Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Apr 08, 2013
Dark, brooding, dangerous, and tortured is the vibe that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club gives off. Robert Levon Been, bassist/vocalist for the trio—who just released its seventh album, Specter At the Feast—shatters this image from his first utterances. Speaking in a disarmingly sleepy tone, he is full of ready witticisms, chuckling at his own jokes before he gets to the punch line. And like all natural comedians, he rounds back to previous jokes at perfectly timed intervals.
Specter At the Feast, with its see-saw of murky noisefests and moody dreamscapes, is at odds with Been's sly humor. The album is, however, a reflection of the acute loss and the accompanying turmoil Been and his bandmates, vocalist/guitarist Peter Hayes and drummer Leah Shapiro, have experienced with the passing of Been's father, Michael Been. Once a member of the '80s group The Call, the elder Been was intertwined with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club as their sound engineer. His sudden passing was due to a heart attack after a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club performance at the Pukkelpop Festival in the summer of 2010.
Most people have the benefit of privacy in which to work the course of their grief. Hayes, Shapiro, and particularly Been have had to turn their insides out to the public since Specter At the Feast is one of the means by which they have been, and are, dealing with the pain.
Speaking from Belfast, where Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has set up camp in the dead of winter, Been quips his way through talk of the many things he worries about: volcanoes, earthquakes, runaway trucks, dinosaurs, finishing an album too soon or taking too long to finish an album.
Lily Moayeri (Under the Radar): How come you've made Belfast your tour pre-production headquarters?
Robert Levon Been: Our first show is here in a couple of days so we decided to ship everything over early and start rehearsing over here. Last time we tried to ship the gear over, a volcano went off and delayed everything so we're trying to avoid volcanoes. Whenever you can, it's best.
Are erupting volcanoes a prevailing fear in your life?
Even though they're not near you, you should still consider them prevalent dangers because you never know how far they are. I thought the one in Iceland would be far enough away but it disrupted every flight in Europe when we were starting off the tour.
The first shows were in London and our shipped gear was delayed and grounded somewhere else. We were at the venue for our first show. It was 7 or 8 p.m. There was a line of people outside to see us play and we didn't have any equipment. It doesn't feel good when you don't have any equipment and people are expecting to see you in a couple of hours. The gear showed up literally at the last minute. We threw it on, and a half-hour later we played the show. It freaked everybody out. It was a wake-up call. We needed to do something about the possible threat of volcanoes in the future.
What are you doing in Belfast to prepare yourself for the tour?
It doesn't move that fast. It's Belslow. There's not much going on here. We rented out the venue that we're playing. We're mostly locked away in there getting songs ready. There's a lot we don't know and songs we need to relearn. The old ones are indelibly grained in our brains for life, but the new ones are always tricky.
It starts off simple. You go in the studio with sounds and you start playing them then start adding things and adding things and adding things until you paint yourself in a corner. Then you've got to figure out how to make that sound the same live with three people.
I like the challenge though. I like that we have to work really hard to try to figure out how not to rely on MIDI or things on tape or hiring a fourth member. We're really good musicians if we try hard, but it's really easy to avoid trying hard. There are a lot of modern things that make it easy to not have to push yourself. Usually when we do though, it turns out good.
Your most recent album is split between noisy and dreamy sounds. Is one of those styles harder to reproduce live than the other or are they equally difficult?
The more atmospheric, dreamier sounds, the ones that demand more finesse, those are more difficult in a rock 'n' roll club where you've got people drinking and being loud. You want to make the songs kick through the door because a lot of people aren't paying attention. Usually rock n' roll turned up loud is the easiest way to make that happen. It's harder to make people tune into something that has more subtleties. It's more difficult to play that too. You can hammer through a ballad or an atmospheric song and lose the whole point of it. It demands more. You have to listen to it harder, even while you're playing it, or you'll miss it.
How did recording with Dave Grohl at his Studio 606 come about?
He asked us to be interviewed for the documentary he was doing called Sound City [on the studio of the same name, home to the famous Neve 8028 console on which Nirvana's Nevermind and BRMC were recorded]. That turned into, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we recorded a song in the moment and filmed what that's like?' Peter and I went in to record with Grohl. It was nerve-racking because he had an idea for a song then we decided we'll go completely clean slate and see what happens. But when we walked in the room it was Butch Vig and a 10-person camera shoot with everyone asking what are we going to do today and we didn't have any plans. It was pretty scary. You don't want people to waste a whole day on you when you've got nothing. We just jammed out and a couple of hours later we had that song ["Heaven and All" on the Sound City soundtrack] as it sounded. The lyrics I went home and worked on for about a month finishing and then came back and sang the final thing.
That was when Grohl was like, "If you want to come back anytime, we want to keep the place up and running, keep people recording on [the console]." It was a few weeks after that we came back. [Grohl] wasn't there for the album though.
We had a lot of things we wanted to record because there's this ticking clock when you first have a song and there's an energy to it that's important to put on tape and capture because you can lose that spirit if you wait too long. That's why we jumped on that offer. We tracked all the drums and bass and some guitars. We probably did twice as much, two sessions of nine songs a piece—some of which aren't on the record.
Why did you decide to continue working on the record in Santa Cruz?
When we got out of Grohl's studio it was still the bare bones. We had an idea where we wanted to take the rest of it. It was really difficult to focus being in Los Angeles. There are too many distractions and friends and cell phones and emails and noise. We had an offer from an old family friend of ours who lived up there, who said, "Come down, you can stay as long as you need, for free, and take the time you need." She knew we were having a hard time finishing the record. It was a saving grace that we got to go up to this beautiful, remote cabin.
Once we got there, it was really helpful to finish lyrics, but we wanted a place where we could play, record, add all the guitars and layers, the production part really. That's when we found this other guy, Barry Cannon, who had bought out the Boulder Creek Post Office and changed it to a studio. That was the only place within 40 minutes in every direction we found where we could keep our equipment overnight and not have to tear it down every day. We locked ourselves in there and that's where we finished it.
You seem comfortable in Northern California. Why did you move to Los Angeles from San Francisco?
San Francisco is a terrible place to be a band and make your way up because it's a cool city full of cool people so no one shows any emotion and holds their guard close to their chest. You'll be at a show where there'll be a lot of people that like you but you couldn't tell to save your life that they do like you. They might tell you afterwards.
When we moved to L.A. it was partially because people really gave energy back—even when we played locally at small clubs. I think it's because L.A.'s not that cool so no one has that attitude about being from L.A. They have to deal with the Hollywood plastic movie star bullshit people so they never have grounds to have an attitude. I've been out of town too long, maybe it's changed. Making this record was the longest we've been in L.A., almost two years.
Why did it take so long to finish this album?
Mostly we were dealing with the loss of my father who was really dear to all of us. He had been there since the beginning so we needed time for that. Also, we'd been on the cycle of playing/recording/touring. It just got to a place where it felt like if we were going to pull ourselves back up to write and record, we really wanted to have something to say, something to offer. Of all the occupations in the world, you don't want rock 'n' roll to feel like it's just another job, just banging out another record because you're supposed to. We stopped and weren't going to start again unless we had something that was ready.
The involvement of your father in BRMC wasn't that apparent until his passing.
We didn't talk about it much before. It was something we took for granted. I always was of two minds about it. Looking back, I love it that I got to spend so much time with him. But when I was 20 and in a rock band going on the road for the first time I didn't really want my dad around because I want to get into trouble. There were a lot of fights, a lot of arguments and a lot of those years spent with us establishing our independence—both Peter and myself. We were raised like brothers. My father took Peter in when he was in high school. He had a really hard home life so he was living with us from when he was 15 on. It was typical family stuff.
At the end of the day my father was the best guy around at mixing front of house sound and that's why he ended up going on nearly every tour with us. There was some at the beginning that he didn't do. There were some things we needed to do without him witnessing. But after that it was fair play. He would get into more trouble than me most of the time.
Has it been helpful in your grief process to speak about your father when discussing this record?
It's been the least helpful thing possible. But I'm selling a record too and there's a whole context that comes with it. We talked about not doing any interviews at all. We talked about saying to people that subject is off limits. All that seemed like it would be false. It would be better to acknowledge what he gave us over the years and also how the record has been affected by his passing.
Your father's passing has become a central focus of conversation when speaking about the record.
We decided if we're going to talk about it to deal with it head-on. If we danced around it, even halfway, it would be a bigger thing than it actually is. Yeah, it affected the process, but if you listen to the record, it's not autobiographical. "Rival" isn't about that, "Hate the Taste" isn't about that.
Most of the album we were beating the hell out of each other. Even though I say we wanted to take time to really write something of worth, the other half of the time we were thinking, 'This is taking so long, maybe we shouldn't be doing this.' We are really hard on ourselves, so we started having serious writer's block and doubts in ourselves. That was the worst part of that year.
Then I realized if a few weeks after my dad passed away someone told me that we would write nearly a double album (which we'd only use half of), recorded, mixed, and delivered only two years after, it seems incredibly fast. It kind of worries me: either moving too fast or too slow.
You are taking your father's spot with The Call for a few shows. What brought that about?
I got close with those guys after my dad passed away, which is another cool thing that came from that. I grew up with them on the road. I fell in love with hotel rooms before rock 'n' roll. When you're a kid it's the best thing in the world. You can make a mess, someone else will clean it up, watch as many movies as you want, run around. My dad was the reason The Call ended. He didn't want it to keep going but they always did so I told them I'd help them out and see if they can get it back up and running again.
People will like seeing you in his position.
It is intimidating because he was much better than I am. There are a lot of songs where I have to change the keys and transpose to be more in my range or fake it in certain places. I found little ways to cheat where 99% of people won't be able to tell. It's going to be a lot of fun.
What made Black Rebel Motorcycle Club decide to do a cover of "Let the Day Begin," one of The Call's songs?
There is a joy that comes from understanding the love you had for the person more than you ever did before. And there's a joy that comes from all you've been given and the memories of it. At the same time, just as equally on the other end, there's anger and angst and frustration and sorrow. That was the point of covering that celebratory song of my father's. Sometimes I feel bad for feeling so good about it.
The hardest part about the album was showing both light and dark sides. There's the joyful "Let the Day Begin," there's the somber ballad songs, and there's the days that we felt pissed off and did "Teenage Disease." I don't think anyone's going to get that, but that was the hope.
We did start editing ourselves. Like should we make the album all atmospheric and only allow in the more introspective side, but that wouldn't really be true to the moment of these couple of years. Nor would writing from the teenage angst frustration anger side. It's not the whole story. We took a leap of faith that we could give all that on this one record. In the end, we let it all hang out.