Robert Levon Been and Peter Hayes, l’Autre Canal, Nancy, February 2014 – interview: Maud Félus & Alan Van Brackel / pictures: Alan Van Brackel.
They’re in Lille for the end of the Specter At The Feast tour. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (BRMC) took time to answer some of our questions. For timetable reasons, we couldn’t really meet them in Lille before the gig, and we finally do the interview in Nancy, where the American band plays at l’Autre Canal, a bright coloured middle-sized venue near the river. This is another Les Nuits de l’Alligator night. This year the festival has booked BRMC, Kid Karate and Dead Combo. The festival-goers will be there later ; for now we can only see some black-leather jackets and motorcycle boots in front of the venue.
We are now backstage and after a photoshoot with the whole band, the drummer Leah Shapiro stays at first and leaves when Robert Levon Been sits at the table. We finally ask our questions to Peter Hayes and him. They all are tired and a bit sick – the next day they will have to cancel the show in Besançon because of the flu. However, they are very kind and friendly. As usual.
Les Nuits de l’Alligator are a good occasion for BRMC to do a first proper French tour. After Nancy, they still have three gigs to go before heading to a couple of other european countries. We are curious to know their feelings about it.
How did the French tour go so far?
Peter (immediately): It was great. It was pretty fucking amazing! Yeah, full on tour, I feel like we have now toured France, I think. I think we can say that.
Robert: I don’t think there’s anywhere we didn’t go or aren’t going.
Peter: Well there is a bunch of more cities but I don’t know what about them.
Robert: Cities or villages?
They both laugh.
Peter: Maybe both!
They both laugh again. Nothing wrong there, Robert’s questionable humour being part of him as much as his natural curiosity. Curious, they were, about France and the public they could find there.
“Hum, [French fans] are more internal.“, says Rob. “It’s more like some controlled chaos. They are more cerebral. It makes you play better because you are nervous and people are actually watching and paying attention rather than just getting drunk and stumbling all over each other. Although there’s still some French that believe in that.” Peter qualifies what Rob said : “Yeah, they’re great, yeah! There was… There’s a mixture of both. There is a lot of people who mosh pit. You know, people dancing and causing ruckus. it’s great. I think it was every night too. It was appropriate times for all of it.”
Quiet enough during the acoustic songs?
Peter: The majority of the time. Yeah I mean that’s everywhere. There is plenty of people that just don’t want to fucking hear it. (He laughs). You know, they just go talk. That’s fair. (He smiles.) It’s fun to hear people going “Shut the fuck up!”. You hear little whispers of that going through the crowd sometimes and then that makes those people talk louder.
For their fans, they have launched an operation called BRMC guerilla. The idea was for the fans to print posters and receive other printed posters. Then, they would stick them to the walls in cities where BRMC would play, and even in more cities.
It was mainly in France at first and the tourbus was parked in front of poles with BRMC pics on them. The guerilla was however a good occasion for fans from all over the world to play and at the moment we have done the interview, pictures still were arriving. We liked the posters guerilla a lot, so, we wanted to know what the idea behind it was.
Robert: The posters… It was originally a fan in Indonesia that started just making some for fun and Ian sent them over to me and I thought they just had a good spirit to it. I figured it would be a fun thing if people wanted to do that out here for the shows coming up. That we could not just suggest it but send people posters if they wanted to do that (nota bene: after the first posters printed by the people, hundred of posters were sent by the band’s management to a lot of French cities). And then it just kept getting more and more out of control. Other people wanted to do it all over the world and not just in France. ‘Cause part of it felt kind of like some self-serving … We didn’t want it just to be a practical thing, like getting the word out, but something that would allow people to come and see sound checks, to get tickets to shows and be a bit more involved than just, come to the show and go home. So it was nice. It’s like it’s been a nice way to meet people and find out about just a little more of their passion and sharing that a little bit more. You also get to see a lot of cool artists that do their own posters or create things on their jackets or all sort of random stuff. I like how many of our fans are also creative. I think that’s the best thing.
So, who chose the pictures and the texts for the posters?
Robert: Kafukk, he made a lot of them, and Ian suggested a few.
Kafukk is the Indonesian fan?
Robert: Yeah. And I don’t know, it ended up taking more time ‘cause we made more of them than we thought. So we ended up sending him some money for his time and he didn’t want to take it ‘cause he said it wasn’t about that… but we forced him to take it anyway. (he smiles)
A different setlist every night
A lot of gigs and a different setlist each night, composed by some bests that can still move, some songs from the new album, some older songs and even some surprises: b-sides, rarities, everything is possible with BRMC. Since the beginning of the tour, we had seen different live versions for a different mood each night. But how do they choose the setlist for each gig by the way?
Peter: It’s a mix. Well, we try to keep everybody in mind, you know. First time fans and long time fans. We’re trying to do a little bit for everybody… and for ourselves (nota bene : sometimes they play songs only for the soundcheck and sometimes they play them later… or never). We’re trying to keep everybody in mind doing that and sometimes it’s down to voice. With what’s a little bit easier. You gotta think about that a little bit or else you’re gone by the last one. So it’s just a little bit of that too, practical.
Robert, what made you choose the bass and not another instrument when you first started to play music?
Robert: ‘Cause there is less strings and I thought it wouldn’t be as hard… and… and I was right! (He laughs.) I knew that if it was gonna feel like work I would have quit and not… you know, it wouldn’t have been fun. And I just listened to other records like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains and I tried to learn the bass lines that I heard and copy them and I was surprised that… like that wasn’t really difficult… And I didn’t learn guitar for years and years later, just in case.
He later explained to us that he often uses his bass guitar as a guitar. We can add that the BRMC bass lines are not always easy to play.
How are you involved in the lights choice? How do you work with Ben, your lights guy? Because they are not the same every night…
Peter: He’ll get the album before we go out on tour. He’s done that at least twice now. He goes to Omaha, I believe, and he sets up a stage with a lightning kind of package. It’s how much money we can give him for it. (He laughs.) That’s all there is, like, sometimes the more the merrier. And so then you pick out what you can get and there is always stuff that we’d like to do that we don’t do. We still haven’t got videos, and the projection isn’t that well the way we kind of wanted it… And then, once our first two rounds are down, that’s usually when we start running out of money. Because it costs a fucking fortune, you know. And so then it’s kind of what’s in the room. So that’s why it changes then. But he’ll sit and listen to the album for a good long time by himself. He’s done that. And then a little bit of back and forth with us… Rob’s a bit more involved than I am.
Robert, you don’t seem to agree.
Robert: No… Well, I get fussy about it.
Peter: I don’t mean it in that way. It’s just actually more some of the actual building of the look of the set.
Robert: With the band, when we started, we kind of fell in love with live… We used lots of strobes and smoke machines and it would blind you a lot. I just remember those first shows and loving how it was… We kind of got to disappear with it and disappear with the sound. We’re still always trying to capture that even though we’re also always trying to have it evolve, which is hard. And it just gets down to money a lot of the time, which is a shame ‘cause we have all sorts of big schemes that we can’t afford yet… But someday… Someday we’ll all be on little trapezes flying around with our guitars and doing somersaults over your heads.
BRMC, creative process
Between Beat The Devil’s Tattoo and Specter At The Feast, we hear a difference concerning the drums. Did your creating process evolved little by little with Leah being in the band? Or did you worked differently on the two albums?
Peter: “Yeah. Yeah, we worked differently. Beat The Devil was more… We were still using two-track drums for the most part, all the way through it. I don’t know if that makes sense. Usually when you record, well, since 19… Well no, in the 60’s there were… Throughout the years anyway they keep adding microphones so you can have more control over sound, you know, and all that and… And we’ve been kinda indulging into it in and out throughout the years and always kind of come back as I go “well we like the sound of just two microphones”. You know, they’re just kind of shitty and this dude was helping us with the record… Chris Goss. He came in, in a certain way we were trying… We don’t wanna shy away from beautiful songs and… You know, that’s a side of this band.”
Peter adds : “You know I consider that Too Real is kind of a beautiful song although the recording’s kinda shitty… and Salvation, the recording’s kinda shitty but you take that and you bring it into a studio and put it on a bunch of mics you know, you can then open it up into an even more beautiful, kinda like a landscape rather than contain it with a particular sound. So, we were already thinking that and when he came in, Chris Goss said ‘Well yeah, I kinda hear that. You guys haven’t really done that yet.’ It was true. So we went there and then went back to the two-track drums sound you know for… I don’t know, that’s probably Teenage Disease and… But yeah, also Hate The Taste, a bunch of weird sounds. You know, fucking around with rhythms of guitars actually and using them as percussions. That might be things you’re hearing. I love tribal, hypnotic stuff… and so I’m always trying to… I think we all do, you know. So that sound’s in the beat itself and then that’s trying to get it out of everyone’s every instrument. You know, extra shakers and tambourines really kind of create a depth in rhythm. Beat The Devil’s Tattoo has a lot more of that than Specter At The Feast actually.”
On the Beat The Devil’s Tattoo Tour you had a lot of songs ready for a new album. You played a couple of them live in Germany actually, in 2010. I know you were working on a lot of new songs at the time because I saw you play like 10 new songs at sound checks but then they never came out. So apparently you started from scratch for Specter At The Feast. Did you record some of them? Do you plan to do something with them?
Peter: I think one of those was called Spook and then one of those from that tour turned into Hate the Taste. And the others I can’t remember. Were they acoustic songs? Or were they loud?
Robert: There was a different kind of version of Lullaby for a little while that I remember was starting up but there wasn’t really new words yet. Yeah, we kinda had a few things but we ended up just starting from scratch and then some things came back around but… a lot of times, things bridge in from other records. They kind of overlap but this one has had the least of that… Our memories are also bad (he laughs) so if you are telling me something else, you might be way more right than I am if you were there. I don’t remember that much of the past anymore.
Do you write a lot of your songs while touring?
Peter: Well… I’d say it’s fifty-fifty. This whole album wasn’t really written on tour, you know, Specter wasn’t written on tour. It was written sitting at home, just jamming. Some of the ideas were brought in but the majority of them were really put together. So it’s fifty-fifty. It’s whenever you get lucky, you know, and stairwells are the best things. This place has great stairwells for hiding in, so…
Do you feel like the place you are when you write has an influence on your writing?
Peter: No… It moves too fast for that. I think life moves too fast for that for anybody really. That’s not really my experience. I’d like to say ‘yeah, Joshua Tree had a huge effect…’ It sounds cool, it sounds really fucking hype but it’s not the truth! We were there, we did some songs, it’s inspirational… You say it’s fucking beautiful but you’re not there long enough or living in it to actually get through truth of inspiration. It comes after the facts. It’s like your mind will be sparked : ‘Oh yeah, I remember that rainstorm, you could see the lightning’. You know, that kind of things, or maybe some sounds coming from that kind of thoughts. And my only proof of that is Ain’t No Easy Way. It was written in a stairwell in London. Sounds nothing like fucking London right! (He laughs). So that’s why I tend to believe that.
Robert: I think it’s more inspiring to tell people that the place has little or nothing to do with the things you create. ‘Cause I think if I was reading it and I was stuck in some suburb in the middle of nowhere in my bedroom and thinking that I have to go somewhere else to be something you know… You don’t! You can create it just within yourself, in the worst circumstances and I think that’s inspiring. More inspiring than ‘You gotta be in New York in 1960-whatever’. ‘You gotta move here to be around all these people. That’s where things are really happening.’ That’s just something people sell you… It does create opportunities and if you try to meet other people and find people to work with and collaborate with I’m sure that it can increase your odds but it’s… you know, it’s like online dating. It’s like ‘Yeah, you’re gonna meet more people if you sign up to such and such cupid.com’ but are you gonna find the person you love? I don’t think the odds are ever more or less in your favor that way. But yeah, I think it’s a good thing to tell people that you can be stuck in a place and it’s coming from you.
You can be creative, be inspired.
Robert: Yeah. It’s just life experience. Some of it is life experience, some of it is just being crazy in yourself without any other experience (he laughs) to con. You’re just fucking nuts and it doesn’t matter what happens to you. You have emotional issues and this is the only way you can call on a little bit of sanity that day. It’s through the writing, the making something.
You recently worked on a soundtrack. If it could be the other way round and you could ask someone to make a movie to illustrate your music, what would you like the movie to be about?
Peter: I think you could… Wow… get a different answer from all of us on that one! I don’t know. Well I guess today… Hum… Well… Hum… What would the movie be about? Hum…
(with a little smile) Rob, you like movies…
Robert: That’s why I’m not going near this question! (Everyone laughs) No… I… It could even just be something, a story that inspired you but that you couldn’t have imagined yourself, you know. That’s what I like the most about working with others, that’s kind of the most interesting thing about adding your music to a film. They’re bringing something that, you… The actors and the writer, the director, and everyone that’s creating something that you couldn’t ever have come up with on your own. And just being a part of that great big parade, it’s a cool thing. I would like to… I think Gaspard Noé, the director, would be the finest to try and create something. It’s… You know, his imagery contains a lot of mystery… with feelings and very abstract and dark things and it’s all the right points without… overbearing storylines, and precise, you know. I guess I like abstract more than storytelling…
Peter: Yeah, more a poem I guess, that would be like… like either a chain of poems into a movie or one poem like… you only get sparse words throughout the whole thing you know, a couple lines and then twenty minutes goes by and you get a couple lines there.
Peter and Robert are being so nice that we could go on and on. However, they told us an hour earlier that they shouldn’t be talking in order to rest their voice. This is why at this point, we thank them for their time and their incredible kindness.