Interview: Robert Been of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club answers the Call, preserves his father’s musical legacy
[dropcap]B[/dropcap]lack Rebel Motorcycle Club bassist Robert Levon Been has been surrounded by music his entire life, as his father, the late Michael Been, sang and played bass in California the Call. Though the major labels rejected the Call’s early demos, the band garnered praise through the ’80s from producers, music critics, and their peers. They joined tours with Peter Gabriel and the Simple Minds before eventually signing to a major label. By the time they disbanded in 2000, the Call had released seven albums and had a number one single with 1989’s “Let the Day Begin.”
For Robert Been, his father’s legacy is a lot to live up to. Been played in ‘90s indie rock outfit Beggars before finding success with BRMC during the early days of the oughts’ garage rock revival. He initially adopted the surnames of “Locke” and “Turner” in an effort to distance himself from his father’s success in an effort to make his own. But by the time BRMC released the stripped-down, Americana-tinged Howl in 2005, Been had reclaimed his name. Around that time, his father joined BRMC on tour running the front of house sound.
In August of 2010, the elder Been suffered a fatal heart attack backstage at Belgium’s Pukkelpop Festival. Call guitarist Tom Ferrier met the band in Europe and helped support them on tour, and after the memorial, Robert jammed with the surviving members of the Call. Soon, plans were made for full-on reunion gigs. Two shows happened in April 2013, one in San Francisco and one Los Angeles.
Earlier this month, the Los Angeles gig at the Troubadour was made available via a DVD and CD deluxe set, titled The Call Live Tribute With Robert Levon Been, via Label Records/Lightyear/Caroline. Vanyaland spoke to the younger Been by phone and asked him about diving into the Call’s back catalogue, his relationship with his father’s band mates, what it was like to lose and recover his father’s iconic fretless bass, and ultimately, that whole Locke vs. Turner vs. Been thing.
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Kayley Kravitz: Hi Robert, thanks for taking the time to speak with me. The Call tribute album and DVD release is really exciting, but I know this wasn’t your first foray into playing your father’s music as you had previously recorded “Let the Day Begin” with BRMC. It was even the first single from Specter At the Feast. Can you tell me how that came about?
Robert Been: It’s scary looking back on it, to actually think about all the stuff we did at the time. We didn’t have a plan. It was a relief because I think if we did we probably would have gotten cold feet but yeah, the song “Let the Day Begin” was unexpected. I think we wanted to cover one of his songs but we had no idea which one. That one fell in our lap by accident. We thought it would work, then everything fell into place.
What about the tribute show? How did it feel to really dive into your dad’s back catalogue and play with his band mates?
The idea for doing the show was similar. We got together — just for fun — to play a couple of songs with no real idea that we were going to play a whole show. Maybe me, Tom [Ferrier], Scott [Musick], and Jim [Goodwin] would record track or something interesting. We threw in another song, and another song, and another song. Everything was really fun and kind of joyful so we just kept going with that. Before we knew it, there was a lot of work to be done. Thankfully, there was no set plan until it was kind of too late [laughs] and we couldn’t turn back.
Do the other members of the Call live out in LA? Is that why you chose that as the city for the tribute show?
No, everyone’s scattered in different places. We actually did a warm-up show at Slim’s in San Francisco. On the DVD there’s bonus footage from that sow as well. So there were two shows, one in San Francisco and one in LA. I think we just had relationships with the people at Slim’s in San Fran and the Troubadour in LA. We knew they’d take care of us and help us if we needed to move the date or anything like that if we weren’t ready in time. It was kind of a family, in-house feel. We would have loved to do more shows but the Troubadour is a legendary place. I’ve seen a lot of shows there that are important to me. It was really cool getting to do that one.
That’s great. I wondered because I always think of the Call — kind of like BRMC — as a northern California band with roots in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz.
The San Fran one was kind of in hopes of getting some of those folks to come out then drag them down a little south [laughs].
Haha! That’s one way to entice people to make the drive between San Francisco and LA. What kind of relationships did you have with the rest of the members of the Call? I know as a kid you’d go out on tour with them so you’d grown up around those guys. Did you maintain friendships with them even after the Call split up?
Once I got out of high school I pretty much dove into BRMC and touring for almost 15 years. So I kind of got sold into the circus [laughs] and I didn’t look back for a while. I hadn’t kept in touch much with anyone. The people I toured with were the only people I’d really known for a while. I don’t know how to explain it, but after my father died one of the first people I called to connect with was Tom Ferrier, the guitarist of the Call. He actually came out with us on the road for a tour of Europe.
It was really like having a lifeline — having us all together and having him there on the road helping out and supporting us through the end of that leg. It was really fun. There were late nights spent talking about what we could do from there. That was Tom kicking up the idea of playing together. So we got together with everyone and connected again after the memorial [for Michael Been]. It was a long time since I’d really sat down with them, though. But it all came back. It all flooded back rather quickly. It was like I was 10 years old again — getting messed with! But it was very cool.
That’s great that Tom came out on the road with BRMC and supported you guys in the wake of your father’s passing. Did he do the sound like your dad had done or was he there in a more general supporting capacity?
He didn’t do the front of house directly. He knows his stuff with guitars, so it was mostly just to have him out with us and help as needed, but not specifically front of house. We didn’t want to overwhelm him! It’s a big job, especially with our set-up. It’s not just a guitar and bass. As much as it looks simple, it’s not quite simple. I wish it were!
I’ve seen BRMC a few times and I was always impressed by the amount of instruments, pedals, and other gear on stage. I’m sure it was a bit eye opening for Tom!
Yeah, you know Pete’s guitar rig is like the most scary one ever created because he’s got four amps in there and they’re all miked up getting a different sound from a different effect. Some are clean, some are wet, some echo or have reverb. I still don’t really know how he does it. He does his mad scientist thing!
So speaking of the bass and performing, you have a unique way of singing with BRMC and I noticed you altered your vocals to sound a little bit deeper with the Call. Was that your way of interpreting the music or emulating your dad’s vocals?
When I first started picking up those songs, I had initially assumed I would just sing them the way I sing and do a cover. It would be me singing it and it would be a hybrid of both, the way I usually cover songs. I quickly learned the hard way that the way I naturally sing and write songs doesn’t work for the kind of range. I don’t know how to explain it, but there’s grandeur or something in the music, you could call it? I’m more drone, monotone, kind of subtle. It didn’t work for some reason so I kind of started digging deeper and transposing the keys of the songs until I could find a place where I could embody the full range of it.
But it was kind of spooky for me because I’d never tried to sing in that sort of way. It kind of spooked me at what came out of me. It almost feels like singing opera or something. When you try to sing opera, you don’t know if you can sing opera. And I never really gave it a try. I’d always had low self-esteem or something, vocal-ability wise. I just thought, “This is it.” It was wild discovering that there was a lot more in that register than I’d ever tried. It’s what the songs needed. Without going to that place, they don’t really work. I had to find that out. It was different, weird.
I also saw in the trailer for the album and DVD that you picked up your dad’s old fretless bass for the show. I know the semi-hollow bodied bass that you use with BRMC — the Epiphone Rivoli — is a big part of the band’s sound and how you play. Was it difficult for you to pick up such a different bass guitar?
It kind of goes hand-in-hand with the vocal thing because the Epiphone hollow body is my signature bass that I’m used to and I’m comfortable with it. It’s a lot easier to play, kind of similar to how I sing — it’s a lot easier to sing that way! But it didn’t sound right. I tried it for a couple of songs just to make my life a little bit easier but I think all but two or three of the songs I had to play with the fretless bass because that was the sound that those songs required. So I had to learn that fretless in the same way that I had to learn the vocal part. It’s the tool that you need to do the job. It doesn’t really translate without it, very similar to the vocal part now that I think about it.
The crazy thing actually on top of that was that a lot of my father’s guitars were stolen out of a storage locker years ago. They all came back! It was a miracle. We put it online and told our fans — BRMC and Call fans — this was about six years ago or something — to keep a look out for the guitars if they were trying to be pawned off or something. A Call fan actually recognized that fretless bass in particular as Michael’s.
So he contacted us and we found the seller and the pawnshop. Through that pawnshop, we ended up tracing all of the guitars that had been stolen and we got them all back. But it wasn’t until almost right before the show happened so it was this amazing thing that we got that bass back in time for the gig. Thankfully it was a Call fan that found it.
Here in Boston, Suede had their gig stolen outside of the Paradise Rock Club in the ‘90s. Only one of their guitars ever resurfaced.
I think I heard of one other band that had a happy ending after their gear was stolen, but it’s only been one or two ever. The Internet in a weird way is helpful for that. When you have some fans that know particular gear there’s more people keeping an eye out so it makes those stories now within the realm of possibility. So I guess that’s what the Internet is for, besides funny YouTube videos [laughs].
I agree! The Internet is for tracking down stolen guitars and cat videos. But back to the interview at hand. I know when you started your career with Beggars, you assumed the name Robert Locke, then Robert Turner when BRMC started. Around the Howl era you reclaimed the surname Been. What was the turning point for you that you realized I don’t have to distance myself from my last name, that you have this awesome legacy and should embrace it?
Well, it wasn’t that I didn’t think that it had this great history to it. It was more that I wanted to feel like I made a name for myself without any help. The Call wasn’t a huge band but they had a lot of journalists writing about them. When our very first record came out, I adopted the name Turner because I thought I would never have the suspicion in the back of my mind that I didn’t earn it on my own. I just needed a couple of albums under my belt to feel like I did the work to get there and then when I was more famous than him [laughs] that was the day!
No, the Howl record was a pretty powerful record. For me it was connecting to a lot of things in the past that I was going through and it felt right at that time. I felt like I had worked enough to get to a place where I didn’t feel like I was using the name to my own gain or credit so that was it. Locke before that with Beggars was a similar thing. I was talking to my friend the other night about what’s in a name and how so much of our identity and how we perceive ourselves is locked into this thing. I recommend that everyone change their name at some point in your life because it’s kind of liberating. You know all of the stuff that you collect and acquire — the good and the bad — but there’s a point when you need to figure out where you’re at, who you are, and who you want to be. It’s good to free the mind of the confines of that. So yeah, I was happy to make my way back home.
Are there plans for any additional Call tribute shows?
I’d love to do more. I think all of us would. It’s just a matter of timing and scheduling and everything coming together right. It would be nice if the film got a little bit of momentum behind it and whether it’s with me singing or not I think it would just be a beautiful thing for the music to keep going somehow. They — Scott, Jim, and Tom — talked about maybe recording new stuff on their own and finding someone to have a revival in a way. They write music as well. They’re still as incredible of musicians as they ever were. It was actually spooky playing with them. I thought I’d be the hot shot, young, in my prime, just came off this big tour and fuck, I had to work my ass off to work up to being able to share the stage with them! It was really a humbling experience. They’re the real deal.
What’s next for BRMC?
We’re working on a new record right now. We toured Specter At the Feast for a while so we just finished that tour. We’ve got a couple little one-off shows but the bulk of touring is done and we’re working on a new record.
New records are exciting and it’s always good to be home.
Yes and no. Now I live out at sea somewhere in my mind. What’s that terrible quote, dry land’s a mess? I think that’s kind of how I feel most of the time.
The Call Live Tribute With Robert Levon Been, is out now on Label Records/Lightyear/Caroline Records.