Photo by Tessa Angus

Peter Hayes and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club go their own way

An hour on the phone with the amiable Peter Hayes of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and it is easy to understand why his service in Brian Jonestown Massacre was short-lived: Hayes was and still is far too sequestered in a polite, quiet state for that scene.

Given the chaos of Brian Jonestown Massacre, followed by the hardships endured in BRMC, Hayes could be a cranky egg, stressed to crack and spill—but don’t mistake quiet for easily bullied. He is part of a band that’s in control, despite the odds.

Bred from the same scene that produced Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Warlocks, Hayes is a notable creator in a genre that injected lightspeed pulsation into the heavy drone of shoegaze. He contributes bombastic guitar riffs to the BRMC sound that hint to a dark torment within all blues musicians. But gifts in the devil’s music always come with a contract.

BRMC gave its labels fits with its refusals to bend its values and opposing understandings of rock ‘n’ roll etiquette. There were constant tug and release battles, where the label would tug at the band with suggestions of wearing certain outfits for videos or licensing songs for commercials, and the band would refuse. BRMC’s refusal to allow the use of its music for commercials was the inevitable last straw for labels—goodbye, RCA; goodbye, Virgin.

After being dropped from Virgin Records, BRMC rethought its political stance and worked out a subversive middle ground. Now releasing records on its own Abstract Dragon label, partnered with Vagrant Records, BRMC understands that the move to independent circuit is not absolute or sans compromise.

Turn on the television and “Spread Your Love” from the band’s self-titled debut is blaring strong as a soundtrack to a Smirnoff vodka commercial. Hayes is unfazed by queries regarding the “sellout” backlash that may come with licensing a song to the corporate sales machine. “The way the business is going. It’s the only way you get anything out of this anymore,” he said. “Commercials are your lifeblood. When you’re offered them, you take them.”

It’s not widespread knowledge that BRMC is a band of philanthropists, but it should be. “We don’t want to paint record companies with a big brush as all bad. They love music too, but they have a business to run. We decided to let them have theirs because they need it and want it that bad. But, we’re taking that money coming to us and putting it back into what that company is destroying, as best we can.”

Hayes chuckled to himself as he described the technique as “subversively using their money against them.” The group donated its earnings from a car commercial to PlayPump International—a nonprofit that raises funds to donate PlayPump water systems to African communities and schools. “I don’t want to be misconstrued as that somehow being big of us,” he said. “That’s just how we do it. There’s a lot of other people doing a lot more. We don’t blame any band for taking any money. It’s just something we do.”

Hayes’ outlook toward the industry runs counter to the token diatribe often spewed by jilted musicians when discussing why were dumped by the majors and began releasing music independently. “Since you’ve been signed and dropped, is it liberating to be more in control of your music?” I asked, thinking he would regale me with horror stories of the evil labels and express a sense of liberation in going independent.

“The whole notion of control, I don’t really understand,” he answered. “You give up control to a record company if you want to. It’s pretty easy to say no. Although, it might not have been smart”¦I don’t feel in any less or more control. There are formulas to write good songs that are proven to work, but it can also come down to blind luck. Which is fine by me.”

Consequently, there’s never been a formula for crafting a BRMC record. The majority of Beat The Devil’s Tattoo, their latest release on Abstract Dragon, was conceived from jams, with 20 songs compiled. The remaining few were built from acoustic songs written outside of the group sessions. The record also features the first recordings with former Raveonettes drummer Leah Shapiro, who joined as a touring drummer a year ago.

For Beat the Devil’s Tattoo, old friends reunited in the same space the early stages of the group’s 2005 release, Howl, was created, a commune scenario of sorts in a small town on the fringes of the Philadelphia metropolis. “We all lived together,” he said. “Feeding each other, trying keep each other going. It was great.”

Often described as a band that meshes the influence of Johnny Cash into the sonic shoegazing of The Jesus & Mary Chain, it’s alarming that the tame, slow drawl of Hayes’ style of speech helps front a band awaiting the devil at the mouth of a murky delta.

“It’s no conscious choice,” he said of the band’s gothic overtones. “Even the happier sounding [songs] are disguised with the lyrics being quite dark. We always try to have a little bit of hope in them, whether it’s a sound that makes you go, ‘Oh fuck, that sounds cool,’ or there’s a little bit of light breathed in through the lyrics. It’s not about being all bad.”

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club will played Harlow’s Night Club on Feb. 26.

    Blake Gillespie

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