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Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Wednesday 13th November, 2013 8:49AM

San Franciscan rock 'n rollers Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, released their seventh studio album (their first in three years, since 2010's Beat the Dragon's Tattoo) earlier this year. Called Specter at the Feast, the title is taken from Shakespeare's Macbeth, and alludes to the spirit in which the songs were written: they're about tragedy (Robert Been's father and frontman of band The Call died directly preceeding the writing process) and finding a way to rise up out of it. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are heading to New Zealand next week for two shows, and UnderTheRadar caught up with Robert Been to discuss this difficult time in the band's history, how it feels to have publicly released an album about such personal subject matter and, whatever happened to our rock 'n roll'.

Hey Robert, how are you?

I’m good thank you, how are you?

Good thanks, what are you up to at the moment.

We’re working on this film score right now, which we’re trying to finish up before we have to get on a plane to come and see you guys. It’s a bit of a panic for us at the moment, trying to get everything in order before we leave.

How is it going? This is the first time you’ve worked on a film score right?

Yeah, it’s not all set and done so we don’t want to jinx it, but it’s something we’ve always wanted to do as well as make records but we’ve never really had the time. I mean we still don’t really have the time but we’re forcing it to work one way or another. It’s something we’ve always had a passion for so it’s worth a shot.

Totally, because the songwriting approach must be quite different when there’s a visual accompaniment to bear in mind right?

Yeah, it’s a completely different animal, there’s all different kinds of rules so it’s learning which ones you can break and which ones you can’t I guess. The best way to describe it is that when we write our own songs we’re trying to bring the whole world into that and get whatever we can possibly get out of us. With this, rather than it being the whole world, everything comes down to these microscopic parts - like staring at a grain of sand and really getting into the detail. Everything is magnified in a film score and so it’s the exact opposite of banging out rock song one note change can change everything, whereas on our record or in a show no-one tends to notice, everyone’s waiting for the chorus haha…so they’re quite different worlds.

Speaking of your albums, you released Specter at the Feast earlier this year. In the interviews I’ve been reading you mentioned that you wanted to approach this record in an entirely new way. How did you go about that?

I think we all just wanted a clean slate and so we threw out any old idea we had an started from scratch, and it was necessary. We just started playing with sounds and jamming out extremely free-form ideas: there was no talk of arrangements or songs, it would just be eight hours of instrumental soundscapes. It was a really good way of processing everything. After a long period of time we started shaping songs out of those experiences, and we’d never done it that way, so it was different for us. It always felt like the skeleton was there from the beginning which is the most important part because everything else just adheres to that. We had the spirit of it and we just had to keep holding on to that. It was a little nervewracking too of course, but we knew where we were headed from the start.

There’s a reference to Shakespeare's Macbeth in the title and in the artwork. Why did you decide to reference Macbeth and how does it relate to the album?

Around the time we were finishing the record Peter (Hayes) and I saw this play in New York called Sleep No More that was based on Macbeth, and it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It was a very unique way of telling a story and it changed everything about the way you receive things. The whole play took place on four different levels of an old, abandoned hotel and you’d wander through these different rooms and some would be empty and some would have characters acting out a scene, but you would just drift through wearing this mask, and you just get to take part in the story wherever you felt like. It was powerful in the same way that you hear that amazing album that affects your approach to writing music – it made us see things in a different light.

I started digging into Macbeth more and found that Sleep No More was a chapter in Macbeth and 'Shadowplay' by Joy Division was based on Shakespeare and so we kind of just ripped it off because it felt like we were in good company haha...but the record does have a shadow hanging over it that we haven’t been afraid of acknowledging, because it would be silly to try and ignore the road that it took to get to this place. We’ve just embraced it in a way and let it have a place.

Speaking of the shadow that hangs over the album, it must have been an emotionally difficult to put it out there. Is it hard to have something so personally emotional in the public sphere?

It was just hard during the writing process because we weren’t really ready to talk about some of those things, and didn’t think we had a right to - it was too hard to see the woods for the trees sometimes. A lot of the record isn’t actually about the loss we experienced, a lot of the songs are about fighting against that instead and toward something else and something new to hold on to. It was only two or three songs that were written personally about it whereas the rest were fighting against the feeling and pushing towards a new way out. That’s kind of what the record feels like: it’s got some warmth to it because it’s the fight through it, rather than being too literal about the time which would have felt like we were stuck in that moment. It shows a way out, at least for us, on to the next one.

Speaking of imbuing rock ‘n’ roll with meaning and profundity: in interviews you talk a lot about the fact that rock ‘n’ roll has a great history of being socially and politically important but that that is not the case anymore. Do you have an opinion as to why that has changed?

Well the word doesn’t really mean anything anymore for a start. Everyone’s a “rock" star these days from Jay Z to Britney Spears to Queens of the Stone Age. The only thing I’ve noticed that hasn’t been touched is the “roll” part of it – they’ll call major artists “rock” stars but they usually leave off the “roll”. So that’s the only thing we’ve got any claim to anymore, is just keeping the “roll” alive. But there might just be something too that, that all the good stuff - the darker, more psychedelic, sexual and rebellious part – if it does still exist, it’s somehow in “roll”. It's definitely not in the “rock” part anymore because that has been destroyed.

There are still a lot of kids out there looking for something different and something that speaks to them. Hopefully we try to speak to something a little more conscious than a lot of entertainment. But I’ve noticed in popular culture that people don’t like talking honestly - it’s so much about entertaining people and not about bringing them down, enlightening them or having any kind of serious thought or agenda or statement. It’s like consumer culture has taken over everything. That was kind of a rant of a thought but I hope it kind of explains it.

Yeah it is interesting because in the past a lot of the artists that became popular still came from and were talking about socially or politically profound movements, even though they were also the major entertainment of the day, too. It does seem like today we separate out entertaining work and “important” work a lot more often. How has your outlook on the band and rock ‘n’ roll as a movement and as an industry changed?

Yeah…this is a really good conversation to have and I’m trying to tame my thoughts into something that can be put into a sentence…hmmm. As you get older you start realising the weight and toll and things, and you start learning too much and knowing too much. You learn how fragile things are and how much they can mean to certain people, and that responsibility can slow you down and make you second guess things. I’m definitely fighting between that world, and one where I can be completely free in what I'm creating, a lot. I donno, there’s something good in here about this topic but I just can’t get to it…what am I trying to say…I guess it comes down to the fact that your output is a reflection of wherever you’re at at the time: where are you at, how old you are, what you believe in. You're not necessarily more right than you were a couple of years ago, or less right than you will be in two more years. Music and art is supposed to change and evolve over time, and there’s not supposed to be one way of experiencing things and you shouldn’t try to box it when keeping it out of the box is the best thing about music in the first place. But, today, I think we package music into boxes and create rules and it seems very against the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll in the first place.