On the day in late winter that I catch up with Robert Levon Been of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club there are connection problems. He’s in a place, likely somewhere in California near the band’s home base, with bad reception. Somehow this seems like the perfect backdrop for which to frame our discussion of the band’s wildly diverse exercise in the inherent passion pit of rock ‘n’ roll, Beat the Devil’s Tattoo.

It’s been quite a road to hoe for the gentlemen travelers in black. Finally parting with founding drummer Nick Jago after years of turmoil during the world tour in support of 2008’s excellent Baby 81, Been and BRMC co-founder Peter Hayes were left in a compromising position – finish what they started or just… finish. Enter replacement drummer Leah Shapiro, who had cut her touring teeth previously with The Raveonettes. Through Shapiro’s dedicated work ethic, BRMC was able to carry on, guns blazing, doing what they do best: recreating the sound of a 747 taking off on your head every night.

Beat the Devil’s Tattoo, BRMC’s sixth record, is a journey through the band’s finest moments and greatest strengths: the guitar scuzz of 2001’s self-titled debut, and the Heartland-hugging acoustic sentiment of 2005’s phenomenal and phenomenally underrated classic, Howl. Lead single “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo” is ludicrously perfect; the type of album intro that longtime fans and supporters guffaw at because it’s such an inspired moment for a band that has eternally remained on the cusp of It Status, but never quite got there, despite legions of followers (and journalists alike) who have supported BRMC at every turn. The album then proceeds to paint the type of vast and visceral landscapes Cormac McCarthy or the Coen brothers would approve of – preacher creatures, side-winding miscreants, and battle-weary soldiers, the Jim Starks of the world, Delta bluesmen, and the all-encompassing (and perhaps unrequited) desires of lovers on the edge of the night. It’s a road well traveled for BRMC, but a road they have expertly captured and branded by going for broke, even if it broke their backs.

Beat the Devil’s Tattoo was recorded in same studio as Howl in Philly. I’ve read that it was one of the most intense creative experiences and recording sessions of your lives. Especially during the harsh winter, in a basement.
Intense in another sense of the word; maybe in a good sense of the word. It’s kind of nice to lock yourself away from the world and just really put yourself into one thing, and we couldn’t physically leave even if we wanted to. We didn’t know people there, really, so sometimes it pays not to have friends. Working on it was not intense in the way of maybe some of the stuff in our past [where] we have almost come to blows, where it’s just an intense process for other reasons. But I guess putting that energy in the right place is what it’s about, so, I feel like we went into the album this time instead of our own mental instability to see where it ends up. [laughs]

How has Leah, your new drummer, invigorated and inspired you and Peter?
[Laughs] Well, she was kind of a last-ditch effort that worked out beyond anyone’s expectations. We had a tour to finish, and we considered canceling it and re-working the whole thing. We didn’t even know if we wanted to keep going. She was the only person we knew that played the drums, and we really didn’t want to audition people because that’s not really the kind of band we wanna have. Beyond even the luxury of being able to decide what kind of band you want to be in, [laughs] it was kind of heartbreaking after Nick, so, the last thing we wanted to do was start dating again.

For that tour, she learned about 40 songs in three weeks and just floored us. We’re extremely obsessive about things being exactly the way we hear them in our heads. And once that tour was finished, we were like, ‘Alright, you can play the old songs good, but how’s it gonna be if we get into the writing thing which is a whole other animal?’ I think all of us were a little nervous about that, even her, because that’s one thing you can’t learn. Either you have that sensibility or you don’t. She was great, though. We wrote most of this record with her from the ground up and it was a good feeling. I feel that [it] sounds like when we first started; a more natural flow. We wouldn’t be here, or have made this album without her in any way. We call the band Black Rebel, and there’s all sorts of questions in her head, but she just fit.

This album really feels like you guys are firing on all your strengths, from what you did on Howl to your first and second releases.
brmccover1I think in the back of my mind, we always wanted to be able to merge all these different worlds together. We didn’t want to make another Howl, or to copy anything we’ve done in the past, or do the Take Them On album again, so it was more, ‘Let’s see if we can bring all the sides together,’ which is difficult to go from a blaring rock song to an acoustic, country-based sound. The songs work together, I don’t really know why, and for some reason, we all got along together. We all played nicely together, and that’s kind of the most you can ask for. It wasn’t much of a concept, except we were just trying to put all of our multiple personalities into one thing, and it kinda worked! I don’t feel satisfied yet, which is probably a good thing, but there’s still more ways to [express] our schizophrenic personality in there somewhere! We just gotta dig a little deeper.

“River Styx” is very swampy and very sexual. It almost calls to mind the show True Blood in spirit.
We always joke about how a couple songs on the album are …how do I say this? We weren’t getting laid much, and as funny as it is, it makes for really good music. All of that tension goes into the song.

Well, horniness makes for great rock music.
Yeah! Rock ‘n’ roll is a very sexual thing, and that’s what they were thinking when they came up with it. But I think they lost the ‘roll’ part of it. Now there’s just songs that feel like… fucking? Rock songs feel like fucking, and rock ‘n’ roll feels like…I wouldn’t say making love, but, at least doing it right. Music is so connected to your whole body in every sense and it’s fun to remember that, and not be ashamed or hide any of those taboos. It’s all there!

It’s natural!
[Laughs] It certainly beats… [laughs] Well I guess it’s natural, but it depends on how you do it! And that’s open to interpretation, but, it’s better than sex, better than drugs, and better than a lot of shit out there when it’s done right. We always joke that [those songs] came from a place like a Twin Peaks kind of lounge. When we started out, we played it a different way, like a joke. We were like, ‘Oh, we’ll play it in this super slower, swampy, voodoo-sex sort of thing.’

Very dirty blues.
Yeah, and it was because we were tired of it in some way. I don’t think we’ve ever done a straight, loungy… kind of reminds me of The Doors sometimes. We’ve never done that before, and I’m really glad we were able to put a song like that on the record. There’s other songs like that on the record, but I won’t fess up.

Well…come on. “Aya.”
[Laughs] Yeah! Maybe that’s what having a female drummer in the band gets ya. It gets you into trouble. She’s like our sister, and I’ll let people have a little bit more fun with the rumor mill and what’s going on with that. Is it solidarity when all of us go down together? If I’m not getting any, no one’s getting any. [laughs] So we’re brothers and sisters until the end.

Tracks like “Conscience Killer,” “Evol,” “War Machine,” and “Mama” really burn. Feels like some deep, dark stuff going on there.
[Laughs] What can I tell you about darkness…ow. I wouldn’t use the word ‘dark’ to sum them up, and they don’t share that much in common in some ways besides they run around in the dark. [laughs] But all things that go bump in the night are not the same!

Part of the reason the name of the record was from this [Edgar Allen] Poe poem, and a couple other things, but the original meaning of the [title] was this drumming beat rhythm for calling soldiers home at night back to the camps. The drummer would ‘beat the devil’s tattoo,’ for them to come home. But also it felt like the ‘devil at the crossroads,’ it had the feeling of a blues title. I really feel in a lot of ways that this album is based on the blues. And if it’s not apparent musically, it’s apparent in the words. There’s different forms of darkness, but it’s pretty much just singing the blues.


Any chance we’d ever see a blues record from BRMC?
A straight-ahead blues record, no, because I don’t like any kind of music that comes at you directly or head-on. I’d like the idea of it for about five minutes, and then start doing it and get bored. I like that there are obscure perspectives and different forms of music. Even Howl is not straight-ahead anything. It had a nature, but it was a natural nature!

‘Conscience Killer’ is pretty personal. Peter wrote that song. We were watching this Elvis marathon on Bravo or Turner Movie Classics and it was like, every Elvis movie that he ever made, and it played for like, 24 hours. Pete stayed up all night. I went to bed and he was watching it, and I woke up and he was still watching it. I think it was the anniversary of his death or something. Then we started jamming to this new song and ‘Conscience Killer’ came out of that. I just know that the beginning of it is a really mutated version of King Creole… the [sings] ‘Wooo oooh oooh ooh,’ comes from that place, but it also as if the Stooges were backing Elvis. I like making people cock-eyed. Never give people what they expect, or you might actually make a living! [laughs] And we wouldn’t want that!

“The Toll” is really something – a real centerpiece on the record.
Peter wrote that song from the ground up. He writes from another place with music a lot that I can’t do, that I really admire. He’s just got an old soul, I guess, because there’s no other way to explain it. [laughs] That young pup! He sang with this girl Courtney Jaye who is from Nashville, a singer-songwriter. It almost didn’t make the album. We cut like, 13 songs, and kept a couple for b-sides and other things, and then maybe save [some] for the next album. That was the only difficult part of the record – deciding which ones to let go. I’m glad it made it though, but not everyone’s happy about the ones that did! [laughs] Everybody had to sacrifice a little bit, but that was good, even with the heartbreak.

One reason why your band has remained a firm favorite to mine is that I believe you. I believe your performances, and also respect that you also unfailingly commune with your fanbase, as the recent live DVD showed.
I didn’t expect that side of any of this when I picked up a guitar. When we started putting a band together the last thing I wanted to do was talk to people, or… I thought that if you’re a band, you at least have an excuse to be an asshole and not please everybody, and still come off as…mysterious. Which might cancel out the fact that you’re a prick. With touring, it’s true; I feel that other bands and the people they draw…there’s scenes and things that I don’t really want to be a part of. And for whatever reason, it seems that the best bunch of weirdoes and outsiders…they’re very passionate about us, and that goes both ways. That’s an AC/DC power. They’re very passionate and for the most part, very respectful. Even though there have been a few troubled souls. [The fans] come to our level as much as we come to theirs, and that’s why it works. It’s not all us or anything, and it’s not really all them…it’s the fact that we meet in the middle.

I value it more now, because the way the Internet has played such a huge part in the way people socialize and we’re becoming more and more disconnected to each other, even though it gives the illusion of intimacy. It’s nothing like that, and I really value people coming out of their homes with their Facebook or whatever else they’re boxed into and sitting down in an alley and hanging out, or being at a show around people. You remember that a community can be a real thing, and not just the illusion of people being close together. I’m hoping it stays and grows with that. It’s a powerful thing when people come together. And they’re not together…even with Obama trying to bring people online and send mailing list things, which is really cool that it keeps everyone connected like that, but it’s not real connection. Don’t be fooled by it. People think, ‘Ah, if I have a thousand friends on this and that, then people love me, and I’m close to people in the world,’ but you’re not. Music, and especially live music… it’s really important to keep people real.  –Carrie Alison, Photos by Tessa Angus

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