Black Rebel Morotcycle Club

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Black Rebel Motorcycle Club:

If it sounds good, don’t fix it

Whether pumping uncouthly psychedelic classic-rock or probing an acoustic-laced alterna-Americana, veteran bad dudes Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are one beat combo that intuitively goes for a sound but refuses to get fussy about it. For their recent self–produced album Beat the Devil’s Tattoo on their own Abstract Dragon label, BRMC –– featuring bassist-guitarist-singer Robert Levon Been and guitarist–singer Peter Hayes, and now including Raveonettes drummer Leah Shapiro –– rehearsed and recorded at Basement in Philadelphia, the same studio they’d used for their previous two releases, The Effects of 333 and Howl.

“At Basement,” says Hayes, “it comes down to the ability for all of us to live and eat together under the same roof, and you have the ability to walk downstairs and rehearse any time you want to. It’s kind of a commune, and just having that friendly atmosphere was important.”

The band wrote and rehearsed 20 tracks at Basement, then, after recording the drum and bass tracks in four days in Los Angeles, returned to Philly to put on the guitar and vocal tracks. The sound they sought came about in the band’s favored blend of analog and digital technologies. While the studio’s Mackie board was used as a central meeting point for mixing and effects, for tracking the band relied primarily on their own Tascam MS-16 1-inch machine.

“From day one, first record on,” says Hayes, “it’s always been a mixture of that then going through whatever happened to be at the studio we recorded in.”

BRMC used the Tascam for various mixing functions as well, but Hayes likes it mostly as a tone-damaging box.

He laughs. “I like the way it distorts when you overdrive the channels, and I have it clipping in the red the whole time. When you really work with it, it gets a real crunchy sound. Every once in a while I get lucky and get this kind of Beatles thing going on.”

Never rigid about the methods toward the sound they’re looking for, the band employs a mixture of different approaches for different atmospheres. The recorded material normally goes into Pro Tools for editing, mixing and post- effects, but on the last three albums, they’ve gone from tape into Pro Tools, then often gone back out to tape.

For bands seeking that seal of real-rock authenticity, it’s become common practice to proclaim their reverence for capturing the big–booming sound of the room. Not so for BRMC. The band’s guitar sounds, for example, are not primarily recorded off the amplifiers.

“It’s almost all direct-inject into the board,” says Hayes. “For getting a nice close-miked sound I’ve got a Coles 4038 pancake ribbon mike that works real well on the drums and for guitar. But for the most part, it’s always been kind of a challenge. It’s easy to get ambient room sounds, from miking the guitar, but it’s a lot easier to skip all the wires and just run straight into the board, because you find yourself EQ-ing the mike and tweaking knobs, dealing with the room, dealing with the amp and microphone.”

Though Hayes figures the most important thing is the results he’s ultimately getting, “I’m still debating that! You know, I like more depth, and so you kind of fake the depth by putting on five or six guitars to hopefully give it that feel of more depth than a room would have.”

To “fake” that depth on the guitar, bass, drums and vocal sounds going into the board or captured in the room, Hayes employs a small but trusty array of digital plug-ins for compression, EQ, reverb/delay and other enhancements. He likes Digidesign’s various multi-tap delays and reverbs, including the D-Verb, favoring their ease of use for a quick slapback sound or whatever sounds good at the time. He likes the Digidesign Fairchild Waves plugins for compression and EQ work –– in part because he likes their familiarity.

“It’s just because I’m used to looking at knobs,” he says. “And I like the E-series EQ plugin from Waves, where it’s a visually notched kind of idea.”

For Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got those twanging strings, and for Hayes, the versatility of his Gibson 335 has never let him down.

“It’s all 335, and for me it’s a feel thing. The majority of our songs start out on acoustic guitar, then move over to the 335; it’s always felt more meaty to me –– you feel like you have a real guitar in your hands. And with all the different tunings that I use, it makes it a lot easier, because it holds the tunings very accurately and precisely.”

In the studio and onstage, Hayes’ 335 undergoes extensive warping through a small selection of stompboxes, including various Seymour Duncan distortion/overdrive pedals. “I like using the Duncans a lot; I use them on the bass as well, and run that straight into the board, though it sounds great through an amp, too. I also use some Quadraverbs for reverb stuff that involves these howling kinda things –– it’s like a freight train!”

For vocal microphones, the band relies on an old standard, the Shure 57 series, along with the Marshall MXL 603 condenser microphone, this little thing that looks like a pepper shaker that Hayes got in a pawn shop.<

“The vocals in our band are not secondary,” says Hayes, “but we’re not a band that puts them way up front. I like the way the Shure and MXL 603 compress on their own when you yell into ’em –– they really hold their ground.”

Photo: Tessa Angus