Robert Been on the agony and ecstasy of creating
When Black Rebel Motorcycle Club started work on the eighth studio album of its two-decade career, the bandmates opted to take a different approach, splitting the recording sessions in half rather than tackling an entire record at once.
“It was something we always thought made sense: What if you just focus on five or six songs intensely and get them perfectly written?” said Robert Been, who shares songwriting and singing duties with bandmate Peter Hayes (drummer Leah Shapiro completes the current lineup). “In theory, you can focus and give more to those songs than trying to do 10 or 12 all at once.”
The experiment proved disastrous, sending the bandmates spiraling down “a deep, dark well,” as Been described it, and delaying the completion of Wrong Creatures, which surfaced on Vagrant Records in January.
“We put so much into those [first six songs] it almost killed us. Usually that happens, but there are 12 songs to show for it and we get to go on tour and remember why we go through this horrible process in the first place,” Been said. “Instead we had to start over again and to shift gears so violently from OCD, microscopic mixing mode, which is a whole other obsessive corner of the brain, to wide-spectrum daydreaming … and creating a song out of thin air. They're such opposite places creatively. One's looking for inspiration, and the other's meticulously finding every flaw in the sculpture with microscopic glasses on and picks and files. … Going back to the beginning again, it took a long time for us to dig our way out.”
Fittingly, BRMC's current tour, which stops at the Newport Music Hall on Friday, Feb. 9, has been a similarly bumpy affair, with the band navigating illness — Hayes contracted a flu-like super bug that spread to the crew and his bandmates, including Been, who battled congestion and exhaustion during an early February phone interview from Florida — and global upheaval that had the musicians questioning if End Times were near.
“We started [the tour] in Europe back in October and it's been some serious terrain to make it through,” Been said, pointing to steady inclement weather and constant global fears of environmental, social and economic meltdown. “It's probably best if they all go at the same time, you know, coordinate their efforts and get it over with quickly.”
On Wrong Creatures, the bandmates balance this sense of helplessness with hope, crafting dark, melodic guitar nuggets that, at times, find the songwriters wrestling with heady questions such as the importance of faith and the inner drive that propels people to carry on amid relentless turmoil. Other times, the trio simply cranks the volume and buries these concerns in a majestic avalanche of guitar. “I just want to fade under the sound,” the musicians sigh on album highlight “Echo” before doing just that.
Now 20 years into this search, Been still gets a similar thrill from the music, noting the motivation has changed little for him since he first strummed a guitar as a youngster.
“A melody comes and a few words come and there's a rush of endorphins and the hairs on your neck stand up and you catch your breath because something's becoming, and it's not there yet, but there's this high like nothing else, for me, in that,” he said. “Then it's followed by years of brutal torture to finish that song and to construct it and record it and mix it and debate over it and finally learn how to play that version live. But I'm still in love with creating something out of nothing and all the potential and promise and daydreams it can open up in your mind. It makes the agonizing worth it on the other end.”