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Friday, Dec. 21, 2007
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Don't expect any seasonal cheer from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. For almost a decade, the Los Angeles-based three-piece's dark brand of bluesy garage rock has been burning a trail across the music scene. The demons that fuel the band's successes are the same ones that have, in the past, caused them to skid off the road and almost implode.
For a while, when they were dropped from their label Virgin and drummer Nick Jago quit in order to confront his drug and alcohol addictions (both in 2004), the BRMC engine flatlined.
A record deal with another major, RCA, breathed life back into the battered machine. Now, with the release of "Baby 81," their second album on the label (and fourth of their career), and re-energized by the return of Jago, the band has returned to its previously rockin' form.
Speaking in a careful drawl last week by phone on tour in Dublin, Robert Levon Been (who co-fronts and writes the songs with Peter Hayes) explains that he holds little interest for life's happier moments.
"Your demons and your conflict is the reason you're still trying to breathe," Been said. "The good times, the Sunday afternoons with the warm cup of tea and the sunset, they don't matter too much in the end."
Been's lyrics positively drip with pain and angst; on "Need Some Air" from "Baby 81," he sings, "This is the tale of a heart attack, you feel alive but you're sinking fast."
"That's a love song, that's about the good times!" he says, laughing darkly. Although the lyrics may be somber in tone, a couple of tracks on the album — "Berlin" and "It's Not What You Wanted" reveal a pop sensibility.
"I like pop music — if it's still got something to say. I don't mind if it gets your attention fast. Some people need to be led by the hand and need to know if it's an indie sound or a pop sound. But at the end of the day, it's just a song," he says.
During the writing process for "Baby 81," Been went back to his musical roots. "I was listening to a lot of Nirvana and Alice in Chains, reliving a lot of my high-school angst. I forgot how good it felt, some sort of harsh, metal-driven anger. You don't want to become old and forget how to be angry — that's really important."
So for Been, is the songwriting process cathartic?
"I used to think that the whole thing was just an escape, but then I realized that it was more important to sit in the room with a demon than to expel it. I've learned to be friends with my enemies. They are doing you a favor even if you don't like it."
Scornful of the idea of emotional maturity, he spits, "the only thing that comes with age and knowledge is becoming guarded. It's really hard not to protect yourself. The world is f**kin' out to kill you, man."
Been admits that substance-abuse problems have come close to destroying the band, but is keen to emphasize that they are now over the worst. "Peter's been through a lot in his life and so has Nick. I'm really proud of both of those guys because they've wrestled their demons and they're trying to learn from them."
Despite his insistence that anger is the fuel that drives BRMC forward creatively, there is clearly a deep bond of affection that glues them together. "There's an unspoken understanding. Like brothers, when the sh*t hits the fan, we confide in each other. Sometimes we think there's something wrong with us because we don't pal around. But there's something that cuts deeper than that."
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club play Osaka Soma on Jan. 9 (tel.  6233-8888); Harajuku Astro Hall, Jan. 10; Duo Music Exchange, Tokyo, Jan. 11 (Tokyo shows sold-out). Shows start at 7 p.m. Tickets are ¥6,000.