Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: "An Artist . . . Can Barely Deal with the World Most of the Time"
Like the volumes of Edgar Allan Poe and Allen Ginsberg that inspire Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's dark lyrical oeuvre, Robert Levon Been's music has often dealt directly with death. So it's only natural that the band's latest album, Specter at the Feast, fearlessly approaches the Dark Angel, but this time there's a devastatingly personal perspective.
While in Belgium in 2010, Been's father, Michael, BRMC's touring sound engineer and former lead singer of '80s cult outfit The Call, suffered a fatal heart attack. He was a mentor and father figure to guitarist Peter Hayes and percussionist Leah Shapiro, and his death deeply impacted the whole band. Been describes his return to music as somewhat reluctant, but following the sound is what got him and the band through those bleak, white-knuckled moments. We spoke to him about how music can pull you through those dark moments, how it helps search for meaning and how music can be there during your last moments of life. Here is the full interview below, which couldn't all make it into the print version.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is scheduled to perform tonight at Marquee Theatre in Tempe.
Up on the Sun: Congratulations on Specter at the Feast. It's already one of my favorite albums of the year and I know it's going to stay with me.
Robert Levon Been: Right on, man, thank you very much.
Would you say it was your most difficult album to record?
The actual recording wasn't so bad. I think it was the writing and the mixing that followed. Usually the tracking . . . we get things ready before we put anything down on tape. We do all the hard work and stretch and recline before we get in there. But it took some time. We toured for a long time before we started, and my father passed away in that time. All of us needed some time away. It was a long process, but it was kind of necessary. We needed to make sure that we felt like we really had something to offer. It was difficult, but it was necessary.
The album seems to loop at the end. Is it meant to be seamless, like you could start it over again and again?
There's a couple songs on the record that we decided to kind of give the impression of an endless circle of time. There's a few places we put that in subconsciously, and that one wasn't as hit-and-miss as some of the others. I like this idea of everything returning to the start again, like circles continuing. There was more of a concept involved once we actually started sequencing the record and trying to make it feel like one piece, where you'd kind of take a trip with it. It became a collection of individual songs.
I get the feeling your song "Returning" was about dying and going back, to be with your father, maybe?
It's more about what's left over after, you know, picking up the pieces and moving forward. I think a lot of the record has that . . . It's gonna mean different things to different people. It's not supposed to mean one thing. For myself, I was kind of trying to use it for that purpose because I needed to hold onto that, more than anything.
The album itself is a reminder of what we've still got, and the light and the energy that's within that. We still want to use and work with and share with people. This album's had a different feeling from some other records, which are not meant to be as shared. More take it or leave it. This one I think we did want to meet people, not only where we were at, but hopefully where they were at as well.
The album really captures every aspect of what it's like to mourn.
Yeah, I think going through the loss together, as a band and as a family, especially on the road, it reminded myself that there's nothing particularly unique or special about going through that. It's just something we all share.
We've all come through it or we're all going to be. Trying to recognize, we all share that at one point or another, so it helps with writing. The music I've always loved has always meant something to me, has been the kind that everyone can relate to. A song that kind of touches, even though it happened to someone I never met and never will meet, we share a certain similar path, similar needs, similar fears. Pain, frustration, anger.
With writing, those songs are the ones you try and get to. And then we fuck up some songs. We miss the point and become far too self-serving or too narrow and it's selfish. I mean, there's times to be selfish, but music can be more than that, I think.
Can you give me an example of some of those records you feel like you can really relate to?
Gosh. Well, it changes over time. When I first fell in love with rock 'n' roll or that kind of speaking, I kept relating with music that was in bands like Ride and Verve and My Bloody Valentine. I remember not being able to catch every word they sang -- they buried a lot of vocals and there would be this sense that you'd catch things through the fog. It would come to you and connect and the rest of the pieces of the puzzle you kinda had to trust were there. And over time, if a song really became a part of my life, I would go find what every verse meant, or I'd try to find the lyrics somewhere. It would fit, even though it might fit in slightly different ways. I trusted those writers, those artists. Those were the ones that I let in.
Time went by, then there was more Dylan and Velvet Underground and young Neil Young -- those writers that were more literal or wanted to write more story-line stuff. But once you realize all the names, the addresses, the street corners, and the names of the girls, and they're not to be taken literally. They're there to paint a picture, and you put yourself inside of it. So it changes, but I guess I always return to the more abstract or the hidden kinds, hidden words like diamonds in the rough. There's some hidden meaning. It means something more for me when you find it for yourself, I guess. I always come back to that.
The Beatles are the best example of lyrically having the abstract with the mixture of the literal and being about to write universal human relationships that everyone feels and relates to.