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In August 2010, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club suffered a loss that left the band’s future in question when singer-bassist Robert Levon Been’s father, Michael Been, died of a heart attack while the band was in Belgium for a show at the Pukkelpop festival. Been, former bassist and singer of the acclaimed band the Call, officially served as BRMC’s live sound engineer. But he played a much bigger role for his son’s band – serving as mentor and an important musical sounding board.
“This record isn’t really a direct reflection on his passing,” he says of his father. “It was more so, how are we going to pick ourselves up today and move forward?”
It was a struggle for the band to find its footing on their latest album, Specter at the Feast. But this isn’t the first time Been and the group’s other founding member, guitarist-singer Peter Hayes, have had to overcome major adversity since they formed BRMC in 1998.
After their second album, 2003’s Take Them On, on Your Own, drummer Nick Jago quit. The remaining Been and Hayes decided to carry on, stepping away from their fully plugged-in, dense, guitar rock sound to make the bluesy, mainly acoustic album Howl as a duo. Jago eventually returned for Baby 81, only to bow out for good during the tour behind that album. That’s when they brought on Leah Shapiro to play drums, a move that revitalized the band.
Burned out from what had already been a long tour behind Beat the Devil’s Tattoo, BRMC took a break to find its bearings. Then, once the group turned its attentionto new music, things didn’t come easily for Been, Hayes and Shapiro.
The music that emerged on Specter at the Feast showcases two sides to the band’s music that have always existed, but with some fresh accents. On the one hand, there are dense, driving guitar-heavy rockers “Hate the Taste,” “Rival” and “Teenage Disease,” that give the album some edge. Then there are spacious and atmospheric songs, like “Fire Walker,” “Lullaby” and “Sometimes the Light.” These tracks have some rumble, but are slower and prettier, giving the album contrasting sides to its personality – possibly also because it was written in two different locations.
After Been and Hayes collaborated with Dave Grohl on a song called “Heaven and All” for Grohl’s documentary, Sound City, Grohl offered BRMC use of the studio featured in the film. But at that point, the idea was just to capture some music in a formative state.
“What we did at Dave’s is we laid down basics. We did basic drum takes and bass,” Been says. “We had a lot of songs that had like no words to them. Most of the album was just primal feelings and impulses, and we couldn’t connect with what we wanted to say.”
Wanting to get away from the distractions of Los Angeles, the group then moved to a friend’s cabin in a remote area near Santa Cruz to face the task of turning the rough ideas into fully arranged songs with lyrics.
“We had this beautiful friend of ours who gave us this cabin up there,” Been says. “It was like miles from anything and it was really peaceful, really peaceful. [We were] able to just take our time and make the music we needed to. That was really a saving grace.”
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