The last few years have been a period of change in the confines of the Los Angeles-based group Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
Throwing themselves into the fabled literature that gave life to the wide world of dark Americana, core pairing Robert Levon Been and Peter Hayes welcomed drummer Leah Shapiro to their clan for the recording of 2010’s Beat The Devil’s Tattoo.
Tightened and improved, there was a rawness to the record that echoed their live performance more closely than before.
It was a strained relationship and unproductive output that saw the exit of former drummer Nick Jago in 2008. This far in, would it be fair for outsiders to see Shapiro’s settling being torn between being a mediator and a directional force in her own right?
“The more that Leah, or I guess any member in a band channels and contributes to the music the more the monster comes out. That’s how Peter and I are as well, the more a song becomes a part of you, the more your demons rise up in the process. That’s where all your fire and raw power lies though, and you can use it to either move mountains or cause devastating avalanches.”
A year after Shapiro’s addition, devastation hit the three-piece. Mentor, engineer and father to Levon Been, Michael Been died while on tour with the band in Belgium.
“We’re all proud to be able to carry his music and his words on and be able to pay respect to what he left behind,” Levon Been explains. “I don’t know if you ever completely heal from losing people like that, but you can make something good of the wound.”
Through tragedy, the group pressed on. There is little that could hurt a collective spirit more than the loss of such a close figure, yet they would not be deterred. That would be a failing.
In a touching stroke of normality, the band were able to revitalise the legacy of Michael Been’s band The Call through their own swaggering psychedelic stomp. The Call’s 1989 single “Let The Day Begin” became not only the opening track, but the first single plucked from Black Rebel’s new record.
In March 2013 the band released Specter At The Feast. Though three years had passed since they’d last bunkered down in a studio, space and time had changed little.
“The more time we’ve spent together as a band, living, working, laughing, touring, and killing each other, that’s what makes a band less of a ship in a bottle, and more of a battleship on the war path. I think Leah’s not only had to fight within the band for her rightful place, but she had to prove to a lot fans that she could take the band further, while also keeping an eye on the core of what makes it BRMC.”
[do action=”pullquote”]”The more a song becomes a part of you, the more your demons rise up in the process… You can use it to either move mountains or cause devastating avalanches.”[/do]
“She kind of surprised Peter and I though with what she brought to this album. The first album we recorded with her, I don’t know, maybe she was trying not to step on people’s toes in some way. This time though she put on her steel toed boots and kicked our ass.”
The forces combined that are Levon Been’s searing bass-playing with the sly gloom of Hayes’ guitars, the feed is almost doubled, then halved to share the wares. Levon Been scrapes up and down strings that litter each album are real and inclusive to the sound, while Hayes’s technical precision is unique in that it never overrides.
At times it’s impossible for even a trained ear to split their vocals, though for the helix between them to loop back safely, there’s much more to it. It’s a surely mutual admiration that would otherwise have driven two clashing egos apart.
“There’s such a different way that Peter and I see things,” enlightens Robert. “We are such completely different people in so many ways. But our love for rock ‘n’ roll music and what it is capable of is rooted in the same foundation.
“Over the years it feels like that foundation gets stronger, but at the same time we’ve never been more opposite. It’s a strange mystery to me how it even works, and that’s the only thread I really see.”
With the release of their latest studio album, the evolution of their output has been made clear. From the gorgeous Americana that made up 2005’s Howl, follow up 2007’s Baby 81 was consciously slick, but they’ve not gone there again with album number seven.
They’ve gone back toward the willowy dirge that was the 2001 self-titled debut is the open to the floor. The guitars were still layered but punchy and clear. The songs remained strong, but the production, particularly on Baby 81 leaned too far from the dark side.
Live shows before and after suggest they’d strayed from their natural state. Specter Of The Feast, like its predecessor, holds true to the stark canvass of the stage.
“I’m sure some people think we’ve gone too far, and others don’t think we’ve gone far enough. When I listen to great albums from back in the 60s, 70s, 80s I only listen because the songs are still good, or the musicians that played together on that recording created something magical between them in that moment.” Levon Been reasoned, not without cause.
[do action=”pullquote-2″]“Comfort is for grannies and grandpas. Rock’n’roll is a restless motherfucker.”[/do]
“It’s just good to create something that doesn’t have a specific box or category that it’s supposed to fit in. It’s easy to forget that most of the music created ends up with a relatively clear and controlled marketable intention.
“Not to say that it doesn’t begin as pure inspiration, or a simple honest expression of what’s in someone’s heart, but it rarely ever doesn’t take a turn at some point into having a commercial place and purpose. [Mysterious 2008 online release] The Effects Of 333 was a strange thing that we still can’t even explain to people all that well, and that’s my favourite thing about it.”
Even with such success, the band haven’t forgotten where they came from. Having risen in the early 2000s, a time when out and out rock ’n’ roll bands were in resurgence, the singer acknowledges the struggles the young bands of today are facing.
“The circles you travel in make a difference. There are all these different scenes and trends and magazines that try and adopt you, and use you for their needs.
“It’s like being in high school and being liked by the cool kids. If you’re smart you play along for a while because you’re at a brand new school, and you know that nearly overnight everyone is gonna know your name, but once you’ve made a name for yourself then you don’t need their bullshit anymore.”
He continues, making reference to the difficulties that now exist, “It’s really hard for bands though especially these days. Nobody has any time to listen to new bands. Most people will waste fifty hours watching stupid YouTube video of people falling on their ass, or Rihanna in a new thong. But they can only be bothered to give a new band more than two or three minutes of their precious time.”
Thongs and gimmicks aside, with a squall of micro-scenes banding about for attention there will be new forces to acknowledge. Levon Been sights Canadian folkies Timber Timbre as flag bearers in a time of need while hoping Mississippi act Bass Drum Of Death will add their collective oomph to the fray.
With a measure of success and critical acclaim, the possibility of their time being behind them hasn’t found a direct line to the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
Hats off to their drive. There would be many who’d turn off the lights and ride off into the night, and never make a fuss ever again.
Robert won’t have that , “Comfort is for grannies and grandpas. Rock ‘n’ roll is a restless motherfucker.”
Harvest 2013 Lineup
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Neutral Milk Hotel
Walk Off The Earth
Harvest 2013 Dates, Tickets
Sunday November 10: Melbourne, Werribee Park
Saturday November 16: Sydney, The Domain
Sunday November 17: Brisbane, City Botanic Gardens
TICKETS ON SALE: FRIDAY JULY 12, 2013