When Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (BRMC) play the Glass House in Pomona this week, it will be without the person they often referred to as their fourth member. Michael Been, father of bassist Robert Been, died of a heart attack backstage at Pukkelpop festival in Belgium on Aug. 19. On tour with the band at the time, he’d worked as BRMC’s live sound mixer for years. He mixed and mentored in the studio as well. Michael Been shares production credits for BRMC’s sixth studio album, Beat the Devil’s Tattoo, part of a legacy that includes his own brush with fame as singer/guitarist in the ’80s band the Call.
Following BRMC’s return from Europe on Aug. 30, Robert Been and Peter Hayes declined interviews; Leah Shapiro agreed to speak with OC Weekly on the condition that the subject of Michael Been’s passing was off-limits.
When Shapiro was tapped to replace founding drummer Nick Jago in 2008, the ex-Raveonettes drummer knew she was joining a band that had managed to sound different—in some cases, radically so—on almost every album they had released. The rock press has attached a variety of labels to BRMC’s sound over the years, among them country stomp, shoegaze, rock traditionalists, folk blues, leather-jacket rock, rock noir, garage revival and California psych garage—all of which are accurate.
To define the band, you have to listen to their remarkable catalog of songs. “When I started,” she says, “Pete was sitting in the back of the bus, working on that. It was something I think he’d been working on for a while. Robert was involved as well.” Whatever the process, Shapiro says, she wasn’t part of it. “I was listening, though, with great curiosity”—she laughs—“as they were wrapping that whole thing up.”
At the time, BMRC were finished with the bluesy acoustic folk of Howl;Been and Hayes self-released The Effects of 333—an instrumental-noise bath of dark sounds resembling the intro to a Zeppelin song—after the new trio had begun the sessions that would produce Beat the Devil’s Tattoo. “It was something they just really wanted to do,” Shapiro says. “So, why not?”
In 2001, a hard-pounding demo got BMRC labeled as the Next New Thing. Since then, the band have been bent on following their own musical curiosity. Released in March, Beat the Devil’s Tattoo may be not only a return to form, but also the endpoint of their previous eras. “I’ve heard that,” says Shapiro, “and it’s really cool if it comes across that way. When we started [recording], there wasn’t a specific vision we had in mind. It was my first record with the guys, and we didn’t really know going into it if it was gonna work with the three of us. There was a little bit of anxiety and nervousness going in.”
The album was conceived and written while staying back East in a borrowed house. “We have some great friends who live 45 minutes outside of Philly,” she says. “They offered that we could come and live there. They have a basement that’s a studio with instruments. It’s, like, a family where all the kids play music and have bands.”
As far as the songwriting goes, Shapiro says some of Devil’s Tattoo goes back to the beginning of BRMC. “And a lot of the songs,” she says, “come from us playing live. . . . We didn’t want a rigid, controlled-sounding record. To me, that’s the life—the sloppiness, the slight variations in tempo and the little mistakes when you play live that just adds so much to a song and to the music.
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“Everything I do is constantly trying to get inside their heads to see where they’re trying to go,” she says of Been and Hayes.
So far, has Shapiro been successful in that pursuit? “I don’t know,” she says and laughs. “I don’t think I’ll go any further with that question.”
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club with Jeffertitti’s Nile at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Wed., 7 p.m. $20. All ages.
This article appeared in print as "Howling On: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are used to reinvention, but they were just getting comfortable with a new lineup when tragedy struck."