It feels like we interviewed Black Rebel Motorcycle Club just the other day, but it’s actually been a full 10 years. Time flies when you’re listening to BRMC. So what’s the band been up to since our chat in 2005? A whole lot. They released four more albums, replaced a drummer, and blew our minds at countless live shows and festivals. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Rewind back to 2005 when we talked with BRMC’s bassist/vocalist Robert Been. The interview took place just before the release of the band’s third album Howl. A wide-ranging, heartfelt collection of songs, Howl proved BRMC was just as comfortable playing stripped-down folk, clap-your-hands gospel, and blues as they were amped-up rock. Read on for Been’s thoughts on the album, life on the road, and more, and if you live in Europe you’re in luck – the band is playing a handful of shows there this summer.
Ticketmaster: The new album, Howl, is very different from your previous work. It has elements of blues, folk, and even gospel. How did you guys reach that kind of sound, coming from straight-ahead rock albums beforehand?
Robert Been from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: I feel that we’re still just introducing ourselves. We’ve played these kinds of songs in our bedrooms—in the studio even—since we began. Whenever we thought about it or recorded it, we couldn’t make it sit on the earlier records. So we always had it in the back of our minds that we’d get to it soon. And then we came to the realization that we’d have to dedicate a whole record to this sound. It was pretty cool. We were kind of nervous for a while because we kind of felt there was an impression that we had made, and people wanted us to do one thing. But I guess it’s not the case.
TM: Howl features instruments we haven’t heard from you before—harmonica, horns, piano. What was it like to add so many new sounds to the mix?
RB: Yeah, we’re playing trombone, piano, slides and harmonica. We’ve got a friend of ours who’s helping us with three- or four-part harmonies. It was the best challenge we’ve had for a long time. It was actually pretty cool. We enjoy working. We enjoy learning new instruments and new ways of doing things. I think it would have killed us pretty fast if we kept doing the same thing over and over or if we were forced to. There’s a lot of air to breathe. It’s nice.
TM: Did you borrow the album title, Howl, from the Allen Ginsberg poem? Were you inspired by the Beat poets and their generation?
RB: Yeah, that was why. We wanted to somehow say thank you to that time. I think when we started writing this record, we took a lot more from ourselves to put into the work. Through doing that, I started writing a lot more and reading a lot more novels, poetry, anything I could get my hands on. I really fell in love with words again. And it was pretty great. A lot of the Beat poets’ stuff was an influence and inspiring. All of those guys: John [Clellon] Holmes, Neal Cassady, Carl Solomon, [William] Burroughs. I kind of wish there was more of that spirit today. Maybe that’s what we’re saying. Just remember it, if nothing else, and think about it. It was a time when words had a little bit more weight, a bit more meaning. That would be good.
TM: You’re starting your tour in San Francisco, which is a great place to start, considering so many Beat writers were based in that city. It’s also your hometown, right?
RB: Yeah…It’s nice to go home. That’s all. It’s nice to start in your home city. Hopefully people will be nicer to us there for any mistakes we might have in the beginning of the tour that will not be there by the end.
TM: Are there any other cities you’re really looking forward to playing?
RB: New York is always good to us. They’re a hard city, but we’ve put in our hours there. Boston’s pretty cool. There are a lot of little ones that are good. Places outside of Chicago that are good. But the truth is that anywhere that is not a major city is fun, because they don’t have any kind of attitude like you may get in New York. Like, “We’ve seen it all before.” They kind of collapse into their emotions more, which is always how I wish it was. With live music, that’s kind of the idea. It’s not meant to be closely scrutinized and examined and looked at like it’s behind glass. It’s pretty cool. People tend to really give themselves to the music when you get outside of the metropolitan cities.
TM: You’ve promoted a do-it-yourself approach to making albums. When you were making Howl, you weren’t signed to a label. Did that give you a greater sense of freedom?
RB: We didn’t have a label. Our drummer left as well. We were doing it for ourselves. The biggest difference was no one was asking us to make the album in some way. We were kind of in a dark time. We felt that no one even wanted a record, because no mountains were being moved to have it made outside of us. So it just felt like you either do it because you want to, because you love it, or don’t do it at all. And that being our purpose, trying to find our own meaning for it was all that mattered. And that makes you think that’s all that might really matter at the end of the day. If you truly love it, and if you’re truly putting yourself into it, then hopefully that’s going to come across. If you’re making something for someone else because you’re told to, or because you think someone else will like it but you’re not quite sure, or if you’re doing it to make other people happy, then I don’t know if the real spirit is ever going to come through. That’s the reason why you sometimes forget to even ask yourself. But that was the pretty great thing about recording this album. There was only one reason to do it, and it was pretty selfish: we love this music.
TM: There’s a spiritual theme to many of the songs on Howl. There’s a gospel flavor to some of the songs as well. Where did the inspiration for these songs come from?
RB: I’m always surprised when people get so much from this record in that way. I guess we just wrote it from a real innocent place of loving soul and gospel music— Otis Redding and Sam Cooke and people like that. I always wanted and tried to write a song as good as those guys. Those are just songs that come from your gut. There’s a lot of passion and a lot of heart in them. I just wanted to somehow get to that place. To me, it doesn’t feel like it’s necessarily about spirituality or religion as much as universal themes of struggle and pain and freedom. Just things that everyone relates to. I think it’s talking on a bigger level than that. For me, it’s not trying to preach anything. I don’t even know what religion I’d align myself with, if any. I know it’s not coming from that place. Our band’s never really been about that. It’s always more about asking questions and not being afraid to talk about anything. As long as we’re doing that, that’s all that really matters. And the point—the why and where and who and what—is for other people to determine.