Friday, April 9, 2010 interview...

April 5, 2010 by Peter

Out of the darkness of the late 90s, into the darkness of the now–Black Rebel Motorcycle Club maintains a disassociated psychedelic fury against the waking world. While other bands from their scene have gone soft or gone away, the Club is selling out shows without gimmicks or pandering. After almost 10 years of working with brilliant, troubled, fighty drummer Nick Jago, including a period when they had to record an entire album (Howl) without him, (which became a resounding critical success due to its stripped-down folk-blue stompiness FYI) they picked up Leah Shapiro and made their scariest West Coast spaced-out VU-channeling record yet: Beat The Devil’s Tattoo. They’ve seen it all, and probably done it all, and are still madly successful, as their sold-out 9:30 Club date tonight proves.

We talked to bassist Robert Levon Been on the phone on April Fool’s day about New Moon, the folks who constantly iPhone at rock shows, and why THEY’RE KICKING THEIR DRUMMER OUT OF THE BAND **BREAKING NEWS**
(ps I’ve included some pictures of 1950s and 60s biker gangs because my favorite thing to do while listening to BRMC is to pretend I am in one, I suggest you do the same).

BYT: Where are you guys right now?
Robert: Levon Been: We just made it up to Toronto. We are about halfway through the first US tour—maybe a little more than halfway—but it’s been a blur doing about 6 shows a week. It seems like one big long epic concert. It’s been going on for a while; The longest encore of all time.

BYT: How long was it before that? Did you have any break before this tour, like in 2009?
RLB: No, we kind of asked for the full dose of pain. We have had about a year—maybe more than a year—off from making the record. We’ve had some charity things in between, but then were pretty much just focused on the album, which is something we wanted to do. But yeah, this is the beginning of the whole avalanche.

BYT: Well, good luck. So, I wanted to ask about the drummer situation. Leah [Shapiro] has been your drummer since 2008?
RLB: Yeah, mid 2008. 

BYT: How is she working out?
RLB: [Laughs] It’s kind of beyond expectations for us. She jumped on originally just to fill in for some European shows—she didn’t want to go out. She learned the old songs—she learned like 40 songs in like 2 weeks—and they were just flawless. We were impressed by that, of course, but as far as making the record and really becoming part of the band, and being able to mold together and write together, that took another set of skills. We didn’t really know if that was going to sit the way it has until we got up to Philadelphia and started working on the record. It took a little time before we actually knew, but ever since that moment when we started recording we haven’t stopped. This record is kind of the proof of what we’ve done and we’re pretty proud of it.

BYT: I was going to ask how much her presence had affected the recording of the album– it sounds like she is very 
RLB: Yeah, you know, it’s kind of the way we record or the way we write. It’s often just kind of jam sessions where we see what comes though. Nick was really good at that. Nick was really good at listening, and responding, and knowing when to lay in, and knowing when to lay off. It’s not really something you can teach someone, but we were surprised that Leah, in a different way, had those same sensibilities and it really made us feel like a band, which was the last thing we thought would come.

BYT: I used to be in a band with a woman drummer, and they rock, but they are very demanding on the road.
RLB: [Laughs]

BYT: Can we make some stereotypes happen right now?
RLB: [Laughs]

BYT: Is that true at all for Leah?
RLB: Unless you know Nick, there is really no one that will ever be as high maintenance than that boy is. I would be in a band with 100 woman to take the place of one Nick. But, as far as that stuff goes… I could go on and on about trouble with women, that’s a whole other interview, but this is one that is actually working out for us. Maybe it’s smart that we haven’t slept together, it would probably turn into a nightmare. I’ve been around that one, and that’s a really good way to ruin anything.

BYT: It is April fool’s day today, it would be a really good opportunity to just start making stuff up.
RLB: That’s when I called her to hire her in the band! The day we called her to tell her that we wanted her to come out and do the European tour, and all these shows, was on April Fool’s Day and she did not believe me. It was kinda crazy. I actually had to call her back because she hung up. [Laughs]

BYT: That’s awesome.


I’ll print the headline that she is out of the band so you can send it to her.

RLB: Yeah, sorry Leah it’s not working out, we thought this would be the best way to tell you.

BYT: So, you guys have been going on the road for a long time, what are some of the things that have changed in the past 10 or 12 years of touring?
RLB: Well, I don’t know. It feels right now, just in the last couple years, that rock and roll music is trying to be pushed out of the game. I don’t think it’s going to be killed off or anything like that, it just seems like there are more people that are trying to divide between dance kind of mentality, and people who really and truly love rock and roll music—there aren’t many—but I feel like the division has become more and more pronounced…it just feels like it’s becoming a smaller niche and our culture is making it that way. I’m not sure why, but I guess I never trusted the fuckers that liked it before so… [Laughs] I always thought they were just weekend warriors and were like “Rock and roll, man!”,but didn’t really have any idea what the word means, and the power that music can really bring. It was  more like, “Oh, this is what’s in this week.” So actually I’m kinda happy that people that are hanging with us, that they really feel it. It is a beautiful thing, people coming together under this spirit. I don’t know… I could go on about it. It is definitely different without a doubt. It’s more of a fight than before… it was kind of given to you but you didn’t trust why. 

BYT: But just in the last couple years has there been a sudden contingent of New Moon fans showing up to your shows?
RLB: [Laughs] I haven’t really seen any change. We have always had a diverse crowd of older kids and younger kids, and everything in between. But I kinda dig that, that there isn’t just one type of person that likes us. It’s kinda weird like you walk through the crowd. Like I’ve been to a Yeah Yeah Yeahs show in the past and there are really little kids, it kinda feels like I’m walking through a high school gymnasium announcement or something. Our crowd are like that but there old rockabilly guys that are there, there are motorcycle gang people, and there are all sort of old crooners that out there, plus you got young kids. I’m glad it’s the scenester kids that are disappearing… they only last or awhile anyway, they don’t have much stamina.

BYT: I was going to ask if there was still a garage punk ’scene’ anywhere. It sounds like you’re saying that there really isn’t. I know in DC there are a lot of people that love garage punk, but there isn’t really like a get-up and a hair-cut anymore, you know?
RLB: I mean, it’s not bad. I don’t know if when you see a show it’s surprising how much it goes into that world but we often go into the complete opposite direction, like we’ll go into a more country ballad or folksy stuff. People who are really into that music don’t usually like to mix their peas and carrots. They just like the one thing—you have to respect it and it’s kind of purist—but maybe to a fault. But, yeah it’s totally subjective.


BYT: Speaking of kind of taking left turns, can we talk about Howl? I plenty like all your records but that one definitely stands out for me. I mainly wanted to ask about the circumstances around making it– I know at the time you weren’t together with Nick, but so, was the sound that came out of it, the really stripped down acoustic stuff, was that the result of  “Wow, great we finally get a shot at this” or was it like “Let’s just see what happens when we go into the studio without a drummer?”
RLB: Well, um, we have been writing songs like that since we started. We always had songs that we had written that stared to pile up, which didn’t have a place on a proper Black Rebel record, and all of a sudden it’s like our first record. On the first album we were really just trying to figure out what our sound was going to be. We didn’t really know too much about recording and we were first just starting to experiment with it, and we didn’t have a proper band sound yet because we hadn’t played enough as a band. Then on the second album we toured for about two years so we really developed our own thing, and Take Them On was kind of an attempt to capture our moment—like, this is our band and this is our sound and this is what we created together. But through all those years we were still writing all these acoustic songs but we couldn’t find a way to put them on these records that we really balls-to-the-wall rock and roll. Howl was pretty much like we had to designate a record to that type of music because there really wasn’t a way to sneak it in with out it being a little to obvious about what we were trying to do, and then it just wouldn’t work, I think. But, we started thinking it was just going to be an acoustic album but then as we started recording, it kept growing and growing, and we kept experimenting with it and seeing how far we could go with the different tracks. It was a constant thing about keeping us limited, using limitations as much as possible, because it could have been kind of orchestrated, just piling on more and more instruments…

BYT: Right.
RLB: So we were really hard on ourselves and tried to apply the “less is more” theory to this record. That really helped keep it grounded. 


BYT: Am I right that T-bone Burnnet was involved at some point?
RLB: Only on one song. We had pretty much finished the record and were working on “Ain’t No Easy Way Out”, and we were really having a hard time finding a mix for that song so he invited us out to his home studio and we hung out there and got to use his board that he used on “Exile On Main Street”. I mean, we were blown away to get to play around on it. But I don’t think we ended up using that mix in the end. [Laughs]

BYT: Do you still have more acoustic songs like that floating around that might end up…
RLB: I think on the new ablum there are songs that have elements of that…

BYT: Like the title track, at least at the start, kind of reminds me of Howl.
RLB: Right, we’re not becoming as rigid about what we do anymore. We know that folks know us and it  frees us up to do what we want. It’s getting fun.

BYT: Last question, man. I read a couple a years ago that [guitarist] Peter [Hayes] grabbed a cell phone from a guy in the front row and kind of confiscated it like a teacher for recording the show…what are your feelings about stuff like that? Like people going to shows that spend the whole time video taping and taking pictures, or people in general who don’t come to rock out–who just stand around and talking. Are you OK with it or does it get under your skin?
RLB: I mean, there’s a time and a place for it. If you’re standing with a camera in front of your face for the entire concert I feel like you are kind of missing the point. I think that was, if I remember correctly, that incident. Sometimes that’s just a bit ridiculous–there is something about trying to put yourself in the moment just for a little bit. It’s good to capture things, but there is a limit. It’s a moment that may never happen again so its good to just be present and not behind a blinking light.

BYT: Have you seen an shows recently that took you out from behind the blinking light and really blew you away?
RLB: Leonard Cohen. I say him at Madison Square Garden a couple months ago—that was the real thing. Nine Inch Nails, one of their last shows before they called it quits, and it was pretty amazing. They’ve always been great but seeing them say farewell had another weight to it.

BYT: Yeah their longevity is a dream come true. Actually so is yours. Thanks for talking to me yo.
RLB: Thank You.

Evolve if you can, tonight and forever.