Meet Robert Levon Been of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Peter Hayes, Leah Shapiro, and Robert Levon Been I Photo by Tessa Angus
It's been over ten years since Black Rebel Motorcycle Club exploded out of California with their brand of bluesy rock wrapped up in black leather swagger. Aptly named for Marlon Brando's gang in the movie, The Wild One, BRMC is still trying to figure out how they fit into the whole music biz. They've seen new labels, new records, new tours, and new drummers, and maybe, just maybe, have finally figured out a way to tame the beast. We caught up with bassist, Robert Levon Been, the weekend before their sixth album, Beat The Devil's Tattoo, dropped. We talked about the state of the music industry, BRMC's new drummer Leah Shapiro, and why we don't appreciate things that come to us easily. Here is some of what was said.
When did you first pick up an instrument?
Jesus... I think I had a little guitar when I was five or six, but I didn't have any interest in playing it at all. It just sat there and collected dust. Then in fifth grade, I put this band together with friends. I think we were God awful. My dad told me later that he'd listen to us play and thought some of the kids were all right, but he told my mother, "You don't have to worry your son following in my footsteps. He doesn't have it. He doesn't have the basic ability to follow music."
Wow, that's harsh.
Yeah, well it was true at the time. Something changed somewhere around junior high school. I started playing the trombone and learned how to read bass clefs. It took about a year, I guess, before something switched in my brain and I began to follow music. I began to see things that were a little more abstract. I don't think I realized that anything had clicked, yet though. Then in high school I picked up the bass in order to play with my friends in the battle of the bands and just kept on playing.
How come? It probably attracted more girls than the trombone.
(laughs) I really didn't think it was cool. I thought it would be easy. There are less strings than a guitar for one thing. Honestly though, if it had been difficult, I would have quit within a couple days. I'm not that dedicated to anything. I'm easily discouraged. You could never write a story about my life about how I overcame the odds. For some reason there seems to be more pride in stuff you worked really hard at, but sucked at then things that came easy. There seems to be more honor in it. It's really a shame the things your naturally good are things you don't appreciate as much. I feel really spoiled that they bass comes really easy.
Are there instruments that you aren't good at that you appreciate more?
Oh yeah! I don't play the piano well. I work my ass off practicing that thing. I love that instrument, but I can barely play it. With this band being a three piece, though we all have to pull our weight on whatever we're good at. Whether it's the guitar or songwriting or whatever. You know we were auditioning singers when we originally started?
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club I Photo by Tessa Angus
No, I didn't. What happened?
It was so horrendous that we decided just do it ourselves. By the end of the auditions we just thought, "Fuck it. At least it won't be as bad as that." But Peter and I aren't strong singers, so we had to share the responsibility. Just to balance it out. There's no way one of us could have sung the whole set. We just didn't have it. That's the way we started any way, and it's something that we've had to work hard at.
What is your writing process like?
Writing lyrics and things have also been things that we've had to work at. It's really easy to get writer's block and lose your mind. The trick to getting around it is to think of it as "Okay, this is the way I'm paying for the things that come easy to me." Otherwise it would be so easy to be disheartened. You know our brains are too small to understand the balance of the universe. It's like a mouse trying to understand algebra. They're not concerned with numbers they're just thankful for the cheese they ate today. We're like that. We can't understand the tsunamis, disasters and everything going on right now. Some people think that they've showed up because of the sins they've committed. They think that it's some sort of judgment, which is ridiculous. It's so self centered to think that the world is going to end just because you fucked someone's girl. We make all these elaborate story lines in our head, but honestly we're all just trying to get the cheese at this point. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have been together for over ten years now. Are there any words of advice that you would give yourself from ten years ago if you could?Get out! Get out now! Go back to school. (laughs) Not really. I was really lucky that I didn't start playing music just because I wanted to get laid or do drugs and get away with it. I fell in love with music. Everything that came after that has been mostly a nice surprise. Friends of mine that were in bands when we were starting off who were in it for other reasons didn't do as well. You should never get into music if you think you're going to make a lot of money. You're going to be really disappointed. I've already resolved myself to that fact. Especially not now. You might have been able to before when the record industry existed. Although the time we're in now is kinda cool. It's like a weeding out of the herd. The only one's who will be left are the ones who really love it.
Why did you choose Philadelphia to write this album? Is it a particularly inspirational spot?
(Laughs) We went to Philly because we didn't have any money! We needed a place to live and one of our friends let us live at their house and write the album. They had two bedrooms and a couch that no one was living on. So they let us hang out as long as we wanted and rehearse there and record there. We spent six months in the basement. It was surreal to be part of their family for awhile, but it was great. Then we went back to LA and couch surfed while we finished the album.
Seriously? You guys couch surfed?
Yeah, people are usually surprised that we have as little money as we do. The last couple of records we had to make all of our money on tour. Everything we made we put back into the band, so we spent everything. We're big believers in giving back. We just take all the money we make and put it back into the music. So when we come off the road, we scramble to figure out how to live in the meantime. This time was cool though. We've got a new plan.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club I Photo by Tessa Angus
What's the plan?
We're not taking an advance from a record company. We made a record for zero dollars, so we're zero in debt right now. Even if we make a small amount from the tour, that would be huge. I mean I might actually come home with five bucks in my pocket! Well you've sold out the Echoplex for three nights, so that should work in your favor.
Yeah we're playing smaller venues on this tour. We want to keep it small for the first introductions to these songs. We could have played the Nokia downtown to make some more dough, but we want to keep the first tour intimate. I think our band translates the best in a small club, and that's what it's about. We might come back around, later in the year and play a bigger venue. We've been really lucky. We've got a great fan base. It really feels great playing anywhere. And if this plan works, I'm going to brag about it to everybody. I'll be like, "Listen this might be a formula that works! You could actually make it home with a couple dollars."
Do you and Peter ever fight about who sings what?
No, no. It's a cool balance. Me and Peter have never fought about anything too important. I guess whoever had the idea first is the one who gets to sing the song. Most of our best songs come from the three of us in a room jamming. Someone will start with a guitar line or drum beat and we'll jam it out and it'll just be done. Before you have a chance to think about it, it'll be out there There's a lot of healthy competition to come up with that first idea, but the way a song ends is always a surprise. Songs are like a cliff hanger endings when you don't come up with them. It's like when you try and scare yourself to get rid of the hiccups. You can't just do it. It doesn't work. You need someone else. That's the magic part of being in a band. You need everyone to create a song.
Do you still get nervous before an album comes out?
Yeah, I do, but it's the good kind of nervous, like pins and needles. I'm pretty happy with it. We worked on it for a full year.
How did you end up getting together with Leah Shapiro? Did you audition other drummers or did you know you wanted her?
No, we knew we wanted Leah from the beginning. Having a good drummer is crucial. There is so much nonverbal communication that happens with drummers. Most of the work is instinct and about that person's own sensibilities. They have to just know when they're supposed to fall back and when they're supposed to get excited and break through. You really can't teach that to someone. Nick was really great at that. We were actually nervous that it wasn't going to be the same kind of thing with Leah. But she's amazing. I've got only great things to say about both of them. It's very rare trait to have.
How did you find her?
She played for a band that supported us on tour. She's just hypnotic to watch on the drums. It certainly left an impression. After Nick left she was the only person we were going to call. We didn't have a plan B. We weren't going to audition other drummers. There was no way we were going to sit through some awful pop idol auditions. So when she started we were actually worried that her style would turn us into another band. We actually considered changing the name of the band if that happened, but it turned out that she made us sound so much like our early stuff, that we thought we'd get more shit if we called it something else.
What made you guys decide to form Abstract Dragon Records?
We first started it because we thought it would be a cool idea. We could help other bands out and have interns and things. Then the record industry changed and it turned from this luxurious idea to a necessity. It became a life raft to get our music heard. All of the labels now don't know what they're doing. They're all guessing about what would work and what doesn't. We just wanted a label that won't give up on their idea half way through the album cycle. That's what happened to us. We would get dropped and then have to make our way back home from half way across the world. Having our own record label is more gratifying because you own everything about the process and you're more part of it. (laughs) It's almost like the honor as a samurai, you know? Sticking a sword in my own stomach rather than having someone else do it.
But you're partnered with Vagrant Records right?
Yeah we have a partnership with them to distribute it and get it out. They've been really good. This process just feels way more right. It's nice to not owe a large chunk of money early on and be grossly into debt.
Are you going to sign other bands to it eventually?
(laughs) No! First we're going to try not to drown. First we're going to try and get up on the raft and make a sail. Maybe we'll start looking good to someone else, but if they joined us then we'd probably just end up cannibalizing them. So I wouldn't invite anyone in for awhile. Maybe later when we're a little more nourished.
Sounds fair. Okay last question, if you were booking a show in Heaven and a show in Hell, who would you have headline?
We'd be headlining in Heaven!
Oh no doubt, man. And I think...Hendrix would be our opener.
Really? You want to play after Jimi Hendrix?
Well, I mean it's Heaven, so everyone will love us just as much as him. Although it would really suck if he had a double encore...hmm...especially if that pushed us back and fucked us. I guess that would be the Hell version of this dream. That would be what happened in hell. We'd get bumped.
Being bumped for Jimi Hendrix isn't that bad. If you were bumped for Miley Cyrus though...
Good point! If we were bumped for someone like Toto or Rico Suave, that would be pretty heartbreaking.
Well thank you so much for talking with us.
Thank you. It's been one of the weirdest interviews I've had in awhile.