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Interview: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

FOR 15 years, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has carried the torch for true rock, spending the first decade of the 21st century developing a drone-heavy, New Wave-influenced guitar sound before experimenting and exploring a stripped-down, roots-rock aesthetic. This may have alienated some, but three years after ‘Beat The Devil’s Tattoo’, the trio’s vision pays off in their seventh and most ambitious offering, ‘Specter At The Feast’, influenced by the tragic passing of Robert Been Levon’s father.

Once a member of ’80s group The Call, Michael Been worked closely with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club as their sound engineer and producer before a fatal heart attack after BRMC’s performance at Pukkelpop Festival in 2010.

‘Specter at the Feast’ is a 12-track ride of raw emotion reflecting the kaleidoscope of turmoil and struggle experienced by the band, how they got through it and what came after.

Gemma Brosnan catches up with Robert Levon BeenPeter Hayes and Leah Shapiro to find out more.

Gemma: Robert and Peter, you went to high school and grew up together, did you ever expect to have a career spanning 15 years and seven albums?

Robert: It’s a pretty lucky thing to be in a band for a little while and see the world which is great and we’re many lives into this. Each one of those lives has got its own twists and turns and things that you love about it. I feel like a cat that’s on about seven of his lives so hopefully I don’t wear them all out too soon.

Gemma: How do you stay creatively inspired after such a long time?

Robert: I’m pretty much out, that’s it for me. I’m retiring after tonight if something else comes along.

Gemma: You’ve mentioned before that working on ‘Specter at the Feast’, was one of the biggest struggles of your career – what made it so tough?

Leah: It was long, very long. It took two years and we were pretty exhausted when we first started. It was such a blur of stress for me, I can’t really remember the reality of what was actually going on.

Robert: The lyrics in particular were a struggle. We planned a double album with 18 tracks, but we had to focus on making the best single record we could, putting all the time and work into 12 tracks. We have another record pretty much ready to go, it’s just a matter of finding the words.

Gemma: Do you feel the album is a true representation of where you are now?

Peter: It’s all just coming from life so some days it’s a big lie and other days it’s true and most of the time you’re just trying to search for the truth of it day by day, moment by moment during the song because you can’t go back 10, 12 years and feel that exact same thing. You’ve got to learn with it and find another way and hopefully grow with it and find another meaning. That’s the fun of it all.

Robert: Previously every album has flowed into the next, but we started this one pretty much with a clean state so I think there’s something more stripped back that lets our different shapes come through.

Gemma:  How did the loss of your father and mentor shape the album?

Robert: Well, we were dealing with a heavy loss and it was more just trying to find that place of allowing yourself to feel again. Whatever that feeling was, whether it was ugly or beautiful, it was just letting the feelings come and go after feeling shut down for so long. It really helped us pull out of that darkest place that we were in.

Gemma: You cover The Call’s, ‘Let The Day Begin’ on the album as a tribute to Michael. How did you go about choosing a song considering how much he meant to the band?

Leah: Well we were talking about covering a Call song and wanted to pay respect, but it was hard to figure out which one and it came to us pretty randomly. We were jamming in the recording studio and Rob started singing and it could just as easily turned into a whole new song, but I think at that moment the song chose us.

Gemma: ‘Specter at the feast’ is clearly a Macbeth reference – who came up with the title?

Leah: Well, we’d been in New York and had just finished the record and went to see a play off Broadway which was a weird experimental adaptation of Macbeth. We were just toying with the word ‘specter’ so I was researching that and found a chapter in Macbeth, Specter of the Feast and Macbeth had showed up randomly a few times during the process.

Robert: Yeah, Macbeth kept coming back again and again in a few different things and cast a shadow over the album in a way that we couldn’t get away from so there must be some reason for it.

Gemma: At what point did Dave Grohl become involved?

Robert: We always work on our songs before we go into the studio because we don’t really like the feeling of being on the clock somewhere and not having any idea of what we are doing so we had a lot of songs ready and it was just a strange coincidence that he called and asked us to be part of that documentary (Sound City) he was making and at the end of that he asked us if we wanted to track our new songs on that board. It was really lucky that it happened when we had all these things ready and he wanted to keep the board alive and keep bands coming in to make records on it and it sounds as good as it ever did so there was no reason not to.

Gemma: You’ve had a fair amount of shit over the years in terms of line up and label changes…

Robert:  Yeah, we’ve had a fair amount of shit.

Gemma: Do you think it’s made you stronger as a band?

Robert: Every time I think we’ve had a lot of shit, I just talk to another band and discover that the longer you stick around, the more trouble you find. It’s not a 9-5 job, things can happen in the off hours that you’re still accountable for. Someone should write a book one day as there is too much to say in one interview, but some of those things like having to go into the major labels for the first couple of records, then trying to get another deal signed then switching to another road by having our own imprint with an Indie and there are so many things that you’re scratching and clawing at just to survive during those periods that it does change the music and it does change your attitude to music because you start off pretty naive in a good way because you’re just doing it because you love it then it all gets rather complicated after that.

Gemma: Moving away from the dark side of the music industry, what have been some of your happier times as a band?

Robert: They were all happy times because we won all those battles so I consider all those fights good, healthy fights and we’re got good scars to show from it.

Gemma: Any particularly memorable moments?

Robert: The last few festivals in particular something has clicked with the crowds so maybe we’re getting better, but all the gigs are special, that’s the problem when you start picking things it makes the others less special and that’s not the way to do it.

Leah: It’s so different playing festivals. You can take your time a little bit more at your own headline show instead of feeling stressed and rushed and needing to be off at a certain time which can be a bit hectic so it’s a very different experience.

Peter: Festivals are usually a good ego check. It puts you into place as everyone is really on the same playing field. There is no real sound check, you just get up there and go at it which is healthy as you can get complacent when you’re in your own bubble and every gig is full of your own fans saying how much they love you because the world’s a lot bigger than that club and there are a lot of folks that don’t know or give a shit about the band.

Gemma: What’s been your worst festival experience?

Peter: I’m not going to talk about that anymore as the last time I talked about that I had a fucking shit one right after.

Robert: I still can’t get Coachella out of my mind from seven years ago or something like that. So many technical things went wrong at once and we were left out there hanging in the breeze. It was an impressive disaster, but I haven’t had one quite as bad as that probably since our first show when we left the cymbals at home so the drums had no cymbals, there was a puddle of water next to me and I got electrocuted. It was funny too because we spent seven months working this out so that the first time we played live it would be perfect. It still haunts me.

Gemma: Where’s the weirdest place you’ve heard your music being played?

Peter: It doesn’t get played anywhere, but I’ve heard it on the radio randomly. Usually someone calls me to let me know it’s going to be played on the radio.

Robert: I heard it in a fucking Applebee’s once in Joshua Tree. It was late at night, but that was very weird, to make the Applebee’s playlist.

Gemma: When was the last time you were starstruck?

Peter: Constantly. I’m pretty nervous around most people, they don’t need to be a star.

Robert: We played with Neil Young once at Brixton Academy, he asked us to open up for him and made a point of coming back afterwards to say hello which was genuine freezing in your tracks kind of thing. Also meeting The Rolling Stones, words I never thought I’d utter.

Gemma: What’s next for BRMC?

Peter: We’re meant to be touring until next year if we’re lucky, but as Rob pointed out earlier, he’s retiring after tonight.

Robert: We can talk about a reunion tour tomorrow.

To see Black Rebel Motorcycle Club live go to BRMC Tour

To buy Specter at the Feast go to itunes