Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

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Black Rebel Motorcycle Club drops Beat The Devil’s Tattoo and hits the road again

:: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club ::
:: Gothic Theater :: March 2 ::

By Brian F. Johnson

Bands often hate it when a writer makes broad claims that a new album is a “return to the band’s roots,” or a “big departure for the band.” Maybe it’s because those phrases can cheapen the artistic struggle it takes to get an album recorded and released. Maybe it’s because returns or departures just make it sound too easy.

But for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s guitarist Peter Hayes, his gripe lies with the fact that it just doesn’t make sense in his world. “When was the departure and when was the big return,” Hayes said in recent interview with The Marquee, just before setting out on tour. Days after the band piled onto the bus, their newest album Beat the Devil’s Tattoo hit the streets, but well before that, writers across the country, in an almost unified manner, were calling Tattoo a return to the band’s rootsy, dark, psychedelic sound. Most writers, in the very next sentence, then linked the new album to the band’s 2005 release, HOWL.

These writers weren’t full of shit. There’s good reason to compare the albums. Both albums focus more on the stripped-down folky sound of the band, as opposed to their harder, more rock-based albums, like Baby 81. Both albums have material on them that had been sitting around for a while, along with newer songs. And both albums were recorded in the same suburban Philadelphia basement studio.

“We have friends there who have a studio in their basement, and they offered us the house to use as a band, so that we could all live together, and sleep, eat and, you know, that kind of thing for as long as we wanted to,” Hayes said. “To me, this feels like the first record. We took our time and I think that shows up in the music a little bit.”

BRMC took their time indeed, staying at the friend’s place for the better part of six months, according to Hayes. But in what he said is sort of typical fashion for the group, some of the songs — including the title track — were lyrically put together during the final hours that the band was in the studio.

A friend of the band had been trying to recruit some musicians to record an album of Edgar Allan Poe poems. BRMC founder Robert Levon Been had been scouring Poe texts for that project, but with studio time winding down for the group, Been took a right turn and ended up naming the album, and the title track, after the phrase “beat the devil’s tattoo,” which he found in Poe’s short story, “The Devil in the Belfry.”

“Two days before we needed to turn something in he came up with the idea, and boom, that was that,” Hayes said. “We always go down to the wire as far as lyrics go. You know, we had the whole record mixed but we didn’t have all of the lyrics done all the way. We get the roots going and the main idea of the song and then we just feel out the phrasing. If a word sounds a bit too cheesy, then we alter it. It’s always in the back of your head to fix it with hopefully a better word or something better to get your point across a little quicker.”

In addition to that quirk of the band, Hayes said  that the material on Beat the Devil’s Tattoo is an amalgam of new and old. “Some of these songs have been around for nine years or so, and then there’s the songs we wrote on the road, and then there’s the songs we wrote in the basement. We just put them all together and tried to figure out what worked to make a good album,” Hayes said.

The band, who has seen its struggles with labels over the years, is releasing this disc on their own imprint, Abstract Dragon, in partnership with Vagrant Records. Tattoo is also the first to include drummer Leah Shapiro, who joined the band in 2008 after the second departure of Nick Jago that same year. Shapiro, who was once the touring drummer for The Raveonettes, has been on the road with BRMC for a while now, and while the studio was a new experience for her with this group, Hayes said she definitely helped to shape the album’s tracks, adding, “She has earned her place with us.”

So while critics may be hunched over their laptops trying to find ways to compare this album with some of the band’s previous releases, Hayes  said that BRMC really just hopes people dig it. “The real point is for people to enjoy it. They can say what they want about returns, but I’m not even sure if we know what we’re returning to.”

:: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club ::

:: Gothic Theater :: March 2 ::

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