ROBERT LEVON BEEN OF BRMC: FIGHT FOR THAT ONE
illustration by felipe flores
When psych-garage trio Night Beats lost their bassist just before they were about to record their new album, it was a moment that could’ve easily turned into catastrophe—but luckily, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club‘s Robert Levon Been was ready to step in and help out. The resulting Who Sold My Generation (out Jan. 29 on Heavenly) has Been’s bass playing on nearly every song, and the non-LP b-side “Vultures” (which Been sings and co-wrote with Night Beats’ Danny Lee Blackwell) has just been posted online today. Here Been speaks about what it’s like to become part of an album like this, and how he was able to let the momentum make him move. This interview by Chris Ziegler. (And Night Beats’ interview about this album is right here!)
How did you become a part of Who Sold My Generation? What happened to have you walk in?
Robert Levon Been: I didn’t plan or expect to. We had a very unexpected shock when our drummer Leah [Shapiro] had to go through brain surgery. That was six months of recovery for her. So I had six months off. Danny, I’d met a long time ago at a concert at the El Rey, when I think they were opening for Thee Oh Sees. I really loved the song ‘H-Bomb.’ Like … fuck, I wish I’d written that one! We’re kind of similar. Not the loudmouth people at the party. Introverts. It was cool to be in a crowd of people and recognize someone weird like you that’s not all about that. So we finished Spectre with [producer] Nic [Jodoin] and he said [Night Beats] were just passing through town, and it made sense. I thought I’d maybe play on a song, and it became a lot more.
What do you do in your own head in a situation like this? Set limits for how you participate, so you respect an existing band? Just go full-force?
Robert Levon Been: My rule for myself was not to play the same bass in BRMC. I brought a different instrument and didn’t use any of the same pedals to force myself to go a different way. I had a lot of compassion for them, just having lost their bassist. We’d had a falling out with our drummer Nick [Jago] years ago, so I know the feeling. In one way, how scary it is, and in another way, how liberating it is, and those two feelings are happening at the same time. You know you’ve got something more to give, but you also feel you just lost a limb, and especially when a three-piece turns into a two-piece, you don’t feel like a band anymore. There’s a lot of insecurity when you’re recording … we recorded our whole Howl album like that. Most of it is wasted energy doubting yourselves. I stopped that—I recognized the feeling and it was really nice to be the person who could help for once, rather than the person who needed that help. Just making it feel like a band, for the time we were together. And making it be fun and bring back that confidence that everyone loses when you lose your main dude. It’s psychological. Everything was there for the taking, but you just don’t trust it. It’s like any break-up. It was lucky timing that the whole thing happened.
How do you fit into this record? What songs are you on, and what other work did you do?
Robert Levon Been: I played bass on just about all of them. It was cool cuz we got to trade instruments whenever there was an idea and that’s always fun. The best way to make anything is everyone to get on board and start grabbing anything you can—start rowing. Not think about strict positions. Things blurred back and forth and it wasn’t official title stuff. Nic was the mad scientist engineer and we both did mixing but he definitely did the majority. Everyone just threw in ideas. A big blur. That was the nature of it. I’m happy it didn’t feel like a concept studio record where you’re not a band anymore, and you start experimenting like, ‘We acknowledge we’re not this, so we’re not gonna try to be a cohesive rock record from start to finish.’ What’s really fucking cool is we kept it true to a band. Danny and I talked about writing together and we did one song—the b-side to the ‘No Cops’ single. Real fucking crazy song called ‘Vultures.’ One of my favorites. It felt right leaving the record as the full piece. It should focus on the core of the Night Beats, the spirit of it. But it was really fun to mess around.
What’s ‘Vultures’ like?
Robert Levon Been: I got the weirdest I ever got with writing. I sing about like … Chinese food … it’s just insane. It sounds like I took a lot of drugs. It’s like if you took a lot of drugs and were eating Chinese food at the same time. Food poisoning and the weird fever dreams you get? But it was completely drug free. If I got to that place with drugs, it would’ve felt like cheating.
Why does this album sound the way it does? It’s raw, it’s dark …
Robert Levon Been: First, Nic had a bunch of great old gear and it was an experiment to see how long we could get away with it before something broke down. It’s really fucking frustrating cuz you get in there and everyone wants to play, and most of your time goes to fixing the reel-to-reel and figuring out where the hum is coming from. There’s a lot more of those things that make you go, ‘Fuck it, let’s just do it the simple way we know will work.’ Nic was good with patiently troubleshooting that stuff and pretty much lying to us at a really good pace—’It’s gonna be alright! Just gimme one minute … I just need to wait for this one thing …’ Which was never true, but it kept us working. And then Danny as well. He’s really brave. Unlike most musicians, he’s cool with committing early and letting what happens happens. You know a lot of work went into this song he wrote and it’s great and it means a lot, and you never see someone who can just go like, ‘Fuck it, roll with it.’ Commit to the vocal or commit to the take after one or two. I need to learn how to do that more. With my band BRMC, we do the opposite. Everything’s pretty meticulous. No one wants to commit to early cuz you can paint yourself into a corner. Like fuck—it was a good lesson. Yeah, fuck it!
What’s a good example of that happy kind of fuck-it! song?
Robert Levon Been: I wanna say all of them. That was the spirit of the record—momentum. [When you decide not to] nitpick a song … the only thing you’re ever gonna gain to balance that out is pure momentum and fire and energy.
This record seems like it could deliver some larger life lessons.
Robert Levon Been: That’s the age we live in—limitless possibilities, limitless information, limitless different ways to go about something. It’s unfamiliar and scary to go back to a time when you were stuck on one little 8-track recorder and one amp and a couple pedals and it was like … that’s it. You had to make the most of the shit in your kitchen—just a pot and a pan. But bang it together! If you’re forced to use that pot and a pan, you’re like, ‘I can probably make that sound cool, actually.’ The limitations are your friends. We’re so used to having 300 friends on Facebook that we forget the good ones!
The power of doing it the hard way?
Robert Levon Been: I’m not a purist at all. It’s important to know what you’re losing when you try a different process. And being aware of like … ‘OK, we can do a full modern digital record,’ and you could make it sound nearly identical, honestly, and maybe even get there quicker. But there’s something you’ll never know: what you might’ve had if you’d gone through the process of cutting tape. Things where you have to commit. It’s all about choices. You’re not gonna get to know what those things were when you do the shortcut.
Once you get past technique, the next thing is the philosophy. ‘Why you do it,’ on top of ‘how you do it.’
Robert Levon Been: Nic, me and him worked on the last BRMC record together—Spectre At The Feast—and that was such a different process. It was really fun to do this quick throw-n-go record—throw it against the wall, see what happens. Nic’s the old mad scientist with all the old gear. Credit to him. The spirit’s gotta be right and you gotta have everyone willing to go with you on that ride, but that can’t lessen what it takes to know the mechanics of that stuff. I’m really impressed by him, in a day and age when not many guys are going that way. With a record like this … even playing bass before we even tracked, like playing bass with them in the room together … musicianship-wise, James is one of the last true wildman drummers. Like the Jedi thing—there’s not many left, and if you find one who hasn’t been killed in battle yet, you’re pretty fuckin’ lucky! And Danny, he understands the power of those old records and the writing. Cuz that’s the other side—you can record something, but it’s a particular way of writing, and playing bass is all about leaving room for that spirit to come alive and staying true to the real psychedelic garage records. There’s a less is more thing to it, but it’s not that simple. Danny had a lot of the songs walking in the room. Arrangements were loose, and not many ideas for bass at all, so there was a lot of room in there for me to do whatever came to mind. But the playing that lends the most to their thing is staying out of the way a lot—versus that lead ‘here I am!’ or whatever. He kept trying to egg me out to play more and go for it. No matter what it is, the unspoken thing is you have to obey the song. And you have to listen, which sounds really obnoxious to say something as simple as that, but a lot of people don’t listen to what the other person’s doing or the drums are doing. And when the words come in, how much room do you leave to get the closest to the feeling? I dunno. Not just bassists but anybody—guitarists are guilty. It’s egos. All that stuff. Drummers too. Fucking everybody’s guilty of it!
Would they have made this record if you couldn’t have helped? Would it have ended up being postponed otherwise?
Robert Levon Been: No—part of their way with dealing with losing was to keep moving forward no matter what. That was the spirit with or without me. That was great to see. I didn’t feel like I was saving the day at all. I was there to hopefully make it fun! Not like, ‘We can do this but it’s gonna be misery!’ Like fuck—you can do it! And you can get away with having a little fun. It’s still rock ‘n’ roll!
The album is called Who Sold My Generation—what do you think about the ‘generation’ part? Do Night Beats seem like the next generation of the kind of music you make?
Robert Levon Been: Good music to me, I don’t ever look at it with a shelflife or age. The records that feel weighted in time or a fad or a trend are the ones you can spot coming. I don’t wanna say what the title means to me cuz when you hear it, it should be what it means for you. Danny’s really educated with real true psychedelic rock records and the history, not just like of guys who dig the sound. There’s a lot of psych bands, but he lives and breathes the history. One of the things I loved that he did was the UFO Club—that record with Christian from Black Angels. It’s different but it’s interesting to put himself in this time. It’s like he’s acknowledging it when he kind of lives in another time. But it should all be timeless within the spirit that they’re trying to resurrect. It’s sad that it has to be resurrected. That’s maybe what’s being acknowledged, I guess. It could’ve been a vague obtuse title, but it’s bold. Then he told me in the studio, I was like, ‘You’re gonna have to fight for that one. It’s a statement.’
NIGHT BEATS’ “NO COPS” B/W “VULTURES” IS AVAILABLE NOW FOR PRE-ORDER. NIGHT BEATS’ WHO SOLD MY GENERATION IS AVAILABLE FRI., JAN. 29, ON HEAVENLY. VISIT ROBERT LEVON BEEN AND BLACK REBEL MOTORCYCLE CLUB AT BLACKREBELMOTORCYCLECLUB.COM.