It’s strange to think that it’s been fifteen years since San Francisco’s Black Rebel Motorcycle Club released its B.R.M.C. debut album. Back then, rock and roll was wallowing in a garage-rock revival led by Detroit bands like the White Stripes, Scandinavians like the Hellacopters, and Australasians like the Datsuns. The downside of this movement is that a whole lot of bands got unnecessarily lumped in, the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club among them.
In fact, the BRMC have far more in common with dark British alt-rock bands like Echo & the Bunnymen, the Fall and the Jesus & Mary Chain, plus art-rockers like the Velvet Underground, and even Sonic Youth. Musically fascinating and blessed with bags of dark mood, the early 2000s media grouped them in with that garage scene because, as with bands like the Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster, it didn’t really know what else to do with them. It's not just the press; ask frontman Robert Levon Been to describe the band’s music, and he stutters, too.
"I’ve never in my entire life been able to answer that question,” he says. “Not because I’m trying to be mysterious and cool, but because I don’t like to know where it’s going and what it’s going to be. I’ll hear something that, musically on its own, it kind of lifts you up or takes you down, but whatever it’s doing, it’s causing a feeling. It’s maybe that little moment of something inspiring, then it’s about following that but trying to stay the fuck out of its way. I just follow wherever that feeling leads.”
The last full album of new material from the band, Specter at the Feast, was released in 2013, something that Been partly puts down to the fact that he prefers touring to recording. Still, there’s a new record on the way, mostly likely in the early part of 2017.
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“It’s coming along really well,” he says. “There’s a sense of going forward and going back at the same time. There are parts that are more getting back to the basic rock band, and then there is a little bit of new territory. We’re trying to keep a little bit of mystery about that right now.”
With the band active since 1998, Been says that it really doesn’t feel like they’ve been going for eighteen years. A tortured perfectionist, he admits that he strives to get to a place where he feels like he’s got the music right, but usually feels like he fell short.
“You’re pushing to find a place where you come into your own,” Been says. “But maybe it’s all about trying to do that and never getting there. I don’t know. Whether it’s eight months, eight years or 800, I’ll probably never be satisfied. I want to get it right.”
It’s also undeniable that the music industry has seen drastic changes since the BRMC initially formed, the advent of online music and the decline of lucrative contracts the clearest signs. Been says that bands have got to just keep doing their thing, even though it’s getting harder.
“You get the feeling that you’re just not welcome,” he says. “It’s just saving the big money for the low-risk or no-risk sales. Same with the film industry — they really only release the superhero movies and some other shit. Arthouse or anything under that is not very welcome. It’s a drag seeing that get phased out. In some ways I like it, because you lose a lot of the people that are just in it for the money — because there’s no fucking money.”
On October 17, the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club rolls into Denver for a show at the Ogden, and Been says that he always enjoys playing here because “it’s not a pretentious town, like other cities that are too cool for school.” He’s hoping to play some new material here, to see how it plays with a knowledgable crowd.
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“I was just talking about how you can’t tell if anything’s working when it’s a new song, because people just stare at you,” he says. “That’s the best thing you can hope for, because they’re actually listening. Body language-wise, they’re speaking volumes. That might affect the record, because we might come home and change things regarding which things work and don’t. It won’t be because the crowd stared at us in a slightly different way. That’s the reality with new stuff.”
When this tour is over, the band will head to the studio to try to get that album finished — then back out on tour. These are the things that make Been happy.
“They’re simple but megalomaniac kind of goals,” he says.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Death From Above 1979 play at 8 p.m. on Monday, October 17, at the Ogden Theatre, 303-832-1874.