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Interview: Robert Levon Been

10 September 2021

It’s a bit of a family affair. When writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ) was looking for an end-scene song for his film, The Card Counter, Robert Levon Been (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) came to mind. Schrader had worked with Levon Been’s father, Michael (The Call), on 1992’s Light Sleeper so it was only natural for Schrader to enlist Levon Been.

What was intended to be just one song turned into an entire soundtrack of moody songs as well as instrumentals for the film’s score. The songs, which Schrader describes as the “third voice” of the film’s protagonist, are featured heavily throughout the thriller starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, and Wilem Dafoe and which was executive produced by Martin Scorsese.

Stream/buy The Card Counter: Original Songs from the Motion Picture

For Levon Been, who’s been writing music since he was a young teenager and been recording professionally with BRMC since 2001, writing, producing and performing a soundtrack required a different part of his creative brain and, as he tells me, it was unlike any experience he’s had in the past. His description of writing songs for the soundtrack is colorful and illustrative.

Working across many time zones (Levon Been currently lives in Vienna, Austria), we recently chatted about his work on The Card Counter and what the status of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is in 2021.

When you first were approached to work on the soundtrack, was it just supposed to be the closing track?

ROBERT: It took them a month to find me, I guess they had the wrong number. They were exploring the score with this UK team and were just looking for one prominent song for the final scene. That was what I thought was going to be the beginning and the end of my involvement. I wasn’t finished with the song but I turned in what I thought were a few good ideas. The one they were leaning towards the most ended up feeling like the spirit Paul was inspired to explore. Everything felt like it was going in reverse after that. They wanted songs for a few more scenes and then it kept expanding and expanding until I was doing the whole score from end to beginning. I was pretty discombobulated, but that’s the way Paul like to work. He likes disorienting people and seeing what happens. Some of the things they had were too conventional. Nobody knew what it needed but it needed something. I was thrown into the lion’s den to figure out what that something was.

Were you shown a cut of the film that you could write along to or did you submit a bunch of ideas and songs and then they figured out how to incorporate?

ROBERT: I’d watch a scene and they’d say, “Okay, he turns the corner and, when his head lifts up, this is where the song should start.” And then, “Okay, a minute in, and now he leaves and that’s when the last lyric should be. Now, go write something.” That was always my worst nightmare. I tried to do some things that were freeform and was hoping that a music editor would take it and run with it but Paul’s extremely surgical. “I want it to start here. I want it to stop there.” So, I could just send things. Everything had to be written and sent exactly to what he wanted. It’s very hard to talk about music, discuss it conceptually, when you’re going for that specificity. It’s like threading a needle. It’s the opposite of creating a bunch of soundscapes and vomiting all that onto a music editor and saying, “Okay, it’s your problem now. Figure it out.” It’s hyper-intense to have to make every lyric and every beat fit precisely to a scene. That was nerve-wracking but exhilarating when it worked. It would either feel right or it wouldn’t. It was actually freeing when I’d submit something and they’d say “no”. I heard “no” a lot.

This had to really challenge you as a songwriter. You’ve been writing Black Rebel Motorcycle Club songs for over 20 years and must have come up with a certain process. You go into a project like this and you have to throw that process out the window.

ROBERT: Challenging is an understatement. There were a lot of petrified days and nights. It’s like the difference between basketball and baseball. Technically, they’re both sports but that doesn’t mean you can just switch between the two. They have totally different rules. It’s also like playing basketball on the moon. The gravity’s not there but you have to make it work. Writing songs for the movie, it’s still based in music but the laws and principles are opposite. It was a lot of listening to Paul and figure out what he wanted. He uses completely different terminology. Like, he wanted it to sound “more porcupine in this section.” And then I had to imagine what a porcupine sounds like at that moment. It’s really odd. And, we were doing this during a pandemic. I think everyone is searching for something right now. It was a good distraction to figure out upside algebra. I have so many friends who dove deep down into rabbit holes on projects during the pandemic and I guess this became my rabbit hole.

The soundtrack has a good flow, it’s not a bunch of bits and pieces thrown together. While this is a soundtrack, some people may consider this a Robert Levon Been solo album. And, it’s the kind of thing they could listen to without ever seeing the movie and still enjoy.

ROBERT: By the time we finished everything up, it’s almost like the film birthed an album. I felt this strange personal responsibility to raise these songs from pups to proper songs. A lot of the film is this concept that Paul wanted to express of the protagonist suffocating. Throughout the movie, you hear a lot of breathing and forced breath. The protagonist can’t find his subconscious voice and he’s kind of suppressing this other side of himself. Throughout the course of the film, words start to come out, not melodically or not fully self-realized until the end and that’s where you finally get a full song. I looked at the songs like they were a ship that was broken into fragments and you only see it coming together at the end. That meant pieces of songs. I would write a song that would be 50 seconds long and then someone would say, “Okay, that’s what we need for this scene.” And then there would be a song that would be a minute and 10 seconds. By the end of finishing the songs and getting them to a place where Paul was happy, I had these fragments and it felt very neglectful to not finish writing them, not as a composer, but as a songwriter. That’s when things got weird. I was in a predicament. When people see the film, the songs work the way they are used. But, they are just fragments. The full length songs on the album wouldn’t have existed unless I figured out another verse, a bridge and an outro. That’s when I started trying to finish the ideas. I switched gears into writing what felt like a responsibility that I had to complete.

I understand how it might look like a solo record, but that wasn’t the intent. If I didn’t finish writing those songs, no one would have so it became another labor of a different kind. I’ve been thinking a lot about how confusing that’s going to be for people. If you’re wrapped up in making the songs, it all makes sense. I wouldn’t stop writing once I submitted the short segments. I was thinking, “Where does this story lead?” It became very fun trying to figure out the expanded version of the score. I threw in a couple songs that almost made it into the movie but didn’t. They are on the album because if they weren’t there, I was thinking that that would likely never get heard. I figured it would be an interesting way for people to see behind the curtain a bit. I don’t think a lot of films and soundtracks are built that way. It was a cool excuse to try something different.

Are all the songs on the album featured, even if just short snippets, in the movie?

ROBERT: There are songs that didn’t make it into the film, just a couple. There’s an instrumental piece in the film that I wrote words for for the album. The only song that is played in full, I think, is the final song. I would always joke with Paul that he’s the king of the fake out. As soon as the audience thinks they’re getting one thing, he turns the corner. He does that musically as well. I felt like it needed a follow through for people who are watching the film and think they’re going to get a full song only to have the song cut off as it goes to the next scene. This was an incubator for a couple of the songs that weren’t finished and a home for a few of the runaway songs that got cut from the film at the last minute. And, the album was a home for the instrumental pieces as well. It always felt like a shame to chuck them in a bin. I know a lot of musicians will put those songs in their pocket and use them on the next thing. I wanted this to be done. I didn’t want to hold onto anything. I needed to walk away so I put everything into the album and got the sense of the end of the story.

In terms of sequencing, is the first song on the soundtrack the first song you hear in the movie and so on?

ROBERT: It’s got the same last song but other than that, I was debating on whether to sequence it chronologically but then it kind of became it’s own animal. I was going off of feel. I started by moving at the speed of sound rather than putting thought into it. Then I started going off how these pieces feel with one coming after another. That became more dominant versus toeing the line with what trying to have people get pictures in their head when they listen from what they saw in the film. I threw out the roadmap in that sense. People wouldn’t be watching this soundtrack while the film is going so it’s got a different law of physics.

You’ve worked on other soundtracks and have had Black Rebel Motorcycle Club songs in movies. When you’re watching something and you hear one of your songs, does that give you a thrill? Or, do you think, “I wonder why they picked that part of the song to play during that particular scene?”?

ROBERT: It usually makes sense in how the songs are used. Whoever reaches out to find the right song, they have a specific song for use in a specific place and I’m like, “Oh, I get it.” Maybe there’s a particular lyrical reference or there’s something with the beat and the momentum that fits and has the energy that lifts the viewer. It’s interesting to see what someone has imagined for how to use your song.

What’s difficult about this is having to write within a short period of time to fit a scene perfectly. You don’t have that big bin of toys. Everything has to be a new idea. Paul is very critical, as am I. The bar is always higher than you’re actually going to be able to get to. When my father worked with Paul, I was watching him go through a different process than I went through. My dad was very specifically trying to match these Bob Dylan songs. Paul wanted five songs to be recreated without being legally in trouble. That alone, as a blueprint, was such a load off my dad’s back. What I did was more like freeform jazz, there was no guardrail. It was very different. It was crazy from beginning to end.

The Card Counter trailer reminded me of The Color of Money trailer. I remember that soundtrack having the huge Eric Clapton hit, “It’s In The Way That You Use It,” which framed the movie with it’s classic rock/blues sound. The music in The Card Counter trailer is dark and intense. Is that the mood you were going for as it relates to the movie’s story?

ROBERT: I saw the trailer the other day and it was the ultimate fake out to me. I was laughing in my head, like, “Oh Paul, you’ve done it again.” I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s like a con within a con. Paul always does these inside jokes, he likes messing with people, so I think he was probably enjoying this. Most of the trailer makes it look like a heist, a hustle, but that’s yet another fake out. It’s hard for me to imagine coming into this project and being asked to write the song for the last moment of the film and then to reverse my brain and be like, “What would be the first tease that you’d want to give someone?” After seeing the trailer, it all makes sense. You want to start off by giving people something that fools them so when they go into the theater, they’re experiencing something completely different than what they were expecting.

The first half hour of the film is completely different than the next half hour and the following and the following. I remember telling Paul, the first thing I thought after watching the first half hour was, “How do I tell him that I can’t do this?” And then it has this gear shift and this fake out and then this other fake out and by the end, it’s a completely different movie than the way it starts. This is kind of Paul’s bag. I do appreciate that he’s patient enough to pull off a genuinely long con, which I just spoiled!

There’s something beautiful about the story that got me. But, I feel like such a weirdo that I usually don’t speak on behalf of the masses. For the small clique of actual weirdos, maybe this movie will do for them what it did for me. It’s such a strange time in the world, it feels like the marker just keeps getting moved. When is the world going to feel like it did before or will it be a new world? Everyone is just praying so much that whatever, whoever, however it’s going to come, it just comes in whatever shape or form that let’s us move forward.

How have you personally been holding up since March 2020?

ROBERT: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Even if there wasn’t a pandemic, even if it was a normal day, a normal year, music scores are so all-consuming that you end up neglecting your own life as well as your loved ones and the outside world. I feel like I’ve been on another planet and it’s very scary to come back to this one because I can see it in my peripheral and it’s a motherfucker to look directly at. Like anything that you dive into that eclipses your world, it’s dangerous when you come up for oxygen. A part of me is so relieved to be back on solid ground again, but it’s not the world I left. I started off in L.A. with the lockdown but I haven’t actually seen home in over a year. Doing the film, I ended up going from Vienna, where I’ve lived for the last 6 years, to New York to Boston then back to Vienna and then back to Boston. On top of everything else that’s disorienting, that would be another one on the list. It forces you to let go which I think is sort of the key when trying to hold on. If you hold on too tight, you’ll rip your arms off. If I had something to hold on to, I might have lost a couple of fingers and toes along the way.

What is the status of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club these days?

ROBERT: Covid pretty much knocked every band and every artist I know out of their rhythm. We all took a break to try different projects. I always make the joke that this project ended up in my lap because my father wasn’t available and I was the default Been that nobody really wanted. That made me work that much harder to earn my keep. When it was just the one song they needed, that was much easier.

There was some talk of some BRMC shows in Australia next year but even that’s up in the air. Nine Inch Nails canceled their shows for the rest of the year as did a bunch of other bands. I don’t think anybody can say with any certainty what the future is going to bring so there’s a lot of trying to accept the unknown right now. Being a solo guy has never been the plan, that’s just the nature of this film and these songs needed somewhere to go. I hoped the world goes back to … I don’t know that I hope it goes back to the way it was before, I just hope that it moves forward. That could be a better place than we’ve been. I’m trying to embrace a better future.

You’ve lived in Vienna for 6 years. Is that where you think you’re going to end up once we move forward?

ROBERT: I’ve been bouncing back and forth. Where I end up, I still don’t know. It’s like asking someone who tours all the time, “What do you like more, the road or home?” You end up becoming comfortable with what you know. Being on the road, being in a different country, a different city every other night, that becomes your drug of choice. I kind of like not being in one place long enough to get stuck. It’s keeping me going until they catch me!