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Black Rebel Motorcycle Club Discuss New Album, Personal Tragedy, ‘Sound City’ + More

James Minchin

To those who’ve only discovered Pitchfork or begun listening to indie rock within the last six years, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club likely fall into the same category as …And You Will Know Us By Our Trail Of Dead and Band of Horses: groups whose aesthetic seems at odds with “hipster culture.” Those with longer memories, of course, know it wasn’t always this way. Once, all three bands enjoyed their share of hype and praise, and as a result, they’ve rightfully remained part of the critical conversation.

Not that BRMC are too concerned with this. In fact, Peter Hayes, one of two singer-songwriters in the band, has the everyman, working-class-musician vibe down so cold that he doesn’t seem too concerned with anything. Answering questions posed by Diffuser.fm in a recent interview, he sounds unaffected, though his answers are not without thought. Each word is carefully considered, as if his straightforward and honest replies are the result of simplifying complex computer codes. It’s hard to tell if he hates us or simply the process of giving interviews, but either way, we respect him.

In his chat with Diffuser.fm, Hayes — whose resume also includes a stint in the Brian Jonestown Massacre — discusses the brand-new ‘Specter at the Feast,’ Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s best album in years. He also touches on the death of bandmate Robert Levon Been’s father, Michael, BRMC’s longtime sound engineer. The elder Been was a member of the popular ’80s rock group the Call, and Robert will join the surviving members for a pair of upcoming reunion concerts.

Describe the difference, mentally speaking, between the band that recorded ‘Beat the Devil’s Tattoo’ in 2010 and the one that made ‘Specter at the Feast?’

Mentally? Well, I’ve been mentally in about the same place since I was 16. I kind of stopped learning there. But, between the last album and this album, there haven’t been a lot of big changes. We’re still just trying to write a good song. One day, we’ll get there.

You lost your sound technician, and Robert’s father, while on tour for the last album. Did it weigh on you and the band as a whole, or was it more isolated to individuals?

It weighed on all of us, absolutely. I don’t see it as anything more special than anybody else. Everybody deals with deaths in their families. That’s part of life. So, I don’t think it’s different than other people’s experiences.

The only difference is that as musicians, we’re lucky, because we let it out in a number of ways. A lot of people aren’t that lucky, to try and get out all the moods. But I don’t put a lot of stock into it any more than that.

If you think of catharsis or coping through art, there’s a strong tradition of great rock ‘n’ roll albums coming from that place. Did you guys consult anything from the past for ideas or inspiration?

I guess that would be a better question for Rob. And, honestly I don’t … Well, actually, I can speak for him from one place. I don’t think he wants anything to do with writing about anything specific, to any situation. Be it a girlfriend, be it the music industry. So, that’s not what any of this is about for us, or any song by us. It’s not about specifics. It’s about including anything and everything and everybody, within the moment.

But if somebody from the outside sees something in the music that has gotten better, then great. We’re absolutely OK with that. That’s a good thing. There are certain things that I see that I would have hoped would have been there through all the other albums, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it has changed. But, hopefully for the better [laughs].

I read that ‘Specter at the Feast’ is supposed to represent the highs and lows of the two-year period it was made. Describe how you approached that and how that can be heard in the album.

I’m trying to keep things as simple as possible. We have a lot of songs. And at the end of the day, this is what we had that we finished. So, that’s how we did it. The other ones we had … there are a lot of half-songs from this album that just didn’t work. They didn’t get finished; they didn’t have the whatever to get them done. These are the ones that got done, and we went with that. With the blind faith of life, let it be this way.

I don’t come at it making plans. That hasn’t worked out since day one. I had plans for the first album; it didn’t happen, so I just decided that way makes a lot more sense. Let it be what it is. It just makes it easier that way, so I’m not judging it more than I already am. Let people deal with that.

You were involved with Dave Grohl’s Sound City project — both the documentary film and the Los Angeles performance of the all-star Sound City Players, not at the other shows, right?

Yeah, just the one song in the studio and three songs at the Palladium. We played ‘Red Eyes’ and ‘Punk Song,’ and we played ‘Heaven and All.’

That night, did you get a chance to interact with some of the other people involved and take anything away of note?

No, I didn’t really get to talk to too many folks. I don’t handle that stuff well. I just go and stand in a corner and just enjoy watching music. I’m not a schmoozer. [Laughs] I don’t go around and introduce myself to people.

Robert’s involved in the short reunion tour for the Call, his father’s band. Is there anything you can tell us about that, even though it’s not exactly your project.

It’s been in the works for a long time. That’s where our version of [the Call's] ‘Let the Day Begin‘ came from. Robert started singing it, and I happened to be playing something that worked, and it turned into that.

I think they are playing two shows, Slims and the Troubadour. Coming up pretty soon.

You guys have been around long enough where you can think of your music in terms of a career. Is there any music you’re more proud of or less proud of, or do you hold it all in the same light?

[Laughs] Yeah, when you get distance from it. I judge it all really harshly, and I have a hard time holding songs up to any light. I’m proud of being able to make some music with these two other people that I assume connects to some fans. It must connect with some people, or else we wouldn’t be able to tour.

So, whatever judgement I have on it, it doesn’t necessarily have a place. That’s my problem. But, I tend to go towards not holding anything up on a pedestal, thinking that I did a good job. That’s not really my style.

Listen to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s ‘Let the Day Begin’

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