Often, especially to those not graced with musical talent, being in a band can seem like bliss. Aside from the money, the international touring and the fame, what appeals most – generally speaking – is that sense of infinite freedom, of boundless creative and personal possibilities. The reality though, can be somewhat different.
Run down by almost a decade of the write / release / tour routine, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club were at breaking point. Finishing off their latest batch of shows, the band heard a message from back home – singer Robert Levon Been’s father, Michael Been, had passed away. Shattered, the group immediately took time off, time away from music and the exhausting routines played out on major label life. “We travelled” the bass player reveals. “Beyond travelling on a tour where you have to work every city, then jump on a bus each night we went through a couple of different places; spent some time in the desert. We went on a motorcycle trip to Cambodia. Just had some time to get outside of the usual things.. I don’t know. It was much needed”.
The experience was evidently cleansing. Taking a step back, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club aimed to re-capture what it was that drove them to make music in the first place. “You want something to say, you want it to mean something” Been insists. “You still want that feeling of if you were hit by a car, laying in the gutter and you had one chance to say something, write one song that you really felt you had to say. You want that feeling. You can’t do that across 12 songs every two years. There gets to a point where even with experimentation you’re still not being true to yourself and why you’re doing it.”
Operating without their spiritual mentor, the band were left alone in the studio to piece together their next step. Refusing to be trapped by any one direction, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club focussed on sounds, on noise and then started to refine these moods into ideas. “We were just kind of playing, I mean there was a purpose but not too much at the beginning” says drummer Leah Shapiro. “Just playing and playing to see what happens. Really take our time with it and not worry too much about shaping ideas into songs, making it tangible. Just making sounds.”
Pushing themselves to find focus, the band admit that this album was difficult to make. Gradually steering the sessions into a direction they found appropriate, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club proved to be ruthless self-editors. “It was a lot of work,” Shapiro admits. “There is a lot of stuff which didn’t make it onto this record. Those songs are in various stages of completion. Some are just still very rough ideas. I think it was partially a result of spending so much time at the stage of just getting ideas out and just playing, trying to turn it into an actual song. Giving it a shape, a structure. A lot came out of that. That was definitely through hard work.”
Despite the labour, the band still insist that a certain conviction ran through each recording session. Robert Been comes closest to defining this atmosphere, using typically emotive terms. “How do I explain it? I wanted to make good on a promise, in a way. I wanted to do something.. the loss that we all suffered - I mean my father was instrumental in this band from the very beginning, teaching us a lot of what we know now” he explains. “The idea of walking away from that or not doing it justice has been hard to live with. So this record is really.. I don’t know what the word is. It feels different. Things are more kind of crystallized, in terms of why we’re together and what we’re together for. It seems like it means a lot to us, we’ll see what it means to other people”.
‘Specter At The Feast’ is certainly different. Borrowing its title from a line in ‘Macbeth’ (“I only steal from the good ones - or try to, at least” chuckles Been) the album is perhaps the band’s most unrelenting, most focussed and distilled effort in almost a decade. Each note feels planned, but quite natural – nothing is forced, but everything has a place. It’s not flawless – nothing Black Rebel Motorcycle Club put their name to could be perfect – but it feels, for all intents and purposes, right.
“Some songs come just obnoxiously fast and you don’t even know how they happen” the bass player states. “Peter (Hayes, guitarist) disappeared, we couldn’t find him and he kind of emerged two days later from his room and we heard ‘Sometimes The Light’ in pretty much the form it is on the record. All of us were blown away by it. I spent the rest of the month trying to convince him that it was good enough to be on the record!” he laughs. “To him, it was something he was messing around with late at night, just for fun. I thought, it might be good to have some fun on the record. They don’t all have to be serious. There are other songs like ‘Firewalker’ which took over a year to get together in different forms, coming back to it and losing it. Both ways went into the process on this record.”
Ultimately, though, these aren’t songs which will be strangled by the studio – after time away from their audience Black Rebel Motorcycle Club can’t wait to get back out on the road and allow their new material a chance to breathe. “The songs – these ones, in particular – they weren’t studio concoctions. We didn’t conceptualise them, it was really just the three of us in a room, kind of filling up each corner and taking up all the space” Been argues. “So once we got into the studio we don’t have to struggle for force them into that mapped kind of nature. Other records I kind of dreaded learning how to make them speak to people in that context. I wanted them to be fun to play out.”
‘Specter At The Feast’ is out now.