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Features > Interviews > BRMC >

September 8, 2005
Robert Doesn't Want to Get Too Heavy On Us Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
By Michelle Gilzenrat

Black Rebel Motorcycle Clubís Robert Levon Been spoke eloquently and candidly with Atlanta Music Guide about their latest release, Howl .

Stripped from all the layers of fuzz and distortion that trademarked BRMCís earlier sound, Howl presents the naked soul of BRMC. While critics have been touting the bandís Americana ďdeparture,Ē Howl is a project the band has longed to make for some time. Past B-sides such as ďDown HereĒ and ďAt My DoorĒ hinted at their future direction, but a dark period of turmoil and turnover prevented the band from focusing their efforts.

What changed that allowed you to create this record?
A lot of things happened. We worked really hard to get off of Virgin Records so that we could make this record. Not that they wouldnít let us make it. They probably would of said yes, but then not released it...

When we were making [ Howl ], we made up our minds that we wouldnít sign another deal until we finished the album just so there wouldnít be any other cooks in the kitchen.

And, emotionally, we didnít have a deal or drummer, or anyone even asking us to make the record. So, we had to make it for ourselves, not expecting anyone to like it. We had to like it before anyone else, and that was the most important thing. The best things come from that because if you arenít happy with your self first, with what your doing, I canít see how anyone else can really understand what place youíre coming from. They won't know why you are doing it if you donít enjoy it, if you arenít in love with the sound youíre making.

The new sound is a lot cleaner. Do you feel like it allows your message to be communicated more effectively?
That seems to be the consensusÖ

Was that the intention of recording in a new style?
No. I mean, we always knew what we were saying. We always knew where it came from and it meant a lot to us. The only difference I guess is, yeah, people are hearing it now and maybe itís making more sense. Theyíre hearing it clearer. The songs are same in that there was always same weight behind them. Thereís always same kind of personal things. I feel like we arenít very far from where we began, but people are catching up which is cool.

In the past Iíve always been impressed by your relentless tour schedule. How does touring inspire or complicate songwriting?
Itís funny because it seemed like it helped in the beginningÖI think after our first record came out the best feeling was to be on the road and traveling around and writing songs as a band. And kind of like, forced to be together at all times and forced to focus and get better at our instruments, get better at singing.

We wrote pretty much our entire second record from inspired moments live. You can trick your mind into thinking thatís whatís needed, but I think itís also important to come down off that high, and kind of close the doors and look around a bit more at life. Being inside your own head with everything pouring out of you...it can be draining, for lack of a better word, or a more extreme word. We kind of burned out after a little bit of doing that too much. Itís dangerous to stay in that world all the time

When Nick left, did you ever consider finding a replacement?
We didnít want to have to ask ourselves that. We put off the question. We wanted to finish the record and figured weíd worry about it later, and thankfully we didnít have to worry about it. Right before we finished it he wanted to come back, and we talked about it and it was cool We didnít have to ask ourselves that, and I still donít. Itís kind of like, what if your parents die? What do you do then? You donít want to have to ask yourself thatÖ Or your cat. Thatís a little less depressing. What if your cat dies? That kind of question. I donít want to get too heavy on you.

Despite being a primarily acoustic record, Howl has a soulful, powerful sound. How was that achieved?
We were really worried that it would just become an acoustic album in peopleís minds. And so, our biggest thing was to try and turn that around. We wanted to do what was right for the song and not go too far on production.

We had a couple of rules...donít put anything on it unless it's actually needed. Donít just put on bass because thatís what you're supposed to do. Donít add a drum kit just because it needs rhythm. Actually, find new ways of getting the same idea across. Like, banging your foot on a picnic table could get you a kick drum sound or a group of people clapping their hands for a snare drum sound. Instead of bass, just have four, five, or six low octave vocals all humming, like a chant almost, to give you that low-end body of the song.

Basically it was all tricks to make it sound like you are getting what you wanted, but you are just getting it from somewhere else.

The challenge then is how do you create that sound live when you can't, for example, kick a picnic table...or maybe you do?
Yeah, haha, like the Blue Man Group all over again. No, we stripped it down more so itís like we are turning the strange sounds back into normal sounds. But for other things, it involves learning piano, slide guitar, harmonica, trombone...learning them well enough to play it live.

Are you really going to be playing trombone live?
Yeah, Peter plays it. We both play it. We both took it in high school...haha...our dorky high school days.

When you've got such different sounds on each record, how do you create a setlist that flows seamlessly?
Thatís been up for debate for a while. Weíre still experimenting. We are doing it different every night so far. The next thing I want to try is starting the show off completely acoustic, maybe just Peter playing on stage a couple song on his own. Then, slowly, we start coming on stage and slowing the sound keeps building where it becomes more electric and more driving...Not really caring what album it came from as much as the nature of songs building..I havenít seen a show done like that for a while. I don't know, by the time we get to Atlanta we might be doing something completely different.

Changing gears a bit... Talk about your video for "Ain't No Easy Way." Why in Kiev? Why a brothel?
(laughing) Well, we thought the perfect place to make a video for an Americana album was Kiev. I donít know, we were in England doing a tour, and we needed a video for that, we were told, and we always wanted to go to Russia and itís always been too expensive to tour there. We pretended that we had to shoot it there.

Once you end up going to almost every place in the world that youíve ever dreamed of going, itís like, why not stick it out and go to every place. Its our own personal mission of trying to put our fingerprint on every last country in the world, or every last place we wanted to go. That was always a big one for us.

Ride has always been listed as one of your early influences, and now you've got Mark Gardner (ex-Ride frontman) opening for you on this tour. How did that work out?
We played a show at the London Forum together a while ago and weíve always been a big fan of that band. We actually learned "Leave Them All Behind, "and we played it with him. That was kind of the highlight of the night. And that song one of my favorite songs of theirs. We invited him out on this tour because when he comes to America he can only afford to play New York and L.A. it seems. So people spread around the country who can't probably get to the L.A. or New York shows can check him out.

Back in the day there were accounts of run-ins with Hell's Angels who wanted to challenge this new "motorcycle club." Four years down the road, does this still happen? Well, we havenít toured America for a long time...it seems like the last couple times we toured through weíd run into most of the motorcycle clubs in the main cities. We've kind of gone through and had whatever resolution and understanding after that. I feel like weíve done the work. Most of the time one person from a gang drives by and sees a marquee, its really strange how it happens, and they call down all their guys.

It doesnít matter though...all we have to do is explain that we arenít trying to be a real motorcycle club. Weíre just a band. When we explain that thereís no harm, no foul, we just have a drink with them...you get more fans that way.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club will be performing at The Loft w/ Mark Gardner on Sept. 30. Advance tickets are on sale now from www.ticketalternative.com

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