A Conversation with Robert Levon Been of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

Paul Caparotta
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (Photo: Tessa Angus) 
Just off a headlining slot from the recent Noise Pop festival, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (BRMC) are back at it to continue to support their follow up to 2013’s Specter at the Feast (iTunes), with Wrong Creatures (iTunes). The new album is a beautiful, sprawling tour de force that you should definitely give a spin here (Spotify). We had a chance to catch up with vocalist and bassist, Robert Levon Been before BRMC's upcoming show later this month at The Fillmore on the 23rd. Tickets at the time of this post can still be found here.

SFBayAreaConcerts: Technically, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club were born in San Francisco, though LA was obviously the launching point in those early days, and home now. How does California factor into the BRMC sound? I love thinking of the band as a reaction to the cliche of sunny, California enthusiasm.

Robert Been: [Laughs] There’s a dark side, a flip side to every shiny coin. I think it wasn’t as much about being dark…The image or look of the band was almost like being see-through, or the absence of light. No brand, no image, no logo — just the classic rock and roll, almost cliche leather jacket. To us, that was the best chance we had of disappearing. I was just talking about this the other day: As soon as the first album came out, we started being made fun of. People started pointing out that all black, wearing leather jackets-thing in the press. As soon as that happened, there was a flood of bands wearing black leather jackets. We were like: What the fuck, man? The whole idea wasn’t like: It’s a look. It was an anti-look. There is no one there. The look became the thing people talked about more than the music sometimes. It was this ironic twist — we painted ourselves into a black corner.

SFBAC: I love the look, the timelessness to it. The irony. I brought up the California question because it helps decoding some of your songs. With "Spook" being written in Santa Cruz and recorded in Joshua tree, with your relationship with LA, I wonder about the “dead song city.”

Robert Been: Oh god! The only thing that comes to mind was that it almost killed us. It was like this wild animal you couldn’t tame. We recorded it for Specter [Specter at the Feast] — it wasn’t that grand, it was just a simple song that felt very natural. It wasn’t us trying to be anyone else. I guess there was something about that, more than other songs, that made us think: It’s coming out so naturally, maybe we should give it its moment. We recorded the whole thing and at the last minute during Specter, there was something about the bridge we hated. So we pulled the song off the album, and then I became the asshole who wouldn’t stop talking about it until the next album. We probably tried sixty different changes and arrangements for the bridge and outro and reprise into the last chorus — it had so many different incarnations and mutations. People just started losing their minds. There were so many to choose from yet nothing felt like it ever gave you the feeling of 'This is it.' I was paranoid that Pete — or someone — would say, "Pull it off again!" We did a seven minute version of it, and recorded that with everything. Then I hacked it up into little pieces, and all of a sudden for some reason it worked beautifully. It rolled more naturally than the other ones. All the different places and locations, the different days of trying... Sometimes it’s harder writing the more simple songs, naturally. Unless it all comes in the moment. When you get half of it in the moment, you realize that the hardest thing is to fake the rest. If you get genuine, natural inspiration for a minute and a half — how do you get the rest? You’re kind of cursed with 'here’s what it could be.' The burden of trying to finish the work. "Little Thing Gone Wild" was a minute and twelve seconds of what I felt was one of the most raw, energetic, dynamic verse-chorus with no verse — it was just instrumental. The chorus was just Pete screaming "little thing gone wild!" And then the song stopped because we didn’t record any more than that. I had to build enough time for a second verse and then write whatever melody and lyrics I would think make sense and feel natural to crescendo into. What would you say before screaming, "little thing gone wild?” What would the story be to get to that point? That took me six years and hundreds of melodies to try and figure it out. There are other songs that are easier, but I get focused on the ones that almost kill us. I don’t let them go. There’s so many songs that go down easy. But, for some reason I just — it’s like the girl who doesn’t give you her number the first time you see her. You can’t get her out of your mind. There’s gotta be something there. Or maybe you had too much to drink that night and she wasn’t actually that special after all! [Laughs]

SFBAC: It’s interesting that "Spook" was from the Specter sessions. I love that album. It manages to be both vulnerable and defiant. On Live in Paris (iTunes) you brought a lot of those animals to life in the wild — especially the versions of "Lullaby" and "Returning." For Wrong Creatures, do any of the songs take different directions when you play them live?

Robert Been: Over time some of our songs become something else. For this album... the songs were so hard to get right. To get them to the feeling, the album has took us so much time. I notice little moments here and there — like with "King of Bones" — where the start sounds a bit more dynamic live. But the fact that this album took twice as long as any album — we literally tried everything already! There’s a peace that comes at night — you can sleep at night — knowing that you tried it all before recording it and putting it out. But there’s also that other voice, 'did you overcook it?' The songs have been enough of a challenge to keep us on our toes.

SFBAC: "King of Bones" is my favorite song off the album — can’t wait to hear that live. You mentioned percussion earlier — there are a lot of interesting things going on with the drums on Wrong Creatures. The beats behind "King of Bones" are constantly shifting, and "Echo" builds to a cool, satisfying rhythmic crescendo. Obviously there have been tweaks to your sound — was there an intentional decision to adjust the drums based on Leah’s journey? Or is that just what the songs required?

Robert Been: Not really in regards to her surgery…with "Echo" we wanted to pay respect to the beautiful thing about [Lou Reed's] "Take a Walk on the Wild Side." [With that song] Before you even hear a single word, the first three seconds of the song... I’m in love with the song — and no one has said a word yet! There are just some songs like that... Van Morrision songs, some Stooges. You hear the first few seconds and you are sold. There’s something about that I’ve been fascinated by. There’s that old adage, 'don’t bore us, get to the chorus.' And I always loved the mystery of rare songs that were about the first hit. Before even a word that’s said. Everything that follows is perfection, but there’s something about that first touch. I thought about that a lot — not only for "Echo" — trying to capture what that is. Finding the dynamics. Figuring out the drums — something has to come there. There are songs where there are eight minutes and not much happens. But we always beat ourselves up to make sure we’re not wasting anyone’s time.

SFBAC: Thinking about song length — with the 15 year anniversary of Take Them On, On Your Own (iTunes) — "Heart and Soul" is one of my favorite BRMC songs. Sequencing it on the end, coming in over seven minutes, it snaps in the beginning and just kills it through the outro. How do you know if a song will ultimately be two minutes or seven minutes? You spent so much time on these tunes, did the lengths come to you immediately or did you have to work with them?

Robert Been: Well for "Heart and Soul", it was a by-product of playing "Salvation" at the end of a lot of shows for two years and always just extending that song. "Heart and Soul" was first just that outro. Sometimes it would last for 40 seconds, sometimes a minute, sometimes two minutes. Each time there would be a little more song — a little melody added, a riff added in. It worked because, by that point, at the end of the show, we were in tune with what people were responding to in the room. That’s always the biggest teacher when you’re learning dynamically. That song was the child of a lot of great nights… We put together all the best moments. We got to a place where it became its own song in its own right. We got to write different words for it — fix some words every few nights; like a little sculpture you keep adding to, adjusting. "Ninth Configuration" on this album was the most similar to that. It was born in a different way — a jam in a rehearsal room — sometimes forty minutes long. It was like we knew — we could all feel it without having to say it. I don’t know how to explain it… You could watch the song being played while you’re playing it. I’m like a kid in the audience some days; it’s really inspiring — just imagining that if I can make one person feel the way I imagine I feel, it’s worth the whole thing. So yeah, "Ninth Configuration" was similar where we wanted to revisit that whole "Heart and Soul" place… You use every weapon in your arsenal, in a jam form. Always building, always building until there’s no where else to go. It was really fun — you really are using all your tricks at once. We couldn’t play those two songs in the same set… it would knock us out. I think "Shadow’s Keeper", the way we play that live, ended up having some of that. It’s a very spiritual thing, but I like to chalk it down to being like an action film. You know when to make this car flip over a bridge — get that explosion right. It’s one of the hardest things to do! I’ve heard directors talk about how action films can be hard to direct, because it’s all about dynamics and pacing. Some songs are similar… it’s all manipulation, rhythm, heartbeat and timing. And yeah, if you go too long on one cut you’ve lost the strangle hold.

SFBAC: Your Michael Bay moment!

Robert Been: [Laughs] The Verve were influential — seeing a couple of their shows in the early days. By the end of the night it was like you felt like the ceiling was ripped off the building… but you could keep going and going forever. But the ceiling didn’t go anywhere — it was just a song. But it made you feel that way. It made all the walls evaporate. There’s not many bands I’ve ever seen that make you go to that place. Spiritualized in their own way — far less explosions.

SFBAC: Maybe controlled explosions..?

Robert Been: Yeah, multiple explosions within one giant explosion — that’s Spiritualized.

SFBAC: Awesome. Thanks for being so gracious with your time — any plans while you’re in town?

Robert Been: Um, I think we are in-and-out pretty quick because we were asked to do some Depeche Mode shows. [The show is] Pretty much in between. They are a band we’ve loved forever. I think we are doing four gigs… they’ve always been a big inspiration. It’s worth having to lose a little time at home.

SFBAC: That's right! You'll be opening up for Depeche Mode for their Sacramento show on May 24th! (tickets here) Well, we’re looking forward to having you come around for a quick trip — thanks for the time and see you in a couple of weeks at the Fillmore!

Robert Been: No problem.

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