Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Robert Levon Been on Translating Music to the Stage

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Peter Hayes (left), Robert Levon Been, and Leah Shapiro.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Peter Hayes (left), Robert Levon Been, and Leah Shapiro. Photo by Tessa Angus
For those who have been waiting patiently for new Black Rebel Motorcycle Club music, Christmas came late when the band finally released Wrong Creatures in January after a five-year album hiatus. "We tried to do the album in two pieces, focusing on six songs at a time rather than doing all 12 songs at once. That ended up being the worst idea of all time," bassist/singer Robert Levon Been tells New Times. He describes the recording process as excruciating pain akin to dental work.

"I didn't realize what a violent gear shift it was from writing and rehearsing to mixing songs. Mixing is very obsessive-compulsive. You're holding everything under a magnifying glass. It's the opposite of daydreaming and imagining and letting a song out. So once we finished doing that for six songs, instead of getting on the road and falling in love with the songs and each other again, we had to get back in the studio for six more songs while we still hated each other."

If you listen to the new record without empathy, you will find Been's torture worthwhile. The moody atmospherics of Wrong Creatures fits right in with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's seven previous records of shoegazing garage rock.

The band got its start when Been was a high-school student in Northern California in the '90s and met guitarist Peter Hayes. "Peter was two years older than me. Because of the age thing, he pretended he didn't know me at school, but we'd go back to my house every day and record on my four-track." They started out with trippy folk influences, trying desperately to emulate Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd before they flushed that out of their system. They eventually found themselves emulating British bands such as My Bloody Valentine, the Verve, and the Stone Roses.

By the time they recorded their debut, B.M.R.C., in 2001, it seemed they were fully formed as a blues-based band. But Been says that wasn't so. "We didn't know what we wanted to sound like. The first album was a bunch of experimentation. When it came out, we said we better figure out how to make ourselves sound live like we do on the record."

Coming out around the same time that stripped-down rock bands such as the Strokes and the White Stripes found their popularity, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club earned radio play and even performed in the experimental, sexually explicit British movie 9 Songs, along with other rock greats such as the Dandy Warhols and Primal Scream. It's a flick that Been still has never seen. "The director, Michael Winterbottom, had done some awesome shit. He came up to us and said he had an idea for a movie about two characters with no story who watch nine different bands play. He asked if he could film us playing at Brixton Academy, and he promised we wouldn't notice him filming. I forgot about it. Then people told me the movie is just a lot of sex and then you hear a song, which hasn't made me want to see it."  

Rather than watching themselves, the bandmates spend their time listening to themselves, because replicating their records onstage has been one of their biggest challenges. "In the studio, you're isolating instruments. You keep building and building. By the time you're done, you realize you can't do it with only three people and their ten fleshy fingers, especially since we shy away from samples."

On past tours, they've tried to remedy the shortage by hiring a fourth member. (Drummer Leah Shapiro is the third.) But for the current tour that winds down at Revolution Live Wednesday, January 24, they were able to master all 12 songs from Wrong Creatures by themselves. While they're together, might a new batch of songs come easier? Been is hopeful because inspiration is everywhere. "Everything influences everything. Every book, every movie, every person you meet, every relationship goes into it."

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. 8 p.m. Wednesday, January 24, at Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-449-1025; Tickets cost $22.50 via
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David Rolland is a freelance music writer for Miami New Times. His novels, The End of the Century and Yo-Yo, are available at many fine booksellers.
Contact: David Rolland

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