Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are guitarist/singer/songwriter Peter Hayes (left), drummer/songwriter Leah Shapiro and bassist/singer/songwriter Robert Levon Been.
Photo: Polly Armstrong
The band takes its name from the leather-clad biker gang in the classic 1953 Marlon Brando film, The Wild One—the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club (BRMC). The group’s sound—an amalgamation of hard rock, blues, neo-psychedelic and even some Americana—can be as noisy and aggressive as a swarm of Harleys (or, sticking to The Wild One, Triumphs) or purr like an idling chopper. Since the BRMC got its start in the fall of 1998, they have put out six studio albums (and one live set), with the most recent, Beat the Devil’s Tattoo, released in March; it’s “a record that does a pretty good job of tying all our other ones together and showing who we are,” according to guitarist/singer/songwriter Peter Hayes.
Hayes is joined in what truly is a power trio by bassist/singer/songwriter Robert Levon Been—who co-founded the group with Hayes—and recent addition Leah Shapiro, who previously toured as drummer for The Raveonettes. (For most of BRMC’s history, British drummer Nick Jago was part of the group.) With influences including everyone from the Stones and the Jesus and Mary Chain to T-Rex, Sonic Youth and the Stone Roses, BRMC bring together melody, drive and crunch into a potent sound that is uniquely its own.
Hayes and Been went to high school together in the Northern California town of Lafayette (an East Bay suburb of San Francisco), and made their first recordings in the Bay Area, but soon relocated to L.A. and have made that region home ever since. Through the years, they have built a dedicated cult following around the U.S.—and an even larger fanbase in the UK (perhaps because of some of the aforementioned influences). They’ve made a couple of interesting detours from their basic sound along the way—with the largely acoustic-based Howl in 2005 (which credits T Bone Burnett for “recording assistance” and was mixed by Burnett’s engineer, Mike Piersante) and the 2008 experimental download-only instrumentaBeat the Devil’s Tattoo manages, as Hayes suggests, to touch on most of the group’s diverse sides—the layered, wall-of-noise squall andtheir more delicate folk side.
Relations between Hayes, Been and original drummer Jago had been strained and difficult for a number of years, so Hayes says that bringing Shapiro into the mix “was healthy and gave us a new focus both onstage and in our writing. Breaking in a new drummer can be hard, but we were lucky in a way because we started off just touring. We did six or eight months of touring with Leah. She got thrown in the deep end real quick. She learned 30 songs or so and we rehearsed for a while and then went straight on tour. From there, we got off the road and went straight to Philadelphia and started writing. So the transition was pretty smooth in terms of going from playing live to recording.”
Along the way, the trio started writing songs in earnest for the album that would become Beat the Devil’s Tattoo (which takes its name from a phrase in an Edgar Allen Poe story called “The Devil in the Belfry”). “They were written in every way imaginable—hotel rooms, back of the bus, soundchecks. It could be just me and Leah, or Rob and Leah, or Rob will come walking in and want to try something. There were some that had been around for a while [pre-Shapiro] and others we wrote on the spot, more or less. The songs mostly come from just playing music together and everyone listening to the others as much as possible.”
When Hayes refers to going to Philadelphia, he means The Basement Studio in one of that city’s suburbs, in a house owned by friends of the band; the group also made Howl there five years ago. BRMC lived in the house while they worked there, which added to the project’s group vibe; Hayes did the engineering on the writing and demo sessions and then the later overdubs. Hayes says he developed his engineering chops through osmosis and experimentation through the years. In his early days of playing with Been, for instance, they rehearsed in a place “that had a little Tascam board with DA-88s and DAT players, but none of it was hooked up,” Hayes says. “So we’d be playing and we’d record our jams on a 4-track cassette player, which we did know how to operate, but eventually I got it in my head to try to get the board up and going and I started plugging things in and out until it worked, basically. From there, I’ve just kept trying things. I’m not a great engineer or anything, but I know how to get some of the sounds I’m after.”
Beat the Devil’s Tattoo was tracked in Station House Studio (Hollywood) and The Basement (Philadelphia, Pa.).
In The Basement Studio, Hayes says, “They have a 2-inch, 16-track reel-to-reel going through a Mackie [board], but we also brought in a 16-track Tascam board that we’ve used on all our records. It becomes a distortion box, really. [Laughs] We use one channel of it like that and drop it into Pro Tools. We also mix on it.”
The guitar/bass/drums basics that formed the album’s foundation, however, were recorded during an intensive four days at engineer Mark Rains’ Station House Studio that, at the time, was located within the building that houses Hollywood Sound (but has since relocated to Rains’ own space in the Echo Park neighborhood of L.A.). The band managed to knock out 18 songs with Rains, and then used those basics to build upon back in Philadelphia—adding multiple layers of guitars, finished bass parts and doing much of the vocal work—then overdubbing more later and recording the entire title track, with Rains at the Station House.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the album’s sound is that the drums are in mono, right in the center of the mix. According to Hayes, on the first self-titled BRMC album, recorded in the basement of a San Francisco studio that was under construction, “We just used two microphones for the drums, and we loved how that sounded; in fact, we’ve been chasing that sound ever since. When you go mono on the drums, you lose a little bit but you gain a bit, too. For one thing, it leaves more room for guitars on both sides. It’s a fine line, but the hope is that you can make the drums more punchy in a way. You can do that in stereo, too, but you have turn them up and turn the guitars down to get them to sound punchy.” Rains says that he’s worked with mono drums in the past on indie projects, so this was not a radical move for him. Hayes recalls that just a pair of Shure SM57s were used on the drums on a couple of songs; others had up to four mics.
Rains and the band are credited with mixing the album—mostly in the box—but another important member of the team throughout the project was co-producer Michael Been, best known as leader of the fine ’80s band The Call (“Let the Day Begin,” etc.), and father of BRMC co-leader Rob Been (who was known as Robert Turner in the band’s early days). Michael Been has worked on BRMC’s albums in a number of different capacities through the years—engineering, mixing, playing piano, producing—and to this day he is the group’s live sound engineer. Asked what he brings to the group, Hayes chuckles, and says, “In the beginning it was guitars. I didn’t have any, he did, so I have one of his guitars. But really, he brings a little bit of everything. He’s kind of the outside view, who we know can come in and let us know what to do when things might be going a little haywire.
“When it comes down to mixing, I have a tendency to put the kitchen sink in everything. The way I sometimes work, I’ll keep putting guitars on until I’ve got all my ideas recorded. Then it’s a matter of piecing it together. Well, Michael’s good at weeding out some of the things that aren’t needed. We’ve gotten a little better about that—not putting on 16 different guitar parts through the whole song. Now I’ll actually pick different parts and put them where I think they should actually be.”
At the close of our interview, I ask Hayes whether he ever worries about the performability of the songs the group records, given that so many of them are thick with multiple guitars and various effects on the vocals and instruments. “It’s kind of a nightmare every time,” he concedes. “I’ve gotten better at that, too, even though a lot of these songs are really full of stuff. Once again, Michael helps out a bit, suggesting which licks to play. We figure out how to make it work with the three of us. We’ve learned how to make a lot of noise between us.”