Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is racking up the frequent-flyer miles

[24 April 2008]

By Walter Tunis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club sure is doing a bit of globetrotting for a band that was supposed to be cooling its wheels in 2008.

On its current tour, the one the West Coast trio didn’t initially envision for itself, BRMC will travel to Mexico, Ireland, deep into Europe and eventually to Russia. Already logged is a trip to Argentina, where the band played to a festival crowd of 60,000 one night and to a packed club of 400 the next.

“The club show will be a memory forever,” said BRMC bassist, co-vocalist and co-founder Robert Levon Been. “The festival I’ll remember, too, but more in a terrified sort of manner. It’s hard to connect with that many people. You just try to have faith that they’re out there to catch you if you fall.”

The real fright, though, hit when the band’s return flight from Buenos Aires, which already had been delayed when its pilot was deemed too drunk to fly, landed in Dallas to connect with American Airlines. Yes, BRMC arrived home smack in the middle of the week that American grounded more than 3,000 flights.

“It was murder,” Been, 29, said. “It was anarchy. The first thing we see when we get to Dallas is an airport full of scowling people ready to freak out. It’s already become of those war stories we’ll be telling.”

One could say the travel chaos was part of an already bumpy year for BRMC, which had parted ways with its record label, RCA, months earlier. But Been is actually quite pleased with where things stand for the band today. No label means no need to promote a new recording in concert. And because its four albums have distinct personalities that shift the contours of BRMC’s guitar-saturated sound, there is no longer a reason to play favorites with its music.

“We only signed with RCA for two albums,” Been said, 2005’s predominantly acoustic “Howl” and 2007’s hook-happy “Baby 81,” “and were able to make both completely free of any hands reaching in from the business side. RCA was a major (label). We knew that. And as a major, their thinking is, `The next album has got to be the multi­million-dollar platinum record with a platinum single on it.’ That’s just the way they’ve got to look at things in their world. They have to make an extremely large amount of money just to survive. We don’t.

“Then again, catch me on another day and I’ll be kicking and screaming about corporate labels. There are two sides to every rock star. Today, the humble, artistic side is winning out. I’ll let him speak for now.”

Though the two RCA albums might be history for the band, both were keys to expanding the blend of garage rock and psychedelia that BRMC had concocted on its first two albums. The acoustic roots drive of “Howl,” cut when drummer Nick Jago had bolted from the band (he has since rejoined), was viewed as a major leap from BRMC’s usual sonic roar.

“I always felt we were a simple rock ‘n’ roll band,” Been said. “We had what we were known for. But there were also places we went with this music that weren’t what anyone was expecting, including us.

“We wrote these acoustic country, blues, gospel and Americana songs that wouldn’t fit onto the other records we made. So we said, `We’re going to go in this direction and make a full record of those songs. Of course, we had no experience in actually doing something like that, so every worry and paranoia came into play. But that record kept us grounded at a time when we weren’t sure what was going to happen to the band.”

“Baby 81,” on the other hand, was seen as a return to electric form. But instead of merely readdressing the guitar crunch of its early albums, BRMC stressed melodic hooks as much as it did volume

“That’s one of those things I really didn’t understand until a couple of years back,” Been said. “In my own writing, I couldn’t see the difference between a full-on rock song and a more melodic, loose pop tune.

“A lot of the time, when you turn things up as loud as you can and you’re screaming from a place of angst and aggression or pulling from every full charge that you have in you, the words become sharper and more jagged. But melody, harmonies and vibrations can have so much power and sway over the words that come out in the songs. Finding a balance is the key.”

Been has some strong family history to draw on for that balance. His father is Michael Been, singer, vocalist and bassist for the ‘80s-‘90s rock band The Call. The elder Been has been a regular part of BRMC’s road crew for several years, not as a songwriting muse but as the band’s sound tech.

“We ended up losing our sound man on an early tour, so he offered to help out for a few shows,” said the younger Been. “And that turned out to be the best we ever sounded. He actually took some convincing that he could do this. Now he has learned his way to become one of the best sound men in the world. People like Noel Gallagher (of Oasis) and The Jesus and Mary Chain have come up to him at the soundboard, saying how amazing our music sounds.

“Sure, it’s funny to have your father out on tour with you, but I got over that in the first couple of months. Actually, it’s kind of cool. He keeps an eye on us.”

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