The three members of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Los Angeles-by-way-of-San Francisco mope rockers named for the gang in Marlon Brando’s 1954 biker melodrama The Wild One, don’t like much of anything — including being called Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
“None of us are strict Brando fans,” says Robert Turner, bass player and singer for the group. The nascent BRMC was still known as The Elements when one night Turner, guitarist Peter Hayes and drummer Nick Jago flipped past The Wild One. “We were up late and watching an old classic movie channel. We kept seeing the name printed on the backs of the jackets [in the movie].” The musicians look more like Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice than gang members, though; their appearance and sound are a throwback to the dreamier mood-makers Turner, 22, admits liking, such as Ride. (As Jago succinctly — and accurately — told Gear magazine earlier this summer, “Our music is very druggy.”)
Turner would have preferred a relic of Mick Jagger’s 1970 stab at movie stardom as the band’s moniker. “In the movie Performance, Mick Jagger’s character is Turner and his band is called Turner Purple,” Turner says. “That film means a lot more to us than The Wild One, but at the same time, BRMC had its own thing and kind of took over.”
When the band decided to keep the longer name, Turner settled for co-opting the Jagger character’s name, changing his from Been. Turner’s father is Michael Been, songwriter and singer for The Call, whose ’80s heyday was fueled by the industry’s desire to turn earnest rock groups into bellicose U2 manqués. “I always thought Been [pronounced like the legume] was a cheesy name,” Turner says.
Turner’s dad is thanked prominently in the self-titled disc’s skimpy liner notes for his “help and support in the production of this album.” Turner and Hayes, the songwriting nucleus of the band (Jago, imported from England, was hired after the pair began composing songs), have been casual friends since junior high, but they don’t always get along with each other — or anyone else. The members relied on Been for advice, then, but also to reglue them when nerves frayed. If BRMC were a sitcom, there wouldn’t be any Very Special Episodes.
“[Been] is the one that helps, like, two fighting dogs get back together,” Turner says. “When Peter ran away from home, he lived at my house for years. My dad took him under his wing, so he knows us both well.
“We’re just dramatic fucking people,” Turner continues. “It’s why the music is so good, but it’ll be the death of us, this intense relationship. Right now, it’s just, you know, get through it. You respect that.” Turner’s speaking voice is a soft, cerebral drone, like David Duchovny’s. When envisioning the trio’s spats, it’s easier to picture sullen cats than snarling dogs.
Because BRMC’s members are stubborn, their debut disc lists, besides Turner and Hayes, six engineers and assistant engineers. The group was uninterested in working with a producer and also clashed with the knob-twiddlers Virgin Records hired to oversee studio time. The three musicians credit only themselves as producers.
“We’ve got to learn how to trust people first,” Turner explains. “We’re too far away from that. The idea is to develop as people and be able to work with someone else. Right now, it’s too difficult. Our personalities have a hard enough time agreeing with each other.”
BRMC’s demos made the rounds two years ago, but the group’s insistence that the songs stay mostly unenhanced when configured for release kept most labels from biting. “Virgin said, ‘We trust you,’ and let us sound like we already did,” Turner explains. “We went through about a dozen companies who shook their heads and told us we needed to take it up a step. But next time, we’re going to strip it down even further.”
That’s the rebel in Turner, though; like Brando on his bike, whatever glee he allows himself is expressed with a smirk instead of a laugh. Daunted by working in a big studio, Turner says the band initially trusted the first engineers. “They were telling us the right way to record, but it was bullshit,” he says. “You gotta do it until it sounds right. It took time and money to learn that, but we ended up with a good-sounding record. A producer is absolutely not needed. I’ve fought that battle already.”
Been was the closest the band got to enjoying a collaboration with anyone from the outside. But his input usually came after a song was nearly done, and then only in the form of suggestions, not assistance. “Anything on the album that sounds wrong, any mistakes you hear, it’s because we didn’t listen to him,” Turner says, laughing. His father also loaned the group money to pay for rehearsal space and donated some old gear to the trio. Not surprisingly, Turner says Been loves the album.
BRMC doesn’t have much use for mentors, though. The band members toured with Guided By Voices earlier this year and were impressed by bandleader Robert Pollard’s Springsteen-like fervor onstage. “Peter and I still dislike more things in common than we like,” Turner says. “I won’t know where to start if I name all the musicians we don’t like. But GBV and everyone else (The Charlatans and Dandy Warhols also shared the bill) were so like-minded with us that it was like friends or family. GBV can play for three-and-a-half hours just relentlessly. I’m in awe of that. We were struggling, gasping for air after fifteen minutes. We’re not the young hot shit. We have to make this last. We have to learn to draw energy from somewhere unexpected. But I don’t think you can learn how to do that from discussion. We were respectful of them, but it’s like, ‘Good job.’ You can really only give props,” Turner says.
For Turner, the revelation that lately has helped him most came not from a veteran but from fledgling New Yorkers The Strokes, whose debut EP has earned praise. “They got trashed for sounding too ’70s,” Turner says. “We’d been getting compared to Jesus and Mary Chain all the time, but after talking to The Strokes, I don’t think about it anymore. I realized, fuck, everybody gets that shit. When you do something new, you have to take it from somewhere. Nothing is original, so you have to take it to a new place.”
After a few spins, the Jesus and Mary Chain similarities indeed begin to fall away. It helps that BRMC’s songs have a texture of their own and are more melodic than the Chain was at the same point in its career. But what most distinguishes the two outfits might be the thing they have most in common: internal conflict. The turmoil among BRMC’s members finds a satisfying analog in the group’s sinewy, jagged playing, its best songs propelled by sheer hypnotic tension. (Live, the group cheats a little to achieve that hypnotic effect, sticking a matchbook between its synth keys for atmosphere so that Hayes and Turner can concentrate on their stringed instruments.) It’s a strong first album. Maybe they’ll make a second.