11 February 2014


Photography by Eleonora Collini

When most people think of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club they just mistakenly associate them with boys in leather jackets playing muscular, fuzzed-out noise rock, completely dismissing their classic rock roots and punk-inspired take on American blues. Over their fifteen years of career and seven albums to date, the Californian trio (now featuring co-funding singer/bassist Robert Levon Been and singer/guitarist Peter Hayes, and since 2008 drummer Leah Shapiro) have managed to alternate aggressive psychedelic grooves with melodic ballads and atmospheric dream pop songs, all woven together with almost methodical construction.

It's their first gig of 2014 and also NME awards' opening night at Electric Ballroom, London (Photo review). After soundcheck Robert, Peter and I sit on the dressing room's couch joined by the winners of the meet-and-greet competition. They look a bit tired and jet-lagged. Their personalities seem so different yet complementary. Robert, hiding his face under a hoodie, is well-spoken, calm, charming. Peter, smoking one cigarette after another, is nervous, spontaneous, prone to giggle.

Peter Hayes
Their latest album Specter at the Feast was released in March 2013 under the band's own record label, Abstract Dragon, through Vagrant Records in North America and Co-operative Music/V2 in Europe. I would like to know how they think it has been received and Robert decides to be evasive playing with the double meaning of the word ‘receive’: “Well I hope everyone that bought it has received it because we had a problem for a while as some people ordered it and paid for it but then it took a couple of months before they got it. We felt personally responsible though it was someone else’s fault. Nowadays everything happens online and you put all your faith on a machine.”

The album was written in the aftermath of the death of Robert’s father, Michael Been who gained popularity in the 1980s with his band The Call and who then was heavily involved in BRMC, touring with them as their sound engineer and mentor. Michael sadly died of a heart attack backstage at Pukkelpop festival in 2010, leaving a big void and initially causing Robert to emotionally shut down. “Honestly this was the hardest record to make”, he confesses, “as the last thing I wanted to do was to feel anything. Writing music requires a certain amount of feelings and after such a loss for a long time you just want to keep away for that kind of places. So when we got together for the new album we literally just started playing without singing any words, we would just make noise and soundscape, getting into this meditative vibration of sound”. This was somehow relieving for Robert, making him feel like there wasn’t anywhere else he wanted to be. Then after a few months something started slowly taking shape: “It was still very difficult to feel anything, not because I couldn’t, but just because I didn’t want to. Some of the songs we wrote were actually kinda fighting against that feeling. There are a lot of pretty aggressive songs to counterbalance. It’s a state where you don’t want to go to that place and so you just go somewhere else.” The second track on Specter at the Feast,“Let the day begin” is actually a cover of one of the most famous The Call’s songs. To further honour his father, last April Robert also appeared in two West Coast shows with a reunited The Call, taking Michael’s place on bass and vocals. 

Robert Levon Been
For BRMC supporting all forms of art, movies in particular has always been very important. Last year the trio composed the musical score to Jeff Baena’s dark comedy Life After Beth which was premiered at the last Sundance Film Festival in January. Baena (who both directed and wrote the film) is a friend of the band and wanted them to be involved since the beginning. “We’d always wanted to write an instrumental album for movies or anything else similar to that “, Peter points out, “ so it was fun and also very interesting to support another art form and relieve someone’s pressure. We initially thought it would be easier to do the score while we were on the road in Australia, but it turned out to be not that simple, so we did everything when we got back home”.

Robert and Peter also recently teamed up with legendary Dave Grohl to compose “Heaven and All”, a song that featured on the soundtrack of the 2013’s Sound City documentary directed by the ex-Nirvana drummer/Foo Fighters frontman himself. BRMC had recorded alternate versions of a couple of songs from their self-titled debut album (“Spread your love” and “Awake”) and mixed the whole record at the famous Los Angeles studios, hence the connection. Peter says that “Dave was just a fan and decided that he wanted to involve us along with other bands. That was very nice of him.”

Their songs have also been featured in many other films in the past such as End of Watch, God Bless America, Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, and more recently “Sell it” was used in the trailer for the new Ridley Scott’s film The Counselor. When I ask them what kind of relationship they think there is between cinema and music Peter says: “Music at its best is about creating pictures and feelings. I don’t know what comes first, I don’t think that matters, all that matters is just the story and the feelings. What would a movie be without the music and what would music be without the words? But there is much more than just words and music. There are other elements that’s up to the other person to add, that’s up to you to give a crap at what you are looking at or listening to. We would like to take responsibility for our music but I don’t think that’s very true, I think it’s up to the listener how deep they want to go. I believe that the most important thing for a movie is meeting viewers and for music is meeting listeners.”

Cinema is not the only art that seems to have inspired Robert and Peter. The title 'Specter at the feast' is clearly a Macbeth reference, and the line of text at the bottom of the album cover is from Agrippa’s On The Vanity of Arts & Sciences. The whole album artwork actually looks like a book. Robert insists that whatever form of art you use it’s always all about storytelling: “ A book can charge your imagination, speak to you and catch things you didn’t even know that were there. Films are a different medium but it’s the same, as they are just telling new stories or trying to keep old ones alive. With music it’s similar, though somehow it’s less based on the story, but more on just emotions. In a way with music it’s simpler and more immediate to try to take you on a journey. It’s about feeling a word, a vibration…. a melody itself has so much feeling even without having any single word attached to it.” That’s something that took Robert a while to realise though, as at the beginning when he was writing a song he would just get stuck and try to change music and see if a different word would come. “But it’s the other way around!” he smiles. “Words change their meaning as soon as the music is different. It’s the music that decides what the words are. You can’t just force your own words and attach them to a melody, and with visuals you can’t just force things either. There is a language in every art medium, which is not always simple to decipher, but it’s all there, in music, in poetry…. it’s all about acknowledgement.”

Robert and Peter (who is originally from Minnesota) first met in a town in the San Francisco Bay area where they both went to high school. They still live not far from there and being from outside a big city was probably one of the reasons why they started making music together. “ We were just bored as hell and that’s how Robert and I related”, Peter explains. “Bands were coming through so at least we had access to bands that we liked which is very nice and a lot easier than when you are stuck in the middle of America, like in Minnesota where I am from.” There wasn’t really a sense of music comradeship with the other bands of the Bay area when they started. “ We handed copies of our first record to people and then we found them in the gutter probably like everything nowadays, “ Peter recalls.  “There was definitely more competition than support, which in a way can be great and healthy”.
Over ten years later they both think that it’s still hard to find a relationship between supporting other music and competition, but helping other fellow musicians by for instance getting them to open for them is the key. “ It’s important to be respective and not selfish in school as much as everywhere else in your life “, Peter believes. “That’s what they should teach you here in America, about people being equal.” Robert clarifies that things are different in Europe. “For instance in France the government gives support to artists which is an unheard concept to American kids. If you want to become an artist you’re basically on your own as it’s not a respectful job, like doctors or lawyers. It almost feels like everybody is against you as even other bands don’t want you around as that helps the competition! I got to see a lot of good bands that didn’t last as long, and if lots of friends of mine that were trying to break through had just had another year or two they could have pushed through and they wouldn’t have had to get other jobs, which took so much time away that they couldn’t concentrate on their music anymore.”

Not only to them it’s essential that musicians somehow help each other, but also that they connect with their fans. Recently the Guerrilla Poster Campaign is an example of how devoted BRMC fans can be. It all started with a friend of the band that designed the posters on his own and began putting them up when he was over in Asia. Then Ian Ottoway, another friend who is also their online guy thought that it would be a good thing if people going to a show could put something up. “The spirit was just to give posters to people that wanted them”, Robert reveals. “We thought that would be the simplest thing in the world but then after two months there were lots of issues like shipping costs, different addresses, costs of manufacturing, time and so on, and coordinating all these things was incredibly laborious. But it was still the most beautiful thing we had done in a while, seeing all these kids getting together and making a kind of art on their own, graffiting walls and designing their own things, spraying cars, crazy things we would have never expected. So it’s good to know that there are people out there that are just as insane as ever!”

Like most bands, BRMC have been compared to many artists such as Jesus & the Mary Chain, The Velvet Underground, Love and Rockets and The Verve. For most that would be very annoying but both Robert and Peter agree with me that music comparisons are somehow necessary. “ Yes you care but at the end of the day it is what it is and that’s how people explain”, Peter tells me. “For instance if you ask what I want to sound like I’ll say psychedelic rock whatever that is”. Robert continues: “Music is just too impossible to try to explain with words. If you only have two seconds to catch someone’s attention on what a new band sounds like rather than explaining in a sort of abstract way that doesn’t really mean anything to anyone, you just shout out a couple of bands and hopefully they will understand what is in there. At first comparisons can get you through the door but after that you really have to pull what you’ve got, because someday everyone is going to reference you. Hopefully someone is going to say these bands sound like BRMC, and if we are bad for those bands they will have to deal with that, just like we did”. I ask if out of all the comparisons they got they feel one is the most accurate and Peter jokes : “I am not sure about that, but Jesus & The Mary chain is the least accurate! Because if you just go back and listen to their records like I did, you will realise that’s not the truth. “ And what about artists they used to be big fans of and today they almost feel embarrassed to admit it? “ I think Cindy Lauper… ‘Girls just want to have fun’ was a very catchy song!” Robert confesses. Then Peter tries to sing something to us as he doesn’t recall neither the song’s title nor the singer’s name… Robert and I can’t make anything out of that and after a few trials Peter just gives up. “Well there are many catchy songs. It is what it is… if something is catchy you just have to give in! That doesn’t mean that you buy the album though”, he giggles.

We are running out of time as we also have a photo shoot scheduled and they need to spend time with the winner of the meet-and-greet competition. My last question is about any new material they’re working on and thankfully Robert tells me there is some. “There are lots of songs we kind of left halfway before recording Specter at the Feast, tracks that were almost ready but at some point we just had to focus on 12 songs to finish and fully get ready for.  For a while we were actually considering a double album but it would have taken a lot longer, and by writing many songs at one time something would have been done diluted. We didn’t want to look back and regret not perfecting just a few songs as there will be time for everything.” Do I really need to say that I am already impatiently looking forward to hearing some new stuff? 

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