Interview with a Musician

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on Psych Fest, playing with Dave Grohl & chasing perfection

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on Psych Fest, Dave Grohl & perfection

Since 1998, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have been honing a sound influenced by Britrock, psych and shoegaze — among many other things. Helmed jointly by guitarist Peter Hayes and bassist Robert Been (who also share vocal duties), the band have released seven albums, the latest being 2013's Specter At The Feast. The new album has been lauded by NPR, The Guardian, and Paste, who commented that the record is "a worthy addition in the tradition of turning heartbreaking circumstances into cathartic art." 

We recently called BRMC founding member Robert Been to discuss the band's upcoming appearance at Austin Psych Fest, their new album's thoughtful tribute to his late father Michael Been (of The Call), and their work with Dave Grohl on the new Sound City film.

CultureMap: With this new record, you’ve been working on this project and this idea for almost 15 years. Is the sound of the band finally fully realized in your eyes after all this time?
Robert Been: Of course not! Why do you think we’ve been doing it so long? I do think that’s the thing you’re always after. It’s the chase that’s the fun part, you know? You try and get out that sound that’s in your head…or in your gut. I don’t know where the end is. If the question is satisfaction, we’re definitely still figuring it all out.
CM: With the new record, I got a strong sense of mood, much like some of my favorite ‘90s albums from Spiritualized and The Verve. Was that a purposeful thing, and was sequencing this record difficult if so?
 Why do you think we’ve been doing it so long?  It’s the chase that’s the fun part, you know? You try and get out that sound that’s in your head…or in your gut. I don’t know where the end is.
RB: We always loved records that took you on a trip like that, and weren't really meant to be about individual tracks but how the whole piece of music moves as one thing.  We’ve taken a lot of things from the '60s like Pink Floyd and different, more experimental bands. There's this element to that that we have always loved. And it was very difficult crafting it that way, so that it felt one way, and that was important.
But it took us a long time to come at it like that. 'Cause you also have to consider that the individual song has to work by itself first and foremost, so it's very difficult. You can kind of aspire to do that and [end up] sacrificing the individual track for the greater concept. And concepts are great — but kind of crap if you don't get them right [laughs]. So it's a tightrope to do that. I'd love to do it again, but I also dread doing it again.
CM: I read in an interview you did a while back that while music used to be your escape outlet, it has become more emotional and more challenging of late. What are you doing outside of the band these days for some levity if music is tougher these days? What are you doing for fun?
RB: [Laughs] A little bit of racquetball, fly fishing, table tennis. No. I haven't found a hobby that's as good as making music. I'm still working on that. I guess it is work but in another way. When you are doing what you love to do it's kind of like you never work a day in your life. I can't complain. It's just the nature of the thing has changed.
I think we've all been through a lot and there's a history that comes in to what we play now that sometimes you want to strip away.  I actually think that the next record we might go a completely different route. But this one was important to acknowledge that time and just be present in it. It's a lot easier to run from yourself like that with your music and create another reality that has very little to do with this one.
I don't know. I'm still learning how to be a real person. [Laughs] Let alone a real artist, whatever that means.
CM: On a related note, it was obviously a gesture of love and respect to your father to do a cover of The Call on this record. As you guys were talking about that, were you afraid of actually doing the one you chose (“Let The Day Begin”) which everyone has heard and is familiar with? 
RB: Well, I definitely don't think everyone's heard it. And people who have don't really know where it came from. The Call were my father's band, and they were pretty, pretty underrated. People that know some of their songs don't really know who they really were. So that was not where the fear came in.
The fear was just in the attempt to cover a song. You know, you want to make it your own, and having the added thing of it being from my father created even more of that weight. It was really important that we strip it of the original identity and just find our own fingerprint. So we really retooled that — and that was the only way it was going work for us.
We wanted to honor and acknowledge all the things he did for us over the years in a way on this record. It wasn’t easy. It’s just all the stuff that comes from trying to make your own way, father and son — or daughter, whatever it is. And with family, if you don’t find your own identity you kind of miss the point of it all. So, I was trying to hang on to that and the song came quickly. Which was great, because if we kind of banged it out for a long time we probably would have gotten it wrong. Mixing it, however, took fucking months. We were really obsessed with getting it right. 
CM: For your live performance in Austin this year, as opposed to doing the SXSW or ACL circus, you’re actually here for Psych Fest, which is a really cool and interesting bill. They’ve got Boris, Deerhunter, Clinic, Billy Gibbons and all these different interesting players. When you play festivals, do you actually get a chance to see much music onsite?
RB: We’ve never been fans of rock festivals; we try to avoid them. And Psych Fest is one of the only ones that we actually believe in the spirit of. We’ve tried for a few years now to join them but it was always we were on the other side of the world playing our own tour or we were in the studio. So, it never linked up.
This is the first time we can get a chance to be a part of it. I do believe in what they’re doing and I’m excited to be playing with those bands. I don’t like that usual festival, you know? You can do some creative things with festival, but I just feel like [with other fests] it’s more or less the same lineup in just slightly different orders and the spirit of it is relatively the same, as is the branding of it. So I feel like [Psych Fest] is doing it the right way but you know. Most of them are just bands trying to sell their record, and that feels cold. 
CM: You have some great bands that you’re bringing out as support this time around. You’re doing shows with The Big Pink and with Dhani Harrison’s band [The New No2]. Does your agent put that stuff together, or do you guys have a say on who you’re taking out as support most of the time?
Robert Been:  Those are all bands we are personally passionate about — everyone knows we're control freaks — or "very opinionated" is another way to put it, so we do everything ourselves independently. And, for better or worse, that's one of the times when it's really fun. You want to support other bands getting attention, but at the same time, it is great just to play with some like-minded people, and have that energy in the room. You take that from city to city.
I really believe in those groups and in a selfish way, I just want to see them play. It's like Christmas morning for us every day. We get to see some of our favorite bands, so I don't even care if our fans like them or not. I mean, I hope they do, but I just really want to see them. They're really good — all of them.
CM: Fantastic.
RB: Bass Drum Of Death in particular — their last record, I played every day. It was just a really great album. And Dhani Harrison's stuff is fucking incredible, and the fact that he's able to just do what he does in that shadow…
CM: You guys were involved in Dave Grohl’s Sound City project, which recently played here in Austin. Just wondered how that experience was for you and if you have any thoughts on the finished film?
RB: Yeah. The whole thing was surreal, getting a phone call from Dave Grohl and putting us in this film. We recorded our first album at Sound City. But at the same time, a lot of people did, so it was an honor to be a part of that. There’s a great history of bands that have played there, and then getting to play with Dave since has just been kind of wild. Not only the song we did, but it opened up the door for us. That day, he just asked us, "What are you working on?" And we got to get back on that board again.
So there were so many great things that came from just that one phone call. I'm really in debt to how gracious that guy is. He's just a beautiful spirit to be around, you know. He moved heaven and earth with all those people to come together and even those live shows — it’s no easy feat to get Cheap Trick, Rick Springfield, Stevie Nicks and some…notably difficult people to come together. Especially all under one roof to do this thing as a collective.
He does have the power — just an energy that's unique. You know, there are just people like that, and he’s one of them.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club play at Austin Psych Fest on Friday, April 26. Tickets are still available here. The band's new album Specter At The Feast is available now at Amazon and on Spotify.
Austin Photo Set: tom_black rebel motorcycle club_march 2013_2
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Austin Photo Set: tom_black rebel motorcycle club_march 2013_3
Photo by Tanya Kechichian
Austin Photo Set: tom_black rebel motorcycle club_march 2013_1
Photo by James Minchin III
Austin Photo Set: tom_black rebel motorcycle club_march 2013_2
Austin Photo Set: tom_black rebel motorcycle club_march 2013_3
Austin Photo Set: tom_black rebel motorcycle club_march 2013_1