Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Going Wherever the Wind Blows
Still touring in support of its most recent album, 2013’s psychedelic and space rock-inspired Specter at the Fest, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has teamed up with co-headliners Death from Above 1979, a heavy psychedelic rock band out of Toronto, for the current jaunt. Singer-bassist Robert Been phoned us to talk about the tour and about BRMC’s career, which dates back to the late 1990s.
How did the tour with Death From Above come about? Do you know those guys?
Yeah. We’ve talked in the past about doing stuff and the timing didn’t work out. This was a good time for us because we’ve been working on our record and they’ve been working on some of theirs too. It’s a good chance to air out some of the songs without it being an all-out new album assault. It’s nice to start things off like that. Before we release a new record, we often have a short tour like that. It helps get your sea legs back.
Many bands don’t like to do that because they end up on the Internet.
We’ve had that paranoia. It can take away from the anticipation. That’s why we’ll start off slow. We’ll do some songs differently than how we’ve recorded them . . . some for good reasons and others because we can’t pull them off yet. It’s a happy accident that way.
Do you think the bands have similar influences?
Well, I think with how we put on a live show. It’s not all we do but we like to tap into that classic rock n’ roll impact without that being all there is. There’s something about what they do live that feels like we’re both in step with that. We’ve had tours in the past with people who play with us or we’ll be on some bill and I don’t mean this in an egocentric way but you don’t have much in competition. It’s like, “C’mon guys–don’t do the soft, ballad-y, folk thing the entire time.” That’s good for some things, but you want to see who can take who a bit. The way I hear directors talk about who can direct the best action sequence and there’s a craft to doing that. You want to see how much you can turn people on and get them engaged.
I think the Who and Led Zeppelin really sought to blow people away.
If you only go at one speed all the time, it can wear itself out. But I learned that when you can take people down to the deepest valley musically and slow things down. Doing that dynamically within the show and then taking people back up to the top of the mountaintop shows you the scope of it. But if you’re at one speed the whole time, you don’t feel it. It’s only [felt] when you shift the spectrum. It’s that whole thing about silence as being as impactful as a loud noise because of how and where you use. You can’t numb people out with one extreme or the other. I adhere to that.
I get the sense that you grew up listening to lots of noise pop and psychedelic rock. Is that the case?
Well, I liked the two extremes to some degree. I was in the East Bay and there was a punk rock scene that was dying out. The metal scene was huge and had its roots there but had gone mainstream and was really big at the time when I was in high school. I got a lot of that influence when I was first listening to music. When I was first learning how to play guitar and bass, I was listening to Alice in Chains and Soundgarden and Metallica when they were all huge. Nine Inch Nails and Pixies and Nirvana were creeping in after that. Then I discovered Stone Roses and My Bloody Valentine, the first Verve record and Ride. A lot of bands that copied those bands were awful. I don’t think they appreciated the quality of the songs and would only catch one or two elements. Same with the Brit-pop thing. Ninety percent of that was awful. The ones who did it right were the ones to learn from or listen to. It’s the same with any scene.
You and Peter first met in high school. What was the context?
He was two grades above me. I’d see him after school or during lunch periods where the hippies and guys who got their cars first would hang out, and you’d get into trouble. He had an acoustic guitar on his back every day. It was very Dazed and Confused. When I saw that movie later, I thought, “Oh shit. That’s him.” He was the only guy I knew who could play. He literally wore it on his sleeve and his back. We got together after school messing around with songs. We didn’t have a band but it was fun making four-track things together.
At some point, you moved to London. What was that experience like?
That was after the first record came out. It was released in the States and it bombed. A year later, Virgin decided to give it one last shot overseas and it got released there and all the magazines had a big press buzz thing over it. We didn’t know what that would equate to, but people told us it meant a great deal to be on the cover of those things even though we weren’t feeling it in the States. They said if we played over there, we would feel the effect of it. Our drummer was British but was living illegally in the U.S. The reality was that if he toured overseas he would be banned from re-entry into America again. We took it seriously. The first tour we did over there, we took another drummer so we wouldn’t put him in that position, but when we got over there, we realized it was a serious thing going on. We convinced him to come over and forget about America, maybe forever. We wanted to stick together like the Three Musketeers. We moved for him, so he wouldn’t feel alone being over there. We recorded Take Them On, On Your Own in London and lived there for over a year. Then we had a stroke of luck with getting his visa thing taken care of. It’s unbelievable how it all happened. We were ready to be an international band that never toured the States again. Thank God, we got his visa back and we were able to play together again until we fired him, but that’s a whole other story when things got even darker.
When did you come back to the U.S.?
It was for Howl. We released the second record and lived on the road. Even for Howl, we were still living out of suitcases. It’s been a strange life, to be honest with you. There’s been lots of displacement and we’ve had to embrace the chaos and go wherever the wind blows and to whatever will keep the fire burning and keep us making music. Only now have we been in a place for longer than a few years. It’s the first time we’ve gotten to know L.A. Technically we moved here in 2001 but haven’t spent much time here. It’s taken us that long to see the sights. It’s so weird.
Talk about Specter at the Feast. Did you set out to do something different with the album?
That album had a heavy shadow hanging over it. My father passed away and we were all dealing with not knowing if we wanted to keep going in a lot of ways. We especially didn’t want to be rushed into making a record. There’s no way around it. You have to feel something when you write. Even if you feel numb, you have to put it into words. We didn’t want to write about that directly or do anything for a long time. That record has a different feeling. We started off slow. We played together without ever speaking for eight or ten hours in a room for months just making sounds. We’d do a song but it was always instrumental. No one wanted to sing anything. The actual music had this healing energy around it. That we were meeting up was an act of love toward each other. That made it easier to take the next step to building a record. We took some time in Santa Cruz and Redwoods and that phase felt peaceful. I was born up there and then we got a weird invitation from Dave Grohl to be part of that Sound City documentary. He wanted us to say a few words about making our record on that board. He told us wanted to make his studio into a living, breathing studio and not just a relic or a museum piece or a documentary film. He wanted to get bands in there using it and we didn’t hesitate taking that invitation. We were back working on the board that we did the first record on. Things fell into place through strange, auspicious circumstances. That’s what that record was for me. It was about letting things come and taking your time. It’s a very important album and I’m very proud of it. We didn’t let it be the anchor that sunk us to the bottom. It ended up being a celebration, which is strange to make something like that. Music is cool in that way if you trust it enough.
Do you have a release date for the new album?
We don’t. I think we’re half way through the process of it. When we get into mixing, we tend to go down the rabbit hole. Sometimes, you’ll mix the whole record in two weeks and one or two songs will take five months because everyone is fighting and doing 50 mixes. Until we put those babies to bed, we don’t’ know how long it will take. We always underestimate it. We feel like we’re going to get it done and then we don’t.