Sometimes adversity leads to the greatest achievements in art. Three years after the release of Beat The Devil’s Tattoo, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is preparing to release their 7th studio album, Specter at the Feast. Borrowing a title from the pages of Macbeth and packaged with a cover made to look purposely unassuming, what lies within is a 12-track ride of highs, lows and everything in between. Five months after the release of Beat The Devil’s Tattoo, Robert Been’s father, former Call front-man Michael Been, passed away while on tour with the band. The songs on the new record tell the tale of rising from the ashes of tragedy and discovering a new found fire burning collectively within. It reflects both on the experiences had by the band in the two years writing the album, and more importantly, what comes next. Freshly back from Europe, Robert Levon Been sat down with Todd and Sania via LA to talk about The Call, Dave Grohl, the importance of allowing emotions in music and moving forward after a great loss. The discussion was one of the most difficult and moving interviews that we’d been involved in, filled with long silences that made us wonder if we’d delved into areas that were too emotional to discuss. Immediately after this conversation, Robert cancelled his remaining interviews for the day. Passion and emotion breed great music and will clearly impact the band as they move forward to promote a truly brilliant album.
TDOA: Your first single off Specter at the Feast is ‘Let the Day Begin’, which is a cover of your late father’s band The Call. What made you decide to pick that song?
Robert: I think we all wanted to cover one of The Call’s songs pretty early on, back when we were first discussing making the album. We didn’t know which one we were going to do at the time and the song kind of found its’ way to us. We were in the studio just jamming and we had actually started writing a totally new song and in the midst of it, I kind of realized that it sounded a lot like something else (laughs). Like the rhythm of it, it was a different rhythm, but the phrasing sitting on top of it, and if I just shifted the chord structure, all of a sudden, it was that song. So, we kind of went about it through the back door, and really just started singing the words to it on top of what was a new song of ours, and it just fit. It felt like it had more of our own sound to it, which is important. I think that’s why initially we started playing around with the idea, and then walked away from it because with covers you can’t make them your own in some ways. Especially something like this. I wasn’t sure how we were going to approach it any other way.
TDOA: Well, it very much does sound like BRMC even though it’s a cover. Especially the guitars, it’s very signature. So, you’re actually going to be playing a few shows with The Call. In LA and San Francisco, coming up?
Robert: Yeah, you are a BRMC expert, because that just came out yesterday (laughs). Man, it was almost like a year ago I got together with the guys, the original members, Scott Musick, Tom Ferrier and Jim Goodwin. I really grew up with them, you know, I was out on the road with my dad (Michael Been) and all of them, and they’re really like family to me. So, I’d always wanted to do something with them and my father was kind of the one that really put the stops on The Call and they’d been wanting to get the band going for a while. We talked about getting together and we played together and it was just such a joy to be playing music with them that I was just like, fuck we need to find a way to make this happen. Then I got pulled back into making the BRMC record, so we had to put it all on hold. This is kind of only time to do this, a week off between the BRMC European tour, and the US one starting. I’m kind of insane for trying to do it, and everything else at the same time, but it’s a good kind of insanity.
TDOA: How did you end up working with the ever-awesome Dave Grohl on Sound City (Documentary regarding Sound City Recording Studio)?
Robert: While we were writing songs, we got a phone call out of the blue that he wanted us to come and be interviewed and maybe record a song with him for the film (Heaven and All). We recorded our first record on that board at Sound City (2001’s B.R.M.C.), and we were just a part of the ride after that. A lot of artists did record there, so it was kind of nice that he wanted to feature us, considering there were many that did not get featured in it. We tried to make the most out of it and wrote a whole new song with him in the studio. We had absolutely no idea what we were going to do, which was terrifying and also really exciting. From there, he had asked us what we were working on and if we had any stuff ready and he was saying, “I want to keep this board alive and kicking, so come in next month and lay stuff down as soon as you’re ready,”. It was really touching that he would offer up his place like that. We couldn’t say no. The board was just too good to not come back too. I think the first time we recorded on it, we really didn’t know what the hell it did. There were a bunch of buttons on it (laughs), but you know, it was our first record. Getting to come back ten years later and to really know what all the buttons do, it was a cool idea to play around a bit, and make the most of it.
TDOA: I had a friend at the Los Angeles Sound City Players show, and heard it was really an amazing experience to see Dave play with you all, and a slew of other artists.
Robert: It was wild man, that whole night. He moved a couple mountains to make that happen. A lot of different artists, you know, some are notoriously difficult and all of a sudden they all threw caution to the wind and jumped off with him. As impressed as I was with all these people, Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty and everyone else, I was most blown away that Dave actually learned fifty songs or whatever it was for all these artists. He actually had to learn ones that they might not actually do and then just be ready on the fly, you know, guitar and drums. So, I was the most surprised at that, and was just hoping he wouldn’t keel over at that point. I mean, after he got off the stage with us and we were early on, he looked like he was about to have a coronary (laughs). It was a lot of work for one man, but he pulled it off.
TDOA: Yeah well, he’s no mere man, he’s Dave Grohl. Dave Grohl is super-human.
Robert: (laughs) Yeah, he might be.
TDOA: Let’s talk a little about literature. Specifically, in regards to your album cover. Specter at the feast is clearly a Macbeth reference, and the line of text at the bottom is from Agrippa’s On The Vanity of Arts & Sciences. How do those tie in to your new album?
Robert: Well some of those things are just cool things to… I don’t know… like Easter egg types of things for people who want to dive deeper into it, and some of it I want to leave a mystery. I found this old school edition of Macbeth and it always intrigued me that some of the greatest literature we have for schools that are required reading just have some of the most generic, lifeless, meandered covers that don’t really relate to what’s inside. They don’t try to get creative to dress them up, or to sell you on anything. You just turn the page, and never think about it again. I just really liked the idea of this thing that was really unassuming, almost something that you would throw away and never think twice on, but hopefully, if you turn the page there’s something of substance beneath there. I’m tired of dressing things up to be honest. You now, once people get in on it, we tend to let those people enjoy the ride, visually and musically. Taking from Macbeth, Specter at the Feast just really seemed like it fit this album.
TDOA: The version you guys modeled the album cover after is a super old Italian and English version published by an retro company called Gum. It is awesome how you replaced the gum logo with a stylized BRMC one. It looks really awesome.
Robert: Yeah, it was fun getting that detail of it. It’s just something to obsess about for a couple weeks. That was just clever, but the things that really mean something to me are the band photos inside. We started to really create this feel of a book and we had this big photo shoot that we did like with every album you do. We couldn’t figure out how to marry those glossy new photos with this really older-style book. I was trying to figure out how the hell to make that fit in it and bring out that quality. I was beating my head against the wall, and then I look over, and on my refrigerator is an illustration, a drawing of Peter’s hands playing guitar from a fan of ours, Paula K. She’s been doing these illustrations of us since our first record, and she’s developed as an artist as we have as a band. So, I’m looking over and thinking wow, you know, that would be really cool to have that old feel of illustration in a book like you have with Old Man and the Sea, and Call of The Wild, all of those books you see these hand drawings. So, I got in contact with her, and basically said would you mind hand illustrating these high-end photos that we spent all this money on for us, and making really simple drawings of them. She pretty much took a two-week hiatus from her job, it was really touching, and gave us all these incredible illustrations, which are actually the thing I’m most excited for people to see. That inside of the book really makes it come alive. That’s kind of one our thing, a lot of fans of ours are really great artists as well. Like Ian Ottaway, who is an incredible writer, and we’ve put him in charge of confusing the hell of all of our fans online (on the band’s website). We try to tie in as many people as possible, and it was a really cool experience.
TDOA: Speaking of Ian, his video was actually the first in a very moving short film series you guys did with Malia James of The Dum Dum Girls, followed by yourself, and then one from Leah, and Peter. How do you feel about that film series and what’s represented there, and also what is mentioned about your new relationship with music following the passing of your father?
Robert: All of us really trust Malia. She’s worked with us in the past, and she’s one of the only people that we trust to let in and talk to on camera because we’re kind of notorious for not liking cameras around us at all. This record, it isn’t just all about my father’s passing, but it was important to acknowledge that he played a very big part in our being a band and getting to where we are today. I knew I needed to talk about it head on, and face those things head on, because there was really no other choice. I have a real gratitude to Peter and Leah who helped me through that time so much, and I’m trying to call on that in myself to have that kind of strength to go forward, they give me a lot of that back, so that’s kind of where the spirit of that comes from. Ian as well, he was really there for me, lots of long talks at night through some hard times with him. You know, he’s the guy you need when things get rough. Having him be a part of this thing meant something to me as well. A lot of the album is coming from a place of going forward, a rebirth of life, and that spirit of it. A lot of songs come from that place. We needed this album to be more than just a reflection of the past, and so it’s important to introduce the album where it started, but it’s more about what comes next than what came before.
TDOA: When listening to the album, the emotions present are on a full spectrum from zero to one hundred. You have ballad songs like ‘Lullaby’ and ’Lose Yourself,’ and then in contrast there are songs like ‘Teenage Disease,’ where it’s like Peter needs to let us know if he ever starts a side-project for an alt-metal band because he’d do really well, and high-powered song ‘Rival,’ which sounded amazing at the Troubadour on the Apocalypse. Also, there is just something completely exposed and forward about these songs, you can hear all the clicks and pops of the guitar, and the vocals are very raw. How do you feel about putting that much of yourself on a record and putting it out there?
Robert: That was the thing we kept coming back to. If we’re going to make this record, we need to show all sides. There were many places that we ended up going on it that are all part of that same time, those two years that we were writing. We didn’t know if we could fit all of it on one piece of music, one movement, and it was very, very difficult. We thought about hiding some of those songs, almost like hiding some of those emotions, some of the anger and veracity, and said maybe we shouldn’t show that side. In the end, it was let’s just show it all and let the chips fall where they may. It’s the only way to come from an honest place, and that’s important with music. At least, it’s always been important to us with music. Emotionally, we were stretched apart. There was a greater high, and a greater low and it’s all there. We decided not to show only one, either the highs or the lows. It was an interesting experiment in sound, and many other things. I don’t know how people will take it. I did a press tour in Europe a couple weeks ago, and this was actually the first time I had known of anyone having heard the album besides us, and the biggest criticism actually turned out to be the biggest compliment. Every other critic basically said when I listen to this, it flows and moves as one piece. That was important for us to try to create, and it’s subjective, but the first time that people actually got that, we breathed a sigh of relief because it was so difficult to make it seem like one form, or one trip we wanted people to take with us. It was definitely the hardest part.