SF in the UK. An American Band.
by Matthew Dyson
Tuesday 5th February, London
There is a ten foot marble man levitating on his side. There are Jimi Hendrix paintings on the wall. A hotel reception desk. A bistro and cathedral-sized foyer. All of it is drowning under neon blue light, doing nothing to calm the red faced business men in the Cumberland Hotel, pacing around, babbling into their blue tooth devices. It’s taking its toll as I stare at the revolving door, waiting to talk with two thirds of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club about music, death, hope and the most difficult album of their fifteen year career.
It doesn’t help when I look away for a second only to find Robert Been, replete with shades striding towards me like the Terminator. He doesn’t spot me and veers to the left. Their PR makes chase and drummer, Leah Shapiro shrugs and smiles. We round up and slump into the coffee bar. Rob still has his shades on and hasn’t touched his shortbread biscuit. Leah is curled up, pulling a coat over her.
I take it doing press is a drag?
Robert smirks, ” It’s a little strange but it’s good that people are interested. You’re doing 18 interviews from 7 to 7 and you can bitch about it or just accept it..but yeah , I’d rather be somewhere else….”
“Don’t worry. We’re talking of doing interviews from the beach next time.”
Leah perks up, “You guys would probably enjoy that too. I guess it’s just unusual to sit and talk. Especially for me as I play drums and don’t talk that much.”
You can communicate through drums and just tap out an answer.
“Yeah maybe next time around I’ll give that a go and see if that works.”
I look at our camera man and shoot a glance at Rob to see if he’s started to self harm but he’s laughing. Alright, he’s not doubled over but with the big, black elephant currently filling this room, it is a good sign.
“There’s stories behind the recording that I want I want to tell”, he says.
I hear that it was tough, I offer pathetically, waiting for the jab. But like he said, he’s got a story that he wants to tell.
“Yeah, absolutely. By a long shot. We, all of us suffered a loss at the end of the last tour when my father (Michael Been) passed away. So we were trying to move forward with that. And it’s not always something you can control.”
Leah, is sat up and we’re both listening.
“…My father had been with us on the road and had always been a really important part of the band and a great sounding board.Whenever we tried something out he would give us the bad news or the good news. So not having that meant we had to develop a lot of confidence…”
In yourselves as a band?
“In our own ability and our communication. That was the hardest part, knowing how to speak to each other and decipher the mangled sounds we were making with our mouths and it took a long time. This record’s the first attempt in an experiment. It felt like we were learning to walk.”
And have you?
“I’m still learning. I don’t feel at all any peace of mind or any of that shit. We just barely made it by the skin of our teeth.”
He’s looking straight at me. That Terminator stare again.
“But the good thing is I feel really proud of this record and taking that extra time and effort with the words, we did it together without any confidence or knowing we were going to make it. So it is a good reminder that it is worth fighting for. It was one of the more important records for me .Even if the songs sounded sort of shitty.”
Of course, they don’t. Specter at the feast might have been two torturous years in the making but if they were learning to walk, it sounds like they also picked up a couple of extra back flips along the way. Things seems to have been helped by the unusual recording process.
So what’s this I hear about a post office?
They both snicker like kids recalling the time they broke into an abandoned cinema.
“Yeah we did two months back in my home town if Santa Cruz'”, says Rob, “and its a pretty isolated place, the old Boulder Creek post office which eh … a friend of ours converted into a studio. I remember when it was a functional post office when I was little and went there with my mom and delivered things. It’s a different kind of space and mostly it was good as it allowed us to go in, lock the doors and turn up loud and kind of forget about everything. It was good for creativity. Rather than a regular studio where your on the clock and it feels like a business. ”
Was there less pressure?
“Definitely”, explains Leah, ” We did the drums and core stuff at Dave Grohl’s studio which was in LA but once you get into the building of all the layers and guitar textures it can take time. So it’s best not to be in a really expensive studio.”
Rob picks it up.
“He was making a documentary about Sound City and the history of the desk there. This Neve console. And we did our first album on that. He was making a documentary of all the people who recorded on that, Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine, Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac. And he just said as soon as you want to do your new stuff just come in … at a slightly better price than you’d normally get I guess … but yeah time is money … we still got to pay it off…”
Surely Dave Grohl won’t mind?
“It’s not keeping me awake at night.”
So back to the post office, tell me about these guitar textures?
“Erm Peter likes the process of locking himself away and he’ll stay up for days making these really intricate sounds and textures . More than just guitars. He’s kind of an artist of textures.”
Would you go in the morning and see what he’d come up with?
“Yep , exactly”, says Leah, “we’d check in every few days and see what was going on down there.It’s fun to walk away and come back to see what what the hell happened.It’s always a nice surprise , right Rob?”
“It’s not always a nice surprise. Sometimes it’s World War III but most of the time it’s fucking great.”
I hear a lot of Spacemen 3 and Spiritualised. Was that intentional, as I always think of their records as being cathartic blankets of noise?
Rob nods, “yeah, we took a couple of cues from Spiritualised with developing and cross fading songs into one another. We do that a few times. Just creating a record you can move with from start to finish rather than this singles and download mentality.”
“Yeah”, agrees Leah,”it will always be good to make records that feel like a journey.”
You don’t get that much with music these days. Unless a journey is a flick of phone screen.
“Its great that there’s so much music available and you can rediscover stuff but it also gets a bit confusing. The attention span is really short and that’s a shame as I get the impression there isn’t that patience anymore.”
So how do you feel you fit into that?
Rob chips in, “I’ve never felt like we’ve fit in at any time or place and actually here when we first came to play it was especially that way. I remember being at the NME or Q and them trying to make a scene of the Strokes, the White Stripes and us. and, erm, pretty quickly people realizing we weren’t going to fit, at least with that and … but we never really asked to be in that…”
They forced you together like an awkward musical blind date?
“Yeah…but I dunno it happened before that when we were in San Francisco and we were coming up and there was a local level scene, fighting over playing to the same hundred people but even then it was ‘are you going to be with the cool crowd or struggle on your own?’ but we didn’t fit into that and we actually think it should all be open and music shouldn’t be about being too cool or fascist about it but..”, he sighs,” at the same time no one wants to play with us. We’re like kids in the sandbox, always having to entertain ourselves. And that’s kind of what it feels like and has done for fifteen years.”
Do you feel like survivors with a lot of the bands you mentioned petering out or at least morphing into something else. The Strokes for instance? They sound dreadful now.
Rob scratches his chin.
“I think people are hard on the Strokes because they are a good band and are great musicians but they’re not believing that and hiding behind bells and whistles and tricks, loops and keyboards and effects.So you can tell it is not really them playing as a band and if they weren’t a good band people wouldn’t even get upset about it. You wouldn’t have said they were dreadful. You wouldn’t have even brought it up but the fact remains there’s a good rock n roll band there but you can’t hear it and that’s why it gets under people’s skin and you’re hard on them and not others.”
“But someone made that decision right?”, suggests Leah, ” It didn’t just happen.”
“Well there successful at it.They’re headlining festivals and it is hard not to do something when people are telling you it is good. It is kind of a philosophical debate, you know if it makes people happy why is it so bad…..”
He stops and winces.
“….But maybe people should be that fucking happy.”
Lei shrugs, “it’s just an industry, indifference.”
“I think it’s interesting and goes back to if you can make it more than that, you should as almost anyone can make a go at being just a pop band as entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that. We all have guilty pleasures and its fun to just check out and just escape like fast food music but if the group can actually do more than that, it’s there responsibility to do that and we should be hard on them as there’s not that many of them.”
So what’s BRMCs responsibility? Where are you trying to take us with your music?
“My job is quite simple. It is like firing a bunch of bullets into the crowd. I don’t really know why I’m doing it but it will probably hit somebody sooner or later.”
Do you often feel your too hard on yourself as a band?
“All the time.I just want to have fun.”
Leah agrees, “We’re all super critical of ourselves but that’s something we’ve had to learn. That it’s okay to be positive.”
And are you happiest locked away recording?
“Well Peter and I are kind of opposites”, says Rob, “and that’s why we kind of work. He’s very much the mad scientist in the studio with building sounds and I’m kind of like the opposite where I can’t be in the studio too long before I lose my mind. The thing I get the most joy from are things like remembering the moment when your first picking up a guitar or first jam out with the band, when everything lifts and you kind of feel a rush of blood … it’s a mystery to you as it is not coming directly from you. And I guess also that magical night on stage when if finally lives and breathes in the room with you.”
How is it playing live?
Leah , “Well we’ve only done three shows and not the whole record. It is always a challenge as being in a studio you usually forget what you did. It’s hard to make sense of it all.
Fortunately they’re both keen to get back on the road.
“We’re starting in Europe in March and then all over.”
The camera man mentions that they are playing on his birthday.
Rob asks, “Are you hankering for a little shout out?”
I think you should.
“Alright. We actually had a guy propose to his girlfriend at one of our shows. He came back stage. He had it all set up. He was like ‘play the song promise and then during that song I’m going to get down on one knee and propose and if you can say something afterwards … hopefully she’ll say yes’ .”
Rob leans in, “It was actually the most nervous I’ve ever been playing a song.”
Did she say yes?
” Yeah, so that was pretty cool.”, he says relieved.
And you just know that if she didn’t they would beat themselves up about it for weeks. This is a band that still very much cares. About everything. But after 15 years as outsiders, staring into the abyss and coming back on top, it’ll take more than your proposals to phase them. Just don’t expect them to ad lib the best man (or woman) speech.
– Matt Dyson
Specter at the feast is out in March.