Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Biography
Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been were fast friends at their San Francisco high school. Meeting in 1995, they shared a love of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Ride, and the Stone Roses, among other UK bands from the late 80's and early 90's. Playing music together was fun for them, but apparently not enough to call themselves a real band, and the two could only keep in touch and show up at each other's gigs from time to time. Most notably, Hayes was a guitarist for the Brian Jonestown Massacre for a while, and he appeared in the documentary of that band, Dig!
By 1998, it seemed that there was no use ignoring their synergy or delaying things any further, and Hayes and Been became an official band, adding a drummer who hailed from that musical eden where all their favorite bands were born, the UK. His name was Nick Jago, and he had been in the US since 1996, after finishing art school back home. This new trio, calling themselves the Elements, began playing live shows in November of 1998. Once they discovered that a couple of other bands were already called the Elements, they changed their name to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, a title taken from the biker gang in the Marlon Brando film, The Wild One. It was an odd choice, as the name likely conjured an image of a pretentious Pantera-esque metal band playing a dirty bar in Texas. But somehow, it ironically suited the band's shoegazing tendencies and less ironically suited their black hair, black denim pants, and black leather jackets.
In 1999, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, or BRMC, as they would also come to be known, made their first marketable recording, a 16-track demo of which 500 copies were pressed. Every one of these copies was sold at their shows, and they began to circulate. The band then said goodbye to San Francisco and headed south to Los Angeles. A Santa Monica public radio station called KRCW got a hold of the band's demo and played it, giving BRMC their first on-air exposure. The demo even got as far as the UK, where Noel Gallagher of Oasis soon announced to MOJO magazine that they were his favorite new band, and he expressed interest in signing them to his new record label, Big Brother.
Perhaps the band would have signed with Gallagher if not for a publishing deal they subsequently landed with Warner/Chappel. Many major and indie labels were interested in the group after this, and ultimately, Virgin Records is where they ended up, signing in March of 2000. A brief tour with the Dandy Warhols followed, and BRMC were ready for their first proper album.
The self-titled, self-produced debut was released in 2001 on Virgin Records. Just as Interpol's debut would be met by critics with relentless comparisons to Joy Division one year later, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's BRMC was unanimously deemed a Jesus and Mary Chain album that had somehow never surfaced. True, critics were justified in making this comparison, as the album wore its many influences on its sleeve, and one of its bigger influences was JAMC. But underneath that immediate alikeness, there was a band struggling to find its originality, and seemingly on the cusp of doing so. The album was ultimately forgiven its derivativeness and was met with praise. The future looked bright for the band and they went on tour before settling back into the studio.
In September of 2003, they released their second album, Take Them On, On Your Own (Virgin). Again, they produced it themselves. The reviews were mostly very positive (NME called it “a masterpiece”), and the band showed that there isn't anything inherently wrong with doing the same thing twice if it was successful the first time. Their sound this time out was not far removed from their debut, only a little less droning and more rocking. Some critics, however, thought it was a boring move, and the lyrical tirades against America (“US Government,” “Generation”) didn't ring true for many listeners. Ultimately, it mattered little what critics thought of it. The true measure of success for an album is whether or not people are buying it. When it was obvious that the album was not a hot seller, Virgin Records, the label that had fought and won the band in a bidding war just three years before, dropped the group eight months after its release.
Matters were made worse when drummer Jago left the band shortly thereafter. He had been in the grips of a drug problem, showing up to gigs late, and fighting with his bandmates. The duo of Hayes and Turner soldiered on without him for the recording of their third album, Howl, with the help of famed producer T Bone Burnett. Luckily, a deal with RCA was made for distribution of the album in the States, and a label called Echo released it overseas. Hayes and Turner had been engaging in a series of meetings with Jago to see if the hatchet could be buried. Jago was welcomed back into the fold just in time to play drums on the last song BRMC would record for Howl, “Promise.”
Howl was released in August of 2005. Reviews were enthusiastic in celebrating the band's departure from shoegazer and Jesus and Mary Chain influences. Indeed, this was a band made over, and the rootsy, Americana-inspired sound was a seamless transition for them. Been, who had previously played under the name Robert Turner, owned up to his given name for the first time in the liner notes. He had used a different name in order to distance himself from his father, Michael Been, who played in the 80's band The Call and even did some engineering and mixing on Take Them On, On Your Own.
After another promotional tour, the band stuck to their pattern of one album for every two years, and on May 1st, 2007, they released Baby 81 (RCA). This album saw the band attempting a return to their original filthy form of rock, supplemented with a new fondness for pop hooks. For most listeners, this was a mediocre effort, and the sound of a personality crisis. However, it did sell well, and if nothing else, BRMC can pat themselves on the back for employing a chameleon-like quality that has allowed them to shift from genre to genre over the years.
In the summer of 2008, shortly before the group's European tour, Nick Jago found himself out of the band once again. Both he and his two former bandmates released statements that disagreed with one another. Jago offered that he was fired, while Hayes and Been insisted that they simply encouraged him to take time for himself and his solo project before coming back. Leah Shapiro, who drummed for Dead Combo and toured with the Raveonettes, filled in for the tour. The band's official line-up is, as of now, just as uncertain as who or what they will sound like on their next album.