Leather-clad rock trio Black Rebel Motorcycle Club sound tough in a Hell's Angels sort of way, but they're just as emotional as the rest of us. The death of lead singer Robert Levon Been's father, Michael Been, who was also frontman of new wave band the Call, was a loss for the entire group. Luckily, the loud and pouty group found solace in creating music. Their new album, Specter at the Feast, is one of their most ambitious to date. They let sounds and lyrics materialize naturally, with raw and palpable feeling and the reverb that fans know and love.
I talked to drummer Leah Shapiro before the band's May 15 show at the Barrymore Theatre.
On past albums, the band has experimented with new sounds, but Specter seems more ambitious. Do you agree?
We wrote for over a year before we even started going into the studio.... Stuff was done more in stages this time, so the process felt like it was really slowed down. We spent way more time on each stage because we weren't setting any deadlines for when we wanted to get this album done. That left room to pay more attention to all of it: songwriting, working with sounds, working in the studio, and mixing and everything.... The direction and sound of the album, it revealed itself as we went along.
The new album was recorded a few blocks from where Robert grew up. And [Foo Fighters frontman] Dave Grohl had you guys record a song for his documentary Sound City, which is about the studio where you recorded your debut. Why was it important to revisit your beginnings?
The past came back to find us. Dave Grohl had bought this big Neve sound console to [his studio] Sound City. Right before we were ready to go into the studio, Rob was talking to him [about] the documentary. So that's how that [sound] board came back into our lives. It's a beautiful board, so it made sense to record in that studio again. And as far as going to Santa Cruz, Calif., where Rob grew up, we spent about two months up there in the mountains, living in a little cabin in the woods. We needed to get out of L.A., away from distractions, and be in an isolated, peaceful place where we could really focus on developing the textures and layers on the songs.
From your perspective, how did Michael Been have an impact on the band?
Michael was very involved with the band from the beginning. He was instrumental in nurturing all of us, and he was an incredible musician. He was helpful for us on the road, making records, and in life. When I came into the band [in 2008], he put me through quite a boot camp. He was passionate about drums, so he had a lot to teach me about how he thought drums should be best used in a rock 'n' roll band. I wouldn't be playing drums the way I'm playing drums now if it wasn't for him, that's for sure.
It sounds like there were lots of unexpected moments in the recording process, like when you were playing and all of a sudden the song turned into the Call's "Let the Day Begin."
Yeah, that song wasn't really planned. We wanted to pay tribute to [Michael's] music and cover one of his songs. The Call's musicianship is on a whole other level, so we weren't sure what to do or how to go about it. It ended up coming to us in a bit of a backwards way. I was working on this drumbeat, jamming in the rehearsal studio, and Rob and [guitarist] Pete [Hayes] were jamming along. It was just by chance that Rob started singing the words to "Let the Day Begin" on top of it. We realized that this could be our version of "Let the Day Begin." It wasn't where we sat down and worked through the song like you normally would do with a cover. It was like a whole new BRMC song.