At the beginning of the decade, the “Next Big Thing” hoopla was being tossed around by major music publications to the point of exhaustion. Even the semiconscious music listening public began to dismiss the promises without paying them much mind. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was one of the band’s slapped with that label. Admittedly, I originally dismissed the band in reaction to the hype. That was until I heard Howl after it was released in 2005. The album had soul, and a lot of it for having been created by three white guys from the San Francisco area.
Howl‘s follow-up, this year’s Baby 81 (Sony), presents a mixture of the band’s early droned-out rock ‘n’ roll sounds from its first two albums — 2001’s self-titled debut and 2003’s Take Them On, On Your Own — and the unadorned blues of Howl. Guitarist/vocalist Peter Hayes speaks here about Baby 81, his relaxed nature toward major record labels, and his suspicion about the Next Big Thing nonsense.
In between Howl and Baby 81, you guys seem to have garnered quite a bit more success. You’re scheduled to play some pretty big venues on your upcoming tour. How does it feel to make the upgrade?
Well, it’s . . . nice. It’s nice to have more people coming to shows. We’ve done a lot of little tiny clubs, so its nice to play a bunch of bigger shows as we go. I got no complaints with that; we’ll still be doing little shows in between. We know we can do that. We can always go back to that.
Baby 81 seems to kind of be a bridge between the gritty blues on Howl and the slick rock ‘n’ roll on its two predecessors. Would you say that’s accurate?
I hope it sounds like a blend of all the records. It’s kind of what we were shooting for. We didn’t want to limit ourselves. On the second record, we limited ourselves to not putting sixteen guitars. On the first record I put on a lot of guitars. You don’t necessarily hear them all because they just come up for solo licks and things like that. But on the second record we limited ourselves; we were just going to do two guitar parts and carry on. And on Howl we limited ourselves to no electric guitars and sometimes no bass. On this one, we decided not to limit ourselves to anything, to use everything and see what happens.
Is that how you churned out the nearly ten-minute track?
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. No limits on time either, huh?
From what I’ve read, it seems like this was the hardest record — emotionally and musically — for you guys to make. Would you agree?
Well, I don’t know about emotionally. They are all pretty draining; a great amount of energy goes into making an album. But creatively it was a little bit harder than the other ones because we didn’t have really any songs written when we were making it. They were all written as we were going. Some of them to the last day — we were sitting there mixing while we were still finishing words to songs. That was hard; we’ve never done that. We usually come in with all the songs written, and you come in and fire those out.
What was the experience like playing the arena tour in Europe with the Killers?
That was actually really good. It was a nice experience to figure out how you would do it differently if you get that big. You know, how would we do our set design or how would we do our sound, stuff like that. I don’t know if it will ever happen, but it’s inspiring. There were a lot of people at those shows for them, and it was nice to see. It’s good to know what that feels like.
Did you guys get a good response at those shows?
Yeah, it was all right. I think their fans are a little more polite than our fans [laughs]. We weren’t really used to that, but that was okay.
It seems you’ve gone more toward the blues-oriented rock ‘n’ roll over the course of Howl and Baby 81. Has that been a conscious effort?
I guess it’s been something that’s become a little bit more condensed through the time in the band. On the first records there is definitely that element, but it’s more droned out, if you know what I mean as far as the blues goes. “Red Eyes and Tears” is just a blues riff in a kind of way; it’s not quite as creative as those blues guys, but it’s real simple. Like Blind Lemon Jefferson or Blind Willie Johnson. Even before I even knew it, when I went back and listened I was like, “Man, I’m rippin’ those guys off more than I thought I was.” Just kind of bouncing off two or three strings. When you take the electricity and take the distortion off of it, that’s kind of what it becomes. That’s what it became with Howl. We delved into it a little bit further, but it’s just taking one line and singin’ over it. Sometimes those songs don’t change that much. It’s just how they’re played.
Are there any specific blues recordings that influenced your style over the course of your guitar-playing career?
I guess Ry Cooder was the first one I heard. Well, I think T. Rex is kinda bluesy. Then I started diggin’ into the other two guys I said before [Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson] and Fred McDowell.
Why was there hesitation to put “Am I Only” on previous records? You held out on that one for a while.
That’s always been kind of a disagreement between [co-founder Robert Turner] and me. I think I wrote it when I was sixteen, so I always considered a little to rhyme-y. I just didn’t like the way it rhymed quite so easily. But, at the same time, I don’t beat the shit out of Dylan for it, but why do I beat the shit out of myself [laughs]? I’m not saying it’s anywhere near Bob Dylan, but sometimes with Dylan it’s like, Okay . . . how’d I know you’re goin’ there [laughs]?
What’s your least favorite part of working within the music industry?
Oh, Jesus. [Laughs.] Without putting my foot in my mouth? I’m not quite sure how to say that. Well, it ain’t fun trying to mix business with art. I think there are a couple things, and I’m not sure it has a whole lot to do with the record companies necessarily — they have a bad name making money off bands and all that. I don’t care about all that; I just don’t care. I didn’t get into this to help myself; that’s not really what it’s about. I don’t condemn somebody else for that, either. It makes sense, and everyone needs some dough to live. My main thing is working within the culture that it’s become. It’s become a non-culture. We don’t have any culture! It’s a culture of instant gratification and the attention spans of gnats. Me included. It’s like, “I want it now!” and you download it and then you want it for free.
It’s as much the musicians’ part. You see a rock band up there and you buy their album and they shove it in your face like, “Look what I got. Look at all the money I got. I got this nice pair of pants that I could’ve bought a month’s worth of meals for somebody on.” It’s like, What the fuck? I bought your album and this is what you do with your money? You just throw it in my face and show me how indulgent you are with it? I think that’s a bunch of bullshit and has destroyed music as much as anything. That’s the bands’ fault.
That’s not why I’m here. Its more culture, so to me what’s frustrating is that it’s still sold to people: “You want to be a pop idol? You want to make a lot of money off this?” And it being downloadable and free just adds to that. Tough shit; sure it’s supposed to be free, but fuck that. I have more respect for any kind of art than that really. I think that’s how it should be. At the same time, I don’t have respect for gasoline. [Laughs.] Go fucking raid the gas tanks, go fucking take that for free. Food should be free. Somehow, then your screwing the worker that worked with his hands to make it for you. There is no reason to have six cars. There is just no fucking reason for it.
Partially, it’s a good thing because it’s putting people in their place because they haven’t proven capable of handling it all that well. It gets me fired up a little. To each his own, but stay out of my way [laughs].
Production-wise, Baby 81 seems pretty slick, but it still holds an amount of grit to it. Did you have a certain vision of the way you wanted the albums to sound?
No, we had no thoughts ahead of time. We knew we wanted to continue with the idea of Howl as far as we’ll use anything and everything and whatever sounds good for the song. That’s kind of the freedom that Howl brought. You go with whatever makes the song the best. Sometimes it’s not electric guitar at full volume, like “Weapon of Choice”; that song kind of seems like it lost something all on electric guitar. You put it down on tape and it just sounds like a big drone and you don’t get anything from it. So you put acoustic guitars on it; so you get a little bit of a different feel underneath the electrics. Then it ended up being that we took out all the electrics in the beginning so it had somewhere to build. To us, it worked better for the song. That’s just opinion — some might think that’s just a bunch of bullshit.
How did you guys choose “Weapon of Choice” for the single?
We went with the record company. We told them we think all of them are singles; they can all be singles to us. But we’d like to come out on all cylinders, and we went with that one. We didn’t want to come out with “Am I Lonely” first or anything.
Do you feel the kind of “Next Big Thing” hype that was built around Black Rebel Motorcycle Club a few years back worked against or for you guys?
It sure helped us get a footing within music. But at the same time we’re as much against that as anyone else would be. As soon as I see that on a headline, I’m like, “That’s a bunch of bullshit and I don’t buy it.” That’s my suspicious mind. It’s going to hurt, and some people will give it a chance. The people that give it a chance kind of learned to love a band for what we do. We’re just musicians, trying to play music that has meaning to us and hopefully someone else. We ended up pissing off NME because they wanted to do another cover; we were like, “No we don’t want to do another cover. We think that’s useless.” That made ’em angry [laughs].