Thursday, March 21, 2013 "Specter..." review

Rolling On: An interview with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

20 March, 2013
by: Domzig
Drummer Leah Shapiro tells us the story behind what has been a tough sixth album...

Contrary to popular belief, being in a band is not always an easy ride. Yeah the few times you play a gig and party with models are fun, but having to deal with grinding poverty, constant crap food and endless boring days spent cramped in the back of a van, waiting for a sound guy or listening to the same drum track over and over again is seriously hard work.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
have had it harder than most. Originally formed back in 1998 by Robert Levon Been and ex-Brian Jonestown Massacre member Peter Haynes (and if you’ve ever seen DiG!, then you’ll know how hard he had it there), their eleven year career has been a parade of fluctuating line ups, unstable band members and calamitous gigs, interspersed with six critically acclaimed albums. They are a monument to the dedication it takes to make music sometimes.

However all this doesn’t even rate when compared to the sudden death of Robert’s father Michael Been back in 2010. An important, if silent member of the band, Michael had not only been a father figure for both Rob and Peter, he had also been the band’s long-running sound engineer, writing partner and sounding board. Even for a band that had been through so much already, the loss of a mentor was shattering.

Consequently, ‘Specter at the Feast’ feels a lot more confessional than the band’s previous. Three and a bit years in the making, on the surface it swaggers along with the usual intensity of the first album, but underneath the fuzzed-up grunge and star-gazing psychedelic passages, there’s a rare sense of vulnerability. It’s also one of those rare records that takes you on an emotional journey, kicking off with the stormy ‘Fire Walker’ and ending with the hopeful, coming-to-terms with it rocker ‘Lose Yourself’.

Currently over to play a short run of UK and European dates, with a show at the Brixton Academy on the 27th of March I caught up with drummer Leah Shapiro to chat about the album, Dave Grohl and a certain sound desk.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Let The Day Begin by Vagrant Records

So you’ve recently started playing shows again, how are they going?
Leah: Erm, well apart from a couple of shows in San Francisco late last year, we haven’t played at all since we started out on this tour, but yeah, it’s good to be playing shows again. I’ve missed it.

So the past few years have been pretty tough for BRMC. How did you manage to keep on going?
Yeah, it’s been kind of tough. Michael was a mentor to both Pete and Rob and has always been a major part of the writing process, and it took them a bit of time before that felt ready to start writing again.

Because of this ‘Specter at the Feast’ just ended up taking ages to complete. We spent quite a lot of time up in the mountains near Santa Cruz where Rob grew up, mainly because we needed to get away from everything.  We then moved down to LA to do most of the recording at Sound City, add on almost six months mixing and it ended up being a super long process this time.

Were there times when you all thought about quitting?
I don’t think we ever came close to quitting. The thing is I love playing music, especially with Peter and Rob – there’s literally nothing else I can do.

There seems like there’s a lot of emotion on this record. Is this one of BRMC’s most truthful albums?
Yes and no. I think all of the BRMC records are emotional and truthful in their own ways, but on this one we are dealing with themes that we haven’t really touched on before

‘Specter at the Feast’ feels a lot like an early BRMC album. Was there ever a sense that you wanted to take things back to basics?
It’s not something that we intentionally wanted to do, no, but I kinda get why people are saying that. A portion of this record was recorded at Sound City where the first record was made, so in some ways the sound of ‘Specter at the Feast’

Which why you’re in that new David Grohl film.
Yeah, Rob and Pete both appear in his recent movie. Basically Sound City was this run-down studio up in the hills of LA where quite of lot of people recorded over the last 30 years; Neil Young, Weezer, Steveie Nicks Nirvana. ..

The place went bankrupt a few years ago, but Dave Grohl managed to save the mixing desk, so the film is sort of a celebration of the old, analog way of recording.

Wow, that sounds like some desk…
It’s a pretty hefty bit of kit, but it sounds great.

In these days of downloads and singles, you’ve made an old fashioned, flowing album: you have to respect that.
I think music has become something that is quite throw-away these days, what with iTunes, downloads and things like that. We really wanted to produce a piece of work that takes you by the hand and leads you through the songs, rather than just being a couple of singles loosely tied together.

It means you have to work harder, but I think it’s worth it.

Specter at the Feast is out now on on Abstract Dragon.