Whatever happened to reverb that shoots through your veins and dilates your pupils like a drug? Whatever happened to moody vocals and drooping bass lines that leave trails across your speakers? Whatever happened to the dark, dreamy pop of shoegazers like My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Swervedriver? In the words of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, "Whatever happened to my rock 'n' roll?"
The last line is a BRMC lyric and a song title from the band's self-titled debut on Virgin Records. These band members -- guitarist/bassist/vocalist Robert Turner, guitarist/bassist/vocalist Peter Hayes, and British ex-pat drummer Nick Jago -- are barely into their 20s, and yet they already feel modern rock has lost its soul.
"I think the whole idea of making music that means something has been forgotten," says Turner via phone from Virgin's L.A. offices. "We're pretty upset about that. You try to look for music that's decent, that's not completely under the radar, and it's almost impossible to find these days. You have to dig so much that it's almost like no one's really on the same page as you anymore."
BRMC may be unsatisfied, but some heavy hitters in the music industry have found their rock 'n' roll in this new buzz band. Oasis guitarist/songwriter Noel Gallagher talked up the Black Rebel boys after hearing their early demos; onetime Jesus and Mary Chain vocalist Jim Reid and former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr are also admirers. The British music royalty aren't the only ones lining up to salute a band that was eking out gigs at the tiny Purple Onion less than two years ago. BRMC recently landed a No. 5 slot on Rolling Stone's college charts, snagged mentions in Alternative Press, CMJ and Flaunt, and performed on The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn.
How has this relatively unknown band garnered such a bright spotlight? For one thing, the stylish trio mines a sound that hasn't been in the mainstream for nearly a decade, and it mines it well. BRMC's dense psychedelic fuzz is the kind of sonic alternative that flickered across MTV's 120 Minutes in the early '90s, when the late-night program showcased acts like Lush, the Cocteau Twins and the Stone Roses. These days it feels like hazy-minded rock bands have almost disappeared into the atmosphere, replaced by bubblegum pop and seething new metal. BRMC is one of the few hopes for audiences that crave an artistic buzz somewhere between the light substance of indie pop and the brutality of ball-busting punk.
BRMC's narcotic rock clearly has one major influence: the heroin-dazed music of the Jesus and Mary Chain. BRMC song titles such as "Whatever Happened to My Rock 'n' Roll [Punk Song]?" (see JAMC's "I Hate Rock 'n' Roll") and lyrics such as "Jesus won't take me back/Jesus never coming home" (vs. JAMC's "I wanna die like Jesus Christ") are examples of artistic appreciation taken to the extreme. But every band has its influences -- you wouldn't have JAMC without the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. Blatant reverence doesn't change the fact that BRMC carves out a sound woefully underrepresented on the current rock scene, a sound that mixes the art of noise with the sullen intensity of dark, hook-filled melodies.
BRMC was no more than a gleam in the eyes of Turner and Hayes back in 1994, when the two friends were just a couple of musical outsiders in the high school wastelands of San Francisco's East Bay. (The exact location is kept a mystery in a BRMC tradition of "never showing the full hand." Turner cites a fear of less-than-perfect yearbook photos.) Turner and Hayes started playing music together because they were both fans of such artists as Ride, the Verve, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and T. Rex.
"He was the only person I'd met in high school who knew any of those bands," says Turner.
The duo needed a drummer, though, and after trying out a number of different contenders, they called Jago, an acquaintance who haunted the same clubs and guitar stores. A six-hour jam session among the three in November 1998 cemented the final lineup.
A year later, BRMC recorded a demo and decided it was time to leave the Bay Area and try to make it in Los Angeles.
"Nobody wanted to [move]," says Turner. "We ran out of cash, needed a place to stay, and didn't have anything going on, so we needed to take off. We just had a long conversation about hoping to come back, but the frickin' rents are going up so much, we don't know how we're going to do it. We have to make a little more money because we are so in debt, but hopefully we'll make it back sometime."
After the band relentlessly played the California club circuit, selling its demos on the spot, BRMC's 13-song recording fell into the hands of MCA Records staffers. Eventually, word spread throughout the tightly networked music industry, and big-label executives ran like lemmings to BRMC's live shows. Instead of taking the highest bidder, the band signed to Virgin in late 1999, enticed by the label's promise of complete artistic control -- a remarkable offering for such a new act, especially from the home of such big sellers as Janet Jackson, Lenny Kravitz, and Mariah Carey.
With Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the band got exactly what it wanted: the independence to write, perform, produce, and even art-direct the record. The band obviously knew what it was doing, too. The songs' multiple sonic layers -- from sultry vocals to surround-sound guitars -- thicken into a landscape of squalling feedback and pop-tinged white noise that's seriously addictive.
Recording an album is only half the trick, of course; rock fans want to see their boys on stage. To this end, BRMC has been gigging nonstop since 1999, opening for the Dandy Warhols, Guided by Voices and Britpoppers Charlatans U.K. and Idlewild, as well as completing its own headlining jaunt.
BRMC uses its live shows to augment its detached, brooding vibe by erecting layers of effects between the band and its audience. Red and white lights and fog machines crowd the stage, leaving the three backlit figures obscured behind bright, smoky colors.
"It keeps us hidden," says Turner, sounding as though he likes it that way.
With strong industry backing and key summer tours, BRMC may not stay hidden for long. Tony Berg, executive vice president of A&R at Virgin, is the man responsible for taking BRMC from its demo days to a major label. He says he's drawn to the band's rebel-with-a-cause vibe.
"I think kids are craving something with real attitude, and believe me, these guys have it," says Berg. "They are their own masters, and I love them for it."
When asked how BRMC fits into the current rock scene, Berg counters, "What I'm attracted to is, in a way, how little they relate to what's happening in rock right now. I think rock music is in the doldrums and is searching for new heroes who are a little more rebellious and independent, who are not likely to be fashioning their sound based on what was on the radio a half-hour ago."
In an era of whine-your-problems-to-the-world rock and show-the-telly-your-brand-new-tits pop, the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club really does live up to its rebellious name. Sure, the trio is moody, image-conscious, and swelling with pretense in every sense of the word -- but that's exactly why it's one of the most interesting major-label acts to plug in an amp in a long time. So to answer the band's own question, this is what's happened to your rock 'n' roll.
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