Thursday, March 21, 2013 interview

Three years after the death of father, mentor and sound engineer Michael Been backstage during a gig, Robert Been's BRMC return with new purpose and vigor

  /  March 20, 2013
After a three-year break, San Francisco’s leather-clad fuzz rockers Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have returned with yesterday's release of sixth album Specter at the Feast. Fans should consider themselves lucky—BRMC almost didn't return at all.

Tragedy struck in 2010: Michael Been, the band's mentor, sound technician, occasional second guitarist and "fourth member," died of a heart attack backstage at Belgium’s Pukkelpop fest as BRMC performed onstage. He was more than just a key member of BRMC's crew; Been, the frontman of 1980s rock band the Call, was the father of BRMC co-founder Robert Been.

The death forced Been and guitarist-singer Peter Hayes (a Brian Jonestown Massacre alum) to cope with the loss and take stock of their future with the band. The result is Specter at the Feast, a glorious tribute and their first release without Michael Been. BRMC revisit their primal rock n' roll roots with gusto and atmospheric depth, using the recording process as sonic therapy.

Simultaneously heavy and tender, gorgeous and gritty, the LP’s 12 songs are full of bonfire guitar riffs, engine-rev bass and rising choruses with hopeful, gospel-tinged melodies that’d have Bono blushing. They don't dwell in pity, but hold their heads high and reflect: “A part of you is ending / A part of you holds on / Cradled by the sun,” the duo harmonize to a swelling wave of church organ, cymbal crashes and fuzz-toned guitar on "Returning". On opener “Fire Walker,” Been sings, "Sweet Lord, I'm coming home" over a gritty bass riff and shadowy atmospheric flourishes.

Specter at the Feast is certainly BRMC’s most personal and arguably the band’s best album yet. Been called Fuse from Los Angeles, where BRMC were rehearsing for their upcoming tour...

You’ve said BRMC’s first show, just days after your father’s death, was a cornerstone to the band’s future. 
You got to pick yourself up and keep going. That show was the first look at who I’m with and who has my back, and why I’m going forward. In a way, this whole record is the long version of that one show. You just have to get up and do the work, because sometimes that’s all that’s needed and all you know how to do.
"I had to step foot on that stage and not just hide away or escape it or feel sorry for myself."
How did the album start to come together following this traumatic period? 
We took it slow. We took a long time to just rehearse and get into a room and jam. We wanted to get back to enjoy playing without any set plan. From that, a lot of powerful things came.

Was your father’s death hard to confront musically? 
It’s not an incredibly personal record. We’re not writing literally about it, but we’re not ignoring it. There’s a balance—the light and the dark of losing someone you love. A lot of people just think, "Oh, that’s really depressing dark and bleak." But if you’ve gone through anything like that you know that there’s an enormous amount of gratitude and insight. It’s a heavy thing to handle because it’s pulling you apart in extremes. We tried to show that in the record. Those two extremes are alive and well.

"Getting together with these people is like a family and now with one of those members gone, it reminds me of that."
Dave Grohl’s Sound City was a saving grace for the band in a way…
Yeah. Dave called to ask us to be involved in this documentary he was making, which was a mind f-ck in itself. We forgot about that soundboard and our first album, [which was recorded at Sound City Studios]. We ended up just jamming out and wrote a song with [Sound City Players] and recorded on that board. It sounded great. Dave was like, "I want to keep this alive and keep people using this board." It’s in his studio now, but he was gracious enough to be like, "Come by anytime." So we were like, "How about tomorrow?" [laughs]. We were the first band to record on it after it moved to Dave’s place, so we sort of brought it back to life.

How did it sound? 
What board you record on is not the be-all, end-all. It still has to be a great song; it still has to be a moment in time. But the board is a very important link in the chain and it opens the door to have a chance to make a great record. But I hear it in the sound. It was really important that we recorded on that board. We got the scope of the album and let it breathe. You can hear the nuances in the record.

It's a big difference from the last record, 2010’s Beat the Devil’s Tattoo.
A lot of those nuances were lost on the last record because we tried to record it garage-y with just a couple mics in the room. It was a happy accident that Dave called and we found that board back in our lives again.

You recorded in other locations, too, including your hometown of Santa Cruz, right? 
We did one song, the first song on the record [“Fire Walker”], up in Joshua Tree. Then after we recorded at Grohl’s place in L.A. we took those recordings and went to the mountains. There are too many people, too many distractions in L.A. You can’t think and write words when people are texting and calling and emailing you all the time. You need to get away. A friend let us stay at this remote cabin. The only place we could bring out our gear and do some more tracking was at the old Boulder Creek post office, which this guy converted into a studio.
It was trippy. I was born there and had gone to that same post office with my mom to mail sh-t when I was 7, and now we’re rocking out there. It was surreal. The town looks like Twin Peaks, too. But it was a good spirit. We weren’t just playing in a storage space in Hollywood or something. It was good to get lost up there and just focus on music.

What was it like working without your father for the first time?
We tried to work with [Queens of the Stone Age producer] Chris Goss. He came in during the middle of recording, but we didn’t finish it out with him. We’ve done all the records ourselves and we have a really specific process. We love him and it was great to work with him, but it’s difficult. We’re still looking for the right fit; someone that’s a sounding board. It’s a specific piece of that puzzle; my father was that sounding board, someone with an ear we could trust… even though we wouldn’t listen to him all the time [laughs]. But that’s part of it. Sometimes, disagreeing tells you what you want. That process isn’t black and white.

Is there a central track on the LP? Or one you’re most proud of?
"Fire Walker" was one of the hardest and took the longest. I wanted to abandon it, but it really took shape right at the end. It was a struggle until the very end. "Returning" feels like the anchor of the album. I don’t know what the record would do without it. It was a blueprint song and we’d be lost without it. It guided us.

BRMC released a video series leading up the LP’s release.
We never made a doc of any kind. We’ve released a couple of live DVDs, but we’ve otherwise been highly allergic to cameras. We don’t like the whole reality show, Twitter world thing, so we try to keep people focused on the music. But by now, our closed door is a bit much. Our friend Malia James has been directing—she did the "Beat the Devil’s Tattoo" video—and she was respectful to be a fly on the wall. So we figured we’d open the door this time to show a bit of the story behind the record. It was a long time coming.

You’re tapping fans to submit Instagram pics for BRMC’s video for "Let The Day Begin," a cover of your dad’s hit with the Call.
The song had significance to us. We just wanted to capture the spirit of the song, so we wanted people to send in photos of images in the spirit of the song, to give thanks and gratitude. We’re planning a life chronology video. This idea of "your whole life flashes before your eyes, birth to death."

"This is us trying to give music a spirit again."
That’s much more of a communal experience, which is new for the band.
I used to get really excited for a record to come out because you had to wait for it. You had this relationship with it. You were saving money to go to the record store and buy it. A lot of things about that have been lost. Now everything is downloadable and intangible. The worth and weight of it are hard to measure. You don’t go to a friend’s house to listen to a new record, because he’s already downloaded it too.  But music is shared; it’s not supposed to be so isolated and individual. It's worth believing in that spirit.

So we’re stabbing in the dark to see if there are different ways to achieve the same thing. It didn’t matter that it was in a record store. The physical copy is debatable, but I like to think that it’s bigger than that. We’re trying to find that spirit again.