Interview with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Revealing Tricks

Robert Levon Been, 33.3333 percent of California’s Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, called the Aquarian Weekly while scrambling to get ready for their lengthy jaunt in support of Beat The Devil’s Tattoo. Been admitted some level of anxiousness regarding one of their more high profile dates, a stop at Texas’ media infested SXSW. “We never played it, so I don’t know what to expect. We tried to dodge that bullet for many years, and we just happen to be driving by at the same time, so we were like, ‘We’ll bite the bullet and see how it tastes.’”

There was undoubtedly a sweet taste left in BRMC’s mouth since Beat The Devil’s Tattoo proves that savagery and sophistication aren’t mutually exclusive feats. Despite the departure of drummer Nick Jago, Been and Peter Hayes threw themselves into the unknown with new stick woman Leah Shapiro and triumphed instead of tripped in their Philadelphia studio. The CD smolders with the same organic embers and seductive emoting found in formidable acts like Lou Reed, the White Stripes and Johnny Cash.

On their own Abstract Dragon imprint via Vagrant Records, Beat The Devil’s Tattoo could be the record that catapults the BRMC from hailed cult leaders to undisputed maverick status. Popular demand forced New York City’s Webster Hall, among other cities, to add a second date for the trio that masterfully translates their massive sound onto the stage.

Was there a blueprint for this record? It feels so diverse and exhilarating.

The real story—we were kind of scared out of our minds, because we didn’t know where we were going next. We didn’t know what we were going to sound like. We write a lot live and we write a lot in jams and rehearsal spaces, so a lot of the sound of BRMC is in that form, so when we lost Nick, we didn’t know what it was going to sound like. We thought about the idea of maybe drawing a blueprint, and realized that we were going to be at the mercy at whatever it ended up sounding like. We knew it felt good playing the old songs with Leah, because she jumped on board at the end of this European tour, and she could play all the old songs, but copying someone else is a lot different than writing as a band. It’s kind of a communication that happens without any words that you can’t really teach anyone. I don’t know if making a plan would have made me any more neurotic or any less neurotic. I am kind of glad it didn’t—we really just made it sound however it was going to sound all together when we were playing. The whole thing just kind of got fun, so the nerves stopped rattling once we all started playing together and rehearsing for the record. Within a couple of days, it felt really right. There wasn’t much that needed to be said, so I guess that’s a good sign.

So it just flowed.

I wish I could take more credit for it being conceptually the greatest thing we’ve pulled off, but we would get together and someone would start on guitar, a riff or a drumbeat, and a song would just start being built. That was how the first couple of records got written and that’s how we like writing. It has that element of uninterrupted flow of music that’s not in your head anymore—it’s out of your head and it’s in your heart and in your hands and on tape, if you’re lucky.

You wrote in Philly again. Was that just to get away from the noise of California and buckle down?

No, we didn’t have any money. We got off the road and we were all pretty scant. We used to have places to live, and then we gave those up because we were on the road so long, it didn’t seem necessary. Or we lost the girlfriends that we had, and we didn’t have that place to crash anymore. So we got back home after the Baby 81 tour, we were out a long time, and all of us were couch surfing. Our friends that have the house in Philadelphia, they offered, ‘You can come crash out there and work on your music.’ They had extra rooms to spare. They are just wonderful people. Getting to be around them, and being able to make music—it doesn’t feel like a studio, it just feels like you’re all just hanging out and playing. That shapes what comes. If you feel like you’re on the clock, time is money and interestingly, you have a very different thing on your hands. That’s the only reason that I can think that I felt loose as well. We just weren’t anxious about having to nail it at every turn. I like that personally, but yeah, it was a free bed. That’s pretty much why we ended up there. Then we stayed there because they were a really generous family. They let us stay there and become part of the family, so there was really good energy in that space.

It’s a self-produced record, then?

Yeah, we’ve produced all of them. Each record, there’s an engineer that we bounce ideas off of and helps us plug things in. It’s partially friends, at that house Paul [Cobb] and Ryan [Cobb], they have this band called The Cobbs, it’s just the basement little studio at the house that we used and they helped on some things. Then we mixed the album, we went out to L.A. and we used this guy Mark Rains. He’s a saint, and he was just wonderfully gifted at helping us put all the pieces together. Before that with Howl and Baby 81, we worked with Rick Parker. We lean heavily on our engineers, but we produce it technically.

‘The Toll’ is a beautiful song. Is that Leah on backing vocals with you on that one?

That’s actually a friend of ours, Courtney Jaye—she is a country Nashville singer/songwriter. I did that one with her like a year ago and it came out really good, we remixed it and re-performed a lot of the music, but kept her vocal. Leah did some backing tracks on stuff, and she’s actually a good singer, but that song was finished by the time we got to that point.

There’s a bonus track on the UK version, correct?

Yeah, we recorded a lot of songs for this album, we’re going to sneak them out on B-sides or we’ll wait for the next record to put them out. There was one that was really difficult to leave off this album, the U.S. version. I think it’s on the iTunes one. That shit confuses me. It’s called ‘Annabel Lee,’ which is an Edgar Allan Poe poem that I kind of made up a melody for. It was the first time I tried to write a song from music to words rather than words to music, but that poem is really lyrical and it sounded like a song. It was kind of a mad experiment that I didn’t think would work, but it did. I thought that I was the only one who ever thought of doing that, and then I found out that it’s been done a million times. I was about to throw it off, and then I realized that this version is actually better than anyone else’s, so I decided to keep it. I listened to like 30 different versions of the song that people put to music, and ours isn’t that bad. So it might not be the most original thing I have ever done, but I can still say it might be better then some other versions at least.

Would you call it a conceptual album or a tribute to Poe?

No, people are reading too much into that. I mean the title of the album is a line from Poe as well, but I mean there’s a lot of different influences on the album besides that. There’s everything to Yeats to Elvis Presley to Nine Inch Nails to simply being 10 below zero in Philadelphia, that was really influential to the music as well.

You must be excited to have a second date added to your stop in New York?

We wanted the whole tour to be smaller places, because it’s just nice to preview the music the first time around the block. To have that many people want to see you and no way around it, is a good problem to have. So it’s really cool. There are a couple places that we were having to do that. It’s a good thing.

You toured with Queens Of The Stone Age, they were definitely your peers musically. Who do you see as your peers now?

I don’t know, we always felt a good kinship with them, beyond musically, just as people. I almost feel like outsiders though, not really welcome at too many parties. It’s kind of always the way it is. I never feel like our gang is ever much bigger than us, but I love community with music and love bringing bands together. I guess 10 years of doing it, you’d think we’d have more friends than we do. We don’t socialize—well that will be the new hope for this record. The new hope for this record is that we’ll be more social. We’ll make friends. The name of this tour should be called that.

So you’ll have more meet and greets.

No, we’ll make the MySpace friends or whatever it is. I think we’re just kind of shy, not so much mean. Although we have our moments, but yeah, shyness is often misconstrued as something else. So yeah, ‘The Make Friends Tour 2010.’

‘Evol’ is another great track on the record.

Oh ‘Evol,’ it’s one of our oldest songs. When we first started playing, me and Peter, we had a demo version of it floating around that some people found. We were never really that happy with it, put in the back of the mind, but we kept putting it off, and we’re like, ‘Shit, if after 10 years if the song is still rattling in your head, it’s probably earned its right to be recorded properly.’ Yeah, if you’re still thinking about something 10 years later you should do something about it. I guess Sonic Youth had a record called EVOL—we got another unoriginal moment in our history, but it’s all fair. I think it’s really fitting with the nature of the song, so we kept it.

‘Beat The Devil’s Tattoo’ is really an awesome way to open the record; it just instantly grabs your attention.

The weird thing is that we didn’t have an album title let alone that lyric in that song until like two days before we turned in the record to the label. That song was called ‘Forsaken,’ and the ending just faded out instrumentally. I spent three months thinking of an album title that would somehow sum up the whole damn mess. It was really hard, and finally we got that line, and I started humming that melody in my head, ‘I thread the needle through, you beat the devil’s tattoo,’ over and over. I was like, ‘Whit, that could go really good on the end of “Forsaken.”’ It was Saturday, and the record was supposed to be turned in on Monday. So I had to call our engineer Mark Rains and beg him to go in on a Sunday—which is really asking a lot—and stay up all night with me. We did like six vocal tracks and layered all this shit at the end and extended the song a little bit. We put in all this chanting and finished around one in the morning and turned it on Monday. Then it went out to the rest of the world, I really didn’t even have time to think if it was a good idea or not.

Is that the biggest thrill for you, that moment of inspired spontaneity?

I’ve been accused of that on a couple of fronts, like the only way I get off on things is when it’s like filming Apocalypse Now kind of things. Just insane stories of right under the wire, there might be some truth to that. I am not really satisfied until the brink of losing everything, when you have a complete disaster on your hands. We have been working on a music video, and I do definitely have a certain nature where I’ll call people in the night before and change everything. So maybe the adrenaline starts running and things start getting good. They start getting interesting and unexpected, or maybe I am just an asshole, one or the other.

You’re complex.

Yeah, a complex asshole. I don’t know, I am going to fight for the Francis Ford CopPola thing, filming Apocalypse Now. He’s $2 million over budget and he’s changing everything and not having an ending. I’ll fight for that, but the charm of that story will only get me so far.

The record is diverse, but for the sake of comparison, the song ‘Beat The Devil’s Tattoo’ will make a lot of White Stripes fans happy.

We don’t know we’re stealing until someone calls the cops on us, and there’s a big difference. Try to deprogram yourself, trying to be a kid again. Music is just music and it’s fucking great and when you’re starting with this, you just care if you connect with it, if you feel it. I don’t think we’re the most original band, I just think we’re one of the best bands. That’s my humble opinion.

Lastly, live for a three-piece, you have such a massive, all-consuming sound.

That was always a challenge. I mean, it drives us nuts when we’re doing it, but trying to make something sound bigger than life with three people—it’s the only part that kind of drives us batty and makes us want to give up sometimes. But when we achieve that, especially live, we make it sound 10 feet tall. I think that’s something we’re good at that.

A lot of bands put things on DAT or on tape or sample or cheating it, you hear it. I am not a purist at all, I just hear it when I am in a crowd watching a band play with loops and things, it just feels cold. The feeling is cold and I don’t throw myself into the music as much, because I feel some part of it is synthetic and it’s just a hint of it. It’s like making out with a girl with breast implants, it’s just like something doesn’t feel real here. It’s like it looks good, I guess? It just doesn’t feel right. We try to really to keep that rule, and we’ve almost come really close a couple of times to giving up and putting things on tape. Especially when we record a record, we put on so many overdubs and you get fixated, ‘Are we going to have this little thing or that little thing?’ All the little icing on the cake which really doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, as long as you find the skeleton of the song and stomp the seed as loud as you can, if you can find the skeleton, that’s the trick. Man, I just gave away the trick.

Beat The Devil’s Tattoo is out now. BRMC play April 8 and April 9 at Webster Hall in NYC.