Interview: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Robert Levon Been
May 10, 2007 02:32 PM
By Tara Hall
After nearly a decade of working together under the guise Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, this California trio is preparing to launch a national tour in support of its fourth studio album, "Baby 81."
This latest work is a bold development of indie rock, one that explores a greater range than the group's past records. LiveDaily caught up with guitarist/bassist/vocalist Robert Levon Been (a.k.a. Robert Turner) to talk about fireworks, songwriting, and the group's longest track.
LiveDaily: ""Do you get nervous when you're anticipating the release of a new album?
Robert Levon Been: It's that kind of good nervousness where you don't know if it's going to do really well or really terribly, so you have this eager anticipation. I guess it's mixed, like nervousness and excitement mixed together. It's a really good period of time; it's a lot better than after it's out. I like that sense of questioning. Even if it does really well, I still like this time better.
There's a definite progression from one album to the next. Is this natural, based on the way the group moves and evolves?
I feel like we're guided by the songs themselves and what's right for those songs at the time. If it turns out to be a rock record, that's just what it's supposed to be. We're not as concerned about the genre or overall thing. I think, when we started, we didn't really know what we were doing; we were just writing songs more separately--me and Peter--on acoustic guitars because that's the only way we knew how to write, and that was kind of the way we heard other people write, so it seemed like it made sense. Then, when we got with Nick, you realize there's this whole other thing that happens where you can write songs with the band, and those usually take on a life of their own which you have no control over because it's just the sound that's made up with the three people in the room that day. I think the second record was that--was more as a band--and then "Howl" was a little bit more of a conscious effort to go back to how we'd written songs on acoustic guitar. We had so many songs that were country, folk, kind of bluesy songs that didn't work as a whole band playing them, so we had to do what was right for the song itself and construct it for that sound. And then Nick came back around with the band, and that's when it made sense to go more full-on and the songs led the way again so ... I'd like to take credit for it, but you do what's right for the song itself and, at the end of the day, you look at all of them and go, "Okay, I guess that's a record."
Tell me about the song "America X." I read somewhere that it's the longest song you guys have recorded (just over nine minutes). How did that song turn out so much longer than the rest?
It was our fault. We just kept playing because it kept sounding good. It didn't sound like it wanted to stop. Most of the time, we're really conscious of that. We don't want to bore anybody, including ourselves, and we're bored pretty easily. We've been rehearsing this week as well, getting songs ready for live, and even rehearsing it over and over live, Nick was like, "It feels like it ends abruptly, like it should even be longer," and we were just laughing because it's like ... it has this weird quality to the song where you don't want it to stop. I think, around nine minutes, it's good to bow out gracefully when you're still welcome. It's a strange thing. I don't know why it works with that one. Lyrically, the meaning of the song was a whole different thing with what became this really old, political rant which I didn't totally plan for. This kind of song was first written about something else, and kept growing into that, so we couldn't really say no.
I like how you referred to it like it's a person with feelings when you said, "It just doesn't want to end yet." I can't imagine how that works.
It's like a lucid dream. When you start writing a song and you feel like you're talking in tongues a little bit, like you're just speaking out of this lucid place in your mind. It's like when you have a dream and you don't really know you're guiding the dream and it's coming from you but while it's happening, it doesn't feel like it is. The thing is, with writing, being awake during it is the tricky part. You feel like you're only seeing glimpses of it, and the words come and leave just as quickly as you catch them, and so you only get part of the song, you only get, like, a quarter of it or half of it, if you're lucky. And the rest of it, you have this choice like, "OK, I'm awake and do I write it the way my conscious mind wants it to finish, in a very literal sense, or do [I] try and leave it with all the doors open, the same way it came?" That's usually how it is, and sometimes you can really mess up a song by putting yourself in it too much, by making it too literal. As soon as you go there, you can lose your way, because maybe the song actually wasn't meant to end like that. It's almost like the ego steps in, and the mind and the intellect, if it's smart enough to finish it.
So what comes first for you personally: the music or the lyrics?
For me, it's the music. I think it takes a completely different kind of songwriter than I am to write the lyrics from the beginning. I have a lot of respect for people who do that, I just don't know how. I actually took a song apart recently and rebuilt it with different chords around it. As soon as I did that, the music itself had this whole different power that was pulling the song lyrics in another direction. I was in awe of the fact that the music could do that; the music changed the words that were coming out of my mouth. It changed the tone of it. The song started becoming very intimate and very heartfelt, and then, as soon as I changed it back to these other chords, it had a totally different feeling. Just in themselves, the words became really aggressive and really jagged. That was only recently that I figured that out. I kind of thought the music was subservient to the lyrics, but it's kind of the other way around. The music will take you exactly where it wants to go.
What do you three do for fun when you're riding from town to town?
Fireworks. I think that's one of the things we use to entertain ourselves. We just loaded up on a bunch of fireworks for this tour, so we usually leave a trail of dust and smoke wherever we leave. There's not really any time between shows except for after the gig, and you can either get into serious trouble or goofy trouble, and we try and just get into goofy trouble. Misdemeanors over felonies are always better.