Rank Your Records: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Peter Hayes Rates the Band's Seven LPs
The frontman looks back on a 20-year career of major label struggles, combative music press, and rock 'n' roll.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Peter Hayes speaks incredibly slowly, almost as if he’s dazed or stoned or both, something which seems to match the perceived notion of a band that was hailed by the music press of the early 2000s as the embodiment of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.
Formed in 1998 by Hayes—who had just left the trippy, psychedelic, and unstable arms of Anton Newcombe’s Brian Jonestown Massacre—and his school friend Robert Been (both of whom share vocals and play a variety of instruments) along with original drummer Nick Jago, the band gained attention with the release of debut sort-of-self-titled debut full-length, B.R.M.C., in 2001. That album came out on a major label, but the road since has been somewhat rocky, not least because Jago didn’t really want to be in the band. He eventually left permanently in 2008 and was replaced by Leah Shapiro. Shapiro had her own scare ahead of the making of the band’s most recent album, Wrong Creatures, having to undergo brain surgery to treat Chiari malformations.
“The easiest way to describe it is there are these things like tonsils that hang down at the back of your brain,” explains Hayes. “And if they’re enlarged, they’re hitting the back of your skull with every heartbeat and developing scar tissue. And that scar tissue builds up and blocks your spinal fluid from being able to travel on both side of your spine, front and back. She had a complete blockage of flow.”
Despite the sluggish, is-anybody-actually-there? nature of his words, Hayes actually comes across as both astute and intelligent, haphazard and disorganized, but also a little vulnerable. Still, while he didn’t refresh his memory or order the band’s back catalog ahead of time and chose to do this ranking on the fly, he offers some intriguing insights into the last 20 years of the band. First, though, he has a question.
“When you say rank,” he asks, “do mean which ones I enjoy? Because I don’t listen to any of my records. I don’t really have a favorite or a least favorite—I just kind of have stories of how things happened.” That’ll do just fine.
Noisey: So this was your wild, out there, totally instrumental record.
Peter Hayes: Yeah. We’d been working on it since the first album as an idea. It was the thought of music taking you places and seeing if you could create a mood without a visual and without a voice. It was just an experiment in that, and it was a lot of fun to do. The hardest thing about this was—well, of course, no record company wanted it. No record company wanted Howl and no record company wanted The Effects Of 333, so we had to do that on our own, which was really sad. But it was a fun thing to do. We might do more of that.
If nothing else, it’s an expression of total freedom—it’s you guys making abstract noise and doing what you want without any thought of record labels or the scene or whatever.
Yeah. It was a fun thing to do. And we still sort of pull from that idea. For each of our albums, we pull from those sounds and the effects going in and out of songs and stuff like that.
Why did you decide to not include vocals? Just to see if you could create that mood?
We were always fans of instrumental music and the effect that has on you as a listener—it depends on the mood you’re in as to where it takes you and sometimes, to me, it can be more powerful when there’s nobody jabbering over the top of it. I sometimes feel like that can get in the way. It depends on the day and the mood.
I don’t remember much about this album.
You don’t have to remember much about it. But this was the last album with Nick. Was there tension within the band because you knew already that he wanted to leave?
The only tension that ever showed up was him not showing up at shows. There were a few times when me and Rob would start shows acoustically because he just wasn’t around. He would just show up when he wanted to show up. And you know, you either show up or you don’t show up. Don’t leave us hanging. When we sat down and had a talk, it was amicable and we actually helped him in trying to put together his album—we played some parts on it for him in an apartment in LA and tried to help him work on it. But it was just a conversation about being honest, like, “If you really don’t enjoy it let’s not continue like this?”
Did his lack of enjoyment mean you guys enjoyed it less as well?
Yeah. There’s no way around that. If someone’s unhappy it’s not going to help the music that much.
For this record we’d been dropped by the label by then and we were living in London and we did this one in the back of a bar. I’m surprised we ever got it done! We had to move to London because Nick had overstayed his visa and so we moved to London—that way we could tour Europe with him. The first tours in Europe we did with Pete Salisbury from The Verve.
There’s always talk about the difficult second record. Was that the case with this one, given that you’d been dropped?
Yeeeeah, there was all that nonsense about having to rewrite “Spread Your Love” and “Whatever Happened To My Rock ‘n’ Roll” and all that kind of crap, and because we weren’t doing that, it made the record company unhappy. But we just weren’t interested in repeating ourselves. We wrote the majority of that in the back of a bar—I forget the name of it. As far as a second album, all of them you’re trying to get that voice out of your head, like, “Where’s the hit? That doesn’t sound like BRMC” and all that crap. You’re always trying to push those voices out of your head and hoping to write a good song.
This was the first record after the death of Robert’s father, Michael, who was very close to the band. How did his loss affect this album?
After losing our mentor—and a best friend for me and a father figure—I feel lucky to have still had some music to get out, you know?
It’s definitely a dark record. And Robert must have been in a difficult place. Did making this record really help you guys get through Michael’s death?
Specter…? I found myself writing a bit more about his death on this [new] record than Specter…. I find it takes a long time to work through things and to figure out how to live through things like that that affect you and it comes out many years down the road. I was probably still in the phase of anger during that record.
Was it a more difficult record to make given what had just happened?
I don’t know about more difficult, but there was a bit more fear that people would be expecting that was just not where we come from. If we’re talking about personal things in life, we try to be a lot more inclusive in our writing. We try not to just be “here’s my experience.” We come at it with a little bit more poetry, as in “here’s our experience and we as humans are all going to have to go through this.”
This was your first album with Leah on drums.
Yeah. And that just felt lucky. We met her during the Howl album because Nick had quit during Take Them On… and he came back and played on two songs on Howl and he was in the process of wanting to quit during the Baby 81 tour, if not on the Howl tour, but we met her on the Howl tour playing for a band called Dead Combo and we kept in touch with her and we kept in touch and called her up when we had a sit-down with Nick and said, “Hey man, if you’re just unhappy and you want to do something else, why be miserable?” He wanted to do his own music, so Beat The Devil… with Leah and we just felt real lucky that someone we didn’t really know came in and was able to jam kind of like we did with Nick and just go for hours at a time, just from body language and the sways of the music. For that to be there was a really nice thing. It showed up much easier than we thought it would. We’d been debating not even calling ourselves BRMC anymore when he left.
So the dynamic didn’t change all that much? It sounds like Leah was a natural fit.
Yeah, surprisingly so. The band she had come out of, Dead Combo… and she played for The Raveonettes, too for a little while, so she had a little bit of time under her belt as far as working within madness. [Laughs] I couldn’t see someone coming in fresh off of nowhere.
She knew what she was getting into.
Yeah. And I think we were actually a little tamer than the band she had met on the Dead Combo tour!
I’m just happy we survived this album because we were threatened to get dropped from Virgin while we were making it. They didn’t like the way it was going. They had people sit down with me in a room and had say “This isn’t going right, you need to be on a different label.” And I said, “Okay, get started.” And we went back to work. I think we pissed some people off in that way, but that was part of the story of that album.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on a new signing.
Yeah, it was a little weird. I’m sure there are a lot of those kind of stories that happen along the way. Howl wasn’t accepted as a record either by our publishing [company] as being a record. They refused it as being a record.
Despite that, this record made a name for you as a band when it was released. What impact did that have on you personally?
The funny thing about that is that it made us realize a bit of the nonsense of the business of music. Because I think Noel [Gallagher] was on a plane with somebody—this is the story that I heard—and said, “Have you heard of this band?” and he mentioned us. We’d already released our own version of this album in ’98 or ’99 and we’d been doing tours and showcases for record companies and nobody was really interested. And then they worked out that he kind of liked the band and all these record companies started getting interested and we started getting offers for getting signed. So it was kind of funny how that happened and it made you realize, as far as the industry goes, there’s a lot of guesswork that goes along with it.
BRMC don’t seem like the kind of band who’d buy into that whole thing.
No, we just try to dodge things as much as we can. We started with the idea…it all comes down to the person’s reaction of what they’re living in, but hopefully you come out of it as a better human being. Just not an asshole. So at that time everyone was like, “You’ve got to be on an indie,” but who gives a fuck? You can still be an asshole on an indie as much as an asshole on a major label! Whoever wants the music and is excited about it and thinks they can do something with it, it doesn’t matter. It’s up to us to hopefully be able to survive as a maybe pleasant person, though that’s still to be decided!
When that album came out, “Spread Your Love” and “Whatever Happened To My Rock ’n’ Roll” were everywhere. You couldn’t escape them. Do you think those being so popular typecast the band a little bit as a band that you didn’t necessarily want to be?
Well… yeah. All those interviews we did for that album were saying that we were fans of music, that we were ripping off this band, this band, we’re ripping off Johnny Cash, we’re ripping off Bob Dylan, and we’re fans of these bands. We’re not saying we’re anything new, we’re just trying to add our voice to it. But when it comes down to somebody writing what they want to write, a lot of that just didn’t make it into the interview. That’s what happens and so be it. I can understand that. I think we might have made an enemy at NME or two. We were wary of them. Too many times we’d seen them build up a band and then beat the living shit out them. I remember we actually gave them a really hard time. There was a magazine cover that we actually said “No thanks” to and they didn’t take that very kindly.
I put this at the top because this album was actually accepted by our fans. From the first two records we were always saying we’re fans of Dylan and Johnny Cash, Edith Piaf, Leonard Cohen. We’d say that in almost every interview and they’d cut that out of almost every interview. And then we made Howl and everyone was surprised and there should have been no fucking surprise. The way I see it is that I’m not proud of ourselves but proud of the people who listen to our music for accepting it.
Although those influences had been there before, they were more salient on Howl. Was that a reaction to the rather lukewarm reception the second record got?
No. It had nothing to do with that. It just wasn’t time yet. We still hadn’t had enough songs to have a full album yet to do it properly. But it wasn’t a reaction to that album or the first album, but it felt like something we needed to do to fully introduce people to us being fans of country music, or whatever you want to call it.
I suppose it is easier for people to be surprised by something than pay attention to it in the first place.
Ummmmm. Wait. Which album are you talking about now?
Still Howl, about the way that album “changed” things, although it didn’t, really. It was just a different expression of who you were as a band, and you’d hinted at it in the past so people shouldn’t have been that surprised.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But a lot of people didn’t like it either, but that’s alright. I’m happy we survived that, too.