Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club:
It’s Better Than Wiping Asses
With a distinctive sound that draws from shoegaze and garage rock, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has spent 20 years building a sizable fan base. The band’s eighth album, Wrong Creatures, was released in January and charted in at least eight countries worldwide. In February, the group – bassist Robert Been, guitarist Peter Hayes, and drummer Leah Shapiro – began a worldwide tour in support of the new album; the festival-heavy schedule includes a prime spot at the Shaky Knees Festival.
Ahead of the tour, Robert took a few moments to reflect on the band’s history, the lengthy gestation of Wrong Creatures, the legacy of his late father (The Call’s Michael Been), and the advantages that being in a rock band has over marriage and/or parenting.
Not counting 2015’s Live in Paris, there was a nearly five-year gap between the release of Specter at the Feast and Wrong Creatures. Leah Shapiro had some serious medical stuff going on; does that account for all the time in between?
“As easy as it would be to blame her for everything, I must admit she was not the only one at fault for that amount of time between albums. We were going through a lot of hard life stuff. I had some personal things. Every album, something veers its head, but this one kind of kept knocking us down; brain surgery was the least of the worries, ironically. It’s like every other album: it almost kills us, then somehow we still never learn; everyone blames everyone else. It’s a rock band, and we fall into pretty much every cliché that comes about.
“But at the same time, all of us know what we have, and we know what we’ve earned with the fans of the music. They don’t come and go. And that means they will show up for the show, and they will buy whatever nonsense we put out. So there’s a big responsibility to avoid nonsense. And whether that takes two months, two years, five years or ten years, we’d rather let it find its way, stay off the clock, and stay out of your ass and all the places that one gets lost. And with any luck there is something of use and something needed at the end of the day.
“There are some songs on the album that were done in four weeks, and other ones that took four years. I don’t know if one is better than the other just because one took longer; music doesn’t really abide by time.”
All but two of the tracks on Wrong Creatures were produced by the band with Nick Launay. How did his involvement color the ultimate character of the album?
“Is that what [the liner notes] say?”
Yeah, it says that “Little Thing Gone Wild” and “All Rise” were produced by the band, and the other ten were produced by the band with Launay…
“Oh, I haven’t read it. It was all a blur. Memory…I’m sure everyone’s got a different one.
“We’ve known Nick forever, and respected his work for a long time. I like his personality a lot because he’s a very sweet person and he has a good sensibility. So if I played something, I’d probably listen to his opinion over someone else’s.
“We did a lot of writing – a lot of the work – before he was officially [involved], before he heard anything, before he showed up. It was right around when we were deciding where to record it that we thought it would be wise to have someone help us: a sounding board to bounce stuff off, tell us which songs drag on, tell us which ones could use a lift here, maybe decide on cutting one or adding one.
“We were a little defensive at first, with this new person that’s coming into a pretty intimate family. And then later on I started noticing more of his involvement, mostly when we got to tracking drums. He was helpful picking out different sections from the performances that worked, fixing tapes to kind of build something. That lifted the songs in a good way.
“And then by the time of mixing, we were all kind of exhausted, debating mixing it ourselves or letting him do it and ‘be Switzerland,’ so that then we would come in and get a little say over it. Fighting about it once a week; it was kind of that experience. That’s how it went down.”
What initially drew you to the bass guitar?
“Laziness, sheer laziness. Because four strings seemed so much simpler than six. If it could have been three strings, I would have done that. I didn’t know you could take one off; I would have started there.
“I didn’t want to work. I didn’t want to have to do something that was going to feel like work. Bass was the one thing that was fun and didn’t take any time. I could be a part of the music without trying. It was five years later that I finally picked up a guitar and reluctantly learned those last two strings.
Your dad was very close to the band. Can you tell me about some of the lasting ways in which his influence continues to be felt?
“He was less hands-on. He usually just came in when we were about to kill each other; he would remind us in a good way what matters, what doesn’t matter. Simple things. Like a coach or a referee, he’d help keep us psychologically sound. Getting a little bit of assurance now and then – and a little bit of criticism – helps when it doesn’t come from the band members themselves.
“The hardest thing with losing him was that I had to start being Pete’s cheerleader, and Pete needed to be my cheerleader. Because we didn’t have an outside person saying anything good – or bad – about what we were doing.
“Even from the beginning, one of the things that I remember him saying offhand was something about dressing in all black: ‘A band should look like their music: timeless.’ And, ‘stay out of the way of your own music.’ There was something about that that both me and Pete thought, ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense.’ To be a blank slate so that the music can fill in the gap for people.
“The irony being that once we came out in all black, in uniform leather jackets, so many other bands did it that it almost became distracting. So it all just backfired in the end anyway. The blank slate became an even bigger page for people to write about the image of the band [instead of] the music.
“I don’t know if it was the fashion, or just the ridiculous length and hubristic nature of the name of the band itself, or a combination of the two. But people liked talking about every goddamn thing other than the music.”
Speaking of the music, your first album came out almost 17 years ago. You were in your early 20s then. Do you still feel a connection to the words that you wrote nearly half a lifetime ago?
“It changes over time. There are moments when I think, ‘Wow, I was a lot deeper than I thought I was,’ or a lot more connected to something. It was like some sort of electric but conscious vibration that was like closing your eyes, driving blind and somehow arriving at your destination.
“And then there are other songs that are the exact opposite: ‘What the fuck were you thinking?’ Like driving blind straight into the back of a dump truck. But it’s all part of it. I don’t regret any of it. Each song taught me something.
“I tend to write in the abstract, painting pictures in the mind. And people can put themselves in the picture. I pull from whatever well is giving me the most at the time. Pete’s a little different; we’re very opposite in our process and personalities. Pete’s more grounded, and a little more of a storyteller mixed with poetic [sense].”
The band’s been together 20 years now. What motivates you to keep doing it?
“I hate to use the marriage analogy too much, but there are so many similarities. You find out so much more about yourself through the one you’re with, or the people you’re with. Through sickness and health, through good and bad, when you have no other choice, when the options are taken off the table, your experiences become very different.
“When you get to the point of, ‘I want to kill you right now,’ or ‘I never want to see your face again,’ you know, there are these exigent emotions. And then there’s the exact opposite when you’re able to work through it; there’s a weight to that that keeps you grounded. And besides those relationships that last through the thick and thin, there are not very many other things in the world that can do that.
“And what’s even better about a band than a marriage is that you wind up with a bunch of fucking kickass rocking songs versus a bunch of ungrateful little bastards everywhere, throwing their toys around and being obnoxious. It’s a much better by-product, in my opinion, than having to wipe asses for years. Not that you don’t pretty much have to do that in a rock band.”
Photo by Tessa Angus.