By David Rolland
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It was like, Aw, what are we gonna do?´¨ says Black Rebel Motorcycle Club frontman Peter Hayes, referring to the 2005 departure of drummer Nick Jago. ¨I had been in maybe one or two bands before this,¨ Hayes continues, ¨and one of them was with Rob [BRMC bassist and co-founder Robert Levon Been]. And Rob had kind of been in a little thing and one other band with me. Nick had never been in another band. So we all started out together. That experience of learning together, there´s no way somebody can just show up and actually replace that feeling. I think it´s impossible for anybody to do that.¨
So what did Hayes and Been do when Jago went AWOL? They carried on as a duo and put out the acoustic, roots-oriented album Howl, which received ample kudos for its departure from BRMC´s electrified psychedelia and muscular blues-rock stomp. Jago, however, rejoined his bandmates in time to tour behind the album. Realizing what he had nearly lost, he claims to have spent much of the recording of Baby 81 in tears. And, fittingly enough, his bandmates also understand now what they were missing.
¨The major realization,¨ Hayes explains, ¨was just his nine years of experience with us.¨
A riveting return to form, Baby 81 finally captures the band at full stride and arguably delivers on its potential for the first time. For years, BRMC skillfully suggested mystery and ambiguity in a slightly dark aura awash in guitar effects. From the get-go, coming up with a distinctive sound wasn´t a problem for BRMC. But on its first two records, B.R.M.C. and Take Them On, On Your Own, Hayes, Been, and Jago seemed like they were stuck in a perpetual cycle of accentuating mood and image over tunes. While the elements on Howl made for a compelling palette-cleansing exercise for both band and audience to regain their sense of direction, Baby 81 makes a once-and-for-all statement by epitomizing everything that listeners would look for in records by the likes of the White Stripes and, well... BRMC. But it also sees Hayes and company expanding their creative horizons in almost every direction.
In doing so, BRMC has simultaneously set a higher bar for blues-based, analog-heavy garage rock and laid waste to the very same fad that would have people clamoring to buy the record. Opening tune ¨Took Out a Loan,¨ for example, should give a moment of pause to any musician out there looking to parlay Zeppelin drummer John Bonham´s oft-quoted big-bottomed groove into songwriting gold. It ain´t gonna happen. In fact, Baby 81 issues an achtung to all bands wallowing in their own limitations: Evolve or die. BRMC even manages to evoke the likes of Stone Temple Pilots´ Scott Weiland, Robert Palmer, John Lennon, and the Jesus and Mary Chain without once succumbing to clichés or stooping low enough to just plain rip ´em off. And what distances Baby 81 even further from the been-there, done-that vibe of so many like-minded records is the band´s clear insistence on sonic variation. The mix on the album contains many subtly disparate elements and, unlike the band´s first two albums, intentionally shifts tones from song to song.
¨There´s a lot of little parts hidden away,¨ Hayes says. ¨We learned a lot about production on Howl I still don´t know quite what that means, but we´ve learned to have fun with production.¨
BRMC´s roots go back to San Francisco and to the friendship between Hayes and Been, which formed in high school. Been (who used to go by the stage name Robert Turner) has described Hayes as being like a brother, while Hayes says that the Beens ¨invited me into their family.¨
¨The first time I met Robert,¨ Hayes recalls, ¨I was playing at a bar in a town nearby. I had told all my friends to come see me play. I didn´t really know him at the time, but of everybody that I told, Robert was the only one that showed up. That was the first thing about him that stuck out. All these other people that I knew blew me off, but he meant what he said. That meant a lot.¨
Indeed, BRMC operates somewhat as a family business, with Been´s father, Michael Been (formerly of the Call), handling much of the production. Which begs the question: What is it like to make a record with your dad?
¨It´s everything!¨ Hayes answers with a laugh. ¨It´s beautiful. It´s ugly. It´s intense. It´s really everything you think of when you think of anybody´s family and Michael´s been a mentor and father to me too. It´s exactly what you´d imagine having your dad in the room to be. You know, you kind of beat up the ones you love the most and that goes both ways as far as us beating him up as much as him beating us up. It´s hard, but the outcome is worth it.¨
As if to relay those emotions with a narrative flow, the sequence of songs on Baby 81 more or less follows the order in which the songs were recorded.