WE'RE ALL IN LOVE
"I'm nervous about where we're going to go next, I don't know how many people are going to be into it. Before this record was done, we kept thinking about this kind of concept album. Ever since Peter and I were writing together, we'd write this band songs we could use and then root-C, back porch, bluesy, country, Dylan-esque acoustic stuff. They wouldn't quite fit with what we're doing now, but it's way too tempting to make a whole album isolated with that kind of sound and see how far we can go with that. It kept running around our heads when we were making this record. It has to be the next album. We're going to use it as an excuse to take some time off. This tour will be kind of our last tour. We'll make this Americana record and take a year off. We haven't got a break since the last one and we know they're not giving us any time unless we take it ourselves. If we get it right, it will be the masterpiece."
Bram van Moorhem interviews Robert Turner of the men in black, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
COPYRIGHT © 2004, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
3AM: So touring is a means of education for BRMC?
RT: Oh yeah, it's the best way. To play for as many people as you can and learn from them. We played every day for two years and that's constant practicing on stage, even in the hardest times. Our performance got much tighter and stronger. Sometimes people say "He's a great guitar player", which usually means they're like Santana or Clapton. They can play fancy things, but it's the most unappealing thing to me. We play great and simple and still have a message to get across without tricking it out. And we'll probably get better. You know, someone asked me to make a top ten list for some magazine. BRMC Top 10 of whatever you want. I wanted to make a list of best musicians, just to get people think about musicianship again. Nowadays, you get top tens of haircuts, top tens of singles and best dress. No one ever makes a list of great guitar players. I really had a hard time doing it, I got six names but I couldn't get ten. It's terrible. So I got depressed and threw it out. I might not have said this before, but on our last album, I definitely think that as far as musicianship goes, we're probably at our best about what we do. That's a pretty grotesque thing to say, but I don't see much competition wise. The great bands, the great singer-songwriters and all that shit. I don't know, nobody really cares anyway (laughs).
3AM: People tend to care more about the image than the music. There are some great musicians out there, like the Rolling Stones, who got more credit for what they were rather than what they did.
RT: They were great in that sense, they were cool. When people talk about musicians they don't really talk about that. That is the truth. Greatness is knowing where not to go. And keeping a raw feeling in that as well. I never heard anyone talk about us in that way. People say things like I play aggressive bass or something, but rarely does anyone make a statement like 'this is well crafted music'. It's a shame; they're truly missing a large part of the picture.
3AM: Isn't that partly why the music press is labelling you as a difficult, mysterious band? Obviously, that's the easy way out.
RT: Yeah, I know. It's a mystery or it's Jesus and Mary Chain or it's haircuts. It's a lot easier to write about and it's a lot easier to sell. Press wise, it's not our job to shift that perception. Our job is to make great music, people will figure that out some day. As long as it hits them and it gets to them, if it sparks something in them, they don't need to be educated in that sense or whatever. It's the job of the whole record to make that happen.
3AM: Does the album match your live sound?
RT: Sonically, we wanted to make an album as much as the way the band sounded playing in a room, but there are technically so many things that keep you from doing that. So you can only come close. I wish more producers and engineers, inventors who are working on the next pedal or whatever, try and find out how to compress a sound. Bringing 120 decibels down to whatever fits on a CD and make that translate. More so than trying to figure out how the next Linkin Park can sound like an action movie. Those tech heads are looking in the wrong place. That's what it's all about: you go to a live show because nothing sounds like that.
3AM: Is that one of the reasons why you're producing the albums yourselves? You don't want other people to mess around with the sound, right?
RT: Yeah, that's it. It's the lack of producers more than us wanting to produce it. We don't want to change our sound. I get the bass sound I want, Peter gets the guitar sound he wants. Nick plays his drums the way he wants them. OK, it's a little more complicated than that, but not really. We just try to make it sound the way the song wants it to. And, you know, sometimes concept drifts a little too much in, but we never end up with something that wasn't intended.
3AM: Isn't it tough to make decisions with three people in a studio?
RT: It's tricky. The fewer people there, the better for making it. But, at the same time, it's not the best thing. We just stick it out and fight it out and argue over the EQ of the hi-hat and completely useless shit that makes us want to die but, at the same time, we argue about the important things as well. No one else can make it sound the way we want it to sound. That doesn't mean we won't find somebody, but right now, by default, we're getting better at it. I didn't have much respect for the sound we made, but now I feel the limitations and the un-professionalism are some of the best things about it. There's heart in that and there's a fingerprint… I think that carries weight with people.
3AM: Critics make endless comparisons with other bands. I understand they need some kind of categorization, but don't you guys ever get fed up with those comparisons?
RT: I think I felt honored by it for the first couple of weeks. In the beginning, it was great to be compared to the best bands out there, but after a while… We read more than most people see, so we see a lot of people saying the same thing. But some kid living in a town, probably just reads a couple of papers over there. It does get to you when you see the whole of it, but I can't cry about it. There' are so many great bands that have had the same story, greater bands and then they've stopped being compared with others. It's also that first album thing, you know? It's the first record, what else do you compare with? At least the things we are compared with are great. They just shouldn't keep doing it for a couple of albums.
3AM: Doesn't it put a certain pressure on you? You'll have to live up to certain standards.
RT: No. My standards of us are much higher than those of other people (laughs). That's actually more frightening. At least you know where you are shooting. It's the endless perfection that can never be attained that is much more tedious.
3AM: Is it right to assume that you aim for perfection through improvisation?
RT: Yeah. Nick would start a drum beat or I start a bass line, Pete would come along with something, Nick would do that for ten minutes and whoever, me or Pete, jump on a microphone and sing something over it. That's how it came. And we did that live too: at the end of a night, at the end of the last song, we just kept playing, we kept jamming on it. So the song changed over the course of months. That's how 'Stop' came about, that's how 'Six Barrel Shotgun', 'Heart and Soul' came about. A lot of improvisation, a lot of jamming, it's very natural. All that stuff aside, it doesn't really matter how it got there. But the fact that almost each song is a natural sort of extension is one of the things I am most proud of. That's our strength: us three together playing on stage. Writing something alone in a corner, brining it in, producing it, is very one-dimensional, to my mind. Writing together makes it easier; you don't have to write a whole fucking song. (laughs) It's like painting. You throw paint together, instead of trying to get every piece of the painting right. It feels more like a peer kind of inspiration.
3AM: And it brings spontaneity to the album.
RT: I lost that. I heard the songs so many times and arranged them so many ways, mixed them twenty times, that the spontaneity's gone. I would give anything for a glimpse of the spontaneous thing.
3AM: A bit like every musician's desire to see themselves perform, isn't it?
RT: Yeah. I've never seen us play before. (laughs). We're one of the best bands around and I've never seen us play. That's the curse of it all. That's what Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, anybody in a great band, has to suffer. They are never going to see their great band play. Never get to a show and experience that show. Video is nothing, you can't tell anything from those. (pause) Ha, ha, this guy that mixed our record… he was contacting us for some time, because he really liked our stuff. But when we asked him to help us out, he didn't want to do it. He wanted to buy the album when it was ready. It's a bit psycho, but I understand.
3AM: Is band chemistry something you fully understand? Or does it work on a subconscious level, is it something you don't want to understand?
RT: I understand it, but I haven't got the limitations of it. Every time I think 'ok, he adds so much and I add so much,' it gets me by surprise that Peter and Nick go further than I thought they could. That's the most unquestionable part of it; you never know how far someone can go. It's an amazing thing. That's the great thing about music. If you're some solo artist writing your songs, you have those moments and get caught up in it, but very rarely compared to a band.
3AM: You don't know the limitations of the whole, what about the limitations of the parts…
RT: My strengths are also limitations. I am more trained musically, I see things easier. I can really push the other two and guide them. At the same time that's a limitation. Anything schooled in the mind runs out pretty quick, you know. Peter is brilliant, really, but he also has a capacity for believing things are great that are just awful. We only have the great stuff because it comes from both sides… I just have to convince him things from another side, I guess. He is fiery, he goes further. A lot of the biting lines on this record are him screaming about something. Like 'Six Barrel Shotgun', someone picking up the record is going to get hit by the lyrics, while, for him, he is just singing about his love of music and his guitar. A six-barrel shotgun: a six-string guitar.
3AM: Your lyrics are often vague and…
RT: Vague? They're much more literal than our last record. A lot of things I'm singing about are faintly literal, but we also went for subject matter and feelings we tried to express more to the point. The last album was kind of shooting in the dark. Luckily, it worked out… But I like both sides. There are un-literal lyrics, but they still carry a lot of weight with people, they meant specific things with folks. On this album a lot less questions are asked than the first (laughs). A lot of songs without question marks. It seems like there's much more statements, more statements of intent on this album. I like to think we answered a lot of questions with this album.
3AM: You guys like to be on the road, don't you?
RT: In what way? ...Any way? (laughs) I don't know, in the beginning we kept on doing things ourselves. People kept saying 'oh, you got this DIY ethic' and I didn't like that, it was like we purposely weren't letting other people in. But I realized recently that it's more this passion we share for everything. We want to make people feel that it came from us rather than feel that this machine has reproduced everything.
3AM: But when you reach a certain level, it'll be virtually impossible to absolutely control every aspect of the band.
RT: Yes and no. With touring that's definitely true. We just try to make it count, we're picking moments where we can focus on. We focus on making this one show happening in Tijuana and try to make that a memorable thing. A guy can book all the rest of them. We just tell him we don't want to play where every other band played and that's enough in that world… It gets out of control pretty quick. But the music can always stay in our grasp; there should be no other way than that. They try to take artwork away pretty quick, because it's got to be done so fast… Anything that catches up time runs out, we're still trying to hold on that.
3AM: Do you feel you have to fight for it?
RT: Yeah. You have to fight for everything. It's what you can get away with.
3AM: There's nothing as frustrating as giving your baby to someone else and…
RT: It doesn't frustrate me so much as someone else handling a child, but the frustrating thing is when you get the child back it doesn't resemble you at all. It doesn't have that feeling that it came from you any more. That's the only thing that I don't like to lose. You don't share anything with it, you don't recognize it anymore.
3AM: How do you figure the evolution of the BRMC?
RT: I'm nervous about where we're going to go next, I don't know how many people are going to be into it. Before this record was done, we kept thinking about this kind of concept album. Ever since Peter and I were writing together, we'd write this band songs we could use and then root-C, back porch, bluesy, country, Dylan-esque acoustic stuff. They wouldn't quite fit with what we're doing now, but it's way too tempting to make a whole album isolated with that kind of sound and see how far we can go with that. It kept running around our heads when we were making this record. It has to be the next album. We're going to use it as an excuse to take some time off. This tour will be kind of our last tour. We'll make this Americana record and take a year off. We haven't got a break since the last one and we know they're not giving us any time unless we take it ourselves. If we get it right, it will be the masterpiece.
3AM: But you'd hear that they come from the same place? That it's a BRMC album, I mean.
RT: It doesn't have the band's sound people are familiar with; it'll have a different feeling. We've done some of the songs on acoustic radio shows sometimes. So, they've been heard here and there, scattered around. And after that record… We used to have planned out the first seven albums, but I've tried to let that go.
3AM: It's a clever way of taking a head start from the critics who're fond of the 'difficult third'.
RT: It looks like the fourth is going to be the difficult one. The third's going to be great. A couple of songs are straight country like Johnny Cash and there are songs that have a folksier, Americana feel. There are songs that sound like a gospel or hymn. And then there's some straight blues. But it all ties together the same. It goes back to another time, which I like. One of the ideas was to try and record in different places. Each song in a different place: one in an old church, one in a jail, one a mountain somewhere, just to have a different spirit to them. I doubt that'll ever happen, but that's what I would like. You take a place when you record.
3AM: This album was recorded in London, mixed it in L.A. Why?
RT: People here had a little more respect for what we were doing. In Los Angeles they don't really care which kind of music you play or who you are. The engineers and the label over there, provide a non-existent support, so you have to do everything yourself. The people we worked with over here have another spirit. It's more like "Yeah, let's do this, let's try that". It goes a long way for making records.
3AM: What about the audience on both continents? In the UK the band is pretty big, in America…
RT: …it's a bit less. It's funny. NME and a lot of European magazines would write 'unknown band in America, big in Europe'. I guess it makes them feel good to think that, but does not reflect reality at all. Before we came to Europe, we toured America five times back and forth across, playing everywhere we could and growing a fan base. We didn't get support from the press, we didn't have a single, we didn't have a video. But every time we toured, we went out into the void and just tried to reach as many people as we could. Every time we came back to a place, another two hundred or five hundred people turned up for the show. By the end, the same people would keep coming, you get a thousand people here and there. Comparatively that was huge thing. What made it a big deal for us, was that we're not a band people come to see for just one song. Fans are introduced to the music the right way and they stay with it. That was always our point, we didn't want to be a one hit band. I got no complete faith those same people are going to be there when we are back. And the same goes for the audience here. People think you leave and then everyone forgets about you. It's a pretty intense thing. It's funny though, I had a thought the other day that it was like a relationship with a girl. When you're over in America playing, you meet a girl and you just spend every day with her. You have this very intense relationship and then you leave to Europe. You never call her, you don't see her for a year and then you go back to America. So, what's the relationship's going to be like now? You have no idea until you see her again. It's very weird. Who knows man?
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Bram van Moorhem once pursued a career in philosophy at the University of Ghent and Helsinki. Bored with the implications, negations and proof theories of symbolic logic, the inertia of academics and long, ice cold winter nights, he co-founded Writemen Unlimited, a partnership focussing on speaking, writing and imaging. As a musician he tries to master the Bossa Nova, as a writer he drafts a volume of short stories. He resides in Antwerp, Belgium.