Rock legends Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are in NYC tomorrow night to play a show at Terminal 5, and then they’re making their way down to DC to play The Fillmore on the 11th. I had the chance to ring up Robert Levon Been recently, and we got to talking about the least rock ‘n roll things the band can be found doing at any given time, as well as the importance of melodies in preserving a musical feeling. Internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation below, and be sure to grab tickets to the gigs before they’re all sold out.
So where are you guys at the moment?
We’re in Seattle right now. We just wrapped sound check, but we’re playing The Showbox tonight.
And you’ll be in New York at Terminal 5 to play a show on the 8th. If Terminal 5 didn’t exist, what would be your ideal NYC spot to see or play a gig?
I always like Bowery and things like that. Usually those size rooms…if I could kind of make my wishlist or something, that’s what I’d put. If I could see anyone from history, like Hendrix or anybody, I’d put them in a room about that size, just because that’s always the daydream. [Laughs] Those kinds of rooms where you can just feel someone right there. I actually just saw a photo of Paul McCartney doing the littlest show at Pappy and Harriet’s out in Joshua Tree, and it’s just an old bar at the end of the world that I’ve been to one too many times, and I just can’t even imagine that feeling of seeing someone like that up close in a sweaty little room.
Yeah, it must be kind of magical to have something like that happen. I mean, you guys are at a level where I would think it’d be amazing to see you play a kind of surprise little gig at a hole in the wall. Do you ever do anything like that?
Not on this run. We’ve kind of managed to pull that off in the past when we’re warming up or doing some kind of low-key thing, but we’ll still wind up in rooms that size if we play outside any major city. That’s kind of the way most rock ‘n roll bands are these days; you’re at one kind of level in the metropolis, and when you leave there, especially in the States, it’s really hard since word doesn’t travel very far. [Laughs] So you can kind of get lucky with playing some cool little hole in the walls off the beaten path, but this tour is kind of major leagues only.
Well speaking of rock ‘n roll, what is the least rock ‘n roll thing that you or your band-mates typically like to do that we might not expect?
I don’t know, just about everything! [Laughs] You do your laundry and you check the social website bullshit and…I don’t know, Pete likes cooking shows. I’ve noticed him getting into watching a lot of cooking shows, which is always really bizarre (even for me) to look at him doing that, because it’s such a domestic thing, and I have a hard time even wrapping my mind around it. Knowing him all these years, it still baffles me. But I don’t know, we’ve destroyed enough hotel rooms in the past where I try and save whatever is real about the spirit of that world for the music, which might sound like a cop-out, but all the rest of it is just kind of gimmicky. We still manage to find plenty of trouble, but those aren’t usually my proudest moments, either. [Laughs]
For sure. And obviously at the moment you guys are likely mostly focused on this tour, but have you been working on anything lately in terms of new releases?
Yeah, we were in the middle of recording a new record, and this tour fell right in between that process. Originally we were hoping to have the record done a bit sooner, and so now we’re kind of using the tour to test out a few new songs. Being on tour helps to keep my head in the music, because I’m able to keep music on the palate. When I’m at home, I hate being my own boss. I love it when someone tells me what to do or I have a deadline, because then I can just kind of put all of my angst and spite on them. But when it’s you who has to go, “Okay, do your homework, write a song today,” I just blow it off and play hooky all day. So being on the road actually helps us kind of focus and finish some of the songs that we’ve been working on. The hope is that as soon as we get home we can kind of dive right back into where we left off, and so that’s kind of where we’re at right now.
Is there any part of you that gets nervous that once you get home you maybe won’t connect to some of the things you started working on beforehand?
Oh man, yeah, that happens a lot. It’s like you’ll have a feeling or an idea, and it’ll start kind of growing, and then you put it away, and when you come back to it a few months later, you can’t remember the authentic place where that feeling was coming from. And so sometimes it feels artificial, you kind of fake it in trying to write it but not being in that head-space anymore. That can definitely happen. But I don’t know, the good thing about music is that there’s a feeling imprinted, or a fingerprint, that’s within the actual melody of the music, so there’s an emotional fingerprint within the music, versus writing something (like a story or a poem) where there isn’t that kind of context or atmosphere. The music often helps to bring you back into that world, way more than just staring at a page that’s half-written. So I love that about it; the music does most of the heavy-lifting, and you can count on it if it’s worth coming back to.
Right. And has music always kind of been the path for you? Or was there ever a time when you were a kid that you thought of growing up to be something else, like a firefighter or something?
[Laughs] I’m still a firefighter, I’m putting out fires all the time, just in a totally different way. But you get to be anything as a musician; you can be a cowboy when you’re touring on the West Coast, though you mostly get to be a plumber, dealing with your own shit. I don’t know, I guess I’ve gotten to live all the dreams semi-simultaneously, and I didn’t expect that. I never knew that a band could be so many different things at different times. I don’t know what I was originally expecting, but it’s been able to shift and change with me over time. There are weird little things that you kind of discover that you never would have expected. In the beginning it was, “Oh, this is easy, because it’s four strings on a bass, and I don’t really have to work that hard.” [Laughs] “And you might meet a girl, and you might have some beer money.” That was kind of how it started, and then, you know, as Pete says, music has this interesting ability to go as deep with you as you want to go with it. So it’ll become whatever you need it to be, to some degree. It’s kind of like that.