Peter Hayes of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on how to tell when somebody is full of sh*t
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club formed in the late '90s after Peter Hayes left the Brian Jonestown Massacre, when he and his high school friend Robert Been, son of the late Michael Been of the Call, started the band, influenced by acts like the Verve, Loop and the Jesus and Mary Chain. BRMC's self-titled debut album in 2001 offered a gritty, rock and roll take on dream pop.
A dozen years later, the trio has continued to experiment with its core sound, and this year's Specter At the Feast marks some of the band's strongest material to date. We recently spoke with Hayes about his preference for Gibson electrics, his faith in acoustic guitars and working with Dave Grohl.
Westword: Was there anything you wanted to do with your life other than be a musician when you were growing up?
Peter Hayes: Baseball, and I was in line to go into the Marine Corps. Other than that, I had a little bit of an interest in architecture. I think that [came from] growing up in shitty houses. You know, design something that was better than a shack. Something a little better anyway.
You got started playing music early in life. What was the environment for that like for you in terms of places to play and bands with which to connect?
We were in the East Bay. I had grown up with my mom playing the acoustic guitar, and one of my uncles that I visited during the summer time played country songs. I always liked the stories of that growing up, as far as country. My mom was more into folk, but she had stopped playing long ago. I asked her if I could borrow her guitar at sixteen, and from there I started writing and trying to play Jimi Hendrix songs and playing in bars. From the bars, I kept on going.
As far as other bands around, it was pretty competitive, I guess, is one word, but there wasn't much support from other bands, which is a shame. Then again, I'm not the most outgoing person myself. We always played in San Francisco and just did gigs. I didn't like to have to deal with the whole scene thing, as far as a fad of what this is or that is. I don't like supporting that kind of stuff and never did. Then we moved down to L.A., and that was a little different.
Do you find you have more of a community in L.A. than you did in the San Francisco area?
No...I don't know. Maybe. Not really. It would be nice for there to be more of that. But as time goes on, it has happened a little more. That comes with a little bit of age, too, and you can forgive people for their taste a little easier. I don't forgive everybody, but I'm a little more lenient with people.
On your website you have a section called "Other Things That Matter." What do you feel are some of the most pressing issues you see facing the world today?
We were just going to name it "Things That Matter" but that was a little too harsh. So "Other Things That Matter" was a nicer way. We were given the opportunity to be involved with a place called Not For Sale that's up there that deals with human trafficking and modern slavery. It's pretty eye-opening, it's pretty sickening and it's pretty depressing. But I've always come from a place that every day you have a decision and a vote with everything you do.
The big one thing that happens every four years or every year, that's pretty useless. This is an everyday thing. As far as I'm concerned with, that, kind of tied in with the kind of clothes you wear, the food you eat and the things you drink. It's everything. It's digging a little further than the surface of "We're an oil company, but look how green we are." You know what I mean? The catchphrases. "We also plant trees over here."
Not that they're awful people, or that it's an awful thing, but there's a proper way to do it that will cost them more money to do it, and they're choosing not to. There are certain choices that they're making, from big companies to small companies, and that's where human trafficking comes in, as in the types of workers they use. That's important -- to me, anyway. I wouldn't assume that's the case for everybody -- to try to remember anyway because no one's perfect. That's for sure.
Ian Ottaway is the cousin of Emerald Siam's Kurt Ottaway. How did you meet him?
We met him, I believe, in Oklahoma the first time. He would come out and say "Hi" at shows now and again, and we kept in touch. There's certain folks that stick with you. He's an interesting character, you know.
He has that section on your website called "Ask Ian." How did that come about?
He's a creative dude. We thought it would be a good way to support free-thinking -- call it what you will, art or not -- and voicing an opinion that at least side-steps the typical, or word it in a way that connects even better. Supporting that is what we're into. It ties in with Other Things That Matter. It's art and culture. You need a place for that to happen, and we have the ability to support that. You can't really be a supporter of art and be wholly be concerned with yourself. It doesn't work that way. We're not the most important thing.
Why did that MacBeth quote suggest itself as the title for your latest album?
It was two things. It was also a Joy Division song called "Shadow Play." The imagery it conjured up with what we're dealing with in terms of a death in the family and the death of a friend.
When you were writing music for the new album, it sounds like you spent a lot of time alone in coming up with material for the songs. Do you usually do come up with music working in solitude?
Yeah. There's people that come in and out, but it gets confusing the more people that are there. If you ask someone, they're going to give you their opinion, and they're going to have ideas. I like to take it to heart and give things a chance. But at the same time, it can get things drawn out or very confusing.
No one really knows what's right. It's a guessing game, and you have to keep that in mind. It's just kind of what feels right. That's one thing I don't trust: When somebody says they know what's right. That's when you know they're full of shit. Then again, there's folks that make a living doing it, so they are definite things you can do that are go-tos that are specific ways of doing things.
Do you mostly play Gibsons these days? What do you like about those guitars compared to other models of guitars you've tried out?
It really came down to a thing I had called it a Peavey Falcon when I was sixteen or seventeen. Like I said, I started playing in bars and coffee shops, and I sold that and got an acoustic guitar, and went traveling for a while on my own. I got so used to that and the different tunings I did on the acoustic, the 335s just fit right in with that realm, as far as being able to be tuned and had the feel of an acoustic. That's really what that came down to. I tried other ones, and they do hold, but it's a longer process for setting them up right to get them to work with different tunings.
You've played acoustic and electric guitars extensively. What do you feel are the virtues of each, in terms of what you can do with them, and in terms of writing material?
That's a hard one to judge, really. I tend to kind of go toward the realm of if you can't also play it on acoustic, then you're relying a bit too heavily on some of the tricks. I do that myself on plenty of songs. They're two different animals. The nice thing is that if the power goes out, the acoustic isn't going anywhere, so I tend to have a little more love for the acoustic. You can still survive with that.
I tend to have a little more faith in the acoustic. The reason why I tend to love playing so loud is that I'm so fucking tired of people talking in the coffee shops over the acoustic guitar. When I plugged in, I was like, "Fuck that." I'd rather clear out the room and have them talk outside. That's the fun thing about electric.
What did you find interesting about working with Dave Grohl at Sound City, where you recorded the first Black Rebel Motorcycle Club album?
It was really nice of him to ask. They were turning the studio into a high tech one and getting rid of that board. We heard about that and did our first album on that one. He said he would take it, and he put it in his studio. He's a cool guy, you know? That's not necessarily something you expect of someone at that caliber. You don't necessarily expect them to be friendly. You just never know.
It was a lot of fun putting a song together with him. It was easy going that way. It was nice having that similar kind of thing when you're kind of done jamming and looking at each other and going, "Let's try that again and see where it goes." And also looking at each other and going, "I don't know. Do you know? No, I don't know. Let's try it again." It was nice to have that. It was a stress free thing.