Robert Levon Been takes us into the studio -- and through the years -- for the story behind the new Black Rebel Motorcycle Club album.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are one of those rare gems who don't just try to set themselves apart from their peers, but actually succeed in doing so. Each of their albums has an incredibly distinct atmosphere, giving you the impression that, for BRMC, it's not about producing singles -- it's about the context and interrelation of the songs. In short, while BRMC's music is enjoyable on a purely aesthetic level, you also get the sense that it is meticulously crafted. Their sound -- from the sprawling dreamscape of their self-titled debut, to the more aggressive Take Them On, On Your Own -- manages to evolve while remaining quintessentially BRMC. Ever moving forward, BRMC's third full-length offering, Howl, is their self-proclaimed Americana album; here, lush effects have been put aside in favor of a more stripped-down, organic sound.
I recently caught up with bassist and vocalist Robert Levon Been over the phone from Los Angeles -- where he was regrouping before embarking on the American leg of their tour -- about the new album, creating art for yourself on your own terms, and how imposing limitations on yourself can actually be freeing.
Robert Levon Been: We're just trying to lay low for now 'cause we just got home from the UK tour and it's kind of the last chance to have a catnap or go out.
PopMatters: And take some time for yourself?
RLB: "Me time", yeah. Kind of the last chance to remember what it's like to be normal, maybe.
PM: As far as recording and performing go, is there one you like better than the other?
RLB: They're both needed. I don't know if I'd rather just do one or the other. I think you'd kind of go crazy if you could only do one and not the other. I guess in the studio it's more internal and it's really fun to get lost in your head like that, but you could never come back, too, if you don't have a good kick in the ass to get on the road and do your job.
PM: You guys have lived and recorded in a number of places. You're originally from San Francisco, then you moved to LA, and you guys were living in London for a little bit too?
RLB: For a little while, yeah. Well, Nick, our drummer's visa was all fucked up so we had to stick it out with him over there.
PM: Have you found location to be relevant to your process?
RLB: I don't know, it's one of those things that I think journalists like to make a bigger deal out of than it actually is -- just 'cause it's easier to write about a city and a feeling rather than just the abstract of music happening somewhere in outerspace -- and like to put a lot of emphasis on where it's being done, but I never looked at it as that important because most of the songs are done all over the world. You end up writing songs in different places and different frames of mind all the time; totally different stories get strung together all over the planet, or they could just be in one place the whole time. Either way they're going to be the best songs no matter what at the end of the day, and you're just going to try to put them down somewhere, anywhere, as soon as possible. And the place, I don't know ... from where I'm sitting it doesn't ever play that big of a role. But it's all relative.
PM: Since each of your albums has its own distinct sound, I can see how easy it would be to attribute that difference to the different places you've lived. I remember an interview of yours from about a year ago where you said that most of the songs for Howl had already been written, but that you hadn't put them on an album yet because you didn't feel like you'd made the right album to put them on yet.
RLB: Yeah, it all changed, though, once we went into the studio. Once we actually got inside the studio, we threw a lot of those out and just started recording new ones in the same vein, but they got a lot better than [the old ones]. We've always been writing songs like this, from the very beginning, but it wasn't the right time for some reason. The reason for the first album is that we didn't know what we were doing, in any aspect whatsoever. We didn't have a band sound yet so we were just in our house, you know, the house I grew up in, recording on our own equipment and just experimenting, not knowing what this and that does. It sounded good, thankfully.
Then we started touring. For the next record, we'd written all these songs on the road and actually became more the band that we kind of are and kind of shaped into something a bit more powerful and fine-tuned. You get better at your instrument, you know a little more, and you write as a band more. The second album was a live, raw, on-the-road band to me. But the fact that we went so far down that road ... I guess we were also needing the release of writing just a nice down-home country song to calm the nerves. We wrote so many of those. Actually, we wrote a lot of them in London and then brought them back over here to record. So these have been little collected songs our whole lives in some way. It's kind of like the band's first record but, I don't know, they all feel like our first record.
PM: With Howl, it definitely seems like there's a whole different set of influences at work because it is very down home and country whereas, well, there doesn't seem to be a review out there that doesn't compare your previous records to Jesus and Mary Chain or the Stone Roses. Did you find that something else was influencing the songs that wound up on Howl, whether they're songs that you've written over the course of years or just recently in the studio?
RLB: Well, that's the problem with having written over a long period of time: you can't take it apart as easy. The thing that steered it more than that is once we got into the studio we started setting certain limitations for ourselves. We didn't really want to get away with any old tricks of using electric guitars, distortion, feedback, delays, and all these things that would just create a wall in front of the sound. Every time we got to a point where the song needed some kind of a dynamic lift, we'd have to find a different instrument to do it with, and that made us go further back and use older instruments and more natural sounds, so as not to fall into doing the same thing again ... and it was a really good feeling.
We found a lot of new tricks, like ways to get a rhythm across without using a traditional drum kit, or how to get the low-end body of the song through without just putting a bass guitar on it and calling it a day. We'd layer nine vocals -- like a chant --subliminally into the track and that would fill out the sound and give it all this body without just shoving on a bass track. There were all these different ways we tried to limit ourselves and do what's right for the song. Each song is different, so it's hard to really take it all apart. It would take hours to explain and go through each thing, but limitations were probably the saving grace, more than anything else.
We weren't really listening to other people's records in the studio. Except for panning, though. We were trying a lot of old fashioned pans -- with left and right, hard left drums, hard right bass guitar and things like that -- and that created an older feeling to the music. I think that was the only time we listened to anything else; we were like, "Oh, how did they do that?" on a Beatles record or a Hendrix record, and we'd listen for how they balanced it and they always balanced it different, so there wasn't any one rule to it.
PM: Is there anything out there, whether it's musicians or another kind of artist, that's really blown you away and made you step back and reevaluate the stuff that you're doing? What's inspired you?
RLB: [pause] No [laughs].
RLB: I don't know why I mean, it's not that I stopped looking, it's just that it's not, I don't know ... back when I was 16 or 17 I'd hear some Nirvana thing, or Pixies or Stone Roses album, or a Riot or Verve album, and I'd kind of really be inspired by that stuff. It was a new way to go. But I don't feel like that's there anymore, a scene or a group of artists doing that. It doesn't feel the same. I mean, it's there, but as you get a little older you don't have that same approach or the same ears to hear that kind of stuff. The initial inspiration at least you know, the thing that gets you off in the beginning.
PM: So what would you say drives you now?
RLB: It has to come from a more internal place. It's got to be more through Peter and our own thing and what we're doing. If the art we're making isn't good enough to make us want to keep doing more, then it's kind of on our shoulders to make it worth it. [Howl] has a lot to do with that. There was no record label asking us to make the album, there was no drummer complaining that we were making the album wrong [laughing]. [Author's note: a number of internal difficulties led to drummer Nick Jago's departure in 2003, but he rejoined the group in time to contribute to one track on Howl -- "Promise", which also features Been's father on piano -- and is now a full-time member of the band.]
There were no outside forces to give us reason to fight for or against [the album] and since it felt like no one was asking us to make the album we were left thinking, "Well, people probably won't even like this anyway because it's different, so we better like it a lot." [laughs] So that was one of the reasons why we had fun making it, because we didn't really expect people to like it. Not this much at least.
PM: That's a great reason. I mean, usually the standards we have for ourselves are much higher than standards that anybody else could impose.
RLB: Yeah, that's really true, actually. The really hard thing that happens in a band as well is after you get a record out, everyone starts talking about it and everyone has a fucking opinion and they come with some sort of airs; then there's just the mass voice in general. And all it is is just more noise and confusion, and your brain gets divided up into a Rubik's Cube of trying to put it all together when that's really a game you shouldn't play, trying to piece it all together and make sense out of it. You should know if for yourself more than anything and if you don't, then that's the problem. I forgot, though. I forgot that for a while, but it's an important one.