Interview: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club


BRMCSo a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of officially meeting BRMC’s Robert Levon Been. I was quite nervous and despite several people telling me I would be in safe hands (so to speak) I was still a bit apprehensive as I made my way up the ridiculous spiral staircase and into the dressing room at the o2 Academy in Bristol. How could I not be at least slightly intimidated? I’m 5ft 4 and nervous, he’s a 6ft whatnot, leather jacket clad rock n roll God. I don’t even know if I waited to be asked to sit or if I needed to take the weight off my somewhat then unsteady legs. Nervous and clumsy – great, where was my cool chick persona when I needed her?

I’d caught him pondering the evening’s set list for the show so figured that would make a good opener, I mean with so many albums how does BRMC go about deciding what to play? How do they agree?

RLB: (laughs) “well hmmm yeah, the agreement part is err interesting. Hmmm, You’d think it’d be easy just to take a little bit from each record and you know, but it gets tricky. There’s too much. There’s too many songs now so we’re always kind of managing to disappoint some one or make someone’s day at the same time. Usually in the crowd, since we get to hear them all sooner or later as many times as we want so we’re pretty spoilt with that.”

Popped: Do you like to change it up every gig or keep a stable setlist and change it up a bit?

RLB: “There’s some things we can’t do, like songs I play on piano, over here we can’t do, we couldn’t afford to fly that kind of rig over, so that’s staying in the states right now. So there’s some songs like “Windows” and “Promise” that we’re not doing right now. So that decides that and then there’s certain songs where voices go out easier, like they’re more kind of screaming rock songs so you have to pace those. Like “Teenage Disease” is a song we all really like but it blows Peter’s voice out nearly every time he does it so we’re not able to do that one. So there are some rules that make life easier – you can’t even get into an argument about those. There’s something else in the Universe to blame for it not the three of us personally.

I think we’d probably play most of the new album if we could do whatever we wanted but then a lot of people come out that umm …..those older songs mean a lot to them so you gotta respect that too. Then the older ones, it’s not like we’re sick of them. I’m surprised actually. I always imagined that after a few albums that, God I can’t imagine a band having to play the same thing over and over and now that I’m in one of those bands it’s actually not as bad as you think it will be.”

Popped: I always thought it would get quite tiresome though.

RLB: “When you’re playing it though there’s a lot of places you can go within that space and within the song and it’s a beautiful thing about music that you can’t know until you’ve dug into it long enough. There’s a million ways to tell a story and it turns into so many little dimensions and frequencies and tones and subtleties on the night that, (laughs) … I wouldn’t say it makes it new to you but… it makes it worth it.”

Popped: And the crowd reaction too right?

RLB: ” The crowd really helps and they’re different every night.  Applause isn’t always the same every place you go even if the volume is the same and the number of people is the same, everyone’s different and they actually give off a very different energy. Each person is unique.”

Popped: Do you find that it changes from country to country? One song that goes down really well in one place that doesn’t somewhere else?

Robert Levon BeenRLB: “It only changes a lot with Festivals. I feel it when I’m in a room full of people I can see the whites of their eyes, you know? I can’t register or connect with people that are just a silhouette of a shadow, you know 200 yards away. There’s a point at festivals that I worry that the feeling gets lost and it’s not something that can be projected onto a jumbotron (that’s those large screens to you and me) … so that’s when things get pretty different. But in a room full of people it’s pretty easy to connect with, if they want to take a step towards you. It’s a good thing.”

Popped: And you’re on tour a lot. What’s life on the road like for you guys? What do you do on your down time aside from sitting in rooms like this?

RLB: “We’re working on a score to a film that our friend is making and so whenever we’ve got time like the day we had a day off yesterday it’s just like trying to record things on Pro Tools in the hotel room and see if we can send him things back and forth. It’s a good way to, you know, keep busy.

We’ve always wanted to get into doing that but we never had the time. Every record seems to snowball into the next one so there’s not been any time. We had a few chances but we missed them. We’re trying not to force it one way or another and yeah I love films too so I’m really happy we can do it. It’s a friend of mine as well so … Yeah he knows his BRMC catalogue. Right now he’s specifically just hoping to.. I don’t know… it’s more acoustic based and minimal and so kind of it’s actually really helpful because we have so many places we can go; different sounds and different things. Sometimes it’s hard when someone says they want you to do something, you’re not sure which us it is that they want you know? There’s quite a few different versions of us. It’s good, it puts us on a good path.”

Popped: So you have a big US tour coming up after this too?

RLB: “Yeah. We go to Russia from here then the US, Australlia, New Zealand and Japan.”

Popped: And writing a film score…

RLB: (Rubs his head and laughs) “Ummm yeah. I realised that the other day that we should probably start to designate some specific time off the road as well. The breaks in between those shows will be, there’s only a few weeks here and there but we’ll make them count.”

Popped: Do you ever feel like being on the road so much means you have to give up other things you’d like to do?

RLB: “Yeah but it also affords me to do a lot of things that I love. Doing this film and having the time to write and develop things and see the world. I love taking trips on my own. Bike trips, not to be cliché, but it’s the best thing.”

BRMC BristolPopped: Do you actually get to see much of the places you visit or is it lots of this – sitting in dressing rooms/hotel rooms?

RLB: “There are lots of these rooms. I’ve seen this room many times. It’s like you get pieces of a puzzle. You get one piece of a city or a town then the next year you come back and you get another piece. Staying somewhere else, playing somewhere else you kind of walk and wonder and explore a little of it but you can’t see it all. Then the next year you get another piece. So I started to put the pieces together through 10 years now and it’s starting to look like something. Bristol is starting to look like a real place and not just this…. backstage.”

Popped: Because you’re continuously successful you can do that which is great as some bands never do.

RLB: “Yeah. I know a lot of bands, I’m not going to name names, but it’s strange. I hear bands that refuse to go places. Like they get an offer to go somewhere like South America or somewhere that is completely like a place that I think would be really special to bring your music to, but if they’re not making enough profit on the show they won’t except the offer and we always do. If we can always break even on affording to fly down there it’s kind of how we get to kind of scratch that itch to see the world and get take the music everywhere.

It’s surprising though. I never thought bands would do it as much but now I’m hearing, slightly bigger bands but… It’s crazy how they tend to go in certain circles. We get to go to Russia and we’re completely breaking even on that. And we did South America and South Africa. You might not make money but you get everything else you know? Like you feel when you play there that it’s special because there’s not so many bands that go through there. London and New York, actually anywhere in Europe or the States, if you miss one show you probably see another next week it’s probably not the end of the world. But there are places where it’s so rare that it becomes like oxygen and people need to feel that release. It’s always worth it to me to try and play there.

We’ve had a few times when we’ve been on a tour and we’ve had five days off on a tour and rather than going home and flying back somewhere we’ve taken a week off in Cambodia or Thialand or Portugal and we did in Japan and we always rent bikes and try and explore the city and we went through Mount Fuji. It’s a way to get all the pieces of the puzzle very quickly in a short amount of time and that’s the most luxurious thing I’ve ever come across with touring. Me and Leah and Pete did a three day bike ride through all of Mount Fuji and it was one of the most beautiful trips I’ve ever had.”

Popped: Do you think it’s the band or the label or the management who don’t allow bands to play those shows that they turn down? Do they have as much control as you do you think?

RLB: “Yeah they have control of it. A lot of bands that don’t like to travel very much, there are some people who just don’t like to travel very much. It’s an uncomfortable experience so the least they can do and make the most, it’s a business. Some bands are more like businessmen and they’re more successful because of that.”

Popped: What do you class as success?

BRMC 2RLB: ” Success is the miracle of finding other like minded people that you’re on the same wave line as and music will come from that. Hopefully something great will come from that. Whether you get to make a record or tour from that, that’s just icing on the cake. But yeah to find some people who really inspire you and bring something of substance to your life like that. That’s it.

Popped: So not necessarily a number one album in the charts then?

RLB: (laughs) “Well that’s nice too! You know, we’re all for that!

A lot of albums only have 4 or 5 good tracks and I think… though I’m of two minds. Like sometimes all it takes is one song to change your heart and mind and the way you see the world and so it is quality over quantity with music but errm (laughs) quantity helps too. Especially if you’re watching an hour long show or listening to a whole record.”

Popped: Have you ever played one album from start to finish as a show?

RLB: “I think on our first record we may have done. Maybe not in order, but we might have played all the songs off our first record. We did this thing at the Brixton Academy for our 1000th show and it really felt great. We tried playing like the first 4 songs from the 1st album, then the first 4 songs from the 2nd and 3rd. So we played every album and as it went on. Going from album to album it really struck me how. without knowing it, we’ve kind of become, the soundtrack to peoples lives. It means something and it takes people back to a place in their life and I never really expected that kind of thing. When you’re playing music it’s all about being in the moment and making it as good as you can but to become that later on, with that kind of history with people… I didn’t understand it until we laid each album out like that.

Popped: It took you 1000 shows!

RLB: (laughs) Yeah. It took a 1000 for me to wise up!”

Popped: So did that change you in anyway? How you moved forward as a band or even how you put a set list together?

RLB: “I don’t know. It didn’t change us in the way that we wanted to repeat that every time. We kind of wanted to keep that as something special for the people who came to that show. Maybe some day in the future we’ll play something like a whole record in one go. Pixies did that, I saw some shows that were really good, I’d like that. It works because you really resonate on that feeling of place and time. It’s not the same when it all blurs together.

Popped: Have you ever thought to a time when you might not be doing this any more? Is there that fear?

RLB: “It might be tomorrow. I’ve never not woken up one day and thought this might be the last day (laughs). Just… it’s rock n roll. It doesn’t really go along with what you think it should be and there’s something about diving into that place artistically that you’re not even at your best as far as trying to maintain a mature respectable relationship with other people. You’re kind of psychotic all the time because… you know you have a guitar in your hand and electricity and energy running through you and you’re calling on all sorts of menacing spirits to get the job done.

Popped: Sounds a little scary!

RLB: Yeah! But that’s what gets you up in the morning too you know! It’s all of that that brings it to life.

BRMC’s latest album A Specter At The Feast is out now.  2013 Tour Dates here.
Watch the video for Hate The Taste  from A Specter At The Feast here:

One Response to “Interview: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club”
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  1. […] American X was also reeled out. Much to my absolute delight. A track I had asked they play last time I was with them in Bristol a few years ago. It was well worth the 2 year wait, and many people took this time not to just […]


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