BanterOfTheBands: Mike McCready talks with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

One of BRMC’s biggest fans is Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, who interviewed them for Pearl Jam’s official fan club magazine DEEP. Huge thanks to Justyna Oslak for the scans and sharing the text with me!

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Mike: I’m sitting with my favorite band right now, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. I’m kind of nervous, but I’m excited to see you guys. I’m late to the game with your band. I saw them for the first time — you — at Sasquatch last year?

Band members: Yeah.

Mike: I’ve been obsessed ever since.

Robert Levon Been: Right on.

Mike: And specifically the latest record.

Peter Hayes: That was The Gorge show, right?

Mike: Yeah.

Peter: The giant hole behind us?

Leah Shapiro: Yeah.

Mike: What did you guys think about The Gorge show?

Peter: Pretty cool.

Leah: It was so pretty.

Robert: Yeah, it was beautiful.

Leah: It was crazy waking up and walking out of the bus and then… that’s not your normal view.

Robert: I liked the bands that were there. I remember some cool bands. I forget the names of them…

Mike: Sigur Rós played, I think. And Shovels & Rope, which were a husband and wife, kind of country thing.

Leah: Oh, cool.

Robert: There was a band that had horns and a stand up bass, it was really cool…

Mike: It was a New Orleans jazz, was it…?

Robert: That might have been it. Yeah, it was that type of…

Mike: I remember the name of it… the promoter of that show is coming tonight, so I’ll ask him, but they were cool. Can I go way back?

Band members: Yeah.

Robert: We’ll see if we can go with you. ‘laughter’

Mike: Leah, starting with you, what’s your earliest memory of music?

Leah: Oh, shit.

Mike: That meant something to you.

Leah: My dad has a huge record collection, so I think sitting as a little kid flipping through all those records. A lot of Frank Zappa, a lot of Beatles and all kinds of stuff. Then when I decided to play drums, he forced me to sit many, many times, and listen to a lot of Ginger Baker drum solos.

Mike: Awesome.

Leah: As I’d just started playing drums, because he was super excited about that.

Mike: Cool. How about yourself, Robert?

Robert: Kind of the same thing, it was the record player. I don’t think I knew quite yet what it did… but an early, early memory was just watching it spin around and… [laughs]

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Leah: Did you put it on the slow button too?

Robert: I hit all the buttons, and I just like…

Leah: I liked that.

Mike: The slow was a way to figure out songs, I remember that, before YouTube and all that.

Leah: Yeah.

Mike: I remember you could do it to half speed.

Leah: ‘laughs’

Mike: But those kind of bands, too? Like Beatles and stuff, or what…?

Robert: That was my dad’s records. I remember the Meat is Murder cover…

Mike: Smiths.

Robert: …the London Calling cover and all the Joy Division, Smiths. He had cool stuff. I didn’t know any of it, and I was too little to know what they were singing about. I remember the melodies, being almost childlike, lullaby… I always think of them like that, because they were all so simple, even though the words were so complex. I like thinking about it still.

Mike: Cool. Peter, what’s some of your earliest musical memories that meant something to you?

Peter: My mom always had the radio on. It was Casey Kasem, and at the time it was the Top 40 and the Top 20 and all of that. That was always in the background of life, so I grew up with that. But the first time it really sunk in, meaning something, I guess was… well, it was an uncle that did cowboy songs. Like, El Paso and Riders in the… Storm? I think… or Riders in the Sky?

Mike: Ghost Riders in the Sky?

Peter: Yeah. Exactly.

Robert: Ghost Riders?

Mike: The Outlaws? Was that the album?

Peter: [singing] Ghost Riders. Real dramatic stuff.

Mike: What was the song that was kind of crazily visual or something?

Robert: ‘whispers’ Literally Ghost Riders. [laughter]

Peter. Yeah, those sunk in a lot, and he was a cool dude. He acted them out and we sat around and did all that.

Mike: So, early on…

Robert: He acted them out?

Peter: Yeah, he was a character as far as he would get all into it and dance.

Mike: So when you guys met in high school, both of you, what were you listening to then? Did you play in this band called The Elements then? Was it in high school or right after high school?

Robert: Well, we didn’t call ourselves anything for years. We didn’t have the balls to call it a name. I was just looking for someone to play with. I saw Pete was always carrying an acoustic guitar around at school and he was the only one that looked the part, I guess… you know, he looked like he would be able to play and have the damn thing on. I was just starting to get into more British stuff like Ride and My Bloody Valentine, Stone Roses. I remember, Pete, I was playing him those records because that’s what I was just starting to get into, and it was kind of the first thing we were sharing back and forth, I guess.

Peter: I had no idea about anything new. I only knew about Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. I had no idea there was new music that actually was good. ‘ laughter’

Mike: Cool.

Peter: I mean, as far as latching onto feeling a little bit different. It was just a different feel than the American rock.

Mike: The Manchester Thing or My Bloody Valentine with their Loveless record, which is so exploratory with their guitars. I remember seeing them sometime around that time in Seattle, and it was just like sonic energy that was coming off the stage. Which, some of that stuff reminds me of you guys. There’s elements of that, like a sonic kind of energy that’s happening that grabs me in. How does that happen as a three piece? How do you make it sound so big live?

Peter: I think a bunch of it, for me, came out of fear, though, really. Space, as far as leaving space for things to happen is kind of scary. Live, especially. Letting things breath. It was all about filling in psycho fuckers… no noise happening. Then you kind of learn to not be scared of that space s o much as you get a little bit more competent.

Mike: Kind of know how to utilize it and manipulate it?

Peter: Yeah.

Mike: Or write to it?

Peter: It’s all of that, I guess. I don’t know. That’s just me personally. It’s the idea of… starting out, I had no idea that there was such a thing as overdubs. Listening to Jimi Hendrix, I didn’t know that’s what was going on. I thought he was kind of doing it all at once. ‘laughter’

Peter: I was trying to copy that. It’s all different tuning. When you’re able to keep a drum going on and then a solo over the top of it, play lines over the top. like a sonic kind of energy

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Mike: Like a detuning or something.

Peter: There’s everything. All kinds of things.

Mike: In terms of space… this brings me to the next question, I have to ask you about the song “Returning,” because I couldn’t stop playing it once I heard it the first time. I kept going, “Oh, I’m gonna go back – OK, I have to hear that again.” It brought me to a place where I love music, when music is at its height of spiritual awareness or of feeling, something that’s intangible that I always strive for in music when I listen to it or try to play it. That happened every time, the first 50-60 times I listened to that song. I’m not fucking kidding you. I listened to that song over and over and over again, and the whole record, but that one specifically in terms of…

Peter: I’ll try not to ruin it. Now I’m scared to play it. ‘laughter’

Mike: No, no. I’m just happy you’re playing it tonight. I’m sorry. I’m not over exaggerating. It really did grab me. Robert, would you explain a little bit about that song? Any kind of insights if you want?

Leah: It almost didn’t…

Robert: It almost didn’t make the record.

Mike: Oh my god, I’m so glad it did.

Leah: We started out kind of trying to work it out a little bit and then…

Robert: Well, it’s a song that…

Leah: It was early on, and then we forgot about it.

Robert: It doesn’t really… not that it doesn’t translate. It doesn’t really hold its own just stripped down on acoustic guitar, playing on its own. It’s a lot of big, big chords that there’s not very much… you know, I try and follow that rule of when you break the song down to just its bones, does it still stand up and hold up? And it does, but it didn’t hold the weight that most other ones did. It’s one of the few times, I think, as a band we got it right in the studio, building this other world. It was kind of a leap of faith, trusting that that would all come together on record because when we were just playing the song at its root form in the beginning, it wasn’t just all there right from the start. So it’s really a credit to what we lucked out on. I don’t even feel like it really came together until the final overdubs, that Pete, when you were doing some of those last intro keyboard things, which created this wall. Not a wall, but it was symphonic in the beginning. It was all little sounds, but they all created these melodies together. Then the song started making sense and started having all this color and richness. But it was a long process.

Leah: Do you remember when we were writing it and we had some issues with coming up with a bridge or whatever and Pete…?

Robert: Yeah, it only had the verse and chorus, verse, chorus.

Leah: Yeah, we couldn’t…

Robert: “I will follow you ‘til we all return.” That was something Pete came up with at the last…

Mike: The music or the lyric idea?

Robert: Both. It was just in a rehearsal. We changed a lot…

Mike: Sorry about that.

Robert: Feels a lot different.

Leah: The first record I did… the drums got done real quick and then this one was a little bit more complicated, and I had some frustrations. ‘laughter’

Mike: Did you take them out on your drums?

Leah: Yeah. I get a little OCD and crazy, but then it gets there, so. ‘laughs’

Mike: There ya go. Cool.

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Leah: It was one of the first ones.

Peter: It comes in handy when we can trade off. When we start losing our way, then we switch
instruments, which is helpful.

Mike: Because you’re playing bass on it.

Peter: Yeah. It helps it move along its a way, get out of our comfort of where we usually go
on guitar, where he’ll usually go on bass.

Mike: That’s awesome.

Peter: It’s just one of those…

Mike: I love that you take the chance to do that. We talk about doing that all the time, but we always
fucking don’t do it. It’s like, “Let’s change. Let’s play bass.” Stone wanted to change our whole band around a long time ago. It’s like, “You play drums, Jeff. Like, “No. We can’t do it.” Who knows, but it’s cool that you take that chance. Out of that came that song. I love it, and it’s dear to my heart. It’s a
stunning song. It’s one of the greatest.

This is from Stone, actually: Has the recording process changed through all of your records? Has it gotten more stressful, or have you gotten better at it? Do you feel more confident in the studio? You’ve been with the band for three years now?

Leah: Six.

Mike: Six years. I’m sorry. Do your ho mework, Mike. You fucking id iot. Has that gelled in
the last six years in a different way?

Robert: Yeah, they all come out of jams.

Mike: So, everyone writes?

Leah: We just jam for many hours and then we write the rest of the lyrics.

Mike: Cool. And they come out of jams, they don’t come out of demos or anything like that? Just out of jams and stuff?

Peter: We’ve gone every which way. It’s kind of like there’s no rule that it’s got to be one way or another way. Anything’s welcome and everything, any possible way it can come. When it kind of hits that magic place is usually when no one’s really in control or steering it, and it just happens. I don’t even know if it’s like the best thing we do, but it’s probably the moments that are most satisfying for us because it’s that joy of writing with other people that it can bring out something that you never imagined and that dumbfounds you that that’s still possible, you know? Fear on your own, doing solo stuff at home with your acoustic guitar, there’s only so many things you can surprise yourself with, and you run out of
those pretty quick.

Mike: On that note, can I ask you about the “Howl” record? In terms of that record, that was a change from the first two records. You’ve probably been asked this a million times, but I’d love to know. Were you listening to more kind of gospel or any kind of country or any acoustic stuff specifically for that record and that being an influence on that record?

Robert: Yeah. From day one we’ve been listening to anything and everything. That album was still introducing the world to music that we dig. But yeah, we went back and studied a bit more than in passing. As far as the music we listen to in passing is different when you go back and you dig in to Skip James, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Little Walter… going back and trying to understand and watch, you know, as far as getting tapes and seeing how they do their thing. Yeah, we went back and tried to study it a little bit. To try to do it justice is all we’re trying to do with anything is be, what’s the word?

Mike: Trigger it?

Band members: Respectful.

Robert: Yeah, respectful.

Mike: Have you ever seen the Little Walter record where it’s called “Hate to See You Go,” and he’s got the big knife scar on his head?

Robert: Yeah, it’s just his face on the…

Mike: Yeah.

Peter: Gnarly. ‘laughter’

Mike: That’s really living the blues.

Robert: I always thought that we got ourselves in trouble because it started off a simpler idea. We had these songs, that Pete was saying early on, they didn’t fit on the first record and definitely didn’t fit on
the second. With the third, it was almost like bursting with these songs that felt really good, but we didn’t have a place for them. So “Howl” became like the place for them all. But it started as just a raw acoustic. The idea was kind of just more Bruce Springsteen “Nebraska”, just make it simple and get it out. There was a couple songs that we tried opening up the doors on them and adding in more things. It was
just one or two. The song “Howl” itself, I remember thinking that, you know, “Shit, now we have to do more for the others and kind of bring them into this place.” When original plan was probably going to be a lot simpler, and finished a lot sooner… ‘laughter’

We wouldn’t have to go back and study other things. We wouldn’t have to buy a trombone. Do you ever find that, when you’re jamming, that trying to reign in a song actually seems to ruin it sometimes?There’s always that struggle as far as like, okay, you’re sitting there, you’re letting something go for a good half hour, hour, 45 minutes, and… ‘laughter’

…you finally kind of go, “Well, fuck, we gotta try to make a song out of this.” Do you always find that that’s kind of hard not to destroy it and go, “OK, how do we reign this in?”

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Robert: I think that it’s always the fear of doing too much in the studio and not being able to do it live.
That’s the only difficulty. That’s been from day one though. You put on so many overdubs and so many different vocal parts that make it and don’t make it. They’re buried and all that kind of stuff with in it. It’s a struggle to me to try to hold back, but at the same time, you just kind of throw everything at it and
then kind of hope for the best when you try to do it live. That hasn’t gotten easier, though.

Leah: But at the same time, I mean, we write most of it live. Just jamming.

Mike: Well, it’s hard to come back to it. The jam happened and then all the potential’s there, but I’m in the middle of the jam because I’m enjoying it and having fun with it. If it’s recorded, then you can go back to it. I don’t know if that’s what you’re trying to say, but… we haven’t written in a jam sense for a long time. So it’s interesting to go into that. I would love to do that again. We did it a bunch of records ago. When we jam it just kind of happens organically, and then it’s gone. Hopefully, it’s recorded. But a lot of times that just gets put on the back burner.

Robert: Why do you think it’s less than it was before with you guys?

Mike: I think it’s just because we’re… I don’t know. I mean, we all have our own kind of things. What happens with us now is we have studios and we’ll play in our own studios and make demos in them and then bring them to each other. Then we kind of go over them and go, “Ed likes this. Stone likes this.” Blah blah blah, and we kind of like or dislike each other’s songs or whatever and that’s the whole weeding-out process. We each come to each other with maybe 10 to 15 ideas. Some realized and some not, and some just partially, and that’s when everybody else… out of that, there’s a weaning process and a letting go of, like, fuck, this song I thought that Ed was going to totally like, and he just doesn’t even respond to.

Leah: We do that, too. ‘laughter’

Mike: We do more demos now, and then bring those and then refine those. It just kind of turned into that lately. I don’t know why. I wish I knew. We need to do more of those jamming things. We do that live a little bit at the end of some certain songs. Like on the end of our song called “Daughter” we’ll go into like a Pink Floyd jam or some other thing, a Dead Moon jam. I wish we created that way. I don’t
think we have for a while.

Robert: We started off this last record. It was the first time we ever… it’s not like we had a rule. I
think nobody really wanted to start writing appropriately or officially, so we just walked in the room, and
we would just… like Pete said, it would be 30 minutes or nine hours of just sound. It was kind of meditation. I think we just liked being together without having to work.

Leah: It was so schizophrenic, genre-wise. One day, it would be super – spacey, psychedelic, and then the next day, it would be very aggressive.

Mike: Kind of depending on the mood.

Leah: Yeah.

Robert: Yeah, it was.

Leah: It was a nice meditation.

Robert: Yeah, we could find different emotional states. It was kind of that thing of like, “Well, there was that cool thing we did two weeks ago that was 12 minutes. Let’s see if we can reign this in and not kill it
in the process.” And then that’s how this record started getting started.

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