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Personal politics

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's second album bolsters its reputation as a band that speaks out about government, relationships and anger.

September 28, 2003|Dean Kuipers | Special to The Times

"I don't like reality. I like the romance," mutters Robert Turner, songwriter and bass player for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, nearly whispering in the back of the tour bus, a refuge even in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles.

Turner runs his hands through his mop of curly hair, admitting he's a little "black and blue" this day. But he seems unduly conflicted about the sociopolitical content that is partly responsible for the popularity of his band's dark, epic rock music.

Songs on the new album, "Take Them On, On Your Own," already have bolstered BRMC's burgeoning reputation as a band that speaks out about politics, relationships and anger. These are "personal politics," says Turner.

"Somewhere where romanticism and reality meet in the middle is this band," he adds, the signature leather jacket scrunching. "It's who we are, and then also the escape of it. A lot of bands, it's more about the escape: fun while it lasts, get your girls, get your money and get out. We are not that band."

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is riding great expectations. The band's 2001 debut has sold half a million copies worldwide without any real radio saturation, and it has spawned what is considered by critics, from England's New Musical Express magazine to Rolling Stone, one of the best songs of the year, "Whatever Happened to My Rock 'n' Roll (Punk Song)."

The track's sweeping attack hit a nerve with its lines: "I gave my heart to a simple chord / I gave my soul to a new religion / Whatever happened to my rock 'n' roll?"

With that, BRMC did become a bit of a spokesband for its generation, asking the question: How much is music supposed to engage real-world problems?

On both its debut and its just-released second album, the group's evocative, slippery lyrics about fickle fadism, the alienating hand of government, apathy, hopelessness and longing have tapped into a hunger for emotional seriousness that has driven the success of rock's emo movement.

But unlike emo, a hyper-personal brand of post-punk with confessional, emotional lyrics, BRMC also is about arty transcendence.

The band propels its anti-messages with a shimmering, dramatic, ultimately satisfying rock sound reminiscent of 1980s Manchester bands such as the Jesus and Mary Chain and Joy Division, but with the languor of Spiritualized.

The effects-laden guitars and vocals by Turner and songwriting partner Peter Hayes, and tribal drumming by Nick Jago, first landed in a world being bombarded by the frantic garage rock of the Hives, White Stripes and Strokes -- bands that BRMC members really like, by the way -- and offered a sweet-sounding diversion.

"BRMC is ambitious the way the best rock bands of the 1960s were ambitious," says David Wolter, the band's A&R rep at Virgin Records. "They are far more precious about their music than any other band I've worked with. A lazy A&R man would call them a pain, but I absolutely love that."

Turner and Hayes met in high school in the San Francisco area. Hayes had grown up in Martinez, Calif., and on a farm in Minnesota. For Turner, music was in his genes; he is the son of Michael Been, former frontman for the '80s Christian new wave band the Call, and lived deep in the tall trees of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

They took up with Englishman Jago in 1998 and started playing San Francisco using a name ripped from Marlon Brando's biker gang in "The Wild One," wearing black leather jackets in homage.

Although they were embraced by San Francisco's tiny mod scene, the eclectic music town showed no affinity for their moody atmospherics, so the three cut a demo and decamped to L.A. in 1999. They struggled, once playing to an audience of two at the Joint.

BRMC signed that year with Virgin Records, which offered full artistic control, a rarity for any new band.

The resulting album was a patient, mid-tempo wash of fuzzed-out minimalism, with the attack of garage but the shimmer of dream-pop. A grueling series of American tours ensued, which got a rise out of only college radio. But in late 2001, Virgin released the album in Europe, and a BBC station deemed it "record of the week." The English hype machine kicked in full force, and by January, BRMC had landed the first of two covers on ME.

Politics of anger

Europe presented BRMC with a logistical problem, however: Jago's visa barred him from returning to the U.S. After one tour abroad with former Verve drummer Pete Salisbury, the band moved to London in 2002 to sort out Jago's paperwork. This took a year, during which they recorded "Take Them On, On Your Own."

The sophomore album is more taut than the first, more devoted to sharply defined songs, and maybe a shade more message-laden. Both "Stop" and "Generation" challenge the "whatever" attitude of the kids Turner and Hayes see as their audience, complaining about artistic and political cynicism with such lyrics as "I think I've had enough of this generation."

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