BRMC's Robert Levon Been Talks Rock 'n' Roll, His Father's Death, and Fronting the Call
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is a band that remains a protector of the rock 'n' roll spirit.
In an age when processed pop, phonetic folk, and hyped hip-hop rule the airwaves and bandwidth, BRMC has stayed true to its roots as a propagator of anthemic rock, creating albums as statements rather than an arrangement of fluff around an easily downloaded single. Though the band found an audience with the wave of garage revivalists that we all took for granted in the early 2000s, its sound has developed, and time has seen Black Rebel Motorcycle Club blossom into what we believe might be the most underrated rock band in the world right now.
Recent times have seen the group appear as part of Dave Grohl's Sound City film and concert experience, release one of its most critically lauded albums ever, and grapple with the tragic loss of singer/bassist Robert Levon Been's father, former frontman of The Call, Michael Been, who had taken on a role as BRMC's sound engineer and confidant.
We spoke with Robert Levon Been about making the band's most dynamic album yet, why the group enjoys touring smaller towns, and paying homage to his late father by fronting The Call for a pair of shows.
Crossfade: Specter at the Feast is a very dynamic album with a really wide range, yet all of the songs work toward a singular statement. Was that a difficult trick for the band to pull off?
Robert Levon Been: For this record in particular, we were kind of coming from all sorts of different directions. So some of it is incredibly raw and punk rock, and some of the angriest songs we've ever written. On the flip side, we were writing a lot of large-soundscape, really touching, personal songs, and we never really knew how to make it feel like one cohesive album. We knew that was going to be the hardest part of the record, but once we found a way to kind of balance the two worlds, then we started playing around with making certain songs meld together -- making an album feel like it's not just a series of individual tracks and make them all lean into each other. That was difficult, but not as hard as getting them to all play together in the first place
To me, it is a real mark of maturity when an artist can produce a dynamic album while keeping its identity. Would you say BRMC has matured at this point?
I think the only thing that really matters in the beginning is writing a good song. The song itself has to cut through and -- in the beginning -- it doesn't matter if they stick together, if they're cohesive, if it has a signature feel, or if it sounds like the band, because no one cares if it sounds like the band if it's not a very good song. It's got to come down to that song connecting, and after that happens, then you do your best to bring as many of those other elements as you can. Yeah, It's a really tricky thing, though, because you can go into the studio or start writing with so many somewhat lofty thoughts and then you stifle yourself and not even know where to begin.
A major part of rock 'n' roll, and BRMC's charm is the the lack of such lofty thoughts, the organic nature of it.
You know, it all gets real lofty, real quick, though. It's a two-headed beast. Playing music starts off in such a real place with just feeling something and playing guitar and feeling like you've got something that's your own, and then it just keeps getting more and more convoluted and out of control. And the convolution is kind of great and beautiful and a part of the experience and takes it further than you ever imagine, but it's so hard to keep connected with that first thing when the ball starts rolling. That's why a lot of bands break up, I think, 'cause you get all wrapped up in what it should be, rather than what it is,
and it's hard to remember what it just felt like to play guitar in your bedroom and not give a fuck about anything else.
BRMC uses volume in a very confrontational way, but it's an important element of what makes a BRMC show great. Would you say the band has a bit of a love affair with volume?
A love/hate relationship with the demand of it, because it demands something of you, it demands something of the listener, and it demands of the person who is playing it. It only matters in contrast to the silence, to the most subtle, finessed playing, so that's where the frustration is -- in acknowledging and finding a place in both worlds. You can turn it up as loud as you want and after thirty minutes, it doesn't sound loud anymore, it's just everywhere. To find the dynamic, the understanding of using the silence to make those moments feel as powerful as they do when you first plug in your guitar and hit the first chord, that's the trick! It's enough to drive you mad, you know? It's not as easy as just turning up.
So the volume is a tool of contrast rather than confrontation for you?
Yeah, and there is a consciousness within music. It can go so much further and it can get so much louder if you learn to use the negative light as well.
I read a lot of press leading up to your fronting The Call for a pair of dates. How were those shows and do you feel you paid your father and his music tribute in the way you had hoped to?
No one has asked me that! I guess I didn't start doing it for a feeling of satisfaction, really, because I know that kind of can't happen. I started it because when I was talking to Scott and Jim from The Call, they just had so much joy for playing still, and it was my Dad who really didn't want the band to go on anymore. For him, he didn't want to write anymore and things like that. So I really wanted to do it because those guys had something more to give and I could help that happen. After that, all sorts of strange things came. It met higher expectations than any of us thought, places it could go and things it spoke to, so it's a beautiful thing getting that music out to people again and getting a chance to let those guys turn up loud again! You could tell they were dying to.
I'm honored that I got to share the stage with them. We recorded it for all of the fans that weren't able to be there that night. Hopefully, they'll get to hear it and it will take them back to a place or bring them to a new place. I think it's not really over yet, as far as what it can do. We sent the first message in a bottle and we'll see what we get back.
So there may be more from The Call?
There was some talk the other day about going out again. Right now, it's a matter of time on my end because BRMC is touring until like the end of the year. I'd love to play with them again. Hopefully, we'll be able to make it happen.
How has this leg of the tour been thus far?
We're doing all of the cities that we promised to come back to that we weren't able to play on the first U.S. tour for Specter, so it's like smaller and smaller towns, which is really fun usually, because the bigger cities, you get bigger shows there, but sometimes, you know -- kids can be a little too cool for school. Like, New York and L.A. and stuff like that, you get a lot of arms crossed and it takes a while to get people to come out of their shell. Small towns, there's not as much of that attitude and it can be more fun to play for people.
The States can be a very weird place to play in right now. It's changed a subtle but significant amount in the last couple of years. Far more reserved than everywhere else. Sometimes there's crazy shows, but it doesn't compare to the rest of the world. We've played shows in Russia and Europe and it's just more reserved here -- a much more reserved energy. Not to say that it's all bad because sometimes it feels like they're really listening more, there's something to the energy over there that feels like they're exploding out of their bodies, bouncing off the walls, and it feels like, "OK, they're going nuts for it," but it's definitely harder to listen to music when you're on fire. [Laughs]
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. With Restavrant. Tuesday, October 8. Grand Central, 697 N. Miami Ave., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $20 to $25 plus fees via ticketfly.com. All ages. Call 305-377-2277 or visit grandcentralmiami.com.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.