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B.R.M.C. finds darkness, salvation in Americana

Peter Hayes and his band were almost in the limelight.

In 2001, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club released its self-titled debut, along with the blazing and sludgy single "Whatever Happened to My Rock 'n' Roll." It was the year of The Strokes, The Hives and The Vines - what the music media termed "the return of rock." B.R.M.C.'s pondering rock song roped them into this garage-rock revival and even got them played on MTV for a few months.

But the rest of the record contained a lot of slow-burning darkness (no less fascinating but plenty less commercial). The trio's second CD "Take Them On, On Your Own" barely made a blip on the radar and B.R.M.C. was dropped by Virgin Records.

In between then and now, a lot happened. The band continued to play shows. Tensions between members got so strained that drummer Nick Jago left, leaving Hayes and Robert Levon Been to struggle through the rest of a tour. Most importantly, the remaining two guys - free of label pressure - decided to go in a completely new direction.

The resulting CD - full of acoustic blues, ramshackle folk and country soul - is "Howl," released last summer by RCA. Jago is happily back in the band and B.R.M.C. is on tour this winter, combining their new stripped-back Americana with their old, belligerent muck in a rock 'n' roll stew comparable to "Exile on Main Street"-era Rolling Stones.

Earlier this week, Hayes spoke to Sidetracks about his band's rebirth and where B.R.M.C. stands now.

Why the change in sound?

We had a bunch of songs, five or six from the time we were recording the first album. We thought they were good, a part of this band. They were kind of like "Love Burns" or "Shade of Blue" from the second album, you know, written on acoustic guitar.

You've said you didn't want to just burn these off as novelties, by tacking them on at the end of an album. When did you know that these were more important than that?

Kind of from day one. We could have done a quick version of "Shuffle Your Feet" and played it off as a B-side. But in America, no one ever hears B-sides. (Laughs) At least, I didn't when I was buying records. The songs, they were just more important than that. I don't know. Maybe that sounds conceited.

How is this material going live? How does the "Howl" stuff integrating with your older material?

It seems to play well. Some songs have turned into something new. "Sympathetic Noose" is more of a wall of sound now. We're throwing some keyboards into stuff. It just all mixes together.

Are any of the older songs being given the acoustic treatment?

Not really, unless we're doing radio shows or something like that. Though, as far as this album goes, being acoustic, it was funny with the tour that came before. It seemed like all the time we were losing power on stage, like five songs into the set. So, we'd have to finish it with acoustic guitars. In Germany at a festival, we did "Whatever Happened to My Rock 'n' Roll" acoustic. (Laughs). They went nuts for it. I worked well.

Speaking of that song, which sort of placed you in the category of garage-rock revival with The Strokes and The Hives, do you feel you've distanced yourself from that label by going in your current musical direction?

We always felt kinda different than those bands, maybe 'cause we knew we had these songs laying around.

(Laughs) We were also the guys opening for those kind of bands. But, yeah, it feels good to step out of it. There's nothing worse than someone calling you something, just to kill you. That's why you don't want to latch onto those labels.

You've talked about how nice it was to be an unsigned band when you made "Howl." Now that you've signed with RCA, how do you feel it's going?

Pretty good. RCA is trying to put themselves apart and give a [darn] about their bands. They might be more surprised than us. We're looking to tour Australia and Asia and I don't think they thought it would happen. They're being very supportive and want us to tour there.

What is the status of the relationships between band members? I know things were rocky before and during the making of "Howl."

It's all going pretty well. We're going about it in a different way. Not putting any expectations on anyone. It's just growing pains and either you live through it or you're done. It helps that none of us have anything better to do. (Laughs) We might fight, but we get along better with each other than we do with anyone else.

You're touring areas of the Midwest in the coldest part of the year. You've done this for a few years now. Is there something about earning your stripes as a band this way?

For us, yes. I'm not going to say if other bands don't that they're bad. But, we were like, "Give us a van, let's do it." There we were in a van in the winter time and I don't know if anyone knew who we were. But I guess we wanted to do it the old-fashioned way. I don't like it when a band just sort of comes from nowhere. We were paying our dues.

What is coming up for the band?

Hopefully we'll be playing some new songs. After (the tour) we've got a month of time and we already have some stuff recorded. So we'll see. We want to put together some dough to get to South America and Japan again. People think that some guy offers you 100 bucks to play and you just go, but it takes a lot of planning. It's not the glamorous side of rock 'n' roll. We're not in first class yet. We're working on it.

By BRYAN WAWZENEK bwawzenek@nwherald.com

BLACK REBEL MOTORCYCLE CLUB

with Elefant and The Morning After Girls

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: Metro, 3730 N. Clark St., Chicago

TICKETS: $20

INFORMATION: (312) 559-1212 or www.ticketmaster.com

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