When Black Rebel Motorcycle Club released its sophomore album, Take Them On, On Your Own, in late 2003, not even the band itself could have known how prophetic the title would prove to be. In the year that followed, the group ignited a bitter battle with its record company, Virgin Records, over the album's apparent neglect, which ended with the band and label parting ways. To make matters worse, BRMC suffered a very public meltdown when drummer Nick Jago walked out during a tour stop in Edinburgh. Following the incident, Jago remained behind in Great Britain while bassist/guitarist Robert Levon Been and guitarist Peter Hayes returned to the States to contemplate a very uncertain future.
Hayes can't say he was blindsided by any of the problems that ultimately engulfed the group. During the mixing of BRMC's first record, there were already signs of label trouble. "Our A&R guy came down and wanted us to change things to sound a certain way, and not in a way we wanted," says Hayes, now sounding more amused than peeved. "When they gave us creative control (referring to their contract with Virgin), I'm not sure they realized what that meant to us and what we were going to do with it. We wanted to change the environment, not change to the [existing] environment." According to Hayes, when he and his bandmates refused to acquiesce to Virgin's wishes, the label brass suggested they spend some time on Virgin's indie imprint. They agreed in principle, but fortunately the suggestion turned out to be more a veiled threat than a genuine proposal. Virgin released the band's self-titled debut in April 2001.
The album no doubt exceeded the label's modest expectations. BRMC earned radio play for both "Love Burns" and "Whatever Happened to My Rock 'n' Roll," and garnered several positive notices for its stripped-down, driving update of shoegazer rock from the early Nineties pioneered by ethereal British bands like My Bloody Valentine and Ride. To a certain extent, BRMC's success was a happy accident. The band arrived just as modern rock radio was making the transition from Limp Bizkit and Korn to the Strokes and the White Stripes. Back-to-basics rock and roll was enjoying an unlikely revival.
As Hayes recalls, file-sharing was also a major concern around the time of the band's debut album's release, and labels were encouraging many of their acts to auction off their songs for use in commercials, which was seen as a way to recoup money that might be lost to illegal downloaders. BRMC was not spared the requests. "But we never did it," says Hayes. "[Virgin] didn't like it when we refused. I'm not sure if that's what caused [the rift], but it definitely felt that way."
Although the trouble with Jago might have been more difficult to predict than corporate woes, BRMC's legendarily grueling tour schedule probably made some sort of internal flareup inevitable. The group toured behind its debut album for two solid years. "We kind of prided ourselves on being everyone's favorite local band," jokes Hayes. But BRMC's road-warrior status took its toll on Hayes, Been, and Jago. "[Our relationships] deteriorated and then fell apart," says Hayes. "We kept playing, playing, and playing, but we needed a break. We needed time to step back and rethink the idea we came in with."
That rethink finally arrived in the form of Howl, a collection of songs steeped in primitive blues and Americana. Recorded without Jago, who finally opted to rejoin BRMC upon the album's completion, nor the help of a label, Howl sounds like the product of a band with nothing left to lose. Gone are the thick, rolling bass lines and static-fueled choruses. In their places are Hayes and Been's plaintive wails and delicately strummed acoustic guitars. The shift suits them surprisingly well given that BRMC was a band that thrived on sheer volume. The group's change of pace is sure to come as a shock to its audience, though the change felt like more of a natural progression for Hayes. "Even before our first album, we knew we had [Howl] in us," says Hayes. "We wrote öLove Burns' and a few other songs on our first album on the acoustic guitar, so we always felt like we hadn't properly introduced people to the band as a whole."
While Howl does offer a compelling, heretofore well-concealed side of the band, it doesn't exactly clear any easy paths. Even Hayes seems unsure about what the album will mean in the long term for BRMC, whether it represents a minor detour or a more lasting change of direction. Either way, the band members find themselves in a familiar place out on their own, following a muse of their own design. Only this time it's not such a bad place to be.
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