it’s great for an introduction [to a band]. Plus, it was a great way to use Nick’s (BRMC’s drummer) paintings.

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At this point, Robert’s phone is really crackling and, well, basically, we get cut off. And me, being the pessimist that I am, assume that that’s the end of our interview. I pack up my bags and head over to the library for some studying. Only a couple of hours later, when I get back to the room, do I find a couple of messages from Robert, telling me to call him tomorrow, when he’ll have more time to finish up.

So, fast-forward to 6:00 p.m. the following night. Robert is calling from New Jersey, after what was apparently a phenomenal gig the previous night.

How did it go last night in Philadelphia?

Oh man, it was something. We tried a new mindset, and we just transcended musically. I swear, at one point, it felt like I lifted off the ground. It was one of those really rare shows.

How were The Strokes looking? They just got done recording their album, right?

They cut it a bit short because Julian’s voice is really messed up from the studio. But they were really good, of course. They’re a fantastic live band. We hung out with them afterward and traded seven inches. It’s cool because they’re as into us as we are into them now.

This is your first major national tour. Have these songs given you any problems when you’re playing live since they’re so dense and intricate?

Not really. If anything it was the other way around since we played all of these songs live first before recording them. The only thing that’s been giving us problems is some of the mid-sized venues — because at big venues we can crank it up and at smaller venues there are good enough acoustics for the sound to carry. But at the mid-sized venues, the PA systems are too weak and the acoustics are bad. Other than that though, it’s been going good.

So, about the album: it’s the first one I’ve heard this year that really feels like it was meant to be played from start to finish. It has a very deliberate feel to it. Even the song titles seem to indicate a kind of arc to the album. Can you talk a bit about the sequencing?

Honestly, we just sequenced in a way that sounded good to us. We were really concerned with the flow, not a storyline — although I think we could have chosen different songs from the ones we did and made a concept album. The only thing we really thought out, conceptually, was the end. Originally, we were going to have “Head Up High” be the last track, but it didn’t feel right. To me, that track, when you hit the end, it feels like you’re dying. So we added “Salvation” which is a bit more optimistic — like a light at the end of tunnel.

You have a lot of songs that you didn’t put on B.R.M.C.?

Oh yeah. We only used about half the songs on our demo and we recorded about 16 or 17 songs for Virgin. Only five of those made it onto the album.

Wow. That’s a lot of leftovers. Planning on using some of those unused songs on the next album?

Hope so. I’m getting excited about the next one because we’re going to record it in East Bay in San Francisco. It’s the house where I grew up and Peter [Hayes] and I began. The songs for our demo were recorded there and next time, we want to do the whole album, including the mixing, in there. There’s this myth that you need a studio to sound good. But there’s really no secret; just plug in and press record. In fact, I definitely think we lost some of the subtleties when we went into the studio — like the drums. They sound perfect the way we recorded them in San Francisco. It wasn’t the same [in the studio].

I’m kind of surprised that the album hasn’t been released in England yet. I would think it would do really well over there since it’s so heavily influenced by British bands.

Yeah, it’s kind of funny because Virgin U.S. told us it wouldn’t be released over there until 2002 and we were kind of upset, but then Virgin U.K. demanded that it be released sooner. So it should be out sometime later this year. It will be interesting to see how it does. There are some American bands like the Dandy Warhols who get huge over there. And hey, maybe with any luck, it’ll happen to us.