BRMC Interview: Peter Hayes and Robert Been by Alice Inggs
The night tumbles into dark. It’s cold – the kind of cold that you could imagine freezing hell over. After almost two days at Synergy a slow fade has set in and the main stage area is oddly depleted: the diehard majority seem to be on acid pulling shapes at the electro tent, which seems to have turned into a demented beach party replete with men in neon Speedos. But despite all, there is still a pulsing energy, an intense anticipation building for headliners, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
The wind picks up. In the thin crowd there is an eerie silence. Possibly because people have succumbed to hypothermia. And then a glowing red skull – BRMC symbol – reddens wide eyes, the kick of the drums, revving of guitars is greeted by a collective rebel yell. Smoke rushes across the stage in a firestorm from which multiplying shadows rear and recede, and from this the band emerges, beating the devil’s tattoo.
It’s one hell of a party.
Three days earlier at The Cullinan hotel in Cape Town, the otherworldly aura of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was apparent. All in black leather and silver buckles, speaking with languorous Californian drawls, they draw a laughable amount of attention, and yet they’re not ostentatious. Actually, they have almost indecent composure. They don’t seem the type to party all night doing body shots off groupies or pass out in a mess of drugs and takeaway wrappers…Or maybe they’ve done it all before. Who knows? Anyhow, they seem to have acquired fame and worn through it like a jacket until it fits so well it seems like they’ve had that odd aura of cool for all their lives. Maybe they have.
Like throwbacks to Easy Rider days, living up to the band name, there is a definite sense of the road in their music: either rushing past in brief literary references; or sustained rhythms stretching into the distance; or the engine-like gunning of guitar chords…So that’s what we (What’s On editor, Murray Walker and I) speak about with BRMC frontmen, Peter Hayes and Robert Been:
Do you ride [motorcycles] quite a lot when you’re back home?
Peter, seemingly lost in Neverland, sunglasses permanently affixed to his face making him pretty much unreadable, speaks in a slow cigarette drawl, blue Lucky Strikes not far from his hand:
Peter: It’s all I have. Yeah.
Robert is slightly more forthcoming, a shade lighter in character, but no less inscrutable:
Robert: We took the opportunity to go down to Cambodia for eight days, off-road riding…I was just in heaven even though a lot of it was like hell…
He talks for a long time about being on the road and what he’s seen. He describes South Africa:
Robert: The energy is very intense here; it’s very alive and…unleashed. Everything gets put away and locked in its place where we’re from. Even the ocean itself is growling at you half the time here and is subdued, well, moderately subdued, in California.
Being part of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (musical and literal) affords its members both common ground and time off from the pressures of touring. Robert explains:
Robert: Any group of people you spend such a concentrated amount of time with – and you’re also working – when you have that free time you kinda need to find your own space so your whole world isn’t about one little band…We’re not, like, super social people…we’re all kind of loners anyway, so we have a natural tendency to close off and isolate…so it’s good, it’s really good when things can bring us together…it’s really cool.
We ask Peter about the band dynamic and whether their music is a product of collaboration or individual ideas:
Peter: Yeah…it happens every which-way, you know, Robert writes a song on guitar and um…in his um, in his, in his apartment…Um, sometimes it’ll just stay acoustic and other times we’ll end up putting other things to it, you know, if it inspires me, then I’ll put a keyboard part to it…And other than that if we’re all in the same room together, writing and playing, then we all have good ideas…Leah’s, she’ll go: “That’s getting boring, why don’t you find something else to play”, you know…
He chuckles deeply, briefly animating his shrouded face.
I ask about common themes in their music and particular literary influences or inspiration, bringing up the American canon that has obviously featured in their albums. I guess there’s a reason for this, but both musicians are quick to downplay any claims to literary knowledge:
Peter: No…Uh…I’m not good at dropping names and acting like I’m well read, cos I’m not, but I tend to treat reading poetry like…like the Bible really: you just kinda open it up and if something’s there that you can learn from then that’s great…I don’t see a difference between the two, and I’ve never, uh, sat down and read, you know, one poet’s particular book in its entirety…That’s kinda the way it is you know, some of them touch you, some of them don’t…
Robert: Well Yeats is my favourite writer but I’m so not a literary type, and I hate giving out the impression that I am, you know, we know how to steal things here and there but that doesn’t really give us the, uh, credo to walk around like we’re big literary nerds…
I love taking little things that inspire you, that you catch along the way…I kinda hope everyone kinda does that, you know, you catch things – a book or a story – um anything that you find touches you…Doesn’t mean you’re an expert on that, but with music it’s good to stay open to those things…You kinda piece it all together in the end like a collage of, you know, your last couple of years – something that kinda makes some sort of sense…Nothing ever does, but at least it does for that time…
Murray, quick witted as always, seizes on a theme in the sprawling ideas and languorous sentences uttered by the two ‘non-literary’ types who ironically echo Kerouac and co in speech and style:
If you find something that jumps out at you, do you find you will inevitably write music to it – well not to it – but will it inspire you to write music?
Peter puts out a cigarette. Smoke, lit by the sun, lazily drifts across his face, adding yet another veil of inscrutability.
Peter: No…no… It’s more for peace of mind, really…that someone else happened to think like you think. It’s for moral support in the world, you know.
Um, and I guess that in some ways it gives you a little bit of hope to write, you know, I can write about that, because this person’s thinking about that, you know, I’m not the only one.
It’s soporific in the sun with the boys’ lazy drawling, speaking of things that rest on the surface of who they really are. I guess it’s time to talk about rock and roll.
I comment on how BRMC has pretty much retained a particular sound throughout over ten years of band history, whereas many bands have conformed their sound or style to the trend of the moment (see: Electro everything). Peter responds:
Peter: Yeah, it’s pretty difficult for bands to go through phases that people want to hear; if it’s a phase of having keyboards to make it sound grandiose…it’s been happening forever…I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong about that, but you are setting yourself up for the end to come because those phases end and then your band is gone because that phase has ended…so if you lie to yourself, you know…You’re continually going to be over – by the time you catch up you might be old news already. So we just try to stick to writing a good song…that’s about it.
Sometimes it’s a little frustrating, because you show up to play and they have this strict curfew: you gotta be off stage, you gotta be out of there by…whatever it is…sometimes it’s nine, sometimes it’s twelve…and they rush you off stage just to get the DJ up there to do his thing…you know, what the fuck, shouldn’t it be the other way round? Rock and roll is supposed to be fuckin late at night and all that and it’s just weird….
Uh huh, I think…Whatever happened to real rock and roll? Flash forward to Synergy three days later, midnight at the main stage, where I very quickly find out:
The crowd – a ninth circle horde – reach up for non-absolution. In a sea of souls, arms curved like devil horns (which seems to be popular headgear), clapping to the beat, the full effect of the band’s power is apparent. A girl climbs the camera rig and hangs from above, her long hair blowing across her face, silhouetted against the light, grinding to the music. At some point she is removed. No one seems to notice – all eyes, all minds are on the band.
They sing with sibilant sounds, whispering sixes: “you’re a 666 conducer, how do you do the things you do sir…” And all those stories – devil at the crossroads, selling your soul for rock and roll – make sense. As does an earlier comment from Robert (who is currently high up on stage, firing up his guitar, urging the restless sinners on):
Robert: Music is such a powerful thing but like anything it can become diluted and you get spoiled or you can’t understand the worth of it, you know, a concussion of music slamming into your head and you’re stuck hearing it all the time you don’t know what’s what, so sometimes when you have, it less it means more…
In the context of rock and roll, he was devilishly accurate.
Read our interview with BRMC drummer Leah Shapiro here.
Arranging words, taking pictures, listening to 80s synthpop and all-time rock&roll while I work.
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