Black Rebel Motorcycle Club release their eighth long player in January. Entitled Wrong Creatures, it represents their first collection of songs since 2013's Specter At The Feast.
Currently on the UK leg of an extensive European tour. DiS caught up with founder member Peter Hayes prior to their recent show at Nottingham's Rock City.
DiS: The UK has been something of a second home to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club since you broke here in 2001.
Peter Hayes: Yeah, they've always been lovely to us. I'm not sure if we're as welcome here as we are back home but if that's the case we'll take it! People here have been lovely in supporting us the whole way through. So we're just grateful to be able to last this long.
You've been on tour for the past couple of weeks. What's been your highlight so far?
I'm still waiting on that! We're still figuring out the set list. Where to put things, where to put the new ones. Still waiting to see which ones click with people. I don't know if that ever changes. Even through a whole tour it always feels on edge whether we're doing the right thing or not. Hopefully, we're making people happy and making ourselves happy at the same time.
With such an extensive back catalogue it must be difficult deciding which songs to leave out, especially when road testing so many new ones as you are on this tour?
It comes down to what we remember as well, and what we've had time to do. We never seem to have enough time preparing to go on tour. We spent most of our time trying to learn the new ones before this tour, so we didn't have that much time to go back and relearn some of the older songs. We wanted to put these new ones together so we ran out of time. So when we soundcheck that gives us an opportunity to go back and play some of the older songs.
Did you consciously pick moments in the set where you thought some of the new songs might work better?
We're figuring it out as we go along. Which ones fit best alongside which songs.
You've already incorporated half the songs from the new album into the live set. Will the rest also feature as the tour continues?
One of them is going to be super hard to do live actually. 'Calling Them All Away'. I'm not sure how we're going to do that one. The others? I guess they'll feature eventually. I'm not sure why we chose these six we're playing at the moment to be honest; there's no rhyme or reason. They came together live the quickest. The other ones will pop up once the album comes out. I'm not sure I particularly mind if the whole album is out live on YouTube before it comes out.
Has that kind of thing ever bothered you? People uploading bad quality mobile phone recordings of songs before they're released?
First impressions last I guess but then usually if it's a poor recording it's because we gave a shabby performance. The sound is one thing, but a lot of the time it's because we sang badly that day. It sounds embarrassing but that's the truth of the matter. That's what happens. It's just unfortunate someone caught it on camera. But that's OK because I see live interpretations of our songs as completely different animals to the album versions. You can perform all kinds of tricks to make a song sound better in the studio that you're unable to do live. It's a completely different beast. As far as judging the sound goes I'd like to give people more credit in realising what they're looking at isn't the finished article. I'd like to think people are aware that's the situation. As long as somebody doesn't put this is some sort of band approved thing next to it I can live with that. If it was coming from us I'd obviously like it to be recorded better, but then I don't really know whether people give a shit about that either.
Your new album Wrong Creatures comes out in January. When did you start working on the record?
Some of the songs - 'Little Thing Gone Wild' for instance - have been going on for a good five years. 'Circus Bazooka' has been floating around for at least four years. That started out when Rob was waiting for me to show up to rehearsal and he ended up doing it on his own. Just looping a few guitar things together until a song came out of it.
Did any of the songs change over that time?
The majority of them started out being twenty to thirty minutes long. 'Question Of Faith' and 'Ninth Configuration' were actually an hour and a half long jams at first until we eventually whittled them down to where they are now. That's where the majority of our songs come from.
Was it your intention to wait five years between albums?
I don't know. I'm not sure it would have turned out differently if we had gotten our shit together earlier. We weren't working on the songs constantly for that time. Especially when Leah (Shapiro, drums) was recovering and the time before when she was going through surgery. We didn't work on music at all while that was going on. It just felt wrong to try and put songs together while she was ill. We went on tour six months after Leah got out of surgery which was super quick, but it was what she wanted to do; she needed to get out and start playing. After we did that we went back into the studio and some of the ideas for this record came out. Others came out of soundchecks we'd been doing on the tour. Rob (Levon Been, vocals/guitars) is pretty good at recording ideas along the way. Then we go and revisit them to see if we can put a song together from those little bits. Once we got down to seriously working on the album it took about a year and a half.
Were there any songs written around this time that didn't make it onto Wrong Creatures? Will you revisit them in the future?
There's a few. We always have stuff left over when we're making a new record. For example, 'Spook', which didn't make the last album but ended up on this one. There's a version of it that was recorded out in Joshua Tree when we were making Specter At The Feast.
Would you ever release an album of alternate versions or demos of songs that made it onto later albums similar to Angel Olsen's Phases? 'US Government' and 'Evil' being two others that were around in one form or another long before they got an official release.
We'll probably put some of them out as b-sides along the way. Release a few singles to breathe a little life into the album after it's been out a while. Same with some of the songs that didn't make the album for one reason or another. At one time they were favourites so it would be a shame if they never got heard.
The artwork for Wrong Creatures is quite distinctive as has been the case with all your records beforehand. Is the presentation as important as the music itself?
Rob's into the presentation side a lot. He pieces the artwork together in that way. I like it but Rob's more aware of stuff like who did the artwork for other bands, whether that would work for us, then sitting down and working with the guy. Going back and forth with ideas. It makes things a little easier to have Rob involved with that side whereas I stay out of the way. It makes for a much smoother process!
Nick Launay produced the album. How did he become involved and what did he bring to the sessions?
Rob and I met him in Los Angeles throughout the years at various shows. We were all fans of his work with Grinderman and Nick Cave. I wasn't aware of anything else he'd done. He came in during the writing process while we were still jamming songs. We were at the stage where we'd taken most of the songs down from an hour and a half to around five or six minutes. By this point, the songs had started to make sense to us even if they might not have made much sense to an outsider. So Nick would tell us perhaps that song would make more sense if you did it this way and so on. So we'd try that and eventually the album started to come together. Nick wanted to mix the record too so we let him do that. As far as recording went there were a whole lot of changes from what we normally do. We'd go into the studio and do the drums first. Once we had a good take there we'd move onto the bass and if we were lucky get a good take there as well. Then we'd do the guitars at home rather than in a big studio. We did all the overdubs and singing at home then went back into the studio to mix it. To me, it feels like we gave Nick more room than we've given other people. We had ideas but I was totally open to the reality that Nick might not have seen it that way. There were lots of discussions back and forth about who thinks what's right.
Was there much debate over which songs should make the album? Did the tracklisting change at any point?
Yeah. There's always fights and disappointments when we're making a new record. This one worked out 50/50. It's just give and take. If we were to let each other have our own way all of the time it would probably have ended up a twenty song album or something like that, which would have been too much. Also, it's about keeping our egos in check and both of us struggle with that. Depending on the day one of us would go in and argue our song is more worthy of being on the album than another one, so it was up to the other person to either go with that or throw it away. I try to live in that reality rather than hanging onto something that didn't make it onto the last album.
Did the political climate in the States and inauguration of Donald Trump play any part in the songwriting?
I find everything that's going on around you affects the songwriting, even when you're trying hard not to pay attention. Be it the frustration of feeling helpless about the government, feeling helpless about terrorism, or feeling helpless about gun laws. Just that feeling of helplessness is going to affect your writing.
A lot more artists have become politicized as a result of events like Brexit and Trump's presidency.
I get that, but the weird thing for me is the same issues have been around ever since we started as a band and even before then. There were different versions of the same issues. Personally, I don't like musicians speaking about it or writers writing about it. Not in a way that's obvious where if they don't like something they'll write about in a way that's just pointing the finger and very little else. Whereas I prefer to write about what my part in it is and what I'm going to do about it. That's how I try to come at it. I'm not pointing the finger at anybody, it;s just that being political in that way is too obvious for me. If all you're doing is pointing fingers at a problem you become part of the problem.
There's always been a lot of ambiguity in your lyrics. Is that something you consciously strive for when writing a song?
I don't know. There's a danger to ambiguity because people can end up taking it the wrong way. We're just trying to be thoughtful, but on some days we can write about hedonistic stuff too. We are simple in what we do and I like that. What makes it possible to play these songs every night is that they have a point. And sometimes that point changes from moment to moment. So at this moment, I may hate something that's going on and in the next moment love it. Sometimes I want to be a part of the world and other times I don't give a fuck about the world. Maybe it's just me and I'm kind of psychotic that way? We're different personalities. Which is a super simple idea but not super sexy to sell to people.
You've always existed on your own terms right from the start without ever really becoming part of any specific scene or genre. Would you say that's been a key aspect in the band's longevity?
I try to give credit to people giving a shit about music and hopefully our part is we created something they enjoy. I'd like to think that's why we're still here now, doing what we love doing after all these years. It's up to the listener to give a shit and want to look for something more in the music. I want to be able to leave that door open. That's the plan.
What would you say has been the defining moment in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's history so far?
There are so many moments I'm proud of. And those moments on albums are similar to the ones I have from playing live. I don't know if there's a higher feeling than being connected to a moment so I'd kind of leave it at that. There are definitely moments within albums I feel more connected to than others, so you let that out. Then you play it live and you connect to different parts of different songs. I guess that's what I'm still striving for. So I don't feel I've achieved a definitive moment for myself just yet. The next album might end up being a shit record but it's the best I could do at that particular moment in time. It's a hard thing for any band to not get trapped into a scene or whatever. Sometimes bands do and they end up in a place that's so far removed from where they first started.
You've always given new bands a break and taken them on tour with you. LA duo Restavrant are supporting you on this leg of the tour. How did you get to hear about them?
Leah toured the States with them. That's how we met. She was in a band called Dead Combo along with two dudes from Finland that live in New York. Leah and Rob are much better at discovering new music than I am.
Are there any new bands who've grabbed your attention recently?
Rob's just turned me onto a band called Fat White Family. I haven't seen them play live yet but what I've heard of their music sounds cool. I'm really digging that DJ Shadow and Run The Jewels song 'Nobody Speak' too.
What advice would you give to new bands just starting out?
The only advice I would give is don't fall into the trap of thinking you're important or what you're doing is important. That's one of the dangers you've got to watch out for.
With the album coming out in January and the band already confirmed to play a couple of festivals, I guess 2018 looks set to be a busy year?
That's up to the people I guess!
How do you prepare for a festival set or support slot compared to a headline show?
I've become more friendly towards the idea of playing festivals. I didn't grow up with them in the States so I didn't understand it. Then I slowly grew to love it and now festivals have taken off in the States too. But I still think a festival should be more like a jukebox where the crowd picks what songs they want to hear. It would be amazing! They just punch in a number, and if they only want one song from a particular band they just get that one song. Sometimes it feels like that when we're playing at a festival. The crowd only want to hear one or two songs. Whereas playing an hour-long set to people who've specifically come to see us is entirely different.
Wrong Creatures is out on 12 January via the band's own Abstract Dragon label. For more information on the band, please visit their official website.