Friday, April 9, 2010 interview...

April 6th, 2010

Dark, gritty, and atmospheric Los Angeles trio Black Rebel Motorcycle Club — which has been making psych/shoegaze/gospel-tinged garage-rock (sort of an American version of Spiritualized or the Jesus and Mary Chain) for a decade now — returns to town tonight behind its excellent new album, Beat the Devil’s Tattoo. We caught up the other day with bassist/vocalist Robert Been, who was just waking up at the rock-star hour of 3 p.m., to talk about playing live, the new album, how it’s been for the band since permanently replacing mercurial co-founding drummer Nick Jago with Leah Shapiro (the one-time Raveonettes touring drummer) in time to record the new album, and more:

You awake?
I’m awake. Once you fall into the pattern we’re in it’s hard to get out of it because you get all this adrenaline when you go on and play around midnight, and then you’re pretty much wired for the rest of the night.

Yeah, I would imagine it’s pretty hard to come offstage after playing a show and then be like, “Okay, I’m going to sleep now.”
You need a lot of pills to do that one.

At the same time, you must feel pretty drained after you come offstage having given it your all for an hour and a half or whatever.
Yeah, I thought I had more control over it and then I realized that once…because we’ve been doing six shows in a row for the past couple weeks, I keep thinking I’ll try and pace myself this time. But once you get out there, it’s like there’s no real control over pacing yourself methodically in order to take time for the rest of the week. Every night there’s no real controlling it. If people are giving you energy, you’re not gonna put it into your pocket and save it for a rainy day.

You feel confident now playing the songs off the new album live?
We rehearsed like two months to learn this album and you really feel like you’re covering yourself because we forgot how we played that stuff [laughs]. You listen back to it and you’re like, “Oh yeah, this is how I played that,” and you kinda memorize it all. Getting to the point of second nature is what it’s all about. Once you get that, you can forget it — once you’re able to forget it again, that’s kinda cool [laughs]

Now that you have six albums out, it must be getting a little tougher to come up with a set list, yeah?
Yeah, and it’s just starting to get weird, playing old songs. It’s kinda like, the people that are coming out, there’s something where I feel like we’re playing it for them rather than ourselves now, the older songs I mean. We’d probably mostly just play the new record if we had a choice. We’ll play some stuff from [2007's] Baby 81 and [2005's] Howl, but anything before that, I guess naturally it’s like, you only wanna go a couple years back and let the past be the past. But It’s a different feeling, I kinda like that it’s not all about us anymore.

So you might still pull out a song or two from the first album?
Sure. Maybe. Or maybe not, who knows?

But if it was entirely up to you, you’d pretty much just play the new album start to finish and that’d be it, and you’d feel all right with that?
I’d feel great about that, but people are already getting kinda pissed off because we can’t play that much from each record now in a two hour time. We can only do a couple from each, you know? We try…I dunno, it’s kinda liberating knowing that you’re not gonna make everyone happy. It’s kinda freeing now. We’ll do our best but that’s all we’ve got, and that’s okay. In the past, the potential to make everybody happy was a nightmare [laughs].

When you put an album out now, are you concerned with how it’s going to be received by fans and critics and so on?
Umm, you know, it’s funny. Each album, you try and get more and more where you don’t care, where you get to a place where you’re really proud of the music you’ve made and worked on it and it shouldn’t matter what other people think. Each album you try to let go of that more and more. But, umm, the trick is, I finally realized, is to not let go how much you love it, because there’s an element of…there’s a choice you make, or a choice I made, where I had to give my heart back to this music again, and there was a point where I didn’t want to.

What do you mean?
Well, I just wanted to do it and kind of let the picture be bigger than just this. It’s kinda like, “I’m gonna get back together with my girlfriend but I’m gonna play it really cool and whatever happens will happen,” and, you know, be kind of unemotional about it. And it’s funny because I notice a lot of people in bands – I’m not gonna name names – but they do that and I totally understand why. The more you love something the more it can be torn apart and it can break your spirit. So it’s kind of a fine line for me, allowing myself to love it and giving my heart back to rock and roll or whatever you wanna call it, and still not giving a fuck what people think [laughs]. That’s the trick. That’s the really hard part. You know, it’s okay to want people to love your baby as much as you do, even though they probably never will. And that’s okay too. They can go fuck themselves! [laughs]

Do you tend to change the ways you go about writing and recording albums each time you make one in order to keep things fresh, or do you rely sometimes on the methods and sounds that have worked for you in the past?
Hmm…it cuts both ways. Every time, we try to change everything as much as possible, so it’s never looking at the same picture from the same angle for too long. That helps me a lot. When it starts, a lot of time the natural inspiration comes from all of us in a room together jamming out and not thinking and just being together and having the music turned up loud enough where you can’t hear the sound of your own brain thinking anymore. And then you’re able to explore some new shit. Once the music dies down you gotta finish the song, and that’s when changing the routine helps. Almost every time, we let half the song come naturally and everybody knows when it’s working and when it’s not. And then whoever gets on the microphone first…it’s almost the curse, whoever comes up with the melody first it’s like, “Ohh, shit…” [laughs] There’s the moment that happens right after where you’re like, “Fuck …” It’s like homework, and then you gotta kill yourself over it for the next five months or something. It’s the blessed curse.

Do you feel like making a record is rewarding in the moment, or do you need the months afterward to process the experience before you can decide if it was rewarding or not?
Umm … Baby 81, for example, was kind of a…it was really hard and it made us almost come to the brink of, like, why are we doing this if the process is so unenjoyable? The music was still great, but there’s a certain point where you’re like, “Fuck, this shouldn’t be so difficult, there should be more joy.” And this record pretty much from the start…it had a lot to do with our relationship with our drummer that we were able to get a fresh start. Leah [Shapiro] brought a lot of new blood and energy into the project. So the process was pretty fun. The only thing we were worried about was, it was almost the other extreme where fun’s not the main concern — we didn’t want to make it sound like we were having too good of a time [laughs]. Everyone thinks the album’s pretty dark, but it sounds to me like we were having a blast.

So not to belabor the point, but now that Nick isn’t in the band anymore and Leah is in, it feels like a fresh start?
Yeah. You know, it was pretty much the typical story with bands after a while, and we’re not so special. You end up havin’ three boys in a band for too long and there’s all sorts of, “I fuckin’ hate you,” “I wanna kill you,” “I love you,” “Get the fuck away from me” — every emotion we’ve got towards one another, like brothers. But after a while it wasn’t giving back to the music. It used to. All the tension and turmoil, it gave back as much as it was taking. But then it started taking more than its fair share, so we had to go our separate ways. Things are good now.