Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: The Wild Ones

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

Today we take a brief respite from heralding the posse of promising artists emerging post-COVID in not just the U.S. but across the world. Have no fear: We’ll get back to the up-and-comers soon enough. But for now, The Bad Penny is taking a breather and dusting off a hard-to-find yet epic conversation with the legendary Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

We’re rolling out the exhaustive interview shortly before one of San Francisco’s most iconic garage/psych bands celebrates it 25th anniversary next year. Buckle up: This cover story from the May/June 2002 issue of Amplifier is one of the more comprehensive accounts of BRMC that you’ll find anywhere.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club hears the road calling. It’s the sound every wanderlust band falls for: a sweet, tempting noise that promises adventure, even danger, if one gives in. Unknown experiences, for better or worse, lie ahead. Their bags are packed. Nothing is in order. BRMC is ready to go.

Where to? A smattering of cities throughout the United States, where they will whet the appetites of crowds congregated to worship them. Where they will napalm the ears of unsuspecting attendees with a million decibels of blistering psychedelic madness — a guitar sound big enough to fill Wyoming, sonic booming bass lines and drum frenzies that shatter glass three miles away.

With nary a single day of rest after the tour, the trio shove off for Europe where they must relocate to mend visa problems that have begun to thwart drummer Nick Jago‘s participation in the band. There they will enroll themselves as citizens of the Vagabond Society, tickling the grounds of foreign lands.

Today is March 24 and Jago is strolling around San Francisco, his home town of seven years, for one of the last times before BRMC embark on their indefinite worldwide journey. The simple pleasures of the Bay Area satisfy the man who pummels his set every night, as brothers-in-arms guitarist Peter Hayes and bassist Robert Turner stand a few feet in front of him, one on either side.

You’re doing a cover story on us? Thanks a lot! So you probably want to talk a bit.
I’ve got all the time in the world.”

-Nick Jago

“Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.” What seems like a never-ending groan is the first sound to come out of his mouth. But just as the dark curtain falls, he dashes it aside with a much brighter reassurance: “It’s going good.” Damn straight it is. This young band — ages 22 and 23 — is a critic’s darling, thanks especially to BRMC’s eponymous, mind-blowing debut released last year. The group has also been asked to open for Spiritualized‘s current tour and Oasis‘ next outing. What more could a musician ask for? Hint: nothing.

Jago’s voice rises as he says, “You’re doing a cover story on us? Thanks a lot! So you probably want to talk a bit. I’ve got all the time in the world.” Not exactly. Jago’s visa problem has begun to dictate BRMC’s immediate future (they were forced to cancel their scheduled appearance at this year’s Coachella Festival in Indio, Calif.).

Although remaining somewhat elusive about the actual details — would we really want to hear him recite a 100-page immigration booklet, anyhow? — the U.K. native overviews The Situation: “I’ve got a visa problem that will get fixed a lot quicker if I go to Europe and play shows, play the rest of the world, basically do loads of media stuff,” he explains. “Even this interview is a good thing, it’s helping out. Getting a huge package together to present to U.S. Immigration and say, ‘Look, Nick Jago, he’s an English guy, he’s a good guy, he’s making money in this country.’ So that’s that. I’m not a cocaine dealer or a terrorist or anything.”

He lovingly recalls thoughts of his initial touchdown in the States as a teenager, specifically the East Bay area: “My mother lived up there, she was the first person I stayed with. It was nice because Robert and Peter live a 10-minute drive away, and it was just like, ‘Wow, I came all the way out from the U.K., landed in this spot, and, lo and behold, the band of my dreams is a 10-minute drive away! Pretty fuckin’ cool.”

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: The Wild Ones

It was less than four years ago that the boys met. After clicking almost instantly, ditching their Elements moniker and taking one up in reference to Marlon Brando’s The Wild One, a 13-song demo album was produced. Funds limited the album to a mere 500 copies, but word caught on, and bang – suddenly the BRMC were signed to Virgin Records and asked to perform at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Simple as that.

“I feel pretty lucky,” Jago imparts. “We’re starting to get our heads above water. I always feel that the band could be a lot bigger than what it is right now, but there’s something about BRMC that makes me think we’re always going to be on the undercurrent, on the low a little bit.

“The exciting thing is I don’t think I know where we’re going with it. When we’re playing a song it feels like that sometimes, when we’re writing it on the spot. It’s really exciting. At the same time I just enjoy being in the band, y’know? That’s the coolest thing in the world to do. And I think my band mates feel the same way.” We’ve got nothing else to do.”

Not nothing, exactly. Jago is also a painter, and Virgin has featured his images on the cover of several BRMC 7-inches. His paintings are also plastered across the band’s website, “I’d really like to get my artwork out there,” he declares. “I think I was going insane in the U.K., ’cause I really wanted to do art and music together. And I realized I really wanted to do music. Then it turned full circle and I got to do both.

“I just had a thought yesterday to hire a studio, buy loads of paint and really do a great painting for myself. And then sell the fucker. It’s important to keep your talent, keep your gift alive. If you have a gift, you’ve got to exercise it, otherwise it’s going to go away.”

“I always feel that the band could be a lot bigger than
what it is right now, but there’s something about BRMC that makes me think we’re always going to be on the undercurrent, on the low a little bit.”

-Robert Turner

But music is what makes him happiest. Which is all the more reason it so pained Jago — and the other two band members — when he discovered he couldn’t head to Europe on a previous tour without having to return immediately to the United States. Hayes and Turner enlisted former Verve skinster Pete Salisbury to take over Jago’s duties but, as anyone will tell you, it just wasn’t the same.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Tour of Duty

Now the band is gearing up for a stint as the real BRMC. “For me, it’s going to be the first time with the band on a bus, which is nice,” Jago says. “We’re going to drive up to Seattle to the Showbox Showroom & Lounge, the first gig of those dates across the country. It’s really nice he [Jason Spaceman] asked us to come out with them. Whenever I see Spiritualized play in America, he never seems to take out an opening band. I think the last one was Acetone. So that’s a privilege. Spacemen 3 [Spaceman’s former unit] is fucking incredible, still blows me away. This makes more sense than going on tour with some other band I don’t want to mention. This feels right, y’know?”

Jago relates a story about the night he first met Jason backstage at San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium. “They were opening for Radiohead that night, and I was there through a friend of a friend. I was just happy to be there, to be able to meet the band. And then the guy tries to kick me out! My friend had to be like, ‘No, he’s cool, he’s Nick, he’s a really good drummer!’ But Jason, I made him really nervous — he tried to kick me out. Almost did, but now he’s never going to get rid of me. We’re going to be seeing a lot of each other.”

Jago says he’s looking forward to jogging the Spaceman’s memory him about the incident. “I don’t think he knows. I’m going to have to say, ‘Look, you’ve got to be nice to people.’ Because what goes around comes around.”

“All three of us being together, it’s more than music, you know?
You’re always together, you’re always touring, you just look at all the shit you go through.
That’s what I’m happy for — to have the chance to step out of my own head.”

-Nick Jago

Anticipation over the tour builds throughout our conversation. Although he expects no major glitches, Jago does reveal past difficulties BRMC has encountered with its mind-bending live performance. “We’ve had nightmares on the road with the amp being too loud onstage. We really have a high stage volume. I guess most bands have a low stage volume — and they amplify the noise outside. It kind of makes sense, y’know? It really makes sense — do it like everybody else does. But no, ‘We have to be completely different! Black Rebel Motorcycle Club!'”

One can only imagine the potential ear damage they would inflict were they to swell their ranks with a second guitarist. “I can’t see it happening,” Jago agrees. “Peter has to carry the whole band with that one guitar. He plays the shit out of the guitar live. Some of the stuff on record he just can’t do, it’s not physically possible, ’cause you’ve only got one guitar player. But he makes up for it because he does his own variations on certain parts. But yeah, he’s fucking loud as fuck. I always tell him to turn it down, but he’s never going to do it. Everybody’s always telling him to turn it down.”

Jago also talks about a recent multipurpose event BRMC hosted up in San Fran – one that included a video shoot for their song “Spread Your Love.” It featured a performance by Peaches and also served as a fundraiser for compadre Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. To the band’s knowledge, the notoriously danger-prone Newcombe had wound up in jail a few days prior — in fact, he was let out and paid the band a surprise visit at the event. “There was a lot of stuff happening, so it was like, ‘Are we trying to do too much here?’ A video shoot, party, barbecue. But I really enjoyed the whole experience. It was like a miniature Glastonbury.”

Black Rebel Motorcycle Stay in Good Spirits

Six days later. The afternoon after the band’s first night with Spiritualized. Bassist Robert Turner, talking on a cell phone in Portland, Ore., is jazzed. “The beginning show is always the weirdest one. You always get the most shit ’cause everyone’s really nervous. No one gives you too much; everyone kind of pushes and feels you around. It’s been the opposite — all the guys are really cool, and I haven’t met any of them before. You do a supporting tour and think it’s going to be short-end-of-the-stick kind of shit. Which is good, ’cause you shouldn’t have any expectations. But they’ve been really gracious and cool. It doesn’t feel like we’re supporting — we’re trying to figure out what we’re doing here!”

“It’s kind of like that speed-of-life thing: emotions start getting bigger and faster
and now we’re starting to slip our skin and go beyond even that. …
You don’t know what’s around the next corner, which is scary and beautiful at the same time.”

-Robert Turner

“They gave us 45 minutes,” Turner continues, “which is a good chunk for opening up. We got off stage and Jason was like, ‘You know, if you guys want, you should play a full set. It was about the strangest thing we’ve ever heard from a headlining band. But it made a little more sense when they played for two-and-a-half hours. They want the whole thing to feel like one unit as much as possible.” Still gushing about the set, Turner adds, “It’s like taking a real long shower, y’know? When it’s too hot, and you’re in there too long, but it’s pleasurable? It’s a little too much, but you don’t want to stop it.”

Some other tours have not been as successful for BRMC, at least to the band. A spot opening for the Waterboys proved problematic. “We really didn’t like that tour and it was weird because we really liked the crew,” Turner states. “It was the hardest tour we’ve ever done and you kind of wonder, ‘Why am I doing this? What’ll come from this?’ That’s kind of our philosophy, that every bad experience brings a good one. It’s funny because half of the crew from that tour are the crew from Spiritualized! And it has a lot to do with how we got hooked up with this tour, because this woman Karen [Spiritualized tour manager] gave a tape to Jason and so it all worked out. You just step back and think, ‘It all fits in.’ A universal kind of thing.”

Although the band kept its set list more or less intact during previous tours, their strong rapport with Spiritualized, as well as more touring experience in general, has spurred them to shake it up a bit. They previewed a new song, “Stop,” at the Seattle show, and would’ve unveiled more fresh material had they known about their expandable time onstage. Also on tap is “Shades of Blue,” another unheard song, and “U.S. Government,” which has already attracted some controversy. Says Turner, “Everyone’s so pressure-cooker about what’s going on right now. And the song was written about [September 11], so we’re kind of letting it lie a bit, not playing it every show.”

Last night’s show stands in contrast to their recent European tour, which was again conducted without Jago in tow. “It was miserable, ’cause we weren’t playing all together as a band,” Turner fumes. But at the same time, “We got the rare experience not many bands get to feel what it’s like with a person missing. This whole, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ Most bands go through that after having broken up and then having a reunion tour, but we had to go a couple months where it was like, fight through the hours,” Turner says.

“It really showed me what it is, all three of us being together. It’s more than music, you know? And that’s the way it is with a lot of bands, I guess, but you just don’t stop to really recognize it ’cause you’re always down in the trenches. You’re always together, you’re always touring, you just look at all the shit you go through. That’s just the way it is. That’s what I’m happy for — to have the chance to step out of my own head.”

The Wild Black Yonder

BRMC have already come a long way, Turner relates, since their pre-signed days busking at assorted venues in San Francisco and Los Angeles. “We played San Francisco to death in the beginning,” he says, “and that was really just learning to play our instruments the right way.”

And now, mere months after slipping out of its diapers, BRMC is ready for major changes. “We leave the day this tour ends,” Turner says. “We fly to Europe. It’s weird because packing for this tour was, like, packing for the next six months. You didn’t really know what to bring. Just keep movin’. It’s scary in one way, picking up everything, leaving everything you know. But at the same time, you feel more alive than usual.”

“I always feel that the band could be a lot bigger than what it is right now, but there’s something about BRMC that makes me think we’re always going to be
on the undercurrent, on the low a little bit.”

-Nick Jago

“It’s kind of like that speed-of-life thing: emotions start getting bigger and faster and now we’re starting to slip our skin and go beyond even that,” Turner continues. “Come to a place we’re maybe not ready for yet, which is, I dunno, it just makes things a lot more sensitive, in a good way. Start feeling and smelling and tasting everything a bit more. You don’t know what’s around the next corner, which is scary and beautiful at the same time.”

Although Turner may speak of BRMC’s future in the short-term, one would be gravely mistaken to think of the band as a gang of adolescent-minded crash-and-burners — even if they are a young band on a major label. “There’s a glory in the die-when-you’re-25 kind of thing — make your great album and that’s all you really tried for. It doesn’t interest me to try to be great for a day, or make something that people remember for five minutes. It’s surprising. I can understand it, but it’s not what I’m in it for.”

Moreover, it’s startling to hear a band in BRMC’s position actually discuss time off — all the more evidence to suggest that they want to be in it for the long-term. “We love playing, that’s the reason we’re all doing it,” Turner says, “but you gotta give yourself a break. Make sure there’s time to sit down and record and think about the next step. We’re going full-steam ahead, but nothing past September, which is good.”

All the same, BRMC is finding a way to integrate spontaneity into its adventure. Although they are resolved to live abroad until Jago’s visa issues are settled, “We’re thinking about staying in Spain, Barcelona or Italy [after September] and recording the next thing,” Turner says. “I don’t want to be in England, want to stay as far away from that. Nothing too wrong with it — weather’s bad, but besides that. We can go anywhere ’cause there’s nothing holding us down anymore. Why would you pick England? That’s really why we’re going somewhere else — to make it worth it.”

Oh BRMC, the places you’ll go.

This cover story originally appeared in the May/June 2002 issue of Amplifier.

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