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.
That's why I'm so interested in what was behind some of your songs, because I have my interpretations already. I really, really like "Gospel Song" off Howl. Can you give me a little background on it? I feel that really captures the Christian message, to lift others up around you and not imitate these evangelicals that spew hatred and death. Also, does it fit in with other songs like "White Palms"?
I never subscribed to one type of religion or one idea of thinking or seeing the world. I think questioning all things around you is the closest or most important way to find your own meaning. So, like, "White Palms," I think, is an incredibly Christian song. I think it's actually more. It struggles with the real soul-searching and questioning and the fight that goes on inside you, moreso than "Gospel Song." Which, some people might hear that and hear it as like standard. It sounds like what you're supposed to say or what you're supposed to feel or how you're supposed to praise Allah or whatever you call it.
Sometimes I wonder what's the use of those, because there's been a million gospel songs in the world. For some reason that just fit into place for me at the time. I almost didn't question it, because the words fell into place effortlessly. I wasn't really thinking about it at the time. I always listen to a lot of Van Cooke and Staple Singers and a lot of cool gospel R&B stuff, which I still love. Sometimes I just want to see if I can find a connection to that.
But when you really want to get into your conscience and where you're really at, you know. Deep down, I don't find it praising anyone or anything is particularly the way to find what you're looking for. I think that can come later.
Would you call your search for, I dunno, meaning or whatever, would you call that agnosticism? No, I wouldn't. My mother was a Lutheran pastor and my father was incredibly spiritual with his rock 'n' roll. It was in his lyric writing, and he got pigeonholed as a kind of a Christian artist. That was the last thing I think he felt like he was. But I was lucky that my parents never forced me to think or believe any which way.
Actually looking back at it now, it's strangely absent as far letting me make my own choice -- whether I wanted to go to church or whether I wanted to do anything. They let me just follow wherever I wanted to go with my time and my thoughts, and most of the time, it had nothing to do with church. It was just being a kid. I just wanted to play with my toys or whatever it was. It was basic guitar and a piano.
I always find the most open-minded, or the people who are pushing me to see a different place, aren't devout in one particular religion or way of seeing the world. Those are the people I need and I wait for and look for. They're the ones that kind of shake me up. It comes from films, poets, or writers. Or just creative people I meet on the street. That seems to be the most important thing.
Your album cover looks like a book that I'd keep in my back pocket. I like that your band's lyrics are so literary -- like you read "Howl" and Edgar Allan Poe. Who were you reading, besides Shakespeare that inspired Specter at the Feast I didn't do a lot of reading during the making of the album. I was doing a lot of different kinds of meditation and also dealing with extreme depression that I never really had to fight so hard against in my life. Half the days I was white-knuckling it and half the days I was going back to music kind of reluctantly for a while. But in my life, whenever things have gotten truly bleak [and] dark, and I've not known which direction I wanted to go, I would kind of tune everything out and follow the sound. Follow where the music was taking me or the people around me -- you know, [bandmates] Peter and Leah -- that inspire that.
Everything felt very stripped away for this album. There actually wasn't much outside influence. It was kind of the way we needed it, just a truly clean slate. There's enough noise in things that get caught in the monitor, but we took these times to meet together and rehearse and jam out for hours and hours. After seven or eight hours of doing that, we would find everything else around, the rest of the world would quiet down for a little while. We could resonate on one tone, one frequency. It kind of gave me something to hold onto, something that was beautiful and felt like there was life and growth to it. That's why the record means a lot to me. It's a reflection of that, in a pretty pure sense.
Can I tell you how I heard of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club? I wanna preface this -- this story might be a little depressing. Anyway, a friend of a friend hanged himself -- his name was Mike. And he put your self-titled record on repeat on his record player and that's how they found him.
The point of this is, I didn't know Mike, but I heard he was nice guy. He was an adult, he made his own decision, and while it sucks, I think it was kind of beautiful. I think he would want me to tell you about it. I mean, your record was so moving to him that he wanted to share it with the world when he left. I don't know if I would have ever heard of you guys -- and your music has gotten me through some tough times.
When was this?
It was in 2009 and the next year, Beat the Devil's Tattoo came out and all I could think was, man, it's such a good album. He had so much to live for, if only your next album. Man, I'm really sorry to hear that. That's terrible.
It is. The only reason I'm sharing it with you is not to make you feel bad, but I think he would have really wanted me to share that story with you.
A lot of people don't know what to do with things like that. There are so many emotions that go along with suicide: philosophically, moral . . . It's treacherous, especially the anger and the shame that goes along with it.
Music can often be too much -- people want to put too much meaning in it, whether it's something like that or someone playing a record backwards or whatever. Whatever it is, people will feel such rage that they don't know where else to direct it, so they'll direct it at that. Or looking for understanding or some sort of meaning from they'll draw too much from that than they really want it to be. So it's really tricky ground.
It comes down to each individual person and what things do matter or have worth to us. And it's all very personal. Music or art or poetry. It's very simple: An artist is a fancy word for someone who's highly sensitive and can barely deal with the world most of the time. Getting through certain areas are just too vibrant or too intense.
And so you get it out -- you don't have a fucking choice. You learn to write, you get it out somehow, so you write it down or you sing. There's enough people in the world that need to hear someone else out there that share the same feelings or the same struggles, the same pain. Music, that's the most beautiful thing about it, that it can bring people up.
Myself, when I was growing up in my bedroom, when I was 15, Trent Reznor would sing words that I've only felt my whole life and didn't have a voice or a way to let it out. And then all of a sudden, I felt like someone else gets it. At least one other person gets it.
Yeah, I've felt that way with Nine Inch Nails, too. It makes you not feel alone. I think the scariest thing is feeling truly alone and lost. Those are the times you give up hope. I believe music is the most healing force that we have, but there's some people that aren't made for this world, either.
Yeah. You can love them as much as you can, you can be there for them as much as you can, but some people just have a shorter time with us. Thank you for telling me that, thanks for sharing that. I've lost quite a few friends, people I would've liked to have known that our music meant a lot to them. So it's good to hear that. I wish he could've heard the next record. [laughs]
Me too. And to be honest, he should've listened closer to some of your other songs, like "Sympathetic Noose," you know. That's a song that's perfect for that situation, that tells you to keep your head up high. To push through those feelings. And he didn't. And that's all we can say. Anyway, I hope that didn't depress you or anything. No, it's good to stay conscious of that.
Those are all my questions, Robert. I'm really looking forward to your show coming up here in Phoenix. Thank you. Have a good one. Take care.
Troy Farah dwells on the mercy of his own existence at troyfarah.com
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.