Black Rebel Motorcycle Club singer/bassist Robert Levon Been is part of a rock & roll legacy. His father, Michael Been, was the fiery frontman and bass player for ‘80s cult heroes the Call, whose emotion-packed anthems (“The Walls Came Down,” “Let the Day Begin”) should have made them the American U2 (in fact, Bono guested on their 1990 album, Red Moon). When Robert made his own musical path with BRMC in the early 2000s, Papa Been began traveling with the band as their soundman/guru. In August 19, 2010, Michael Been died of a heart attack while on tour with BRMC in Belgium, pulling the emotional rug out from under the band.
Now Robert is paying back a bit of his debt to his father by fronting a reunited Call for two West Coast shows, the first of which happened last night at Slim’s in San Francisco and the second is tonight at the Troubadour in Los Angeles (there are also plans for a live CD/DVD). The elder Been’s passing casts a long shadow over the new BRMC album, Specter at the Feast, which contains a cover of “Let the Day Begin.” As the band prepares for a U.S. tour, Been shares his thoughts about moving forward.
How did your father start working with the band?
It started off around the second album, we went through four or five different front-of-house sound engineers and we couldn’t find anybody that we felt really got our sound. We asked him at first in a panic … he offered his time to come out and help us on a tour, and it just ended up sounding so good and felt so right that we asked him to do the next leg and the next album and it just carried on from there. He was like a father figure to Peter [Hayes, BRMC singer/guitarist] as well, so it was really good to have someone looking out for us out here… he had some good experience and knowledge of some basic things that were good for keeping our heads on straight, from someone who’s been down that road before.
Did going out on the road with your dad ever make you feel awkward or self-conscious?
He definitely wasn’t like a normal father. He’d hold down the fort, but at the same time, [he was] never the judgmental kind of father. He’d let me take my own falls, and that’s maybe why it worked.
Was he the one who first taught you to play?
When I was like 12 or 13 I picked up the guitar for the first time and I really couldn’t play it at all. He tried to teach me things, but I didn’t have a fundamental understanding of music. He didn’t say it to me, but apparently he told my mother in confidence, “You never have to worry about your son following in my footsteps, because he doesn’t have it, he has no understanding of it.” Thankfully he didn’t tell me that to my face. It wasn’t until I was 15 or 16 that I picked up the bass guitar on my own, and I learned how to play. I taught myself how to do that and he overheard me messing around one day and was really surprised.
Where did the idea of you fronting the Call come from?
It felt like a good way to honor not only his passing and what he left behind but also just for the joy of it. When he passed away I connected with those guys again. I really grew up on the road with them. When I was little I would come out on the road, and all of those guys were kind of my first family. I was always daydreaming about playing onstage with them, now I get to [laughs]. We got together over a year ago with no real intention, just for fun to see if the idea would work, because I had no idea if I could pull off those songs. Vocally they’re in a much harder range, and his bass playing was at a level that I’m still trying to get to. We went through 15 or 16 songs and it was pretty powerful, we were all really moved by it, and there was the feeling that we should do something with this. But then I had to go back to recording the BRMC album, so we had to put it on hold.
How did your father’s death affect the making of the new album?
In more ways than would fit on a page. He was a very big sounding board. If there was something we were struggling with, he would often come in and give his opinion, and it was really helpful. We co-produced different albums [with him] to different degrees. So we were kind of walking the plank alone [this time]. Me and Peter were very much like brothers, he would break up fights between us and kind of keep us in line. I think one of the most difficult things about this album was learning how to communicate between the two of us … finding a way to get through without that third person, diplomat, or referee.
How much of Specter at the Feast was written before you went into the studio?
This is the first time we had an unspoken understanding that we wanted to start with a clean slate and see what would come through this period of time. We’d been through so much that it wasn’t realistic to pull from things from the past, because it wasn’t gonna resemble the future. We had to start over in a lot of ways, partly to make sure we were still in one piece. We lost a lot when he passed away, and we needed to prove to ourselves that we still had something to give, and something to offer of worth. It feels true to the time, having to go that way. It’s terrifyingly honest, this record.
How did you come to cover the Call’s “Let the Day Begin?”
We wanted to do a [Call] cover but we didn’t know which one. That one kind of came by surprise. I’m really grateful that song came the way it did, because it feels like it represents both the light and the dark, what he tried to convey with his life as well as the acknowledgement of his passing.
Specter at the Feast is out now on Vagrant.