In the postrock era, what is the purpose of a rock band, anyway? According to Peter Hayes, guitarist and singer for the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, it’s the same as it ever was, only less so.
“It’s a little frustrating,” says Hayes, on the line from Nashville, Tennessee, where the band is doing a sound check. “Music doesn’t have quite the same role it used to, in society. But I like to think that the folks who’ve been sticking with us for a while share a common thread—of looking for something a bit deeper. I feel it’s more about choosing how to live in the world we’re walking through.”
Taking its name from what Marlon Brando called his gang in The Wild One (the rival gang was called the Beetles, let us recall), the BRMC has a rootsy, Tom Petty side, as seen in the hit “Ain’t No Easy Way” and everything else from 2005’s superb Howl. But the incantatory, reverb-drenched music of the new album, Specter at the Feast, recalls one-syllable-name bands like the Cure, the Fall, and the Call. Hayes says he liked the idea of dining “at the awful table of life”, but that the rest of its meanings only emerged over time.
“The album came from a lot of rehearsals, mainly to see what songs would fit together, and have enough form built into them to keep. We weren’t really coming at it much differently from the other records, but a lot of people say they hear a difference—that they can feel some kind of light coming from the music. There’s a lot of darkness, and dark humour, to our sound, but there’s also an uplifting part of it. What really keeps us going are the voices that come out of the music that aren’t us. All the melodies and words are already out there, if you’re listening closely.”
Launched in San Francisco 15 years ago, and now based near Los Angeles, the band was not long ago mourning the loss of a major influence and mentor, the Call’s Michael Been, father of BRMC bassist Robert Been, whose pick-heavy sounds underline that ’80s feel. And they were still grappling with the absence of founding drummer Nick Jago, who quit several times until Leah Shapiro joined for keeps.
“It’s great when someone really wants to be there and keeps adding new things to the sound,” Hayes explains. “Nicholas just wasn’t in that place for a couple of years. Then Leah came along and brought that whole feeling back to it. Every idea I get has bounced off Leah’s drum beat, or a bass figure played by Rob. Just because I’m singing, it doesn’t make it mine.”
Hayes tends to downplay his own leadership, but the songs are built around his subtly massive guitar sound, often the result of a half-dozen Gibson ES-335s he keeps in different tunings. Anyway, he thinks the primary goal of a rock band—then or now—should be to entertain each other.
“The best part is the mistakes, as far as I’m concerned. If there are enough fuck-ups, we can sit there and laugh at each other. That’s where the fun comes from.”
And new ideas, as well?
“Yeah, that too,” he adds, with a dismissive laugh. “But in the middle of a show, you’re mostly looking for laughter.”