Bass Calling: Robert Levon Been

Robert Levon Been of the Call and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club reveals the joys of life as bassist in not one but two bands…black rebel motorcycle club credit yana amur001

“I never really wanted to play bass until I realised it was way, way easier than learning guitar: I think if it had been difficult and had too many strings, then I probably would have given it up. I mean, I could probably pull it off, but you don’t want to just be okay at an instrument that you’re playing in front of thousands of people. And frankly I’ve seen a lot of guitar players who phone it in, but even more bass players that practically text it in. The funny thing, though, is that until I had to learn the Call’s songs in my dad’s band, I really thought I was doing something difficult in Black Rebel Motorcyle Club!

“I always try to find a way to get away with doing a song without the bass, when recording. With every song I like to strip it all down and only use the most essential elements, so I tend to put myself on the chopping block first. I actually like it when I don’t make the cut sometimes, because you know that if you can live without it, then it wasn’t meant to be.

“I remember I tried to play my father’s old Ampeg fretless early on, maybe because it was fairly seductive to look at, but that bass was kind of his signature thing that he always played, so I couldn’t take it on. I made it sound pretty awful though for a while, so I’ll take credit for that. My favourite bass ever is my old red Epiphone Rivoli EB2, which I bought around 20 years ago in a pawnshop in San Francisco. The guy in the shop didn’t really know what he had, so I kept telling him it looked like the bass was damaged or worn down – but I was lying through my teeth because I wanted him bring down the price. In the end he gave it to me for $600, which was insane because the bass was flawless. The light weight and short scale of the Epiphone completely changed the way I played: I immediately felt like I was driving a superfast racecar rather than some clunky pickup truck, which is what most other basses feel like to me. I’ll admit that Fender Precision basses have bigger, fuller tones, but in my heart I’m a racecar driver.

“I can’t really approach any new album thinking that I’m going to extract a classic tone from something else and force it into this band, or this song, or this recording. At the end of the day you’re at the mercy of what’s right for that song, or what is needed to complement that guitarist’s sound, or the landscape of the drums that you track. Right now I’m finishing up a tour with BRMC, but I’ve been talking with the guys in the Call about possibly doing some more shows, if we can figure out a way to get everyone together again.”

The Call’s album A Tribute To Michael Been is out now on Caroline/Universal.

Basses Epiphone Rivoli EB2, Ampeg Fretless AMB-1

Effects Vintage FX from Dave Archer

Amps Ampeg SVT II

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