"Life inspires me to write music"
Interview with Robert and Peter of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
"If I only get 15 minutes of fame to say something, you want to make it count." - Robert Levon Been
"I guess the key word in that is life, it's full of everything." - Peter Hayes
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (BRMC) are a band of musicians who manage to create albums that range from hard rock songs (such as "Took Out A Loan" and "Need Some Air") to soulful melodies ("Killing The Light" and "Window") to acoustic ballads ("Am I Only"). They have built up a loyal following since they formed in the Bay Area in 1998 and have toured almost non stop in support of their well-received 4th album Baby 81, which was named for a Tsunami victim who was reunited with his parents in the aftermath. We were fortunate enough to catch up with BRMC as one of the headlining acts at this year's Monterey Music Summit, a multi-medium festival bringing together various artists with a commitment to social change and political awareness. Robert Levon Been (bass/keys/vocals) and Peter Hayes (guitar/bass/harmonica/vocals) of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club gave us an in depth interview on everything from politics, music journalism, touring, film, to outside interests and pet peeves.
1. What's the sound or direction are you headed for the next album or is it too early to tell?
Robert: I'm actually trying not to think about that because we're actually writing a lot right now and sometimes when you stop and think about it and conceptualize it, it goes somewhere else. Peter's been writing songs on acoustic guitar, really amazing like Howl country kind of things... blowing me away. And he stopped for awhile and didn't write anything for awhile, so I was wondering if he's still got it. A lot of those Howl kind of songs are just things he does on his own and doesn't really play them for me until they're close to done. I'm just as impressed with those songs he does as anything else, kind of like "Devil's Waitin'" and "Fault Line" and things like that. There's a nature to them and they're personal and they're pretty great. But then, we've also been jamming a lot as a band and writing these really hard core rock songs and those are coming at the same time. They're kind of contradictory in nature, so I don't know if our next record what the fuck it'll be. It's coming out of both place at the same time. I've also been listening to a lot of Nine Inch Nails and fantasizing about making a techno record. That's the conceptual part you don't want to know about.
2. Are you planning doing on any more tours in 2008?
Robert: We've admitted to Australia. Is Japan up there yet? Okay, that just got confirmed, it's 2 Tokyo shows. So, there's 3 in Japan. Hopefully, we're going to stop for awhile and not do anything. There's a plot of something to do later, but I can't say what it is because it's a really good idea, very very different from any tour we've ever done. You'll hear about it if it happens, it's about as creative as you can possibly get with touring. So, that's my tease for 2008. Maybe South America too, that's the dream for 5 years. Every time it gets close it slips away, so I don't want to jinx it.
3. What artists/bands have had the most influence on you?
Robert: Surprisingly, not the Jesus and Mary Chain. It's hard to think about the most because it changes from time to time. I've admitted to liking a lot of heavy metal when I was in junior high, Metallica and Alice in Chains, but I've come a long way since then. Ride, The Stone Roses, The Verve, I'm actually going to see the Verve in London in a couple of weeks and that's a big deal because there are not many bands that I'd travel to see and miss out a lot of our one week break.
Peter: I was just thinking of that the other day. I had an uncle that used to sing me and my brother songs when we'd go up to the mountains with him, he'd play "El Paso," "Cool Water," and this other song "Ghost Riders in the Sky," these kind of strange kind of country songs. I was thinking about it the other day when I was starting the lyrics for a song, I was kind of surprised how much that did affect me at as far as when I was 6, 7, 8 years old. Those songs got me thinking. Then I started listening to music for a long time and started paying attention more to the story than the song. The characters behind the music a little bit, like Johnny Cash, Moby Grape, the story of the band, music is the one thing I can know the people behind it. It means a lot to me.
4. How important is politics to you and your music?
Robert: Politics and music, I'd say for all three of us differently. Peter's the most politically minded as in he's got the drive and a lot to say and wants to say it. I've got a lot to say, but I don't really know if I want to say it. And I don't know what Nick (Jago) (drummer/percussion) wants to say, but I'm sure he'll think of something. Music and political things are hard for me sometimes because I'm of two minds, I don't know if it mixes all the time. I love Bob Dylan and John Lennon and I respect the political songs they've written and think those are some of the best songs ever written. At the same time, I think it's sacred ground in a lot of ways to think so highly of yourself to preach something like that. I'm always trying to catch myself, make sure it's worth... if I only get 15 minutes of fame to say something you want it to count.
Peter: It's only important for my personal gratification to get an annoyance out of my brain to get something out that I'm not hearing said by anybody else. As far as anybody agreeing with it or caring, it's not important... it's life, but the basic gist of any politics or ideas of religion is really kind of a personal (person) the nuisance of it. The hopes is that someone needs that to get heard, I would hope that the song would connect with it and that's great. As far as for the necessity of my own soul, that's the selfish part of it. The connection with other people with that kind of stuff, with those kinds of things, with any of it, it's kind of poetry, we're not all good at talking to people. You put it in a song and it helps relieve whatever frustration is there. I think a lot of people have that similar problem maybe, which is voicing what they feel. That's where music and art comes into play and can help voice that for people. That's where it becomes not selfish anymore.
5. Do you pay attention to music critics?
Robert: It changes, I think when it first started I read more, but then they all became so similar after awhile. It's hard to stomach or just kind of one after another. I think it's an art form to write about music, I really do. It's not considered one, but if you can do it a small amount of people can. I think a lot of people try using a lot of big words, but you can tell they're not really on the mark. I don't know how much mind I pay to it, it depends on what kind of mood I'm in.
6. Are there any journalists or magazines that you pay more attention to?
Robert: I like Under the Radar, I like Mojo. UNCUT sometimes, but there's like an avalanche of music and information where music and bands that make you feel overstimulated. I used to only feel that riding down Hollywood Boulevard, where it'd be too much information where it freaks me out. And now music is making me feel that way, that when I open a magazine there are so many bands. I don't know how anyone processes all of it. It's a shame, there used to only be a few bands. It was harder to be a musician, like there was more actual definition to what that means. Now it's anyone with attitude which is literally anyone.
7. Is the life of a touring musician what you expected it to be?
Robert: The honest answer is my dad warned me constantly, "Only do it if you fucking love it because it's really hard and it's really not what you think." When he'd say it every time, I just thought of myself as just so tough. The passion you have for it at the time, you just think you can not do anything. I've been warned to the breaking point, it's way more than you can imagine. You can't ever be asked to make that choice when you're 15 or 16, you think you're immortal and you should be because that's the only way you're going to get to the next point.
Peter: Yeah, it's hard and great, it's all those things. It's everything. I guess the key word in that is life, it's full of everything.
8. What is the strangest thing in your record collection?
Robert: Most embarrassing thing? Probably that Rihanna song "Umbrella." It's actually a good song.
9. What's your favorite book, movie/TV show, and food?
Robert: Book is the Martin Luther King's Strength (to Love). We're all pretty strung out on Indian food, so we try to find that. Favorite show is obviously the new Battlestar Galactica. I'm really crazy into films so I don't really have a favorite. The one I liked the best recently is "The Proposition" with Guy Pearce, Australian cowboy movie with Nick Cave music.
10. Who would you like to see as President of the USA next year?
Robert: I don't think any of them are going to get us out of the hole we're in. I think the whole system has got to change to do that. At the same time, I'm not going to piss away my vote on along the lines of someone like Ralph Nader or someone that will only end up letting your vote (be wasted). When push comes to shove, it's between two or three and it's the lesser of evils, you kind of have to do what you have to do until the revolution comes.
Peter: No, I don't really know enough about the candidates. I know what I'd like to see what comes out of it. I don't really trust democrat or republican, I think they're the same thing. I'd vote for a green party or the greener of the two, then I'd vote for neither of them and something that was a bit more on the peasanter side of life besides the ones with money. I guess I just don't have any faith that that's going to change, I don't see any candidates to get really fired up about. As far as I'm concerned, I'm kind of playing it safe and trying to be friends with everyone. I don't know what's afoot.
11. What band(s) would you like to see reunite?
Robert: The only other one would be The Stone Roses. I don't know who else, I'll think of it later.
12. You were saying before how you are really into films. Are you inspired by any filmmakers?
Robert: There's actually this guy who's a friend of ours he makes these short films. His name is Jamie Dag and he did the American X video that I just found out is going to get a proper release. I don't know if you can call it a 9 minute music video or a short film because we're not in it. It's hard to explain without seeing it. It's the thing I'm most proud of that we've done even though the Berlin thing that Tessa put together was really good. He's great and I've seen a couple shorts he's done and he's making more now. It's inspiring.
Peter: No, I don't keep track of that stuff too much. I don't keep track of their names, I barely keep track of musician's names. I get inspired by movies, moments and stories. It's the story, not the director or the actors.
13. What are some of your non-music related interests or hobbies?
Robert: Motorcycles would be cliche, films we talked about, traveling is another cliche in a way because we get to do that anyway, but just the fact that we're gettng to go to places like Vietnam and South America, that's like our other passion to explore places. We get to do music and cheat our way to these places. I like history. My history teacher in high school was the only class I really enjoyed. The teacher was passionate about it.
Peter: Darts... I try to make it to a shooting range when I can. Airsoft guns will do when nothing else is around. Motorcycles, just working on them, the one I got seeing if I can get it going again when it dies. Poetry, I like reading poetry. My favorite poem is by Henry Miller, I don't want to say he's my favorite poet. The poem is called "The Bread of Life." A collection of poems called birds or flowers or something. When you're walking through a thrift store or a book store and pick something out and read something you need to hear, that's kind of the same thing with the Bible. You read something when you need to hear it.
14. What inspires you in either songwriting or life?
Robert: For myself, just getting to a place where I stop using my brain. It's a very difficult place to get to, it's like the whole world was built to keep you from getting to this one place. When songs come out of it, I want to start writing sometimes in that place when whatever comes is pretty much proof to me that place exists. So if I can write it and prove it back to myself without leaving that state of mind, then maybe convincing myself it doesn't really exist or it's not that important that's the evidence of where I came from. It's like this subconscious place where things just make sense and you're removed from that center which also makes a lot of sense. It's probably more about being close to God. Songwriting is like the byproduct of being in a center.
Peter: Life inspires me to write music. I guess just trying to be aware of a lot of things kind of about, it's hard to explain... you try not to be a vampire and the whole deal. You don't want to force an experience to happen so you can write about, that's going to happen anyways. Like breaking up with a girl, that kind of heartache takes you to a place that makes you think you're right or something, that's kind of the point. You write from different places. It's just trying to keep eyes open as far as what's in life. Like someone walking down the street saying life is difficult, putting it in a song. To just make more sense, like "666 Conducer" was when I was working in that mechanics shop and I was putting the conducer into the car. Moments like you see "666" that kind of stuff conjures up. So everything kind of inspires.
15. What was the last concert you went to that wasn't your own?
Robert: I think it was Bob Dylan or Nine Inch Nails. I walked out of the Dylan show. I was looking forward to it for so long, first time I'd seen him. I guess it's partially due with his band being very traditional, kind of muso-session band, and it doesn't really feel like a band. What I guess he tells them to play, which doesn't sound like his songs, he changes the melody and instrumentation. He goes from the most amazing chords to the most standard form and the only way you can tell the song is from the words and nothing else is recognizable, so it was really hard for me to go through that. I just wanted to keep the image in my head.
16. What annoys you most?
Robert: Bratty kids. There's this line or quote similar to "There's nothing as poisonous or sharp, than that of an ungrateful child." I think it's a Shakespeare thing so he must have had problems with kids too.
Peter: I'd have to say mean people annoy me, mean-spirited comments and attitudes bothers the fuck out of me.
17. What are you rebelling against?
Robert: Haven't really been able to put it into words yet.
Peter: Am I supposed to say "What have you got?" I'm rebelling against my own stupidity. All the crap that you've put on in the world is all our problems. I'm rebelling against that as well as the asshole in me that is capable of doing the exact shit that I hate.
18. What is your favorite city in the world?
Robert: Pete and Nick like Nashville a lot. Pete was going to go back there after the tour and live there for 2 months or something. Nick likes New York, but he's actually okay with LA right now. I stopped believing the grass is greener so it's where ever we land or where ever we have good friends and family. It's Monterey today... I used to be so miserable and shit talk places, it's not real.
19. How important was music for you growing up?
Robert: Not as important as it was for Peter. Actually, I didn't really tune into it until later. I listened to a lot of metal stuff because I had skater friends who were smoking, drinking, and fucking too soon. We all knew those kids in elementary school and junior high. I didn't have any other friends and even though I was pretty good comparatively, those were like my peeps. And then I would listen to whatever they listened just to have music as a community. Now looking back, it was really limited compared to what music can give you when you're tuned into it. And I was wondering what the fuck I was doing with my life... And everything went from black and white to color. Like why didn't anyone tell me this was here? The difference between listening and hearing. I don't know how to explain the difference really between the two, like to someone who can't hear. They remember that camping trip because they listen to that one record the whole time with their friends and that was great and that was kind of what you use it for in the beginning more so. But I guess you come to it when it's your time.
20. What they think the biggest problem was facing the world today?
Robert: It's the lust and need for money right now and I think it's just infected everything and it didn't used to be like that. No one can understand or feel that right now. Fifty years ago, it wasn't all about money that money wasn't king and it didn't shape everything. There was art and ideas and movements and now they're all back to branding and it isn't a bad thing unless you glorify it. Everything is based on money. It's a waste of society, politics, everything, it's ridiculous, healthcare, it's a perversion of humanity.
Peter: The world's biggest problem is they can't fucking get along. I mean it's supposed to be religion and money is the biggest problem. People need to relax about their money and what god they want to fight over. That's seems to be the problem and all the other things, like global warming and bees dying and all that stuff, I think, would all be fixed if they get out of their fucking ass and not be so concerned with those two things.