Interview: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Very occasionally in a person’s existence, something will happen that instills such pride, wonder and awe in the potential of life that you can’t help but come to define your personal successes by these events. You will ferret away these pockets of information to lend credibility to the very nature of your being. The relative mediocrity of these facts holds no significance; you can lean upon these truths in times of need, when crises are abound or, you know, pull them out on a first date in order to get laid. It may be that you stood up for a small social injustice in public, or perhaps you actually, really finished War and Peace and definitely are not lying when you tell people that or perhaps you were granted the rare opportunity to have an amusing and informative conversation with one of your greatest musical heroes.
The following is my interview with Robert Levon Been, one of the excellent minds belonging to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and this transcript goes some way to demonstrating the wild satisfaction one is able to experience in speaking with a personal hero and discovering that they are not a complete twat head; they are in fact wholly lovely and willing to share some ridiculous stories. And unless I have sex with Natalie Portman or John Bonham miraculously appears back on this earth to spank me on the arse and call me a righteous babe, I doubt I’m going to stop pulling this one out to make myself appear impressive for a very long time yet:
In reference to your latest album, Specter at the Feast; I notice that it is driven by a certain amount of melancholia and certainly a huge amount of catharsis. Did the band find the writing process quite natural at the time or did you simply think it was necessary to put those feelings to paper?
It was naturally forced. It was strange, it’s hard to explain, there were a lot of conflicting feelings about it though – a lot of contradictions within ourselves. It was a good thing for us to come together and kind of use that time to lean on each other and speak to each other through the music. This album and the process of making it were kind of our salvation as far as it pulled us out of some really hard times individually and getting to play the tour of the album now is a celebration of that; something that we lived through together and, in the end, I think that should be the spirit of the album because none of us really wanted to write from a place of being down. A lot of the songs are about the fight, about the way out, so I think that’s what I feel from it at least but maybe that’s just my personal idea of it.
I found the opening track of Specter at the Feast, “Fire Walker”, a particularly interesting and atypical track as far as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s quieter, more contemplative side of song writing is concerned. Where did the inspiration for that sound originate?
The beginning of “Fire Walker” actually came a few years ago when me and Leah [Shapiro] were out in Joshua Tree and we were taking a lot of drugs and we spent a lot of money accidentally while we were having a good time. We wanted to figure out a way to write off the trip as a business trip so we visited two studios out there, that we thought we’d be recording at in a year. This place El Rancho De Luna where Queens of the Stone Age have recorded, we went out there and ended up jamming out this strange instrumental song with Chris Goss, we worked on a couple of songs with him. It was really good and we were just really stoned and trying to be really cheap basically… sometimes you just gotta try squeeze a buck out. We ended up not listening to it for a while, when we listened to it again we realized there was a really good song in there, That was the only song on the whole record (we did the rest of it at Dave Grohl’s studio) that we actually recorded back in Joshua Tree. We actually went back and recorded it for that reason alone to, you know, pay some respect to where it came from.
We had no idea how we were going to finish the song, we only had the beginning and it was the fucking last minute of the song that we didn’t have any idea of – we were almost going to throw it out and we spent two days there just losing our minds figuring out how to finish it. Then the outro came and as soon as that came it all made sense because before then it didn’t make any – it was all just a drug-induced haze. I think that if we hadn’t found that missing piece we would have all felt like huge failures because we fought so ridiculously hard. So we called the song “Fire Walker” because it was kind of like we lived through this thing that almost destroyed us; I can’t tell you how much we were about to kill each other, so it represented a hard time and we walked through that together.
You mentioned recording with Dave Grohl for the album, how exactly did that come about?
We were working on songs for a long time, just in a rehearsal space. We don’t like to go into the studio too much before we really have songs put together. He asked us to come and do a song with him for the documentary, Sound City. At the end of the day he asked what we were up to and we said we were pretty much just looking for studios and he just insisted, ‘you gotta come and record here’ and it was a strange thing because we recorded on that board for our first album and now we had the board and he was making this bizarre film about it. I never thought that anybody would want to go see a movie about a piece of equipment – it was probably the hardest imaginable thing to make interesting for a few hours but he really did a great job with it and told all of the stories of the people that worked on that, it was cool. Then we were one of the first records to be recorded on it post-leaving Sound City, so it sounded great and it was exactly what we needed for these types of songs; just a bigger soundscape. It was really lucky timing, we had just started looking around town for some studios and it was just a total coincidence that he called us at that time. I guess we just got lucky.
What is the definitive difference for you between releasing a record through a major record company and doing it through an independent one? Do you feel as though Beat the Devil’s Tattoo and Specter at the Feast benefited from independent production and release?
It’s a tricky question, we have a weird perception of it because when we first signed on our first album with Virgin, we got signed in the midst of a bidding war with other labels and we were really fortunate that we could kind of ask for more than most bands can ask for when you sign. So we got creative control for our first album, we pretty much wanted the chance to produce our own music and not have anyone else meddling with it. So we have always been able to make the music that we wanted; some bands don’t get that, they have to work with other people and lose their gut instinct, they don’t really know maybe where they want to go or where they want to end up. I can imagine that being crazy.
We were lucky that we were able to make the albums that we wanted, it was just kind of like, they’ll give you the gun to shoot yourself in the foot with. They’ll allow you to handicap yourself, in a certain way, there’s a political thing to it and they won’t ever do it directly, they let you end your own career. You’ve got to be really sharp and find ways around it so we fought a lot with that and we lost a lot of opportunity commercial-success wise, we didn’t want to go along with what they wanted and we got out of there finally. Jumped from one fire into the next frying pan with RCA and then we got out of that and decided that Vagrant [Records] was much better at being respectful of the music and what we were trying to do – indies are better in that way but at the end of the day you want your music to be heard by as many people as you can in the way that you want your message to come across. Indies’ voices aren’t as big, with distribution and all of that but you sacrifice things, it’s all just a series of sacrifices.
What is your favourite piece of musical equipment?
Ohhh Jesus. Well, there’s three things; one is this piano, which my family has had forever, this small, shitty little piano that I love, then there’s this acoustic guitar that I wrote almost all of the songs that I’ve done on so far – it’s just a damn good guitar. Then there’s my red bass, I think that’s the one that if I lose it or it breaks, I’m not going to be the same person ever again, it’ll be like losing an appendage, it’ll like having a hand cut off, I’d probably start playing differently. Everything will be different if and when that day comes when it breaks or gets stolen, it’s so important, I’ve had it forever, I’ve played every show on it, it’s hard to explain.
I hope to God for your sake that you have some damn good roadies or an indestructible case then.
I’m usually the one or Peter’s the one, we take turns knocking it over and breaking it pretty bad, it’s never somebody else, it’s just us being too reckless over the years. We’ve split the neck – the actual neck of the bass has splintered like five or six times and splintered in ways that you would never imagine could be fixed, it just looks like a tree trunk that just got struck by lightening and somehow they fix it every time but it’s probably got to be a nine lives sort of thing that’s going to run out sooner or later.
After the release of seven full-length albums, could you possibly say there was a song that you would consider yourself to be most proud of?
Uuumm I’m going to have to pass on that question, it’s too similar to naming your favourite child, it just makes all the other ones feel bad and makes it awkward. They’ll be shunned from the group and nobody will want to play with them anymore, it will be uncomfortable for everyone.
I’ve noticed that in quite a few articles they’ve been cited as an inspiration for your music but does the band still maintain any relationship with the Brian Jonestown Massacre, considering their history?
There’s no bad blood there, they actually supported us about five years ago in Europe, I think it was on Baby 81 and we love those guys, there’s no drama. We’re all just trying to make music and they were really a big inspiration when we first started. It was actually one of the first shows that Peter and I went to go see when we first started writing music together, it was that and The Verve that we saw together – it was those two shows in the beginning. Jonestown was at this house party that, in the middle of it, the cops came in and killed all the lights, there were only flashlights and it was a complete riot situation. It just made all the music sound so much better, you know, the fact that it was being stopped by the authorities. Jonestown have that great quality of making it feel like a big weird family and the family just got weirder and weirder and certain members splintered off the tree, had to go different places but it’s a really fun tree to climb around on. They’re great, there’s absolutely no weird thing between us.
What’s the craziest thing that has ever happened to Black Rebel Motorcycle club during a live performance that rattled you?
I can only think of a few days ago, we were playing in South Carolina and the power went out in the whole block, the entire street lost power and we were only about four songs into the show, everything went black and all we could do was play acoustically without any microphones or anything plugged in. It was a genuinely unplugged show… because you know, anybody who says they’re playing unplugged is never unplugged. It was authentically so. It was really scary for a while but then it became this kind of cool campfire thing and people were singing along with the songs, we were rattled for a while but it came around.
There was a show we played in Leeds a long time ago where the entire floor of the place started moving like a wave, it was made of wood but it was moving like that and then somebody hit a fire alarm to evacuate the room because the floor was about to cave in, there were too many people jumping up and down and it was this old town hall not used to having shows in it. That was rattling because you know, the earth could have opened up and swallowed all of our fans and that would have been a drag, you know, no more fans anymore. We wouldn’t have had anybody to come back to play to, we wouldn’t be able to go back to Leeds anymore.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club will be ruining floors at the following Australian venues in November. Tickets from the usual places.
WEDNESDAY 13th – PERTH, METRO FREMANTLE – 18+
FRIDAY 15th – (NEW VENUE) MELBOURNE, THE PALACE – 18+ All tickets purchased for the Billboard show will be valid for use at The Palace
SATURDAY 16th – SYDNEY, THE HI-FI – Lic A/A
SUNDAY 17th – BRISBANE, THE HI-FI – 18+
Interview by Elfy Scott.