ASK iAN * Q&A – ROBERT LEVON BEEN – Life, death & Macbeth * Q MAGAZINE
On the face of it Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's last performance at Belgium's Pukkelpop was just another notch on the European festival circuit - get in, get out, on to the next event. However 19 August, 2010 was to have repercussions that the band are still delaing with today. Just hours after leaving the stage Michael Been, frontman of 80s band The Call, father of singer Robert Levon Been and BRMC's soundman, died suddenly of a heart attack. Even for a group that had survived the behaviour of unstable band members and fluctuating line-up changes, the loss of the man who had been their mentor from their very early days to prove shattering.
Dropping out of sight for the next three years, the group - who emerged with the likes of The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the early 2000s - questioned whether they even wanted to continue after his death. However having regrouped to write and re-energised by a chance request from Dave Grohl, BRMC took on their heartbreak and crisis of confidence and eventually emerged from the studio with seventh album Specter At The Feast, released next month (18 March). Talking openly, Levon Been speaks about the impact of losing a father, a guide and a friend, the way it has transformed his relationship with his band and music in general, and why BRMC decided they had to ride again.
How the devil are you?
"I'm good, I'm good. I feel like my head is sewn on backwards. There's a million things going on. Not only are we trying to learn our own songs, which we've forgotten quite thoroughly, but we're trying to learn this song [Heaven And All
] with Dave Grohl. He's doing this thing for his Sound City documentary and we were in that, so we're learning that too. It's a clusterfuck."
You're in his new documentary about Los Angeles' Sound City studios?
"We wrote a song on the spot for the film. It was this kamikaze writing session. He had an idea for a drum thing and lose song, but I didn't know how to come at it, so I asked him, What if we just start from scratch and go in with no plan, just jam out in the studio and see what happens? I thought it would be low key. Then I get there and it was a 12 person camera crew, Dave and [producer
] Butch Vig standing there going: What's the plan for today... There is no plan! There was a real panic and I think that's what ended-up making the song come. It comes really quickly when you've got a gun to your head like that."
You're back in at the deep end it seems. You're not just doing your own record but you're in a film that has the music world's eyes on it...
"It was cool, Dave wanted us to be involved. We kind of got in over our heads! He's really excitable, it's like being around a kid for whom it's Christmas morning every day [laughs
]. He's so happy and enthusiastic that you can't say no. You'd follow him into a volcano because he would make it look so fucking exciting! He has this weird Pied Piper thing. It's like the crazy juice, everyone just goes along for the ride. Thank God he's crazy!"
It's quite a thing to get involved in considering it's been three years since your record. Is it a little strange to be back with all systems go?
"Our record actually started when Dave invited us to come down and record on the sound board at the studios again. It felt really good recording the song on the equipment we used for the first record [2001's B.R.M.C.
], it was so tempting that we asked: Would it be too much to ask if we snuck in here and tracked some of the songs we're working on right now? It all spun out from that. Dave was completely gracious and said Come in, use what you want. So we got the run of the place to make our album. From there we hit the ground running, we were in good hands. Before that though, writing the songs, was a lot of work. All of us were all in very different headspaces and we were trying to figure out where we wanted to go - if we wanted to write and play music at all."
It sounds like it was very difficult to get into the mind set where you personally wanted to do music, let alone be in a band?
"We all went through a pretty great loss with my father passing away. He was a really important person in our lives. He really held us together through a lot of hard times. And that was from the very beginning. As an example, I don't know a lot of people know, but at high school Peter [Hayes, guitarist
] was having a lot of trouble at home and was living in a van. So when I started playing guitar with Pete he would end up parking in the driveway. We'd go to school, play at night and he'd crash in our driveway, and so my father ended up taking him in and he became part of the family. It's where he's lived ever since. So it's a huge thing to lose him. He went out on the road with us, every tour doing the front of house sound, so all us - not just me - were hit pretty hard."
Because of that, his association with the band and the fact he was an artist in his own right, has that loss altered your own relationship with music?
"My whole relationship with music is completely different now. All the cheap highs are found elsewhere now, I can't go to music for that quick fix. It's more the mirror now and I don't really like what I see all the time. Everything is there. To be honest I was always hiding that part. I was using music as the escape - I'd look in the mirror and see somebody else. There's nothing left there any more. So yeah, it's different. It took me a long fucking time to figure out how to write from that fucking place. I didn't want speak in my own voice. It's so scary, but something happened along the way where... I don't know. Even though the lows have gotten lower, the highs have gotten higher. The joy and the richness of playing in what still feels like a family, I connect to more now. It's life, it balances itself out."
In a strange way, that is music's strength. At one point in your life a song can make you smile, years later it can make you cry...
"Yeah. When you first start a band it's like you're dating a girl [laughs
]. It's really exciting, you have great sex and everything is new, and then a couple of records in and you've gotten to know the person better it's, Fuck! This is beginning to get a bit more like work! Now, going through all the shit that we've gone through together, it's that's like that thing when you realise you're with your partner for life! There's a deeper love even with all the shit - if you can survive it. Not that many bands I know can stand the amount of shit that you have to take. Most of the time I don't know if I can, but somehow you keep on keeping on."
And you're band has probably taken more shit than most. Labels, line-up changes...
"Yeah, we've had our fair share. We have enough to balance it out on the other side though, safe to say."
Having endured it all, do you feel stronger, more settled as band? The new album isn't necessarily a dark album, it's even euphoric in places...
"A lot of the stuff we were dealing with we didn't want to bitch on a record. No one needs another sad bastard! There was something of more substance that we wanted to express from the experience than just the sorrow. There is something in death that is also a rebirth and that's kind of the beautiful side of it. With the writing, the part of it that was so difficult for us was that we decided if we were going to make an album we were going to show all sides of that. Not just focus on the darker, sombre elements. There's a lot more to the process than that. You love someone, you lose someone, you go through all the feelings. At the same time that was not all
we were experiencing in the last couple of years. Life has gone on and music in particular was the thing that was pulling us out of it. It's more of a salvation and rebirth."
There does seem to be a dynamic running through the album, it moves. Do you see it as a work rather than just a collection of songs?
"For this album we wanted to create not just a series of random songs, but we wanted the record to flow. To take you somewhere from start to finish, like a real record used to do. Like the records I loved when I was going up. Not overly conceptualised, because that could get tiring, but so it feels like it's pulling you through it, as opposed to the iTunes, download a single song at a time culture. We wanted to pay a bit more attention to it as a whole piece. I think we came closer on this one than we have in the past. The listener can get a fuller picture."
Can you put your finger on what unites all those songs to create that flow?
"The thing that difficult about the record was that everything was stretched to extremes. With the songs that are more intimate, emotional and heartfelt, we stretched down to that place more than we'd gotten to in the past. In the same moment, we were stretched on the other end of things. There's some songs which are brutally anarchistic, angry, fuck-every-thing kind of songs. They're the polar opposite. We felt our insides stretched apart. We weren't in one mind on anything. So trying to show how those two words come together - the light and the dark - and to get them to exist and speak together was the challenge for this record, if not our own lives."
You chose to cover one of your father's songs from his band The Call on the record.
"Let The Day Begin was deceiving easy. We jammed out our version in six minutes and went: How the fuck did that happen? We thought we'd have it easy after that. Then we were trapped mixing it, it was just a quagmire. I think we went over 50 mixes for the song! We wanted to blow our brains out as we could never agree on one version. So I'm proud that it's over and we didn't kill ourselves [laughs
It does sound like you enjoyed playing Let The Day Begin from the recording at least...
"Yeah, in the beginning it was great. [laughs
] It was only mixing it for six months that was murderous torture! We wanted to cover a song of my father's that showed the joy of his life as much as the loss. We thought about doing a couple of his songs that were heartfelt ballads. I was tempted to do that because I connected with them deeply and emotionally on a persona level but that wasn't showing the full picture for me of what we wanted to say and the gratitude we felt for him helping us to get to this place. That song is such an uplifting and luminescent song that I thought it was right for the occasion."
It has some great lyrics.
"Yeah, though I always forget some of the words. It's like this giant list of thank yous essentially and they all get jumbled up in my mind [laughs
]. I've got to figure out a way to remember it. It's going to get to me writing the words on the back of my hands!"
Are there any other songs that are personal highlights for you?
"The last song on the record, Lose Yourself, has significance for us too. The last time we were all
together on the last tour was when we played a show at Sumer Sonic in Japan. We went on, then Jónsi went on after us. All of us were really moved by his show. It's one of the few times we've all stood side of the stage together and watched. Usually on tour everyone scatters. It was one of the last times we were all together and were really moved. When Lose Yourself came along later on we all shared that moment together again with that song. It was definitely inspired by him but it wasn't something that we talked about. We didn't aim to get back to that spirit, but it was definitely understood
. Every movement and every feeling was connected. I'm proud of that one because I haven't ever felt so connected to Peter and Leah [Shapiro, drums
] in the same room without any words been said. We were communicating purely musically. It came pretty fast, as the best things do."
The album's title has some pedigree, doesn't it?
"We were playing around with the word spectre for a while and Leah actually found an act in Macbeth was called Specter At Feast. There are a few reasons for the title... Is it us, or outside of us? Are we three the spectres and the record is the feast? It just felt right for this time. There were lots of things going on involving Macbeth too. Me and Peter went to see a play in New York called Sleep No More
, which is also from Macbeth, and we were really inspired by that play. It's one of the greatest things I've ever seen. It's this living play, on five stories and you wander through the rooms wearing Eyes Wide Shut masks. You stumble upon different actors playing parts... it was really inspiring. Then as we looked into it some more, we realised Joy Division's Shadowplay is also from Macbeth so we thought, all in all, it was pretty good company. [laughs
Talking of stages, you have a tour next month to think about. Are you looking forward to getting out there again?
"It's the only thing I'm looking forward too! I'm losing my mind doing all the things to set up the album, videos, artwork... I just want to play, man. I feel like I'm doing all my chores and if I can get them done, I can go outside and play! A lot of the albums have been a real struggle to play live, but with these songs we know what we have to do. They were written to be more than a record, so we feel like we're only half way done."
Plus you're in the position of having a good selection of older songs to fit into the setlist too.
"I never thought we'd ever have the problem of having too many songs. It's a high-class problem so I'm not going to bitch about it. Thankfully we have fans to bitch about it for us [laughs
] we get constant complains about what we leave out! At least we're still around to bitch about! [laughs
Paul Stokes @Stokesie
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