Robert Levon Been and The Call

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club will always hold a very special place in my heart.  I first saw them in 2001, two weeks before their debut album was out (I have a T from that gig that I still wear to this day.)  To see them since earn their title as one of the greatest Rock’N’Roll bands of the century made me feel like a bit of a music connoisseur during my later years as an art school student… But in my latest years as an actual “rock critic,” being allowed to talk to the band “on the record,” certainly makes me feel as though all of my sonic teenage lusts have come full-circle as an adult.

I recently got a chant to chat with Robert Levon Been, vocalist/bassist/guitarist/pianist of BRMC, about both what his band is currently up to and a recent project relating to his father’s musical legacy as the mainman in The Call.  Robert’s father, Michael Been, tragically passed of a heart attack while working as sound engineer for BRMC at the Pukkelpop festival in Belgium in 2010.  In tribute, Robert took his father’s place for a live reunion of The Call, recorded on April 19th of 2013, released as both an album and DVD earlier this month, which has the neo-psychedelic bassist taking on his father’s rock-heavy new wave project.

I caught Robert in the middle of a rehearsal with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club for their upcoming September 28th tribute to George Harrison at the Fonda Theatre, when they’ll share a bill with the likes of Brian Wilson, Norah Jones, Butch Walker, Ian Astbury, and about a billion other major songwriters.  When I get him on the phone he’s in good spirits and when I ask him what he’s up to he laughs and tells me, “We have a show coming up for this George Harrison tribute concert, so we’re currently trying to learn a George Harrison song [laughs].”

When I ask Robert about his time growing up with his dad and The Call, whom he’s recently been working with, he has a plethora of childhood memories to share with me.

“They all remind me of kids that I played with when I was younger and they came across as younger than the actual kids that I played with when I was that age.  When I was with The Call we would just fool around and be goofy and it was always a lot of fun.  It was just like being stupid and acting like a 10-year-old, like a playground.  That’s how I got into touring and playing music.  Those guys were kind of like a second family, the same way that I have another family with Peter [Hayes] and Leah [Shapiro] in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club as touring musicians.”

I ask Robert about the actual songs of The Call and he tells me that they were something that were kind of always there and that he never really thought about.

“I’ve had a strange relationship with those songs since I was so young at the time.  They’re almost like kids songs to me. They were my first lullabies. The music itself, the DNA and the melodies, are strangely stuck in my brain forever.”

When I ask Robert about how it felt to play his father’s songs with his father’s band a year and a half ago he tells me that it was largely surreal and that he’s very thankful to have an artifact that documents the experience: “It’s an impossible question to answer, ‘How was the experience?’  It was so overwhelming in so many ways that I had to take myself out of it while I was doing it.  I sort of blacked out a few times, so I’m glad I have the video [laughs].”

However, Robert is currently most focused on BRMC and their next album, but when I ask him about where the band’s sound may be headed he tells me, “I never talk about it with journalists because every record we’ve ever done turns out to be something completely different than what we intended when we started… but I’m really excited about our new sounds.”

Although they’ve been based out of northern California, Philadelphia has always held a special place in the heart of Robert Levon Been and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.  The band has played Philthy countless times, but the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection has also played a pretty significant role in their back catalogue, so I’m inclined to ask Robert his take on the city: “The main thing in Philly is it’s been our safe haven for a bunch of records.  We recorded a lot of our third record, Howl, there with our friends in The Cobbs, who have this house out in the suburbs there, and we recorded a bit of Beat The Devil’s Tattoo there, as well, so it holds a pretty special place in our heart.”

Despite Robert’s current focus on Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s future sounds, he’s still very much hoping that the legacy of The Call will actively continue: “If everything works out, I’d like to have some more Call shows.  If there’s a demand and we can all make it work, I would love to see The Call continue, whether it’s with me or with someone else.”

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