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BRMC Howl Anniversary
Do you remember where you were in 2005? What you were doing? Who you were seeing? Even if you don’t remember that, if you’re into music at all, you will most likely remember what you were listening to in 2005. There were so many great albums being thrown on the market, bands who are still around ten years later experiencing their first success, and Indie dancefloors filled with people eager to dance the night through, celebrating this soundtrack of their generation.BRMC, however, had already had their breakthrough, being praised to the skies by the press for their debut that came out in 2001. Four years later though, the tide had turned, their contract had been lost, just like their drummer, and retrospectively the band was now reaching the big crossroads in their career. Having left flat by their record company they now had to make decisions that would mark the birth of a record that so many people have come to love, a record that stood out and has stayed with us. Howl was born.Ten years later… Does it feel like an eternity to you or like it was only yesterday that you went to the studio and recorded Howl?No, I can’t believe it. The shocking thing is, I didn’t have any idea it’s been ten years. And I told Pete, and he didn’t believe me. So we had to like figure it out on the calendar and do the math a few times. It’s a tricky one… How the brain works with that… I guess we’ve been pretty busy since then so that helps things move faster, I think, if you’re working. That makes time mutate into something else.With some things, I guess, it’s a bit like this and a bit like that, when I think about how my memory works, then some things feel like it was only yesterday and other things feel like it was twenty years ago.Yeah, I mean, I think it’s gonna be scarier when it’s the twenty-year anniversary. (laughs)What is your personal relationship with this album? Has it changed you in any way?(pause)Maybe a tricky one for the beginning…Yeah, it’s a tricky one to start off with… I mean, every record’s got this kind of feeling of being another chapter of the story. And so it was a particular, I mean they all are, but it was a particular time and place that things came together. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, that kind of never rings so true as when we were recording that album.The album actually has a lot of light, and melody, and beauty in it, and it was such a dark time, such a scary time. We sound like we’re a lot more at ease than we actually were. When you listen to it, it sounds… it’s so rich with melody, so focused, lyrically and… (laughs). It was such a heavy time. We weren’t crushed by that. Or, you know, that it frightened out the spirit of what we were making. It somehow did the opposite. We started it kind of with Nick, but he wasn’t in the band anymore once we really started in on it and we lost our record deal. So we didn’t have a drummer or a record deal. And we had no one really asking us, no one wanting, I mean, beside some fans… No one was really coming to us saying “Please make another record!” In some ways it feels like we had nothing to lose, because we had lost a lot. And that kind of changes how you approach something. But with that said, it was… (laughs) like non-stop, every day there’d be setbacks with what we were doing, “No one’s gonna wanna hear this…”, you know. It was all doubt. It was strange how uncommercial of an idea it was at the time. If you want to stay in the game, or get back in the game, you’re supposed to just do… repeat what you’ve just done. Repeat whatever sold, that kind of shit.Like “Play it safe”?Yeah, to give them another Punk Song, another Spread Your Love, you know, make that album again, that’s what people want, that’s what people know you have, we have a lot of people saying that.There was a lot of nervousness, which maybe made work that much harder to make Howl great so that it wouldn’t fall into that cliché or what people were kind of betting it to be.Now, if you had the chance to give your 10-year-younger self some advice on the album or on the situation back then…(laughs out loud)… what would it be?Erm… Besides of “Duck!” ? I think that’s about it. Peter threw a motorcycle helmet at me once. Besides that I got no other words of wisdom. (laughs)He hit you then? Or did he miss you? I mean, if you say “Duck!”…Well, it’s… (laughs) It’s a bit of a blur. But it’s good to look back and laugh at it. Yeah, I forgot about that. It’s some intense shit, but it was good.Are there any aspects you see differently about the album nowadays? Or is there anything you would like to change, if you could?Yeah. (laughs) It’s just the end of Mercy. It always bugged me because… Two things about Mercy: one, we left it off the album, we put it on the Sessions, and I’ve always kicked myself for not believing in it more. But then the song kind of grew pretty much. I can’t remember now actually if I had that section before the record was finished or if it came immediately afterwards. It was always like touring it and always having this… It was kind of a song which I finally finished but just like maybe a day late, when I finally wrote the outro to it. And it actually stayed with me so much and frustrated me that I went back and I took the track and extended the ending. And then I sang that vocal over it, like five years later or something. We released that extended version… I think it was with the vinyl that came out, the Sessions re-issue vinyl. But it finally felt like I was finished. (laughs) Only when I did that… But it’s just also funny listening to the song and knowing that the first half of it was sung six years before the last part. And then it’s like a six-year-old voice that comes in, but it actually sounds the same. But I wrote that shit. So six years can pass between a few seconds and then there’s a new voice that came from the future.Ironically, something similar happened with Still Suspicion Holds You Tight. That song, for the record, was the first like… the first minute or so it was… the whole song was basically Peter playing this guitar and a harp on and on, and he sang only the first verse and chorus. And then everything that’s on Howl, on that song, was added onto that. The entire second half of its vocal was added onto that, but about five years from when he first recorded that harmonica and guitar. And it’s amazing! You listen to it and you listen to the first verse and chorus and then five years later we matched the exact same distortion tone that was kind of on the vocal, and we found the right mic and everything to make it sound right. So it began five years before it ends. And that’s just a rare moment when technology is your friend (laughs) and it doesn’t make you want to jump out of a building. Anything for the sake of the song, though. I’d commit far worse crimes than that. (laughs)It’s always like as soon as you guys have played an extended version, like for example Mercy, or Sympathetic Noose is another good example… And then you listen to the recorded version again… It always feels like something’s missing…(laughs)… and then, as a fan, you start craving a recording of this extended version, because you can’t imagine the song working without this extended part anymore. It’s always like there’s a gap in between, so you’re always very happy as soon as the extended version comes out in one way or another.Yeah, I guess the only way to come to terms with that is that if I could go back and change all of that, then maybe the shows wouldn’t be as special. (laughs) Maybe it would just be like any other band where the record’s great and then the show is just exactly what the record is and then you go home and then you’d be like “Yeah, that was nice”. I kind of like the frustration that comes once you’ve finished a record and it kind of pushes you to keep going a little further. And even though you missed it by that much, maybe it’s meant for the spirit of that, bringing that record to life for people, you know? And maybe there’s something to be said for that. I think I can understand the frustration to want to come home and hear the thing that you just felt so deeply live. It’s kind of like I have to do whatever the songs wants. Even if it doesn’t work out perfectly with your own plans, you kind of have to obey what the song wants. Sometimes it wants a little more…I’ve always been curious: had these songs, which had a different approach, been lying dormant in some hidden corners? Maybe you wrote them on the road, touring the first two albums, backstage or something, but you didn’t really feel like they fit and then, were they waiting to be discovered or to be heard and you decided to just release them then?I think we were pretty vocal about it from the beginning. During the first album, when it came out, in interviews, we talked about these other songs we write and no one kind of believed us, or they thought “Aaww, that’s cute”. (laughs) To me there was always a whole other half of the band that people didn’t have any relationship with yet. And so it was kind of supposed to be the second album but we got convinced… Well, I’m not gonna blame other people. We were kind of convinced we should follow the first record to some degree, but at the same time it was… The first album wasn’t really how the band sounded, either. The first album was kind of like an experiment in the studio and we didn’t even actually sound like that when we actually started touring. It really developed when we had our own sound as a three-piece. We really wanted to show that to people. I really wanted people to hear that, because it was such a powerful thing and it developed from that shows, so… The second album was kind of honouring that, even though we didn’t… There were certain mistakes with the production we would have liked to gone back to and change. So by the time the third album came around it was kind of… If Howl had been the second album, I don’t think Devil’s Waitin’ would have been on it, Promise wouldn’t have been on it… What’s another one? Restless Sinner. There was a lot that came late. Mercy wouldn’t have been on it. Ah, it wasn’t anyway! (laughs) The Line wasn’t finished, The Line had only a first verse. So it would have been a different record. But even at the time, even when we walked in the studio to make Howl, we imagined it would just be strictly acoustic, two guitars, very like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska kind of record, like very minimal and to the point. That was always how we thought it was going to be if we ever made Howl. And then it was actually, ironically, the song Howl, which Peter ended up creating this very melodic organ part for, that kind of started, I don’t know, it started making us think riskier in terms of production and what it could be. It was like the song Howl is such a melodic, kind of weird Beach-Boys-Beatlesy kind of strange hybrid thing that we had to start re-thinking it. And then we thought “Okay, we’ll make it just a couple of song like that” and then it kept growing, but it was always… “Less is more” was always the golden rule with that, so it was a constant battle of holding back, everything was like about holding back. And I remember so vividly… The whole making of Baby 81 was just like violent … like making a ship in a bottle for a year and just wanting to finally smash the bottle, because you’re driving yourself crazy like trying to hold all those little instruments in your hands, just being so delicate with everything and then just wanting to smash it all. But Howl was brutal in that sense of just constantly holding back what you wanna do. And that tension was I guess part of what made it work.Sounds like a long process, going through this…Yeah, it was. But it was filled with self-doubt, so it wasn’t that bad. (laughs)Could you actually have imagined back then that later a lot of fans really would someday call Howl their favourite BRMC album and that the original vinyl would sell for more than 300 dollars?No… I don’t know, I still get a lot of people that just only talk about the first album. (laughs)Really? Oh, okay…Yeah, yeah, yeah… But I remember that people at that time trashed Howl and particularly in the UK it never really connected very much. And that was another aspect that I thought was interesting. I can only talk it up to maybe there was a certain kind of rootier Americana sort of elements in it that wasn’t as kind of anglophile as maybe expected. Yeah, the people that did get it though or came around to it over time, it’s made for them. I’m really grateful. I don’t know what else to think or feel about that besides that. And then, for myself personally, it was, I mean, it was such a huge personal victory, because it was so… We did not get support from people throughout that, it felt like everyone was hoping we would fail. Even Dan and Nick in some way at the time… I respect that (laughs), because they think Rock n Roll music is supposed to be a bit of a… it’s a competitive sport. I would do the same at the time. And I’m glad with Nick… we had some very bad shit but he came in and played on Promise and then we were together, got back together and it was good for a while. But even with Nick, it felt like we had to prove it to him to get him back. But maybe that’s all in my head. (laughs)On the label side, we showed it to everyone, no one wanted it. But the smartest thing we did was, we didn’t apologize for it. We didn’t say “Oh, tell us what version of Howl would you like us to change it to be to make you put it out?” We were very adamantly saying “This is it as a complete piece of work, you either want it or you don’t, shut the fuck up and don’t waste our time!” (laughs) And we were kind of being assholes at the same time but for good reason, because that’s what happens. If there’s nobody hemming and hawing about it then you know they’re going to find a producer to change it and make it into something they want it to be.And you can’t recognize it anymore.I just knew that we had to stand our ground with that and luckily RCA, this guy Ashley Newton, who… Ironically, we signed with Virgin for our first album, but he left before the fucking thing came out. So we really loved Ashley and wanted him from the start, but Virgin was falling apart and he was smart and got out of it, so it was cool that we actually got to find him again. But his hands were tied, it is actually pretty interesting that his hands were tied, because RCA didn’t really want an acoustic-rootsy kind of album from us. The only way they would put it out was if we signed a two-album deal and promise that our second record would be a Rock record. (laughs) And then they put out Howl, but as a limited special release. So the first round of Howl, there wasn’t actually very many made and it didn’t get promoted very much. Even the label as a whole, even though Ashley believed in it, they expected it to kind of fail and then they would get us for the next one. Then they’d get what they wanted, and they did. They promoted Baby 81 a lot more.But it’s taken time, Howl has taken time to kind of grow and get the respect it was asking for from day one. But good things come to those… (laughs)I always feel like the original Howl vinyl is like the Holy Grail or something, like “I’ve got the original version, you only have the re-release!”With the re-release… I guess the re-release finally felt like it was supposed to sound, and how it was supposed to be heard was to have the Sessions record with it. Howl was always kind of short, it ended before… there were so many more songs. And hearing it all, having these two, felt like we’d finally finished the job, I guess. It wasn’t until then. And any time you get to put out a vinyl is lucky, it’s a rare thing even though it’s having its comeback and all, it’s still expensive and difficult.I just figured out that there is an extended version of the song Howl as well, which was on the soundtrack of a film called Southland Tales…I don’t think that was extended, I think they did some sort of edit, an edit that made it longer. It’s not like when we recorded it it was actually longer. I think that was fake, they extended it in a weird way.Anyway, are there any more, or are there any then, skip the “more”, extended versions of Howl songs floating around somewhere, on some tapes or I don’t know where, anything that you could dig out maybe?(laughs) Erm… No, I think the fact that it was kind of so scattered, kind of made us want to do the re-release with the sessions thing so that finally everything was in one, one or two places. That was kind of the point of that, to finally not have it so people would have to be digging and switching for… Because that was going on for a while, there was quite a few years of that, so it was nice to let everyone have kind of one thing with the sessions and the vinyl sessions. The songs that were from that time, which we haven’t finished still (laughs)… There is actually one on the next record, which we’re doing now, which Pete finished, which is great, it’s a really beautiful song. I don’t have any idea though what the next record is going to sound like yet, because we’re still in the raw, early phase. Yeah, that was one. And then there’s a bunch… Sweet Feeling’s Gone was kind of one that I remember vaguely, that came out on Beat The Devil’s Tattoo, but it was… Yeah, you know. Everything’s everywhere. (laughs)Scattered around…It’s in the past, it’s in the present, it will probably be in the future, too. Shrapnels from past wars.Some people always seem a bit curious about a song that you did, which is a cover of the Moby Grape song I Am Not Willing. There’s been the question why it didn’t make the album and the Sessions, I think it was a b-side.It didn’t make the record, because we were already paranoid enough that people were going to think that we were playing covers that we didn’t even want the conversation to be open, to someone saying “Oh, one of those is a cover!” And then someone who doesn’t know the record well would assume that the wrong song is the one that was covered and so there would rather be no cover and everyone would have to deal with the fact that we actually wrote all of that. (laughs) And not somebody going like “Oh yeah, some of them are old standards” or something, and that rumour would start flying. One of the things I was proud of is, it’s hard to write a classic-sounding song, but it’s harder to make someone think that you didn’t write it.Of course, there is the reference to Howl, Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem. Is that also the story behind the poems on the back of the cover? (e.g.: “What fools are they that come with hands open and mouths shut.” [Howl]; “You’re not lost, just returned to the last place you belong, where truth is something you read about in books written by a silent romantic pen.” [Howl Sessions])Well… I feel bad kind of repeating it, but it’s the truth, people asked us a lot about the title of course. It was pretty innocently just a kind of paying respect and a love letter, in a way, to a time and place and to a spirit of some great works of art that in some way Howl kind of represents. When you imagine the pinnacle of Beat poet times and all the promise that had, Howl kind of represents all of those voices and more, and not even those in particular, just the spirit that carries on and those things… It was a lot of different poems, and Yates, and listening to Bob Dylan and The Band and just Ginsberg. It was the best chance I had at saying thank you to all of them in one word. (laughs) I figured I’d give it a shot.How did you first encounter Ginsberg’s poem? Was there anything that fascinated you most about it?Well, Howl was never my favourite poem. It was impressive in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t strike an emotional chord in a way that others touched me more. But again, yeah, it was kind of meant to represent that entire time. Even though we didn’t put any covers on the album, it was kind of a way to keep us humble and still steal something from someone. (laughs) Because so much of the album was actually stolen, you know, hundreds of people who have directly influenced us. I mean it’s a “Thank you for the work, thank you for the music”.While some songs of the album seem to have found their way into your standard live repertoire, some only get played very rarely. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Still Suspicion Holds You Tight played live. Do you feel like you have lost contact with some of them?I’m actually surprised at how much contact we still have with so many of the songs, considering how many fucking songs we have. (laughs) So it’s actually more of a surprise, like “Wow, we’re still playing that one!” or this one is still kicking around from this record or that record. Yeah, some of them, for all different reasons… Suspicion is a really hard song to play live and so that’s probably why it’s on the wayside. Howl, Peter can never remember that keyboard part, if a month goes by and he’s not playing it every day. (laughs) And I feel bad after a while, asking him to learn it again after a time. Yeah, but it’s pretty cool how… a lot of Howl has stayed alive in the live set, revolving at least, simply because we include the acoustic part of the set, which frees Peter and me to bring one of those back and keep the blood flowing through it.I always feel like for some people this is really like the highlight of the show when for example if you play Mercy or Devil’s Waitin’ or other acoustic songs.And some of them are waiting for it to be over. (laughs out loud) It’s always fun to listen and it’s hard to tell, like which cities, which shows, you know, which ones when you’re going to be able to hear like a pin drop in the room, there are really beautiful, incredible shows for that. And then other shows, you know, it’s too late and there’s too much alcohol and everyone’s just kind of talking over it, the rustle of the crowd, and that’s harder to play over those voices.And then when you’re standing in the crowd you start to feel like you want to beat the shit out of them because they’re standing right behind you, talking about the weather or something.(laughs) I don’t know if I’d be really pissed, and now… I’m kind of surprised how almost all the time, like especially in this day and age when the attention span is so short, but people standing focused on one thing like for two hours and more. I’m surprised they’re even still there by the end, even if they’re talking, you know, because it’s a lot for this kind of culture that we have now, to stay with something. And I’m as guilty as anyone. With some shows I’ll leave after a couple of songs or something, or I’ll just lose interest. And I don’t even know if it’s because of the band or if it’s just my own bullshit in my head that won’t shut up. I’m pretty impressed with the people that just come to our shows like again and again, and the amount of respect that’s given. And it’s okay, you gotta get drunk sometimes (laughs) and what better place than when you’re having a good time. You know, it takes all kinds. As long as it doesn’t stop us from playing it, if it doesn’t become that, then that’s ok.I mean, we’re singing about the fucking “What happened to the revolution?” and then (laughs) five minutes later we want you to be at your most, you know, quiet and internal emotional state. We know what we’re asking of everyone and we have no expectation, but, you know, we gotta try.Peter once told me that Complicated Situation used to be a poem before it became a song. Do any other songs on Howl share the same fate?We take certain lines, every once in a while. We steal a line from a poem that we’ve written, or some scrap of paper somewhere that goes with something else and then use it in a song. But never like a full poem as a complete piece, because it’s very hard to stay within the guidelines of what you’ve written and not be tempted or be forced to have to change it, adapt it to the rhythm of the song, which is a very different medium. And even if you get that right, the emphasis, the resonance that words have when you’re reading them on the page, which line, which final sections stand and echo and resonate for you, can completely reverse when you put them into a melodic lyrical form. All of a sudden, the emphasis is coming on all these different points that you didn’t want emphasized (laughs). And this is where the melody falls, so… it’s very difficult, it’s lucky, rare when it can happen.I was so jealous and impressed when Pete wrote Complicated, that was a really good one. That was one of the earlier songs he had, too. It took me until Beat The Devil’s Tattoo that I suddenly found something that worked. But it wasn’t even my own poem, it was that fucking Edgar Allan Poe Annabel Lee poem that I used and wrote a song around that. And for five minutes I thought I was the only person who had ever done that, but then I realized there’s like a hundred versions of that song. I actually listened to all of them, all one hundred of them, and felt terrible, except for my version (laughs), I’m at least proud of that. And I’m very proud of how well I was able to put that melody to those words and make it really feel right. But, you know, I have yet to figure out how to… Maybe I’m not rigid enough with poetry as far as doing it to a certain particular framework it needs to be in to do that.And when you write something I can imagine you don’t want to think about rhyme schemes and verse patterns all the time.I still think of rhymes and certain things, I still do that, but I just do that whenever the fuck I feel like it. (laughs)I felt like time as a motif or as an image was quite prominent on this album, I’ve just picked out two lines, I mean the whole record starts with “Time won’t save our souls”…Do you think you’d still have the impression though, if we didn’t start the record with it? Because, truth be told, that whole beginning of Shuffle Your Feet never existed until about the last hour of the session.Really?!The song used to just start with the guitar and the claps and instrumentally, it would just start. And then we wrote like the bridge, we put all these layers of harmony vocals for the bridge. And just because we were trying to figure out if the harmonies worked, we sewed those vocals when it got to the bridge. And we were listening to them all soloed and we kind of all started giggling because it sounded so like good and because we didn’t recognize ourselves on this. And then we were like “Fuck, this is really good on its own! So, do we do a breakdown next and then cut the guitars out?” We had all that going on. And then we just thought “Let’s copy it and make it the beginning of the song!”, but that was like the last thing that we’d done on the record. Yeah, it kind of kicks off the whole thing, but it was very much an afterthought as the song never started like that before that moment.That’s really quite funny, because it’s so characteristic.So, yeah, the question’s for you! Would you still think it’s all about time if it didn’t start like that? (laughs)Well, first of all I think it really is very characteristic, this beginning of the album, because, you know, often you have records starting off… Like Specter starting off slowly, building up, but if you put this album on, you’re into the whole thing within milliseconds.Hm, okay, question for me, good… (And then I start trying to talk my way out of the whole thing…) There is one more line that has “time” on it, on the album. Like “Time will change / still the world remains the same” from Weight of the World… Hmm… I wouldn’t say so. I just thought it fit so well with the whole “Ten year anniversary thing”, you know?I just wrote those words for Weight of the World in like 1997. (laughs) So, it really wasn’t part of a grand concept.Pssst, don’t say that, just keep the secret!(laughs) Yeah, Weight of the World was one of the first songs I wrote like forever ago…1997… Let’s do the math now, how old were you in 97?!I don’t know… 20? Wait! 19? (mumbling numbers and steps of calculation) Yeah, around 19 or something. But it was always, I had no idea what the hell I was thinking. I think it was just my reoccurring nightmare. My only reoccurring nightmare when I was a kid was always being… it’s really obvious what it was about. It was like this little machine at the centre of the world, underground, there was this machine, like Terry Gilliam, all these levers and bars and gears and pumping out steam. And everything’s rumbling and rattling, and I have to pull all the levers at the right times and keep the machine from breaking, and the pressure keeps building, and the space keeps getting more crammed until finally the machine breaks and the entire world collapses and it’s all my fault. So that was my reoccurring nightmare in a way.Wow, that’s intense… Now, what I was hinting at, or I was trying to hint at was … (laughs)… I thought that, you know, having ten years more of experience, would you sign these statements again, like “Time won’t save our souls”, now that some time has passed? Can you now say that “Well, time really won’t save our souls”, or maybe “It will”?No, I don’t want to answer that for other people. I think it’s good to… I think the meaning of it is better left in your hands. In the listener’s hands and I don’t know, I guess everybody might have a different answer for it, I kind of like that.
Ten years of Howl - Exclusive Interview With Robert Been of BRMC