Photo courtesy of DAMNED UGLY PHOTOGRAPHY
BY JAMES M. DAVIS We had a chance to talk with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club bassist/vocalist Robert Been ahead of BRMC’s upcoming show Death From Above 1979 at the Fillmore on Nov. 7. BRMC was formed in the late 90’s when guitarist Peter Hayes, fresh off being fired from Brian Jonestown Massacre (as documented in Dig!) joined forces with Robert Been [pictured, above right], son of The Call frontman Michael Been. They unleashed a formidable aural assault with their first album B.R.M.C., following muscular/mystical 70’s acts like Zeppelin, while also drawing surreptitiously from the well of more contemporary groups like Oasis or The Verve. Since then they’ve been waving the banner of Rock and Roll as the less well-tempered acts from that time have fallen into the dust. Recently they have been featured in T. Bone Burnett’s True Detective soundtrack alongside stately Americana songwriters like Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt. Although BRMC’s last few albums have not been as well received as their first few, as a live act they still have a lot of gas in the tank. Hail, hail rock n’ roll.
PHAWKER: When Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was first coming up in the early 2000s there was a lot of rock music. Rock music was really happening in a way that it doesn’t seem like it is now. Do you have any insight to why that time had so much good rock music?
ROBERT BEEN: Well, at the time it did not really feel like it was the most popular thing. In that moment it felt like it was kind of the pushback against [the dominant culture]. This kind of feeling that there’s no voice or no feeling. Just kind of being sad that there’s no song that’s connecting with me or my friends or anyone that I knew. And it felt like [we were] just a small ship in a big storm. Not just our band but anything that was kind of like that. And now it feels the same but you just kind of realize that even though we thought we had it bad back then we didn’t have it as bad as it is now. So it’s just the perspective of ‘who knew it could even get worse?’
PHAWKER: Yeah but for a while there, I mean, it was good. . .
ROBERT BEEN: Yeah, I remember talking to some folk like magazine editors some people like that who were almost trying to kind of. . . market it as that, kind of feeding on the idea of something on the horizon. And that was where a lot of it came from, and it kind of fed itself, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. And a lot of the time I think that’s the way things happen. With any scene there’s a lot of hype that always goes around with it of people believing in it, but when you get right down to it there’s only one or two things in it of any significance and they’re not even making it on the commercial radar much. It’s when people believe it that kind of makes it what it is. The kind of other side of the coin that is what people want is hope, some kind of spirit everyone can kind of get a little drunk on. That’s rock and roll, that’s why it has this kind of sort of mystery around it because it certainly isn’t selling records, ’cause if it is then it’s Coldplay or U2 or whatever and no one wants anything to do with that. It’s a promise of something to at least wanna hope for.
PHAWKER: And do you think part of that hope is that an authentic act or an authentic voice can cut through the noise?
ROBERT BEEN: Yeah, I mean, I think any time you look at like a leader or a martyr, you know, a political person you’re kind of hoping one person can kind of bring forward something, that can kind focus everything down to a single focus or a single punch. But it’s usually a last desperate act of a desperate man, [laughs] or a desperate band. But, I don’t, that’s kind of more you guys’ world to figure all that stuff out. And then the band or the musicians are kind of the face of those things. You can only do what you do and hopefully not get swallowed up by the enormity of what it could mean if you got it right.
PHAWKER: Has that been a struggle to retain that kind of desperate man making a desperate act thing because of your success and career?
ROBERT BEEN: Well. . . yes and no. We’ve had it a lot easier than a lot of bands. A lot of people I know now are kind of still trying to get things going. A lot of great bands, and a lot of great people. But it kind of takes more than great music now. Which is really fucking depressing. But to catch that spirit and to catch that energy of whatever that is I think that’s what people are really hungry for, especially now that people can make music in their bedroom and whatnot, and you’re just kind of inundated with things. Were all a little more aware now more than ever that it’s about a little more than just making another album. These days everyone has a thousand records on their hard drive that they’ve downloaded that are good that they’re maybe going to listen to. I’m probably waxing too philosophical right now. What was maybe the more to the point question?
PHAWKER: Well I guess I was asking about artistic value versus what the label or promotion wants. The side where you do have to sell records.
ROBERT BEEN: Yeah, I was really glad I didn’t know about any of this shit when we started, dumb luck you know for the first couple records. We dodged some bullets. We got to put out some good music and do it our way they way we wanted, produced it ourselves. We didn’t have to cash it at every corner. You know before we panicked or before we were in a place where we had to sell off the farm to survive. And I think that’s a noble thing, I love to see bands when they can it makes me really disappointed when they don’t have to when they have tons of money and they just do it anyway, that shit pisses me off. But the ones kind of fighting for that spirit, who can, it’s a fight worth starting.
PHAWKER: Do you wanna plug any bands in particular?
ROBERT BEEN: There’s a band, uh, called The Vacant Lots, kind of a two piece, Suicide kind of vibe, but they’re doing a lot more than just that on their record they’re working on now. They’re giving me kind of some hope. Fat White Family, really fucking like, like nobody else. . . those are the kind of things I think, I feel like definitely helps to get out of bed in the morning. The few things you have that help you go “fuck it what’s one more day.” Another round!
PHAWKER: You’re dad was Robert Been the leader of the New Wave band The Call who had a bit of stardom in the early days of MTV. What was the best piece of advice he ever gave you about being in a rock n’ roll band?
ROBERT BEEN: I guess more than anything it was getting to grow up from the first memory of him screaming, running around the house bitching about the record company, giving everything to this thing he loved doing, and it was music, and I just grew up with that just being a normal job the same way you grow up with your dad being a plumber or a lawyer or a doctor. So I got to grow up with the notion of a career in music being a reality as opposed to what a lot of people get growing up, where maybe you should cash out fast because it’s gonna come and go and it’s gonna be about one or two records so just drink your hardest and fuck around your hardest and make music your hardest and burn yourself out. That’s what I see a lot of people kind of use music as and I was lucky that I kind of got to see that you can use it for more than that just one moment. And it’s hard, and it’s horrible. It’s a life of really fuckin a lot of disappointments but as long as it’s something you love, and I fell in love with it. I was like OK, I’m on board for the horror.
PHAWKER: OK, well one last question here: if your house was burning down and you could only save one record from the flames, what would it be?
ROBERT BEEN: Oh Jeez. [long pause] It would have to be London Calling. It’s the first record I have any memory of as like a little little kid. My Dad played it all the time and it’s literally one of the first things my brain remembers is just seeing that cover and staring at it. And then forever later realizing it was a copy of the Elvis cover. It just. . . something about that. I mean musically of course it’s a perfect record but just mostly because of its being my first memory. So it’s like a baby’s toy. [laughs] I would grab my baby toy and head out.