In August 2010, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (BRMC) suffered a loss that left the band’s future in question. Singer/bassist Robert Levon Been’s father, Michael Been, died of a heart attack while the band was in Belgium for a show at the Pukkelpop festival.
Michael, former bassist and singer of the acclaimed ’80s/’90s band The Call, officially served as BRMC’s live sound engineer. But in truth, he played a much bigger role for his son’s band, serving as mentor and an important musical sounding board for the group.
BRMC has persevered and is back with a new album, Specter at the Feast, released this spring. Considering the backdrop of the album (and the fact that it is dedicated to Michael), it’s easy to understand why some might get the wrong idea about it.
“I wonder if people have gotten the wrong impression because it’s not like we started over for the purpose of (writing) about this specific thing, but just to give ourselves a chance at a new day,” Robert says.
“This record isn’t really a direct reflection on his passing,” he continues. “It was moreso, ‘How are we going to pick ourselves up today and move forward?’ ”
Indeed, it was a struggle for the band to find its footing and make Specter at the Feast. But this isn’t the first time Robert and the group’s other founding member, guitarist/singer Peter Hayes, have had to overcome major adversity since they formed BRMC in 1998.
After the band’s second album, 2003’s Take Them On, On Your Own, drummer Nick Jago quit the band. After considering breaking up, Robert and Hayes decided to carry on, stepping away from their usual fully plugged-in, dense Rock sound to make a bluesy, mostly acoustic album, Howl, as a duo.
As it turned out, shortly before Howl was finished, Robert and Hayes reconnected with Jago and the drummer rejoined BRMC.
For a time, the band rediscovered its mojo. But during touring behind its next album, 2007’s Baby 81, Jago left the band, this time for good.
Robert and Hayes already had a replacement in mind, having seen Leah Shapiro when her former band, Dead Combo, opened for BRMC on the Baby 81 tour. But whether the revamped band would gel musically or personally was a big, unsettling question. As it turned out, Shapiro clicked and BRMC came back strong on 2010’s Beat the Devil’s Tattoo, a rocking album that gave the group a new lease on life and suggested it might be better than ever.
“We kind of got a second chance when Leah joined the band. It felt like the heart kind of came back into it,” Robert says. “Nick was always extremely talented and capable and that was why we struggled through so many records together.”
But then came Michael’s sudden and shocking passing.
Burned out from what had already been a long tour behind Beat the Devil’s Tattoo at that point, BRMC took a break and tried to find its bearings. Once the group started to turn its attention to trying to create new music, things didn’t come easily.
The group started work at the studio owned by Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters. Robert and Hayes had collaborated with Grohl on a song called “Heaven and All” for Grohl’s movie, Sound City. After that, Grohl offered BRMC use of his studio. But at that point, the idea was just to capture some music in a formative state.
“What we did at Dave’s is we laid down basics. We did basic drum takes and bass,” Robert says. “We had a lot of songs that had no words to them. Most of the album was just primal feelings and impulses, and we couldn’t connect with what we wanted to say.”
Wanting to get away from the distractions of Los Angeles, the group moved to a friend’s cabin in a remote area near Santa Cruz, Calif., successfully turning the rough ideas into fully arranged songs with lyrics in what Robert calls a “really peaceful” setting.
The music that emerged on Specter at the Feast showcases two sides to the band’s music that have always existed, but with some fresh accents.
On the one hand, there are dense, driving, guitar-heavy rockers “Hate the Taste,” “Rival” and “Teenage Disease” that give the album an edge. Then there are spacious and atmospheric songs like “Fire Walker,” Lullaby” and “Some Kind of Ghost.” Together, they showcase the two contrasting sides of BRMC’s personality.
“The only way I know how to explain that would be it feels like everything is stretched apart,” Robert says of the new songs. “Everything’s just pulled apart as far as it can go to the left and as far as it can go to the right. Elements in ‘Sell It,’ elements in ‘Rival,’ elements in ‘Teenage Disease’ are some of the (sharpest, angriest shades) of darkness I’ve ever heard from us, like real darkness. Then, on the other side of it are ‘Returning,’ ‘Lullaby’ and ‘Lose Yourself’ and ‘Sometimes the Light.’ It just feels like it’s all the same places we went before, just further on both sides.”
BLACK REBEL MOTORCYCLE CLUB plays the MidPoint Music Festival (mpmf.com) Saturday, headlining the Grammer’s/Dewey’s Pizza stage at 9:30 p.m.