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His pop star dad said he wouldn’t make it; 20 years later, his band is alive and well

Black Rebel Motorcycle club is (from left) Robert Been, Peter Hayes and Leah Shapiro
Black Rebel Motorcycle club is (from left) Robert Been, Peter Hayes and Leah Shapiro

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club took root in 1998, the year bassist Robert Been started the Elements with former San Francisco high school chum Peter Hayes, who had just left the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Drummer Nick Jago eventually joined the band, which renamed itself after a motorcycle gang in the Marlon Brando film “The Wild One.”

The band generated plenty of positive press in the music media starting in 2001, the year they released “B.R.M.C.,” their debut on Virgin Records, which showcased the trio’s blend of psychedelic rock and garage rock.

On Feb. 13, BRMC headlines a show at the Truman. The show will feature songs from “Wrong Creatures,” the band’s eighth studio album, released in January.

In 2008, Jago was replaced by Leah Shapiro, but Hayes and Been are still with the band. Been, the son of Michael Been, formerly of the ’80s pop band the Call, spoke to The Star recently about growing up in the music world and overcoming his parents’ doubts.

How have things changed or stayed the same after 20 years in one band?

When I was 16 and 17 I was doing it to have fun. But when you try to start making money off of it, things get complicated. And it involves more people. It’s like being married to the same person for forever. Part of you — it’s still Susan, still the Susan I fell in love with, but it’s all these other Susans that I can’t stand. It’s all of the good and bad but it’s the same old Susan I love.

No matter all the clichés that come with being in a rock band for 20 years, you’re still living someone’s dream every day. And that’s kind of hard to walk away from, especially given the options. And I’m highly unqualified for all other job titles, unless you need your guitars re-strung. Scoring films or producing other records is another thing, but … the chance to go on stage and play in front of people is part of the big high that comes with it.

Who has had the most influence on your music career?

Probably my father. My first memory, he was a musician in the 1980s in a band called the Call. So when I was growing up the first memory of dad’s job was listening to him rant and rave about the “(bleeping) record companies” and throwing s*** across the room because no one listened or they couldn’t get enough records in the stores or some other battle. Probably no different from any other job where you hear your dad complain about his boss or the company he works with.

But that just made it all normal. I don’t think he started the Call until he was in his 30s, which was kind of late in the game. And then he had me.

So it seemed kind of blue collar in a weird way, especially the way they toured, which was like in a Winnebago. And I’d go out with them, like some kind of “take your son to work day.”

But it didn’t show me the glamorous side so that definitely didn’t make me want to be a part of it but it made it seem like as feasible a reality as anything else. And that’s the thing I have the hardest time relating to other musicians, even when I was trying to start this band.

Half the time was spent trying to convince Pete or Nick, our old drummer, that we could actually do this: make a record and then make another one. You don’t have to have two jobs if we do this right.

I kind of felt like a Jehovah’s Witness or a door-to-door salesman but it was like, “I’m not in a cult. It’s not something that niche. I’ve seen it done. It’ll piss you off but at least you get to play music and that’s all we really like doing.”

Did your father ever try to dissuade you from going into music?

When he first heard me play guitar, I was playing with a couple of friends and I was pretty young. He didn’t tell me this but — my mother told me this later — he closed the door to their bedroom and looked at her and said, “You don’t have to worry. He has no understanding of music at all. He’ll never follow in my footsteps. You can breathe now. It’ll be OK.”

I guess I was really terrible, trying to play “Louie, Louie” or “Wild Thing,” anything with three chords. All the other kids kind of had a basic understanding of music but I was a complete waste of time.

A couple of years later I started playing trombone in junior high and I went through some kind of musical puberty. I learned bass clef and something clicked in the brain, like “You’re not supposed to just hit anywhere you want; you’re supposed to hit on these particular points.”

And then it became really natural, and I could pick up anything and really get it. That’s when he had the second talk with my mom.

You said in another interview that these days it takes more than just a good album to keep going in the music business. What else does it take?

For years while making one record after another I wanted to get to that place where we’d earned people’s trust with the music we made. That’s all you want to do is to be one of those bands that can put something out and know there will be someone there to receive it and hear it. As opposed to what so many bands have to deal with, which is sending something out into the void and not knowing whether anyone heard it or cares. And that’s what a lot of us have to live with. So after we put out five or six albums it started to feel like “Some people are waiting for it.”

But that comes with a heavier responsibility. I’ve had that heartbreaking thing of following a band and wanting them to be my band and the soundtrack to my life and then you get to that fourth or sixth album and it’s like: “You guys phoned it in, didn’t you?” Or they lost it or the spirit isn’t there anymore. And then bands start releasing things because they have to and they’ve morphed into a business. That’s the dark side of it. And to be in that position now it makes everyone a little crazy and the fights become very philosophical, which is poison for any band. Usually you should just strap on your guitar and shut the (bleep) up.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

Tuesday, Feb. 13

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club performs at the Truman, 601 E. Truman Road. Night Beats open at 8 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $25 and $28.

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