Rebels with a cause

SOUND CITY: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club play Wellington next week.
SOUND CITY: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club play Wellington next week.

More often than not, rock documentaries focus on one band or artist, but this year one of the best has been about an American recording studio.

It wasn't the famous Sun Studio in Memphis that launched Elvis Presley, the great soul and R&B Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama or Motown's Hitsville USA studio in Detroit.

Sound City, the directorial debut of Nirvana and Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, was about the lesser-known and scruffy Sound City Studios in Los Angeles.

While few Kiwis would have heard of it, we've heard many of the albums that have been recorded there since 1970. It's an impressive list, including Nirvana's Nevermind, Neil Young's After the Goldrush, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Dam the Torpedoes and Fleetwood Mac's Fleetwood Mac. It's also been used by a wide range of artists, from Elton John, Reo Speedwagon and Pat Benatar to Nine Inch Nails, Tool and Arctic Monkeys.

In the documentary, many of the bands talk about how important it was in creating their music. There's even an impromptu jam that includes Grohl drumming alongside his idol, Sir Paul McCartney. While Sound City had its ups and downs, its reputation - especially for rock albums - has meant many younger acts have been drawn to record there. And one of them featured in the documentary is Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who play Wellington next week.

"We were really proud to be part of it. It's a really cool history with the bands that went through there and a lot of great stories and some of the best records ever made," says bassist Robert Been.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was formed 15 years ago in San Francisco and Been points out that they only used Sound City Studios for their 2001 debut B.R.M.C. But he can still clearly remember the experience because, like many bands, they were surprised at how squalid it was.

"There was quite a few months at Sound City trying to figure out why the hell the record label put us in this dingy dark dungeon with vomit everywhere.

"We thought this probably means they aren't very serious about us. We were a little afraid it might be a bad omen."

Instead, Been says, they not only ended up recording in a legendary studio, but their music was recorded on Sound City Studio's equally legendary custom-built Neve 8028 console.

The console, by design pioneer Rupert Neve and later bought by Grohl, was considered to be as much a part of the studio's signature sound as the studio room was considered the best place to record if you wanted a big rock drum sound.

Several of the bands in the documentary talk about it being the studio's "sweet spot", but Been says they weren't interested.

"We were made fun of because we didn't end up recording in the room that everyone else recorded in. We took all the drums into this hallway-closet-storage area that no-one ever used. We didn't like the big sound for what we were going for. We wanted a more garagey sound. We didn't use Sound City for what Sound City was."

Since the band's first album, BRMC have established themselves as a popular indie rock act. It hasn't been without its dramas. Record label Virgin dropped them after their first two albums. Ongoing problems with drummer Nick Jago saw his permanent departure in 2008, to be replaced by Swedish drummer Leah Shapiro.

Been jokes that Shapiro is always upfront if she doesn't like where Been and guitarist Peter Hayes take a song they are working on. "She gets the grumpy face."

Been's father, Michael Been, fronted 1980s alt rockers The Call and was BMRC's sound engineer. During BMRC's 2010 tour he died backstage.

Their latest album, Specter at the Feast, released this year, pays homage to Been's father, with a cover of The Call's Let the Day Begin. The album is also a reminder of their versatility. There are touches of ambient (Fire Walker) and ballad (Lullaby) as well as in-your-face guitar rock (Funny Games and Teenage Disease) in the same vein as Queens of the Stone and Britain's Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine.

Been says they recorded "all the drums and all the basics" at Grohl's private studio. But the rest of it was recorded near where Been grew up in Santa Cruz. "We don't like to work on songs in the studio in depth. We like to throw down a drum sound and then as soon as possible get out of there.

"There's a hyper anxiety when you know you're paying $200 an hour or whatever at any studio."

Been says the studio in Santa Cruz, courtesy of a friend, was in an idyllic setting in comparison to Sound City Studios. "We could really take our time with guitar and bass sounds and finishing lyrics. It was the best place to be - surrounded by redwoods. It was [a place] to be still."

Been says he finds when recording in cities or home towns that the band get distracted by family, friends and responsibilities. "I can't ever write when something's always looming. There's no better excuse than 'I can't pick up the phone, I'm out of town making a record'. It's the only time people leave me alone."

Been formed BRMC with Hayes after a brief period calling themselves The Elements. They took the name from Marlon Brando's motorcycle gang in The Wild One. But while Been, Hayes and Shapiro have sported leather jackets, Been says motorcycles haven't pictured.

Been says one his best friends in Los Angeles is New Zealand- born DJ Dan Mancini, who urged the band to see more of New Zealand. On a previous visit, Mancini showed them around. "He was our Gandalf," jokes Been. But it was on bicycles, not Harleys or Triumphs.

"No, we are not the Black Rebel 'Motorcycle' Club. Maybe someday. Or maybe as the Black Rebel Wheelchair Club."


Black Rebel Motorcycle Club play Wellington's Bodega on Tuesday and Auckland's Powerstation on Wednesday.

The Dominion Post