The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (B.R.M.C.) is slated to play an outdoor show on the Sunset Strip Music Festival’s final day on Saturday, Aug. 3. They share the bill with headliner Linkin Park and Awolnation, and many, many others in support of Music for Relief.
Named after Marlon Brando’s motorcycle gang in “The Wild One,” the B.R.M.C. is a three-piece band formed in 1998 in San Francisco. After moving south to L.A., they have released a string of successful neo-psychedelic garage rock hits. Many of them have been featured in popular movies and TV shows, like “Skins,” “Sons of Anarchy” and “End of Watch.”
Their sound creates a somber yet raw atmosphere. Driving rhythms interlace with layers of guitar riffs and grooving bass lines that create a dichotomy of soft and hard. They’ve been influenced by The Velvet Underground, The Rolling Stones, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Love and Rockets.
WEHOville caught up with bassist/guitarist/singer Robert Levon Been, who is traveling throughout Europe as the band completes its summer tour. Been talked about the band’s new drummer, its involvement with the Sunset Strip Music Festival and how it feels to honor his late father by performing with his former band, The Call.
Question: How did you come to be involved with the SSMF?
Answer: “When I heard it was for charity and we were coming home at the end of our summer tour, in town for just a little while. We just played the Wiltern, so we didn’t want to do another kind of venue show. We thought it [SSMF] would be cool, to support that they are trying to raise money. We’re turnin’ back again pretty quick to play Russia and some other places. Sometimes the L.A. fans get kind of pissed off because of all the places, for some reason we neglect our home town.”
Q: Are there any social or political issues you would like to comment on?
A: “We’re always trying to bring awareness to the Not For Sale campaign, for human trafficking. I think it’s a good cause. It’s one of those things where it doesn’t have a finish line. It’s about informing people and spreading the awareness. It’s good just to get people to stick with things, not worry about immediate satisfaction.”
Q: Did you and Peter Hayes both create the BRMC together?
A: “I was looking for somebody to play music with, I don’t know if Peter was looking for anyone to play with. We met in high school. He was the only kid at school with an acoustic guitar on his back, so it was pretty obvious. That was when we were just talkin’ about getting together after school and playing. I was still learning how to play bass and write songs. Pete was a little farther along than me, but we just kept meeting up and making little weird songs on this eight-track tape recorder. We didn’t meet up with Nick [Jago], our drummer, for a about a year, maybe more.”
Q: Was Peter playing in another band?
A: “Pete played with the Brian Jonestown for a while. The idea of us doing a band stopped for a while when he tried out with them.”
Q: What brought you two back together?
A: “We both had the itch. I played in another band, too. And it didn’t feel as good as when we were just making up our own things. With the other bands, you’re just kind of one cog in a wheel. As much as the wheel might be cool, it’s better to not be a cog if you can.”
Q: How does the writing work within BRMC?
A: “We write songs just me and him, or apart, and then we come together. A lot of the best songs come from just jamming out as a band. Whether it was with Nick at the time when he was drumming, those feel the most inspired. The same with Leah [Shapiro], since she joined the band. Half of “Beat The Devil’s Tattoo” and all of our latest record are songs we wrote all together.”
Q: Is Leah Shapiro a permanent member of the band?
Q: Have you noticed a change in the band since she replaced Nick?
A: “I think all of us knew full well, as soon as you replace a core sentimental member of the band, there’s not very many bands that are able to keep on playing and creating music as genuine or raw. We actually thought about changing the name after Nick left, but once we started writing together it felt pretty natural. We were at the mercy of how we were all going to gel together. Leah actually started playing with us by filling in on the ‘Baby 81’ tour. Later we realized that we were able to be a real band.”
Q: “Howl” is most likely my favorite album. How did you come up with the idea to alter your sound to classic Americana?
A: “A lot of those songs from ‘Howl’ we wrote before the first record came out and some of them during the second album. We kept writing these songs that were definitely not rock ‘n’ roll. They were more rootsy and country based. We didn’t know how to fit them on a rock record, so they kept getting pushed aside. ‘Howl’ was the breaking point. We had too many of those songs to ignore and they had the right to stand on their own.”
Q: When did the BRMC transplant from San Francisco to L.A.?
A: “That was like the first year. We played everywhere we could in San Francisco trying to get a record deal. Half of what came out on the first album was recorded and released in San Francisco. Selling little demo CDs at Amoeba Records and Rasputin on consignment deals. For a year, no one gave a shit about us up there. We were running out of money and the landlord wasn’t liking the noise, so we had to move anyway.”
Q: Why did you think L.A. was the answer?
A: “We had luck in Los Angeles ‘cause we’d played there a couple times and it felt like people were a little more warm and welcoming to our music. San Francisco can be a bit arms-crossed. They’ll give you a hard time there if you’re just starting out. L.A. was different. We moved there and in six months we were signed. It was rather easy to be honest. Rather than using the bidding war to get more money, we decided to take less money as long as we could produce the record ourselves and release the album we had already recorded. We traded money for power. That’s the way it usually works. We stayed in L.A. but since we got signed we’ve been on the road more than we’ve been home. We’re starting off this European summer tour right now, getting situated.”
Q: Do you find that you play larger venues in Europe or the US?
A: “It’s been pretty even for a while now, except when you get into playing smaller towns. We’ve been lucky to not have to just say ‘we’re big in Japan.’ We have good fans all around. A lot of bands have it a lot worse.”
Q: What are some of the challenges of being on the road?
A: “All of them, you know. (Laughs) You get the full gamut. There’s things to bitch about anywhere. If you’re at home and you’ve got it good or on the road and living the dream, you can find stuff to complain about anywhere. I definitely prefer complaining on the road than complaining at home. It’s much better.”
Q: Tell me about your work with The Call.
A:: “We’re trying to release a live DVD of the shows we just played. We’re editing that now. I’m really hopin’ that will spark some more demand for some shows and playing more with those guys. They are like my second family and I just love to bring the music to life and help out. They’re amazing musicians. It’s not like a moneymaker thing, just about getting back to the fans who really and truly love it and want it.”
Q: Your father, Michael Been, passed in 2010. How does it feel to play your father’s songs?
A: It was surreal when it happened. It was all too much. Now it’s starting to sink in, so I’m trying to focus on [the fact] that the music deserves to be heard and passed on. To keep the fire alive. We owe him a lot for helping out our band, the B.R.M.C.. It feels good to pay it back a bit.”
Q: See you here, Aug. 3 on The Strip.
A: “Where dreams are born and broken. See you out there.”