INTERVIEW: Robert Been of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Psych rockers Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are currently touring in support of their eighth album, “Wrong Creatures”, which includes a May 15th stop at The Rave. We caught up with Robert Been to talk about the new record and touring. Check it out here:
B&E: You guys are touring behind a new record, “Wrong Creatures”. What made the process of creating this record different from some of your other records?
RB: Well it all started off with a challenge. While touring the last couple shows, Leah (Shapiro) found she had a very rare brain condition. Strange thing called a Chiari Malformation that means that part of the skull needed to be shaved, which was growing abnormally. It was basically cutting off blood flow and circulation to half of her skull, and so she had to have brain surgery. The surgery itself didn’t take long, but the physical therapy took the better part of a year, and I think during that time, Pete (Hayes) and I were experimenting with things at home in Pro Tools. Basically trying to think of different ways that we might have to make the album if she didn’t make a full recovery, which is scary in itself, especially for her. Drumming is such a physical job, and I think it’s scary when everything you love is up in the air, and you may never get to do it again.
The beginning of the album is very ominous, and sort of a panic-stricken thing, and once the surgery went well and she recovered, it felt like a crime to not include the physical gift that she was back in the driver’s seat for. Rather than going more experimental with different beats and things, we sort of started from scratch and whatever came to us in months and months of jamming kept building for us. It was natural, and we’ve done that a few times in the past, and it’s true to where we are at that time versus a more conceptual album.
We had a lot of the album kind of formed in a rough version by the time Nick Launay, our producer showed up. We’d never worked with him before, but we tried on the last few albums. I think we were joking with someone and saying “oh, you should trick out the album”, and he sort of doubled down and said “why don’t you guys just keep doing what you’re doing and make a rock album, because there’s not really that many real bands anymore, and rather than getting tricky with it, stay the course.” It was actually encouraging to hear that. It was kind of like “Oh yeah, we don’t have to do anything fancy. We can just go in and be ourselves.” For the most part we stayed on that course.
B&E: Did the situation with a serious surgery involved for one of your bandmates make songwriting any harder for you?
RB: It kind of freed us up to go down every road that we could have imagined, since we had that time to experiment every good idea and every bad idea that we had. It’s a double edged sword, that kind of thing. In theory, you get to sleep at night because you know you get to try again tomorrow, but in reality you haven’t slept in days, because you’ve been trying everything (laughs). You kind of lose perspective, because you can definitely overwork something as much as underwork it, so the wisdom of knowing when to stop is kind of a very fine line.
B&E: So you guys just got back from tour, and are going on a pretty lengthy tour after this, right?
RB: Yeah this is the first time we’ve had a couple weeks off. We were kind of going pretty hardcore since October. We started touring in Europe long before the album came out, which is kind of strange. It’s kind of cool playing songs for people before they know what they’re supposed to sound like. Like some nights it might be better than the album, or felt like people got something special, and other nights we would just fall on our ass, and people couldn’t really tell otherwise (laughs). From my memory of seeing bands when I was growing up, I always remember when I’d hear a song before anyone else in the world heard it. And it might be rough or like, the words would be a little different, and the album would come out and you’d be like “fuck!”. I have more memories of that then going to see a band right after an album comes out, when you’d hear a song and you’d mentally be like “that sounds like the album”. There’s something special in that I guess.
B&E: What’s more fun for you at this point, going out and playing every night on tour, or getting to create a new record?
RB: I hate all of it and love all of it at the same time. I don’t know. The heart of the band is more of a live band. When I look at the amount of shows that we’ve played and the relationship we have with the fans, and the nature of how we perform, it probably leans more that way than like, the most proper of artists. Big bands like The Beatles or Pink Floyd, or whoever, almost get to a point where it’s hard to recreate what they’ve done in the studio without like, loops or a bringing a full orchestra out or whatever. So we usually try to bring the spirit of what we’re doing to people in a live setting. But that depends on who you’re talking to that day.
Sometimes if I’m recording I’m all about that and making something timeless that will hopefully go beyond the moment. They’re both kind of beautiful; to appreciate the live moment for what it is, especially in this day and age, truly just for this time, and it’ll never happen again. You can take pictures and YouTube it, but the actual feeling it and being in the moment isn’t gonna happen again. Then at the same time, there’s creating something timeless and immortal that people will listen to for ages, hopefully. It’s a different sort of dream.
B&E: You guys have played Milwaukee a few times. What sticks out in your head about the city?
RB: Just that the crowds are always up for a good night, and I think we always feel safe by the time we get to Milwaukee, because we know that we’re in good hands (laughs). I haven’t spent a ton of time in the city. I’ve seen both extremes, industrial and residential there, which I kinda can’t wrap my head around. It’s not like, pretentious though; like a San Francisco or Austin kind of thing where people are trying to be cool. When you’re playing music, it’s the kind of crowd you want, being into it, rather than the hipster, too-cool-for-school kind of thing. They think they’re the best, but sometimes that’s the worst to play music to, because they’ve seen it all. But it’s a fun time.
B&E: We always enjoy a good tour story. What’s the craziest thing that’s happened to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on tour?
RB: Oh Jesus. I would think of like bad things, like speakers catching on fire and things. The floor almost collapsing when we were playing in Leeds was one of the more surreal ones. Usually you’d expect the ceiling to fall before the floor is gonna go, but we were playing this city town hall, and they hadn’t had shows there in like 20 years. This is like on our second album or something. The council agreed to start having bands play there again, and we were one of the first bands to play there. But the one thing they didn’t expect is how British crowds dance differently now than they used to, or when they get excited they all jump up and down in unison. That wasn’t something they did 20 years earlier.
By the third song, we didn’t think anything of it. It was like a football crowd, where they’re all jumping as one, and we thought “cool, people are into it”. But then we felt like it was kind of like an ocean wave. The floor was like, rolling like you’re at sea, and we couldn’t really figure out why, if it was something wrong with our stage or what. Then I guess the promoter was getting freaked out, so he ran to the basement, and he saw the main center beam in the basement was about to crack, which was holding the whole floor together. It was waving and it was about to split. In a panic, he hit the fire alarm and got everyone out, and we didn’t really know what was going on, but then they told us.
When we got outside, people were as confused as we were, and they started kind of like, rioting because they were just like, “what the fuck?”. Their adrenaline was going, like three songs in, and they’re just out now. I remember we had to walk around the back of the venue and like, flank the crowd (laughs). We stood on this car with a bullhorn, and we had to tell people what was up, so people chilled out. We came back like five months later, and we played a makeup show for free at this other venue. But my favorite thing about it, besides that nobody died, was that we were right in the middle of this song that we have called “White Palms”, and there’s a lot of breakdowns, but the song builds up again. Everyone filed out and the PA got turned off right in the middle of that, and we came back five months later, and started the show right in the middle of that song, like we were finishing that thought. That was my favorite memory of touring.
B&E Finally, Milwaukee is a beer city. What is the drink of choice when you’re on tour?
RB: Oh fuck. I think I’m the only one that doesn’t drink beer. The whole crew does. That’s like their version of water. I’m like the worst person on this one. I’m a whiskey man, just because I like things that get to the point. I guess I’m just drinking to get to a final destination (laughs).