Cigarettes, Selfish Art, and Songwriting: Interviewing Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
  • WEDNESDAY, MAY 08, 2013

  • Posted by: Stephen Cardone

As I head up the stairs of Terminal 5, there is something unusual about the upper balcony. A giant cloud of tobacco smoke is perpetually pouring out of the temporary offices that have been set up by the management of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, despite the signs that read "No Smoking in this area by any persons at ANY time". Security has told me to wait here. Supposedly, they are attempting to confirm whether or not I'm legitimate, but nothing is happening. Every now and then, somebody will pass me in this strange hallway lined with slanted mirrors and nobody seems to be concerned about my presence. I contemplate taking out a cigarette of my own, just to pass the time. Right as I'm starting to get desperate, a man walks out of a room at the end of the hall.

From what I can gather from the hair, tattered jeans and pea coat, I'm almost certain this is Robert Levon Been, lead singer and bass player for BRMC. He also passes me nonchalantly before turning around to ask me if my name is Steve. I tell him that it is and he shakes my hand. We walk two doors down and enter a room with some comfy leather couches and a chair. I see there is a cup only about 1/16th filled with water. There is a floating butt in there. I look at it for a few seconds before sitting down in the chair. Robert takes the couch. He rubs his face a couple of times with his the palms of his hands, and says something along the lines of "shaking off the cobwebs." Despite his tired eyes, Robert is smiling and seemingly feeling good. Just a month or so ago, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club released Specter at the Feast, the deeply intriguing and diverse seventh album for the band.

A few years back, you released The Effects of 333, which was an instrumental album. What did it mean for the band to try something like that?

At the time, Peter [Hayes] and I were always really passionate about instrumental and abstract soundscapes. The music we would talk about or share would just be these random things.

Could you give me an example of what one of those would be?

It would just be random, I would just stumble across some things, I can't even remember the titles. It was stuff I would put on that was helpful for sleep or just to meditate to. It was just kind of this collection thing. A lot of different [Brian] Eno stuff at the time, some Pink Floyd faves.

Do you have a favorite Pink Floyd album by any chance?

I like the More soundtrack a lot. I don't know how proper of a record it is, there are some things I keep going back to on it. So we just started making these ambient songs that I think had a liberating feeling to them because we didn't have to put it in any sort of box, have it make sense, or sell it, or market it in any way, it was kind of art for the selfishness of art. Sometimes it's important to do something just for yourself, whether anybody likes it or not.

Do you think there is a certain amount of pressure to do those things, as far as not making an album like that, with traditional hooks and melodies that you can sell?

It just becomes complicated, you shouldn't make it sound like something that you feel forced to do or that you're hearts not in it. I've been careful over the years, with this album in particular, to make sure that you have the right reasons when you go back into it together in deciding to record and write. We felt like we genuinely had something to offer and give of some worth. It gets harder as your time goes by to make sure you're in it for the right reasons. The way a lot of first records happen, is that you have nothing to lose, you kind of throw yourself into it, so you can't even worry about what's next. You get older and life catches up with you. It's sort of a strange combination of fearlessness even though you might know too much. But diving into it wholeheartedly gets scarier. The more you know, the scarier it gets to take risks. That's why a lot of music suffers, you just get too smart for your own good.

Specter at the Feast feels like it moves through a lot of those genres and sounds you had experimented with on the past records, how do you form something cohesive from that?

We weren't trying this time. It was a very different record because we wiped the slate clean and we had never done that before. We always had a blueprint idea of where to head next, while we toured there were a lot of ideas that always seemed to take shape. This album it felt right to take a break from the past and there were a lot of different things that were being felt and I don't think we could have forced the past into it.

What were some of those things that you were feeling at the time?

Well, it's on the record, we were dealing with a heavy loss, but it wasn't about writing from a place where we were reflecting on something that had just happened. You need more time to distance. It was more just trying to find that place of allowing yourself to feel again. Whatever that feeling was, that was going to come forward, it was going to be okay. Whether it was ugly or beautiful, it was just letting the feelings come. Over the last couple of years, all of us were feeling very shut down and wanting to keep some sort of control. But the music allowed us to let go of that. It was a very different thing if we had gone back a year to songs that were working on before and trying to get back into that same headspace. There would have been something false about it.

Did any of those songs from a year ago make the final cut?

No, but I've been listening to some of them and I think I know how to approach them now. This album we almost recorded as a double album and we thought about releasing a double album at first. The lyrics in particular were such a struggle that we had to focus on making the best single record we could, putting all the time, detail, and work into that. We have another record pretty much ready to go, but it's just a matter of finding the words. I'm working on that now, all of us want to release another album soon and not wait as long as we did with this one. It's a good problem to have. There is a strong blueprint of the next one right now, maybe a couple of things from a few years back might get added, but we'll see.

"Some Kind of Ghost" is probably my favorite song on the new album - that organ, I don't even know how to describe it, man.

That was one of the last things we added to the record. Because "Some Kind of Ghost" was purely acoustic for a while, kind of a more Howl style break or intermission. It had this element to it, where you listen and it was cool intellectually. Like cerebrally you would think that it was really cool and then you would skip past it to the next song.

No way!

[Laughs.] No, I mean the raw form of it. We added that stuff. We put it all through this filter, so it had this old 40s guitar sounds. It was clever but it didn't have the atmosphere or the emotional connection. It was just filtered down with this old timey guitar sound. It didn't give you what we ended up adding to it. Peter mostly added those textures and keyboards that created this really haunting kind of landscape.




What is the most important thing a song has to have for you to take it to the next level like that?

[Drums fingers on table]

Or even the multiple ways in which that works?

I like to not think of it as ever being rules with songs because they come from so many different places that it's easy to think it can only be this one way. The ego says that it can only be this one way, like "This is the way I write". But being open to if it's just some random loop or keyboard line or something that you build everything off of in the studio, then conceptually great things have come from that. And then the exact opposite, where we'll be in a rehearsal space and someone will start playing a riff and the whole song comes out in the improvisation. Some of the best songs have come from that. Or I'll go off on my own and write something on acoustic or Peter will, or we'll do that together. The door is open for all these different methods. To make an entire record feel like it can take you to all these different places, it's pretty important to have those different angles, different ways of looking at the same picture from different places. If we only did one method, I think it would sound flat somehow, like you would always see things coming. Or like with "Some Kind of Ghost", none of us saw it coming. And then "Sometimes the Light" was another one that Pete did in two days alone in his bedroom and me and Leah [Shapiro] weren't even a part of it all. We just thought it was one of the most beautiful things we had ever heard. It came suddenly. Then other songs like "Fire Walker", which took over a year and other pieces really slowly to build.

But you have to believe in the song to a certain extent to even take it that far.

That's the problem! That's the hard part! An extreme example would be "Fire Walker". One of the reasons I titled it that was just to remind myself that we survived making it and to never forget that some of the most brutal songs to tame are sometimes the most rewarding. One rule we often go back to: if a song is so reluctantly wanting to come into life, than you let it go. That is for sanity a lot. But "Fire Walker" beat the shit out of us, but I'm glad we walked away from it with something. So it's a really hard thing to be okay with a song like that, which is like pulling teeth, standing next to in equal measure, a song that was done in a day or written in 10 minutes sometimes. Some things just come and it's hard to know what to trust. There's the gift that I had no conscious thought about, one of those subconscious, "I was working overtime and I was just along for the ride" kind of things. Some people trust that above all else. Other people get into the craft of it and don't respect the things that come too easy. It's hard to live in both realities.




Artistically, how do you try to stay out of a single mode like that? How do you approach a song from different ways and allow it to evolve?

It's the hardest and best thing about being in a band, because Pete and Leah can remind me to stay loose with it, or fight with me to "Why don't you fuckin' play that one, that was a good one," - you know remind me that it was worth it. Keep things constantly uneasy so you're never too comfortable in your own space. At the same time there are enough fights or bad blood with songs with people that have killed some songs, there's just things that have soured the taste, that have been lost because of one wrong move or loss of momentum. You know it when it happens, it can be so fast. We'll have a sound check and someone will be playing a great riff or a great beat and we'll all start going and if Leah doesn't lift into the next place or chorus when it feels like it should, the song can just die and never bother to come back. But if one person just takes one extra breath of "Okay, I'm gonna charge into this part", that triggers Pete to do something else, then it becomes something that everyone stops and goes "Fuck. What was that, let's come back to that tomorrow." It's as simple as that. That's usually the most exciting thing for me with being in a band. It is just more interesting like that, rather than having complete control over something, writing on your own. You know how fragile it is and how much you depend on these other people to make something great, something bigger than you can imagine on your own. You're just a small part of that. It's good to be reminded of that.

So the chemistry really does play a vital role.

Yeah, especially in this day and age, I think that's what people love about it. That's what I really loved. You don't really know it. Like a rock and roll band or any band where you're seeing this faith or level of trust in people that they're coming together to make something bigger than themselves. You can only assume that each person has sacrificed so much to be a part of this thing because it's not theirs, it belongs to no single person. That's kind of a testament to what people can do in a bigger sense, when they put the egos aside. A band is just kind of this little sociological experiment, and I think it's one of the only reasons I feel comfortable with people coming out and clapping for us. I never feel like it's deserved when it's just your own thing, it's just too self-pleasuring. When you bleed for it and sweat for it, for other people to get through something; that's the cool part of music and bands.

Well also, I think there is something to be said for the fact that you guys have had a pretty consistent output for a while now and I was just wondering how the process has changed from then to now in terms of the ways in which records come together?

Well, that's just a nice bonus! You look at any band, even bands that put out terrible music and it's still a miracle to be able to get together and put aside their differences. Maybe this record is horrible and nine out of 10 songs I hate, but trusting that the people are in it for the hope that the next one will be better or that one song is good enough for them. We're pretty lucky that we've got six or seven albums and I still feel inspired. All of us are still trying to push each other further musically and artistically. So I'm pretty proud of that. It's no guarantee that the next one won't be terrible.


Specter At The Feast is out now. Get it here.




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