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Robert Interview 2013
The picturesque image of Utrecht’s grachten that presents itself to the excited BRMC audience on this summer evening almost manages to let you forget about the sword of Damocles that seems to be hovering above this place. Almost exactly three years ago the circumstances of BRMC playing in this very venue, the Tivoli in Utrecht, were greatly tragic, for it was here that Robert, Peter and Leah played their first full show only a few days after Michael Been, Robert’s dad and the band’s mentor, had sadly passed away during the band’s summer tour. That said evening in summer 2010 might be remembered as the most emotionally intense show a sensitive concertgoer ever experienced (Read the review here.) and therefore you can’t help but be reminded that this place may hold some special memories.However, it’s a good-humoured Robert Levon Been I’m meeting backstage, lovely and courteous as always. After some chit-chat about my hometown and football (which go hand in hand as you will know if you have any background knowledge about Dortmund), amidst the gurgling of washing and coffee machines and the grumpy merch guy putting up his booth, he’s more than eager to delve into the subject of their latest album Specter at the Feast, their process of songwriting and, lo and behold!, good ol’ Willy Shakespeare.You just played the Montreux Jazz Festival and in a video interview I saw you said something about stumbling into Leonard Cohen’s dressing room, partly accidentally, and that you wanted to annoy him by playing Chelsea Hotel. What became of that?(Grinning) Aaah, I was being a smartass. I did accidentally go into the floor that they were on in the venue, they pretty much took over the whole floor, and I got kicked out of there. But I was hoping… I knew I was in the wrong place for a while though and I was just pushing my luck to see how long it would take me to get kicked out. But then… no, I was hoping he would hear it, or hear that it was done in the same room, I thought that would probably make him smile if he heard that someone next door was playing this same song around the same time as he probably played it. He’s one of the only people that I’m a really big fan of and looked up to that I’ve never met and only recently, a couple of years back when he started touring, was when I saw him for the first time. Dylan’s another one I’ve never met but I saw him live, I’ve seen him live more times, I just think Cohen’s better live now. But I know Bob’s got some physical issues, like arthritis in his hands, it’s why he can’t play the guitar that well anymore. It’s a shame though, but understandable.So you really did play Chelsea Hotel then?Yeah, I played it.But he didn’t come out?Nooo. You know, you gotta be just hoping. It’s like a message in a bottle, you never know if it will get through or not.So your recent album is, as I would say it, one of your best albums so far and I think that the composition of the songs is well thought out. One could actually claim that with the booklet or the cover being inspired by a cover of a classical drama, the album’s arc of suspense also resembles that of a classical drama, with its exposition, its climax, its retarding momentum and so on. Was there any idea like this behind it or did it simply work out that way?As much as you’d like to take credit for being some mastermind I think it’s always important to just let whatever songs may be coming be what they will. And not force them or control them into a particular shape or form in the beginning. I think it’s really important to let go of that control and just hope that the best of you comes out. But then, later on, once you gonna have, you know, these kind of rough shards of music and sound, then you can start thinking about how these pieces of the puzzle might fit together and how they might relate to each other. And that’s when you can risk getting more conceptual and letting part of your brain consciously take over. I think the most profound and beautiful things come from when you don’t even... You know, that part of your subconscious... people that are the most in touch with that side are the most humble that they don’t have very much control or will over what it’s gonna be, and that’s the best part.But yeah, once we start getting into it we try to make the whole album feel... Well, the idea was to make it feel like one circular, continuous piece of time and we could have gone further with that. We could have made that more obvious, but I think it would have meant manipulating the songs to a point where they weren’t as full on their own right. (Pause) It’s different than a chapter in a book. You really have to make sure the chapter plays into what becomes before and after it. I guess, in a weird way, it’s more like an episode of a TV series or something where you want to make that episode as great as you can but you also want it to trace an arc to what comes before and after it.Have a cliffhanger.Yeah, but a book, people read from start to finish and you don’t have to section it up. So it’s somewhere inbetween there. You’re trying to keep the story going but at the same time you’re just keeping it. It’s more abstract than that, so you can keep a feeling, or a tone, or a certain frequency. You can also overthink that, just like I’m doing right now. (Laughs)So when I first listened to the new album, my heard started swirling a bit because of sudden turns and surprises in there, for example that the songs blend into each other, or that “the end is the beginning is the end” in a way. Does this have the same effect on you, while you’re writing the songs, that sometimes you start out and in the end you’re like “Wow, this song has surprised me now, because it took some turn I could never have imagined before”?Sometimes they turn the wrong direction (laughs), but when they turn the right direction, that’s usually... The single best thing about a Rock ‘n’ Roll band is... not as much credit’s given to, you know, all the other members in the group, but because of them the music was taken to a place that you would never have imagined it to go. And it becomes bigger and better and more colourful than we ever originally thought out it could be and it’s become something different than you’d originally set out and to be okay for a while that it doesn’t sound anything like you’d originally thought or, you know, it’s just going to some strange place that I never expected. It’s scaring, but it’s these moments of trust and faith and give something greater than you’d conceptualized, that you’re a part of, but you’re also (most of the song?) and it goes through so many different stages. Returning, on this record in particular, was not like we’d... it’s not that I didn’t like it, I didn’t think it was gonna make the album and it started... it just reminded me of other songs that had been cut off of other records, there were such similar things that it felt like the kind of song that wasn’t gonna make it in the end and when we finally put it on tape, though, was when it came alive. And when I listened back and heard all these different parts of ...Returning was definitely a song that it was only in the end that it really came alive, but it took a lot of work and time and trust and I don’t know what the album would be without that, because it’s really like an anchor to the record, I couldn’t imagine the record without it anymore. (Pause) Sometimes the Light was a song that I didn’t even actually work on, that was a complete surprise, because Peter... For a lot of the songs we worked for months and months on, they were kind of exhausting, and kind of Pete being frustrated with that process ended up just going in and staying away for like two days straight and creating all of that song. And so that was one that was unexpected and I had to convince him to put it on the record because he just thought it was just kind of a throw-away thing.Lose Yourself was very unforced, like we all knew somehow what we wanted it to sound like without talking about it. So we were all really on the same wavelength with it. And what everyone added to the song was exactly what was needed. I mean, there’s a lot of things about the album that weren’t at all expected.But that’s the good thing about writing music though, isn’t it?Erm... Hm... Yeah. (Laughs) It’s one of the hardest parts to allow that to be, because it’s really easy to get nervous and overthink it and then, like the way I deal with anxiety, or fear, or insecurity is that I try to control it and think that I can just be faster, or smarter, or if I just think of it first then it’ll all be okay. Being in a band is like the best reminder to let go of that side and trust what is gonna come naturally and whatever that is is gonna be better than the smartest you that you can come up with. (Laughs) It’s like letting go of it. The more you do, often the more is allowed to become.Would you say that your approach of songwriting has changed throughout the years? I mean, you’ve been around for quite a while now.Yeah, I mean, I think we are more aware what we come up with as a band most of the time, like the most unexpected, natural songs, rather than songs that Peter and I write separate from that. But I think we still kind of change our method all the time, or he’ll write songs on his own, or we’ll write songs together and bring them, or we’ll write songs with the three of us, so it’s being open to every which way that it might come, just more aware than I was before. I understand things better. (Pause) Like, when a song begins, often it’d just be the music, you know, within the first couple of minutes it’s the music and a couple of riffs and it’s naturally talking to each other and then a melody might start coming through. And a lot of times that’s all you get for a while, or you get some of the words at the same time that the melody comes. And then, after that, it’s all about trying to understand the emotion that the music has, ‘cause there’s in all the tones and harmonies and melodies, there’s an emotion to it. It might be a bittersweet feeling, it might be anger, it might be more somber, reflective, an ethereal place and more intimate and you can hear what you’re supposed to say, but you don’t have the words yet. The music lets you know what words should be put to it and when you cheat it, or fake it, or lie to yourself and try to write something, you know, because it’s maybe faster, easier, or sounds cool, usually the feeling, the emotion that’s already in the melody, it will reject it and then you have to start over. But I love that. It’s one of the most frustrating things and also it gives me great peace of mind to know that... It’s not that much of a mystery, it’s like your body emits a feeling, like an emotion, like you feel fear and then you try to put words to that and you know when you’re not really speaking about that feeling very honestly, and it rejects it and pushes it back, you keep trying and find the most simple words to explain how your body feels at that time.It seems to me that you really enjoyed the possibility of making use of various effects on the new record. Is there maybe a danger of not being able to transport this into a live performance? Like, you sit in the studio and think “This sounds so cool with this effect on it”, but then when you try to play it live, you get... into trouble?Yeah, there’s some songs, I don’t know, we still don’t play or we won’t play them that often, because they’re difficult to recreate. We try not to let that hold us back in the studio from what we might be able to build and what kind of soundscape we can make. Because sometimes you start thinking “I’ll never be able to play that live, so I shouldn’t put it on tape”. But the Howl album was like one of the biggest learning lessons, because we made that whole record without thinking at all about playing it live and for a while we didn’t even think we’d be able to tour it. And it was the most surprising thing, ‘cause it was the most adventurous, as far as different sounds and things that you couldn’t... we couldn’t take it all and recreate it live, but once we started trying to and we were forced to, we were forced to make something out of it, with just three people. Even though at the time we tried bringing a friend of ours out to play some bass lines while I play piano and stuff and different things. But the limitations forced us to define ways of making it work and it was really telling, like, to me at least.But it doesn’t really have to reproduce, it doesn’t really have to sound identical. It just has to be the same like raw skeleton of the song. If you can find the heart of it, then that’s all that needs to be recreated. The rest of it? Icing on the cake. And certain different components can be done in a different way and still get the feeling of the songs trying to get across.Yeah, that was really cool, I liked that, ‘cause we didn’t have to kind of make it mechanically perfect. And I really don’t like bands that are like that, like the ones that... it sounds exactly like the record. Radiohead’s a good example of a great band who sometimes are so good that it’s live and recreating what they may, that it’s hard to find your way into that, like to find the spirit of that moment that’s happening. The spirit of that moment you’re feeling live is very different from the record and it’s important to allow that. Sometimes the easiest way is through the flaws and cracks and the paining. And then there’s other bands that use a lot of things on tape and stuff to, you know, a lot of things pre-recorded and there’s a threshold-point, but once bands do that too much, it starts to feel like there’s not a human element on stage anymore and it goes kind of robotic and cold. That’s the worst thing for me. That’s the worst. The second worst is it sounding exactly like the record with everyone playing it. In that order. (Laughs)Well, sometimes it even turns out that you, being in the audience, like the live version better, for various reasons. Because something has been added to the song, or, I don’t know, you just like the sound of it better.Yeah, that’s funny, if you put up a harder and harder time these days accepting that because people of this generation aren’t used to not having something that they can collect and hold on, like on their iPod, that’s part of their collection, like their collector mindset. Older generations were okay with like letting things be and, you know, “I don’t have that on a record” or “I don’t have that version and so be it, I’m just gonna have to live with that”. People don’t have to live with that as much. You can find nearly everything now. And so, if you play something live that people can take with them or have, it’s a lot harder.I guess Youtube or something, if something’s filmed and sounds alright, I can see that being somewhat, you know, appease your appetite. Like, if there’s a version you hear and it’s the most beautiful, crushing song and it was only played that night, then... Things I’ve seen... It was actually a Fiona Apple show I saw at the Greek Theater, and the last show she played, there was this cover song and the only way I could hear that was off of some person’s camcorder from Youtube that was done that night. I don’t know... It’s gotta be a great live recording for the recording on its own to fulfil the whole spectrum of what you’re needing from it.Talking about the album again: After your dad had passed away, I, personally, would have suspected that the new album would take a darker approach in a way, but it turned out to be so positive in parts. Could you put your finger on something that got you going into this direction?I hear it both. More positive and more negative on the album. Like, I hear both represented more extreme than in the past. So, certain songs that are more uplifting or positive, more than on any other record, and then others that are maybe more intimate and, I guess, more reflective or sadder or more weighted on that side. And then, you know, Sell It and Rival are some of the more angry songs, or Teenage Disease. And that was... The reason for that I think was that all of that was happening at the time we were writing. So, around making the record I think everyone was... It was like we were stretched apart, like all feelings were pulled further from each other and there was less of a middle. A lot of times what happens with loss is that you feel the terrible sadness more, the pain’s greater, but at the same time it comes hand in hand with a deeper understanding or a joy that you can tap into, or the gratitude you have from what you’ve lost, so, which is one of the reasons why it gets so fucking dark. It’s ‘cause you know there is that other side to it, you can’t have one without the other, they amplify each other, you know.Is there something like a favourite moment that you have on the album? Because I have one, I can totally pin it down to this one moment which is like “Yeah!”. Do you have something like that?(Laughs.) Yeah, but I don’t wanna give it away.Aaawww, why not?It is a moment that happens three quarters all the way through the songs. It happens near the end of one of the songs. (Laughs.)Mine is really like the climax of the album when in Rival there’s this break and then the bass sets back in and when I first heard it I was like “Yeaaaaah!” (Robert laughs.) Okay, if you don’t wanna tell...I like that one, like the breakdown at Teenage Disease. Yeah, I don’t know, there’s a few subtle things in Firewalker. The ending of Lullaby is also... there’s different doors of perception that are open, like everything gets, I don’t know, you hear more than you think you are hearing. There’s always this initial stuff, full deep impact things and those give birth to the song, but then as time goes by you end up starting to fall in love with the most subtle things that most other people don’t see. It’s kind of like being in a relationship with someone. Of course, in the beginning you fall in love with the obvious things about them, but then after you’ve lived with them for years you start liking that little quirky way they put their hair behind their ears or some other subtle things people don’t notice. So a lot of it’s like that, you know. Just because of the amount of time you spend with the songs.Throughout the album you sometimes hear Leah singing quietly in the background. Is it like you have to force her a bit to sing (Robert laughs) and do you think that you could even make her do some leading vocals on an upcoming album?She’s the hardest person to make sing. We’re always fighting against... She’s very shy and she’s got a really good voice, but especially live I’m always giving her dirty looks and trying to get her to like...It’s always like I hear her, and it sounds good, but she’s doing it sooo quietly...Yeah, it’s frustrating, ‘cause it’s mainly a confidence thing. I don’t know. I have to really pick on her. Yeah, hopefully someday. I have to write something that’s like really specific for her and then she won’t have anywhere to hide. That’ll be the day.Actually, there was already some confusion with The Toll on the last album, some people were sure that it was Leah singing the duet with Peter, but then I kept telling them it wasn’t her.Yeah, that was one that Peter sang with Courtney Jaye, who’s a friend of his, beautiful voice. Leah’s developed over time, I don’t know if she could do it, I don’t think she ever worked on this one. She never used to sing at all and that one demanded a stronger presence. It’s not that simple.So you did two gigs with The Call, and I was figuring out that... I think you got back to the States after you had played several gigs in Europe and the shows with The Call were very shortly after that. And I was wondering “How does he manage to learn so many songs in such a short amount of time?”.(Sighs.) A lot of panicking. (Laughs.) I was thoroughly terrified for a month, bleeding it to it. Let’s see... In the beginning it was just fun, like getting together with those guys and playing some songs with them and it was so... everyone was having such a good time and the feeling was like really overwhelming and we thought, you know, we were in a little room like this playing together, and “We should really play these songs live, we should share this”. It’s just the most simple thing... where it all comes from is just that feeling of having your heartbeat so lifted and work with these other people and you can’t stand to have it like just within these four small walls. So we were like “Let’s do some shows!” and we still had to wait like a year, because I had to finish the BRMC record.So we waited too long and the ones that I’d learned I’d forgotten. So then I was really in trouble (laughs), ‘cause I had to learn pretty much twenty songs from scratch and I had so many other things to think about with this record coming out that I never really... Yeah... So it was like the last three weeks that I really had a panic, like “What have I got myself into?!” and... I have these different memorization techniques, you know, for one thing writing things out by hand, puts them in your brain in a completely different way than typing them. And then I also usually (laughs), which works best, is finding... Well, first you try to find a relationship to words, like any way you can find a storyline or a quirky way to tie different phrasings together and with someone else’s songs that’s the easiest for me, since I don’t have a personal relationship with it. Really, I have to like find keywords. It’s just stupid tricks...You go to your mindpalace!(Laughs) What is it?Ah, that’s from the TV series Sherlock, the BBC one, he stores certain memories in his “mindpalace”...(Laughs) No, it’s not a palace at all, it’s a reeeaaally small like kind of, I don’t know, mind-outhouse or something. But it’s best to... (Laughs) I usually try to find almost comical ways to put it together, because if it can stand out as something absurd, then it sticks in my mind for longer. If I make it into this beautiful sacred thing and it’s in a palace in my mind, then I’ll never remember it, because it’s... It just kind of becomes white noise, like all the things that you should hold sacred, but at the end of the day, you know, the mind’s not a very sacred place. (Laughs)Yeah, or rhymes or things like that, things you do in order to learn vocabulary for example, or whatever. But with songs it’s not that easy, because sometimes they do rhyme...Well, for instance, some Bob Dylan songs, things like Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol, which is very long, and I memorized it, but it’s a storyline and that was easier, actually, ‘cause there’s a timeline to it, there’s a proper start to finish story, properly. Visions of Johanna, that took much longer, because it is far more abstract and I would find the most absurd ways of linking things or think of it like a cartoon, something that you just can’t get out of your mind, but you think of it all like an abstract, psychedelic trip that... you know, which is the place it’s meant to take the listener. If you’re going there... You can go there after the fact that you gotta drill it in in some way.Talking about your recent album and about Lullaby, I’d like to ask you something about a project I recently came across. There’s a group of people who turn rock songs, or different kinds of songs, into lullabies for babies, like there’s a Nirvana version or a Smiths version and so on. Do you think there should be a BRMC version of it?(Laughs) Hm, yeah, I think it would be a pretty good lullaby record. Yeah, I mean it’s almost the same if you think about applying it to a ringtone or something, like have a very simple, melodic version of the song. But those are good, I mean I was listening to proper Joy Division records when I was little but I heard them as... I didn’t know what they were talking about. Or The Smiths, or The Clash, it was all very melodic. And that’s all that kids really hear, ‘cause they don’t listen to the words yet. So they can pick up those notes anyway on their own, they don’t need someone to... I don’t think someone has to take it and make it rudimentary simple. I think it’s actually scientifically proven that until about twelve years of age, sometimes it’s earlier, but most people’s brains change and can’t hear more depth and sounds before then. It’s rather simple, like basic... flat surface is what you can hear then.I used to be a lot on your forum, while it was still there, and there was something like a campaign that triggered 1:51 to be released. So there’s another song that a lot of people would like to have put out in some way, which is Seasons, which you also find on this documentary, or “holy document”, as it used to be called. Do you think that Seasons could be on some kind of record, as a b-side or something in the future?Yeah, definitely. It might be on the next one. I think it’s better than a b-side, which is why it hasn’t come out properly yet. I don’t know if there’s just a clip of that on that. The whole song’s been finished since... (laughs) probably about... thirteen years ago, probably it was done. But we’ve tried recording it a few times and we were never happy with the recording and always thought it could be better, but we had that same issue with a few songs, especially back then. That’s kind of why certain things like U.S Government didn’t make it to the second record, or...Evol, I think, was another one...Evol... It took so many times finding that right for Beat The Devil’s Tattoo. Yeah, so there’s quite a few songs. Suddenly, as well, that one waited, and then the whole Howl album. But Seasons, yeah, it might come out sooner or later.Yeeaaah!(Laughs.) Maybe on the next album. It’s a good one, it was really hard to record. It’s something that when you hear it, like broken down, it’s really powerful. I don’t wanna just put out an okay recording of it. If the recording is just as good as someone sitting and playing the acoustic guitar in front of you, that’s when you know you gotta try another angle.I think it’s always a good thing that people get so enthusiastic by just listening to a very small snippet which is on there. And I think you hear the word “Seasons” on there or somebody asked about it and everybody was like “We need this! Now!”.(Laughs.) Yeah, that wasn’t meant to happen. I remember that documentary took a few things that we didn’t want to have out like this. But we didn’t think anyone would pay attention to the music in the background...Weeell, that turned out differently...We were wrong...So, coming back to the beginning. The booklet and the title of your recent album Spectre at the Feast were inspired by Macbeth. Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play?(Very long pause...) I don’t wanna say Romeo and Juliet. But it’s like all the others I try to think about... they’re all brilliant, but there’s just something so simple and I don’t know... I feel it’s like a Beatles song that you don’t wanna say, like...But in the end you say it because it’s the one. It’s my favourite, too, and I’ve had to read loads of them throughout university, so...I like Macbeth, too. But I come back to that one, I can come back to Romeo and Juliet. I like Hamlet, too, King Lear is great. But it’s hard to pick favourites with that. It’s like a part of human experience that... if that didn’t exist it would be a greater shame somehow, if that story didn’t exist, compared to some other ones, so I’d have to say that.
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