Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have been longtime favourites among the DiS community and its writing team ever since the site started in 2001 - the same year BRMC released their self-titled debut. Now, twelve years on, they're back with album number seven, the rather poignant Specter At The Feast. Borne from the tragic loss of vocalist and bass player Robert Levon Been's father Michael, who passed away in August 2010, it's a sombre but fitting tribute to the memory of the band's mentor and sometime producer-cum-sound engineer.
Last weekend, the band played a storming two-hour long set encompassing their entire back catalogue to a packed Nottingham Rock City. Prior to the show, DiS caught up with Levon Been where the conversation turned from the difficulty of choosing setlists to making a guest appearance with his late father's old band The Call in three weeks time.
DiS: This is your first UK tour in two-and-a-half years. How have the shows been so far?
Robert Levon Been: I keep having to remind myself that this is a new record and we're just starting out touring it. It's only been out a week and yet people seem to be well into the songs already. There's been a tremendous amount of energy on this tour so far. Usually we tend to find the first couple of months on tour a battle because people don't know the songs and sometimes it really is like trying to get blood from a stone. This time it feels different. Maybe it's one of the side effects for being around that bit longer? I dunno. Maybe people have more familiarity with us and feel they no longer have to start from scratch? I don't know, I guess our fans are pretty good that way.
DiS: You've been playing quite a varied set on this tour that takes in material from six of your seven albums so far, although one song I've noticed that hasn't made an appearance yet is a personal favourite of mine, 'Half State' from your previous record Beat The Devil's Tattoo.
Robert Levon Been: Funnily enough, Leah (Shapiro, drums) actually talked about playing that one tonight. I think it would take quite a few rehearsals before we'd be able to recall the memory of doing that song justice. I guess there's no way of making everybody happy all the time any more! It's just not mathematically possible. It's against the law of physics. Too many people have favourites all across the board. It's a good problem to have, being able to go to sleep at night knowing you didn't even have a sliver of a chance making everyone happy! Sometimes you have to surrender. We know we're gonna disappoint some people but that's just a small part of it as we'll also make a couple of people happy in the meantime.
DiS: Are there any songs which you're not too keen on playing live any more? For example it would be hard to envisage where any material from The Effects of 333 could fit into the band's current set.
Robert Levon Been: There's a couple of songs we've forgotten the tunings for that we literally couldn't play, unless we make it a completely different version. That does get in the way a little bit, as there are some songs I'd like to bring back into the set. There was one song from Howl that Peter (Hayes, guitar) had and he couldn't for the life of him remember how to play it. Aside from that I'd say most of our songs could be resurrected into the live set at some point.
DiS: Your new album Specter At The Feast came out ten days ago. In light of your father's tragic passing, it became a tribute to his memory. The last time I spoke to you on the Beat The Devil's Tattoo tour you said a lot of the songs for the next record were ready. Did any of those songs make it onto Specter... or did the idea to write an album in memory of your father come later?
Robert Levon Been: We actually ended up scrapping everything. It was the first record where we started with pretty much an entire clean slate. Previously every album has flowed into the next, and that's always given us a blueprint as to where that record will go next. But it was such a huge foundation for us losing Michael at that time. It happened just before we were about to start again, so I think it was important we decided to start afresh for a few reasons. I'm glad we did. It would have been too hard to figure out how to pull from anywhere but the place we were at. We were all experiencing and feeling things differently, for better and for worse. It brought us closer together and was also a lot to carry at the same time. It wasn't really our intention at all for Specter At The Feast to become a tribute to my father. It came about via 'Let The Day Begin'... well, not so much that specifically but we wanted to cover one Call song. We didn't even know if we could write about something that had happened so recently. And we still didn't really come at it directly. There were some songs that kind of deal with it on a slant. Music is a beautiful thing because when everything else falls down around you it can pull you out of that place. Or at least that's what I've always found. We got together without any intention at all. The only plan was no plan. No past, no future, just being present together. And whatever was gonna come was gonna come, so we wrote those songs in that place and it was good to connect in that way. With other records in the past there has been more of a concept or plan that's steered it in certain directions. Covering The Call song allowed us the freedom to write about whatever we felt and not have to make songs about that subject.
DiS: What made you choose that particular Call song? Were there any others you considered covering?
Robert Levon Been: Yeah, I was originally going to do a song called 'You Run'. I slowed it way down; it was a really beautiful version of it; but then Leah started playing this drumbeat that was just cool rhythms. I knew Peter and me could add some really good dynamics to it, and I thought either I can start singing something new or I can start singing something old, and it kind of had a Call thing to it. There was a moment where I thought about not revealing what it actually sounded like so it could have just become a new BRMC song. No one would ever have been the wiser! But then I also thought it would be a really interesting way of redoing that song. We wanted to a cover, but didn't want it to be just a straight copy of the original. 'Let The Day Begin' found us rather than us going out and trying to make something ours.
DiS: You're also doing two shows with the other three remaining members of The Call in San Francisco and LA in April. Will it be quite daunting stepping into your father's shoes and playing with his old band?
Robert Levon Been: Yeah, absolutely! I grew up with those guys. When I was just a little kid my dad would take me out with them and it was such a great time. It was like being raised by a bunch of pirates out on the open sea which is probably why I went back to that. When he passed away we all met up and started talking about things. They always wanted to keep The Call going whereas my dad was ready to move on. I just want to keep those songs alive for people. I fell in love with his music again when he passed away, so we came up with the idea of maybe getting together and playing some of those songs again for fun, which we did one day. And they all said it felt like it had been two weeks since they last played those songs rather twelve years. They're such good musicians. They just locked right into it, and I was trying to keep up - I held my own - and I wanted to do it right then but we had to finish Specter At The Feast. It still feels weird on so many levels. I don't know where to begin so I'm really strongly turning off my mind and only doing the work and learning the technical parts. Anything more would just collapse me into a whole sea of emotions and thoughts that will never end.
DiS: Do you see any of those songs that were scrapped coming back at a later date?
Robert Levon Been: Yeah, everything comes back around for us. There's a few things I've written off recently that I was wrong to.
DiS: 'Evol' off the last record being one that springs to mind, having been around for several years before its release.
Robert Levon Been: 'Evol' got blown away on every record until Beat The Devil's Tattoo. We actually recorded it again for this record then got rid of it at the last minute! But yeah, you can't count anything out. I've done that before and foolishly ate humble pie to bring it back. Once they find their spirit they'll find a way back in.
DiS: Going back to Specter At The Feast, musically it feels like a combination of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's vast range of sounds all rolled into one. There's the heavy psychedelia of 'Fire Walker', furious punk rock on 'Rival' and 'Lullaby' with its electrified country blues for example. Was it your intention to try and combine as many musical styles as possible into the record, yet still maintain its flow as an album?
Robert Levon Been: Not at all. It was a total accident. Beat The Devil's Tattoo was much more intentional. That was one where we came at it with the thought of marrying as many components as we could onto one record. And in a lot of ways it worked, but maybe this time because we weren't trying meant it worked even more. I think there's something that's more stripped away on this album that lets all those different shapes and colours that are just a part of us naturally play together and come through if you let them. A lot of the time you are your own worst enemy. I think we did a good job standing out of the way of ourselves.
DiS: At the same time when I hear a song like 'Returning' where you sing "A part of you is ending, a part of you holds on" it seems poignantly reflective, harrowing even. Is it difficult to play that song live bearing in mind the lyrical content?
Robert Levon Been: Honestly, the last thing I wanted to do in the world was write about any of it. And for a long time I didn't. These songs are just a fraction of light and sound coming from a place that for the most part was incredibly shut down. Both me and Peter have only recently started to process just a small amount of what's to come . When you have a connection with or love someone like that there's only a few people that will ever come to those places. For example, you can have three hundred Facebook friends but there's probably only a couple of people that really move you in life. In some ways, this record doesn't even feel like it's that literally personal about what we went through in as much as we're just not hiding from anything. And that is hard enough in itself, let alone writing it on your forehead. It's enough just getting up in the morning and looking forwards. That's all this music feels like to me, and that's enough.
DiS: My favourite song on the new record is 'Sometimes The Light', probably because it sounds as if you were venturing towards previously unchartered territories. To me it has a psychedelic gospel feel to it in a similar vein to Spiritualized or Spacemen 3. Was it your intention to create that kind of vibe?
Robert Levon Been: The record was pretty much finished and Peter disappeared for two days...
DiS: Where did he go?
Robert Levon Been: Well, that's the thing. We were wondering and then out of the blue, from this little room he was working in he came out with this song. Me and Leah were just instantly taken with it. It's probably the only song on this record I can listen to as a fan. I know exactly how it feels to hear that for the first time because it sounds exactly as it did when I first heard it!
DiS: Will it be a regular part of the live set?
Robert Levon Been: Not yet, no. We played it for the very first time in Brixton two nights ago, but it's a difficult one to get right. There are some songs that take a year-and-a-half to write and record and that one took just two days of Peter getting lost. There's a huge opposite polarity thing of how we've always worked. Sometimes they come really fast as complete pieces, other times they'll start as individual ideas and we'll spend months adding bits separately until it feels right. That's the great thing about working with Peter. We're both respectful of what each other's doing. So for 'Sometimes The Light' to come the way it did was quite unique.
DiS: Does Leah get involved in the writing process?
Robert Levon Been: Not lyrically but she's essential to what we do. She has this gift - a sensibility even; our old drummer Nick Jago had it too; of just shutting the fuck up and listening! As simple and rudimentary as that sounds, it's also quite crucial. Once someone buys into that place where they know when to add and take away from it they're vital to this band, and she has that ability. It's key for drummers just to know what a certain song is asking for at a particular moment in time. Without that input from Leah Specter At The Feast would be a very sliced up album. The songs were built in a similar way to how those on Howl built. Me and Peter made that record entirely on our own, including the drums. I like that part where the fourth member of the band brings everything together, for example when the three of us are jamming together and then something just clicks from out of nowhere that is impossible to determine exactly how or where or why. It's that moment where everything comes to the forefront as you start playing it live. I guess it can work as well in a studio too but I don't recognise or value it as much.
DiS: Do you think the band would have taken the same path or explored as many musical directions had Nick still been in the band rather than Leah?
Robert Levon Been: Leah's definitely brought a lot of new dimensions to the band, particularly on this record more than the previous one. With Beat The Devil's Tattoo she was being a little polite as she was still the new kid that didn't want to step on anyone's toes. We'd them and she'd throw in her own parts and rhythms that we could never think up but this time she was really ballsy and just pushed back. We built the songs from the ground up and a lot of that was down to Leah. She's really responsible for a lot of this record.
DiS: You're headlining the Austin Psych Fest at the end of April. Are you excited about playing there and which other bands on the bill are you looking forward to seeing?
Robert Levon Been: We've been trying to play that festival for years now. The organisers have asked us several times but it's always either coincided with touring on the other side of the world or recording in the studio. This is the first time our paths have crossed the right way and it just happens to be such an incredible line-up. Line-ups like that are few and far between. I think Europe sometimes does better but then they're often copied and pasted from festival to festival. Austin Psych Fest is really unique in that aspect, and to be honest even if we weren't playing I'd probably go as a fan as it's such a great line-up. There's so many great bands playing it would be quicker to list those I'm not excited about seeing!
DiS: Will you be playing any more festivals over the course of the year?
Robert Levon Been: We try to dodge most festivals whenever we can. We're not too welcoming of them, but I think we're talking of maybe coming back over here in July. We did a lot of them around the time of the first record, which for a new band as we were at the time it can be good as you're getting exposure you wouldn't normally receive.
DiS: Bearing in mind how you've worked in the past, with ideas floating around the studio sometimes carried over to the next record, are there any songs or sketches of songs in place for album number eight?
Robert Levon Been: We recorded eighteen songs in total for this album and only put out twelve of them so there's a lot still lying around. For a long time Specter At The Feast was going to be a double album. The idea in theory was that if the songs kept coming at the rate they were maybe we'd have enough material to put it together, but then we realised just how much detail was involved with the ones we were working on at first so the others have drum takes and bass takes. There's a bit more production to be done on them and some lyrics that we weren't completely happy with. There's always a few drafts, whereas these twelve that made the record felt like the ones that were ready. I don't know if we'll keep all of those that got left over. Sometimes they die in transit. But then they may come back again!
DiS: Finally, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have been around for a long time now. What's your key to longevity? What advice would you give to new bands that are just starting out?
Robert Levon Been: The less you know the better off you are! If I knew half the shit I know now I probably wouldn't have gone on for so long. You're always kind of hedging your bets, double thinking things over rather than just jumping in. But it's worth it. I think anything is that you love.
The album Specter At The Feast is out now.
For information on Black Rebel Motorcycle Club visit their official website