Rebels without a cause

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club rolls on

When Black Rebel Motorcycle Club released its sophomore album, Take Them On, On Your Own, in late 2003, not even the band itself could have known how prophetic the title would prove to be.

That year, BRMC battled with its record company, Virgin Records, over the album's apparent neglect, which ended with the band and label parting ways. To make matters worse, drummer Nick Jago walked out on the band during a tour stop in Edinburgh, Scotland. Following the very public meltdown, bassist/guitarist Robert Levon Been and guitarist Peter Hayes returned to the States to contemplate an uncertain future.

Hayes can't say he was blindsided by the any of the problems that ultimately engulfed the band. During the mixing of BRMC's first record, there were already signs of label trouble. "Our A&R guy came down and wanted us to change things to sound a certain way, and not in a way we wanted," says Hayes, now sounding more amused than peeved. "When [Virgin] gave us creative control, I'm not sure they realized what that meant to us and what we were going to do with it."

Though label brass threatened to move the group to its indie imprint, Virgin released B.R.M.C., the group's debut, in 2001. BRMC earned radio play for both "Love Burns" and "Whatever Happened to My Rock 'N Roll," and garnered several positive reviews for its stripped-down, driving update of shoe-gazer rock from the early '90s. To a certain extent, BRMC's success was a happy accident. The band arrived just as modern rock radio switched from Limp Bizkit and Korn to the Strokes and the White Stripes.

Virgin, however, apparently wanted more. As Hayes recalls, labels were encouraging many acts to auction off their songs for use in commercials, which was seen as a way to recoup money that might have been lost to illegal downloaders. BRMC was not spared the requests. "But we never did it," says Hayes. "[Virgin] didn't like it when we refused. I'm not sure if that's what caused [the rift], but it definitely felt that way."

Regardless of what soured BRMC's relationship with Virgin, the band felt the effects of the fallout after the release of Take Them On, On Your Own. The album's first single, "Stop," virtually disappeared from radio in a matter of weeks, and subsequent singles failed to make any sort of dent. But in fairness, Take Them On paled in comparison to its predecessor, trading the debut's darkly seductive feedback for more straightforward, traditional rock. Yet Hayes still feels the album was slighted, noting that he still can't find Take Them On on iTunes.

Internally, the band's problems may have stemmed from its road-warrior touring. Perhaps to prove its worth to a skeptical label, BRMC toured behind its debut for two solid years. The grueling schedule took a toll on Hayes, Been and Jago. "[Our relationships] deteriorated and then fell apart," says Hayes. "We kept playing, playing, and playing, but we needed a break. We needed time to step back and rethink the idea we came in with."

That rethink finally came in the form of Howl, a collection of songs steeped in primitive blues and Americana. Howl was recorded without the help of a label or Jago, who rejoined the group after the album's completion. Hayes and Been's plaintive wails and delicately strummed acoustic guitars replace thick, rolling basslines and static-fueled choruses. The shift suits BRMC surprisingly well given that it was a band that thrived on sheer volume. Its change of pace is sure to come as a shock to its audience, but Hayes feels it was a natural progression. "Even before our first album, we knew we had [Howl] in us," says Hayes. "We wrote 'Love Burns' and a few other songs on our first album on the acoustic guitar, so we always felt like we hadn't properly introduced people to the band as a whole."

While Howl does offer a compelling, heretofore well-concealed side of the band, it doesn't exactly clear any easy paths. Even Hayes seems unsure about what Howl will mean long term for BRMC, whether it represents a minor detour or a more lasting change of direction. Either way, the members of the band find themselves in a familiar place: out on their own following a muse of their own design. This time, however, it's not such a bad place to be.