Interview Robert Levon Been – 2017
We Caught up with Robert Levon Been in the middle of BRMC current European tour, at l’Autre Canal in Nancy on November 11th. BRMC’s new album “Wrong Creatures” will be out on January 12th.
Hello Robert, how are you doing?
Well, good, except as soon as I got here I got my traditional throat flu and then I had to try to get over that again. It’s just like déjà vu… I get it every single time I’m here. I think I just have a thin Californian skin, so I can’t handle actual weather and real life, which tends to be what you get when you leave the Los Angeles area. But besides that, good.
Let’s begin with a few questions about the new album.
Ok, have you heard any of it besides the live?
Well, we’ve heard Little Thing Gone Wild, Haunt and Question Of Faith.
Oh yeah that’s all that’s out yet. Yeah that’s it. And then the live ones, ok. Were you… Were you?…
Yeah, I think you’re thinking of the show in London.
Yeah I did Circus Bazooko in London.
Yeah, that was surprising (He laughs.) and interesting!
It was a little disorienting, I didn’t do it quite right but I kinda wanted to show people how the song had started. It’s a song that was built in a looping world and then we took it and we made a whole proper band thing out of it. But yeah, it was loops and loops and loops.
So, on the album it sounds different, there are the three of you playing on this one and drums and Peter playing guitar as well?
Yeah I just thought it would be fun to tease people a little more. It’s one of those songs that came from months of Pete and Leah being late to rehearsal and so I would just be sitting and waiting and I just started playing that sound, kinda circusy… At least it felt like it was in my mind, staring at the wall. And I started doing another loop over that and then it just started to give me a song and every time they were late I’d just keep going back to this, adding a little more to the story each time.
Each time you were waiting for the circus to join you!
Yeah! Yeah, I should have called it waiting. That’s, you know, a never-ending loop of waiting. I hope people will get that one… And that All Rise and Spook and Calling Them All Away will be ready for the US tour, that’s when the album comes out, so, we’re not doing everything over here.
Can you tell us how it was to work with the producer Nick Launay? What did he bring to the album and to you dynamic as a band?
I knew him for many years, I wanted to work on something together since Take Them On, On Your Own and then it never really happened. We contacted him for Specter At The Feast and he wasn’t available. So, this time he came by and we had a lot of the songs written except for words and he was very minimal in the beginning, you know, just supportive of what we had already made versus saying “Oh I can tell you the secrets of how to change everything and make it great.” His approach was something more respectful like “Don’t mess with it, just record it in an honest way.” So, we collaborated and he kinda became like Switzerland or something. He was neutral… When all of us were fighting over what the part should be, he would usually break the argument and say “ok we’re gonna go like this”. Then someone would be pissed and someone would be like “Oh thank God”. When for the life of us we couldn’t agree and move on… Yeah, he brought some sanity and there’s a few things that I’m really glad he helped with and other things I’m not so glad because I lost that day, I lost the battle. (He smiles.)
We were also wondering about the song Bandung Hum because you have played this one quite a lot during the last American tour and recently during the UK and Euro tour but it’s not on the tracklist album. What’s up with this song, are we gonna get to hear a recorded version of it?
We recorded it and we ended up recording too many songs, Peter thought. And we started throwing them overboard in the last minute and rather than throwing over the ones we liked the least, we felt it would be more interesting to put aside some of the strongest ones. They’re all similar to Bandung Hum they’re like with super adrenaline, skull crushing, you know, full rock’n’roll… And we’ve been talking about a way to get those songs out, maybe releasing and EP or something that has its own life versus a B side or a giveaway thing. They get usually forgotten and so we wanted to, yeah, give the album… We wanted to make the album not feel, you know, three and a half hours long and then we wanted to give these other songs their time.
Cool! That’s cool.
So we’re gonna get another EP maybe!
You will, yeah.
Like you did with Howl or the Baby 81 sessions.
In a different way. It’s not gonna be like the Howlsessions… Or kind of but we’re gonna… I don’t know, we have a few tricky ideas. I won’t say what they are. But it might be on the… All day and night for the last couple of months we were working on this vinyl box that has those secrets and… (He laughs, not wanting to disclose the secrets.)
Isn’t there going to be an harmonica in this box? That’s what we’ve heard.
Yeah! You heard about the harmonica? Yeah yeah, and there’s something else and a full book of photos and lyrics, all this stuff that we wanted to have substance and then those songs might get stuck on that too.
That would be great. We haven’t ordered the vinyl yet because we are waiting for this box.
Yeah, I hope that everybody is! I feel bad because we’re so behind. That’s because we started daydreaming and getting in the more and more crazy ideas… and every time we got a crazy idea we had to wait a week to find out if it was humanly possible to do it and some things were, some things weren’t and we had to wait another week to hear back, so… You suffer for having to many ideas.
It means that we’ll get to here these songs in January maybe if it’s in the box set, so that’s good news!
Yeah, if it is, yeah!
On a few songs Peter and you switch the bass and the guitar. So we were wondering, how often do you write songs on the electric guitar and Peter on the bass? How does that work, in your writing process?
Hum… We don’t think about it, which is why I don’t have a snappy answer.
It comes naturally?
Well… Yeah, both instruments take you to different places so, one day, you know, in rehearsal, I will feel like playing guitar for a minute and maybe it will be like “uh, no”… and pick up the bass or the key organ piano. And whatever I start with usually he has to do the opposite and vice versa so even though we both do guitar in some songs like Berlin… We don’t think about it, it’s really… It’s almost like murdering someone. You don’t really think about what you’re feeling that much until after because the process of murder is probably more emotional than it is practical. Or it is for some people. (He chuckles.)
Yeah, I don’t think I’ve met a lot of murderers so I don’t really know.
(He chuckles again.) Yeah, well I’m sure some of them are technical oriented, for others it’s more passion. The tools are an afterthought.
I was wondering this because of Question Of Faith actually, because the first time I heard it, it really reminded me of American X.
And the first time I heard it I didn’t know you were playing guitar.
I don’t know, the style of the guitar is very similar.
It’s close to the same tuning. But I do a lot of songs in that tuning like, As Sure As The Sun, Head Up High, Suddenly, American X… When you’re working on the same tuning there’s, I don’t know, there’s like a… Like if Peter was writing a song and I was trying to find a guitar part for it… If I was playing it in standard tuning it would have ended up being a very different kind of song. It wouldn’t sound like American X at all… ‘cause these tuning they kinda lead you different places… (He laughs) it’s like if you’re chopping someone with an axe, you know, you’re probably gonna get full body parts, very specific places and that’s gonna leave a certain mark. It’s totally different if you’re lighting them on fire! It would leave a different impression… Or strangling them… Just with your bare hands.
You often say that you play the bass as if it were a guitar, do you think that this tuning kinda allows you to plays the guitar as if it were a bass? You see what I mean?
Yeah. Yeah, hum.
‘Cause on electric guitar with this tuning you’re not gonna play the chords, the classic…
Yeah, you do but you’re actually right, they are more… a little closer to… So like, usually with this I can play the lowest couple strings that are open and they drop down closer to a range that the bass is in. The other ones aren’t but they keep you from going to traditional chords that are like the expected places that become really cliché really quick. You always hope you’re not taking the easy choices. But yeah… Kinda… Yes, definitely the lower aspect, I can bring tricks similar to the bass using that rather than a standard guitar.
And Peter doesn’t use this tuning much or does he?
Yeah a lot… He has his own approach to it, so his songs don’t sound so similar to mine. It’s actually the magical tuning. That’s what we kinda call that one: the most special secret tuning, but we’re in a never-ending fight over who came up with it first. And I know I did. I know it because I can prove when those songs were written first, and he swears that he was the first that came up with that tuning. And we’ll both go to our graves…
Believing that you were the one…
Yeah, it will be on our graves, on our tombstones, right next to each other. So… We’ll see who gets the last word.
We were also wondering if there is something that you do outside of music that contributes to your musicality? That helps you cultivate your creativity?
Hum… Films… I’m into visuals so… What inspires me in writing is how free your imagination can be. I feel like that’s often like a more visual projection for me, that maybe some writers would be more literarily based, you know, for them it would be reading a good book or poetry. Poetry inspires me as well but usually just to write more poetry not music. Music I see it more. So I’ll watch a lot of movies. Someone actually brought that up the other day because “Ninth Configuration” is a film title and I stole that. And “Circus Bazooko” is taken from Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas… That part of it only stood out because it was like my favorite scene of the movie when they walk into the circus casino and like they can’t move their bodies. I like that and then it was a circusy song so it would help me start picturing where this strange story could go.
I used to paint and draw but…
Oh you don’t do it anymore?
Yes, pretty much as soon as I started playing guitar, I just… It took over or something. I didn’t get the same thing out of it.
You never draw now?
No, there was a time when I was gonna go back to it and then I was so hard on myself I wanted it to always be perfect and that’s the wrong thing to bring into painting. It’s a bad idea because then there is someone criticizing it, “oh it’s not quite right”, and it’s horrible for me.
But it can be the same with music…
Yeah, I think maybe I’m more in control of it, if someone doesn’t like that part I can change that.
Yeah, once it’s painted you can’t change it.
Once it’s painted, the whole nature of that is… You have to start over.
Still, you’re a perfectionist in music as well.
Yeah but I’m always fighting again that, so… I don’t actually let that side of myself take over. I only give it a few occasions where it gets to have its way. You know, it’s like a little kid that every once in a while you let eat all the candy and stay up past the bed time, but you can’t do that every night or your kid will be a brat.
What kind of things did you paint?
I was just trying people portraits and, at school, more abstract things but I couldn’t tell if I was getting more abstract because I was good or if I was just trying to see if I could cheat having to learn how to paint properly and get away with it.
You mentioned poetry earlier. Would you consider adapting another poem into a song like you did with Annabel Lee?
I’d love that, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I tried many times and failed 99% of the time. That Edgar Allan Poe poem did all the work because the rhythm was mathematically perfect to keep a set of rimes within that frame work but usually my poems and most poems I love don’t keep such a rule, like an iambic stanza thing. You can cheat sometimes, but to do a whole song… Then you have to force a melody to fit its purpose and you can always tell. Nick Cave gets away with it pretty great but he also might not be entirely human.
Can you tell us which poems you tried to adapt?
Well, usually my own.
Yeah. Other people’s, hum… A couple of Poe’s… Oh, Yates, I grabbed a couple ones.
So, when you write songs you usually start with the music and when you start writing words it turns into a poem but not a song. That’s kinda what you’re telling.
Yeah and often you get more response back from people with music. If you’re lucky, now and then a poem will resonate in certain ways with people but it’s, I don’t know, I don’t wanna say it’s more one dimensional because it’s not fair, you can take it just as far but yeah, if I’m gonna be working and like pour myself into something, I do hesitate because I will be like “Oh I can feel I’m going I’m gonna spend the next two weeks writing this poem. That’s what you have to do to just do it properly but I should probably be writing a song…”
Because you don’t publish your poems.
Well, some of them we’ve used in ways but writing words to songs is such a labour of love that I get drenched pretty quickly. It’s the one part of music that doesn’t come to me easily and I always feel like that’s the way God’s punishing me for all the gifts I was given. “Oh you wanna play bass? You’ll learn it in a couple of days and you don’t have to break a sweat or work hard.” It’s just like, you know, “you can do this thing, guitar, and it’s like nothing, it’s not work at all” and I always feel like I’m paying for that through the torturous process of having to sit with myself, my god-awful words, like six hours straight, seven hours straight and then go to sleep, try again the entire day. “It’s getting worst, the words are getting worst, I’m a joke, I should stop doing this, I never should have done this in the first place…” Then go to sleep, try again… “ I don’t know why I’m doing this, I don’t even like music, I don’t like the people I’m with and I don’t like any of the shit in my head, I’m a failure” And it’s like that for months, then it starts getting good somehow. Then it’s like… “Oh wait, oh! Ok, maybe that could be cool”. I started realizing that a lot of writing has to do with how long you can sit in your own shit and stand the stench of all the worst of you, and can keep trying. And I think that separates the good writers from the bad because, yeah, I don’t mean it’s a masochistic thing, it’s just… If I can break through that psychological thing when I think that everything I do is just shit, then… so far, I’ve proved myself wrong but it’s my brain which is a terrifying place to have to live in. I think a lot of people are like that, you know, because our surface level conscious state is very hard to break through and you start thinking any boring conversational words, you know… It’s like cheap rhythm, cheap expressions and used-up words. But we do it for productivity and speed, to get to the point, but you know, that has a pulse and a rhythm itself but it’s an ugly one. When you strip away all the layers that are actually pretty needless there’s actual feelings underneath all that.
Is there one particular author whose words or style really resonates with you or that you that you associate with the band?
There are things that inspire me but I use those like, you know to… to get out of myself and what we do and then I push it somewhere else like not so much they write like in the world that we make music in, in that similar Leonard Cohen’s poetry and stories, that’s speaking from a place in me, that I understand. Sometimes that’s in the music but I don’t think that’s what we make as a band. That’s definitely not where Peter comes from usually. He ‘s got other pages in his head… Yeah, whispering other things. And there are poems like I don’t know, more gothic kind of things but I always feel cheesy naming writers like that ‘cause they’ve been appropriated by so many… Like, Marylin Manson, My Chemical Romance and terrible dark emo bands so… It’s stuff I don’t want to do.
You collaborated with several bands. You worked with The Night Beats, with Dark Horses and with Peter Holmstrom from The Dandy Wharols and Peter recently worked with Null + Void, I don’t know how you’re supposed to pronounced that name…
I don’t know either, that one was… That was Pete… I think Pete added like a guitar to one of the songs, maybe Leah did something. I wasn’t in on that one. And I heard they were a little disappointed that they didn’t use more of what they gave.
Because they worked on several songs?
There’s only one on the album,“Falling Down”, isn’t it?
Maybe that’s why they’re upset. I don’t know. Did Dave Gahan… Like, it’s kind of his project right?
I think they… We’re fans of him so it was exciting to be… I think they were just up for whatever, you know, just comes of it.
So, my question about these collaborations was, does it have any impact on the music you do with the band? Or is it a way for you to step out of your comfort zone?
It takes time away from BRMC but it tends to heal BRMC at the same time, in a way… Yeah, just being able to do something without certain rules, things that this band comes with, you know, so… And they’re good rules, they keep us what we are… So, yeah, I think everyone gets a breath of fresh air, like “oh I don’t have to be this one way or approach music this one way”. It’s always fun and then sometimes you do it and you get sick of it and you think “oh I do miss this about BRMC.” It makes you appreciate to do it sometimes. The thing with Peter Holmstrom was like a promise that I was trying to keep for six years. He played me this instrumental track I just fell in love with and immediately I had this melody and the beginnings of the story and then I was like “oh man I got this, don’t let anyone else mess with it”. But a lot of other things started to get busy with BRMC like touring and the record, so, years and years kept going by and I kept saying “Yeah I’m gonna get back to him” and I missed it on the first album so I’m really glad it made the second one. And, yeah, I think I felt I owned him more than just something easy so I really put a lot into it and I’m glad he got it out. I really like this song.
And, so, you worked on the last Night Beats album, I guess American people or gonna be in for a treat for the next tour! You’re gonna play Vultures, aren’t you?
Oh I hadn’t actually thought about that until Jakob texted me and told me we were gonna do it. I don’t know if we’ll do it, maybe, sometimes… I’ll do the Peter bandana trick and completely fool everyone. We’ll see, they’re a really good band.
Yeah, they are, we saw them in Paris the last time they were there. It’s nice that you take this band on tour, and Dark Horses as well. I think you played “Radio Offshore” once at an Italian festival and I would have loved to be there.
Oh in Sicily?
That was amazing, yeah, you would have liked that. Clinic played, Dark Horses and we did the song… I’m actually more thinking that I hope I get to sing “Radio Offshore” because that one was really fun to sing and I don’t have to play guitar. It’s nice sometimes.
We were wondering if there is a song that you’re happy with the recorded version but that you find tricky playing live, because I know that the other way round is true. Like, there are songs that you’ve tried to record many times but you haven’t been happy with the result.
Hum… I’m most nervous about the ones that are coming up, like Circus Bazooko and All Rise. Those were the kind of songs that I approached thinking “I don’t care how the hell we’re gonna pull this off live. I’m just gonna keep putting more shit to this thing” and so it’s physically impossible to play them without nine people on stage. But every time I’ve panicked with songs like those, as soon as we start rehearsing somehow, I start realizing which things aren’t maybe as important as others for just getting the spirit of the song across. And with that said, I also kinda feel like as fans we really wanna hear what that album is and might never get to. In the same way, there are songs of Howl that don’t really sound that much like the Howl album when we play. Or just about every song we play. So, hopefully at the very least we make a different version of it live that is just as good if not better.
We’ve taken a lot of your time already, so maybe one last question.
It’s a classic question but I’m gonna put conditions to it. Can you recommend a few bands to see live or whose latest album you like? But you can’t mention any band that are have ever opened for you or that are going to, or bands you worked with.
Can I say A Place To Bury Strangers?
No! You’ve played with them!
‘Cause it’s been so long! They’re so good! But they lost most of the members that I played with, there’s like one guy left.
Yeah that’s true…
It’s pretty much a new band… Oh, Dion Lunadon from A place to Bury Strangers, his solo album. Technically that counts! (He laughs.)
He put that out a couple of months ago and it’s really cool. I played some of it in a DJ thing before. Hum… ok so, I got that one in! Death Grips, Fat White Family, Moonlandingz, Amen Dunes, The Horrors, Suuns… Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, Moon Duo…
Yeah, they’re all great bands.
And I never worked with them! I don’t even think we’ve played with them so I think I passed the test!
Yeah, thank you! You answered the question and you respected the rules.
Yeah, that’s right, that’s right! I cheated a little.
Yeah but it’s ok.
There’s gotta be others… Oh! There’s Trouble. There’s a band called Trouble. It’s one of the guys from Dirty Beaches, the son of David Lynch and some other guy. And they only recorded two songs. I think they just showed up to do like a couple of songs for Twin Peaks, for the end of the show. And that was one of the greatest things I’ve heard in years. It’s all instrumental, baritone sax and if any wish could come true, it would be that they come back together and do a whole record. Because, yeah, that should be where music’s going next. Like kinda loungy, like rock’n’roll, like kind of dirty jazz but just mean and fucked up. Different.
Interview & photos : Maud Félus & Benoît Thévenin