An Interview with Michael Been (1987)
note there are three more interviews + a note:
see the 1989 interview, the 1990 interview, the 1991 interview, & 1992 note
WHAT DO YOU THINK ATTRACTS PEOPLE TO THE MUSIC OF THE CALL?
We get an amazing cross section of people. I'm sure different people get in on different levels. As many people may like The Call for its rhythm as its lyrical stance. There are certain fans that are extremely passionate about it, and have had traumatic situations in their lives where the music really helped them.
I personally like music that speaks to me about my life - not my fantasies - not my ego. When a band writes a song and I can say "that's how I feel - that's what I think - that's my experience," it creates a kind of community. Loneliness, or better still, aloneness, is a basic emotion we all share to varying degrees, and the music that appeals to me is the type that eases that aloneness.
THE CALL HAS A NUMBER OF WELL-KNOWN FANS; BOB DYLAN, U2, AND OTHERS; ALSO GARTH HUDSON AND ROBBIE ROBERTSON PLAYED ON YOUR ALBUMS, AS WELL AS JIM KERR AND PETER GABRIEL. THIS IS PRETTY IMPRESSIVE STUFF
It's nice that they appreciate our music and it's nice to get to know these people on a personal level. We toured with Simple Minds in 1983 and again in 86, and we've all become good friends. When we were first asked to tour with Peter Gabriel, we didn't know too much about him except that he'd been in Genesis. During that tour, though, we all got to know each other very well. Peter is one of the most interesting, unassuming people I've ever met.
The most exciting thing to us was THE BAND - Garth and Robbie and Levon and those people - because THE BAND, to us, was the greatest band that ever was. They were an incredible influence on us. I went to see THE BAND when I was about 18, and I was singing a gut- wrenching version of "Rockin' Chair', and I remember looking through the crowd and seeing people with tears in their eyes. I'd never seen that before. I knew immediately what I wanted to do.
Incidentally, about two years ago, Scott and I played in California with Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson on THE BAND's reunion tour. Levon Helm was doing a movie at the time so Scott filled in on drums. Robbie Robertson was busy with a previous commitment and I played guitar. Scott and I really enjoyed playing all those songs we've loved for so long and playing with THE BAND was an incredible experience.
IT SEEMS THAT MICHAEL BEEN HAS A LOT TO SAY IN HIS SONGS. ARE YOUR LYRICS POLITICALLY ORIENTED?
Our music is interpreted and classified a lot as political or social and I suppose it is in some ways. But rather than being concerned with major political issues, our music is more into personal politics. If it's talking about war, it's more a symbolic reference to wars that are going on inside individual people than on a grand scale confrontation. I think that our most political songs, like "Walls" and "Blood Red", are very personal because they're trying to provoke a passionate response in the listener - a very personal reaction to a universal situation.
DO YOU FEEL THE BAND HAS A COMMON BOND WITH OTHER POLITICAL BANDS?
Some bands have a violent revolutionary attitude. We would be much more inclined toward a non-violent approach. But I think that what they're doing is important because there is too much apathy in this country. As an artist, you have a responsibility to do something.
YOU SAID YOU WROTE "BLOOD RED (AMERICA)" AS A RESPONSE TO THE CURRENT ADMINSTRATION'S APPROACH TO SOLVING THE WORLD'S ILLS
I think anything's possible with that kind of thinking - we are capable of the worst thing that's ever happened in the history of the world. But I think the thing we've got going for us is that historically the pendulum always swings back - and there's always a reaction to that kind of insanity. I'm very patriotic, but I'm patriotic to the human being rather than the flag they stand under.
YOUR LYRICS SOMETIMES SEEM TO HAVE BIBLICAL REFERENCES
Well, I try to write about my own life experiences, and I'm a Christian myself, so I write from that point of view. Although it wouldn't be the type of Christianity commonly practiced these days. I believe it's a vain presumption to think that all people in the world should believe what I believe or that it would necessarily be right for them. I only know that it's right for me. I'm not interested in selling religion; Christianity or otherwise.
THE CALL HAS MADE FIVE ALBUMS. IN RETROSPECT, ARE YOU SATISFIED WITH YOUR WORK?
I really like all of our albums, and each one for different reasons. In 1980 we went to England to make some demos and play some gigs and at that time there were emerging some great bands - Joy Division, The Clash, The Pretenders, Gang of Four; and we saw them all. The British punk bands weren't so concerned with technique and orthodox standards, they just played like their lives depended on it. In fact, everyone thought we were an English band. We went back to England later on to record our first album. We were exploring music during that time; trying to determine our own direction. The Call (first album) was a compassionate album, but it probably came out as anger.
Modern Romans is our most political album. There was a great deal happening politically - Granada, Lebanon, or government saying the Russians are evil and the Russian government probably saying the same about us. That kind of thinking inspired me to write the last lines of "Walls Came Down". The album reflected the times.
Scene Beyond Dreams , I call our metaphysical' album. It was an abstract parallel of the transitions we were going through. Those were the heaviest of times for us. Some personal tragedies and strained relationships caused a great deal of introspection. Lyrically it was a more poetic approach. We were also in the middle of reforming the band with Jim Goodwin. Musically, the change in instrumentation brought out a different sound.
We did Reconciled in the summer of 1985. The band hadn't had the luxury of playing very much together prior to making that album. We had gone through two years of not having a recording contract. We fell into a business hell and the band became lawyers over legal bickering with our former record label and management company. We didn't have anything definite other than the band itself. Then we got the Elektra deal and we started rehearsing, and things started clicking and feeling wonderful again. We believed in the band, and I think that all the adversity that we went through strengthened us.
Into The Woods is my favorite album, without a doubt. There's so much of all of us in the album. I really love it. When we finished the album I didn't want to listen to any of it for awhile, after having heard each song about 200 times in the studio. So I separated myself from it. When I did listen again, it was really wonderful. I was enjoying the album and not concerning myself with studio technicalities.
DO YOU SUPPOSE ANY OF YOU WOULD RATHER BE DOING SOMETHING ELSE?
The Call is "home" for all of us. We absolutely love this band. We have that level of commitment - a mutual respect for each other. The band is very special to us; that's why we do it. We've played in a lot of different bands over the years, and it's a miracle when you can get four or five people together, and their minds are all in the same place, and want to play the same kind of music and get along well. This is just the best thing we've ever had.
Song you wish you had written:
‘Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division, “Temptation” by New Order, “How Soon Is Now?” by the Smiths, “Ring Them Bells” and “Most of the Time” by Bob Dylan. And anything by The Band.
Books you’ve read recently:
“The Beloved” by Toni Morrison and “The Power of the Poor in History” by Guitterez
(originally printed in the now defunct 7ball Magazine)
Two angels, carved out of wood, hover above the stage at Nashville’s 12th & Porter Nightclub. The winged messengers smile down beatifically, as a video crew scurries around the club, making preparations to film a conversation between DC Talks Kevin Smith and Michael Been of The Call. Smith needs no introduction to most 7ball Magazine readers, but Been might. Been launched The Call 15 years ago, building the group around a mix of blues, country, gospel and British Invasion rock. Stirring tracks like “Let The Day Begin”, “The Walls Came Down”, and “I Still Believe” found the band lumped in with anthemic acts like U2 and Simple Minds. But, as you’ll read in this provocative interview, Michael Been has always felt The Call touches listeners on a much more personal level. With an extended hiatus now behind it, The Call has recently reconvened to record an all-new album, release a “The Best of The Call” disc and consider touring once again. A fresh pot of coffee between them, Smith and Been begin...
Kevin: I think it’s great that The Best of The Call album is coming out. It should please those who have followed you since the beginning, as well as pick up a younger audience.
Been: Yeah, there’s a few new songs that even those who have been fans for a while won’t know. It makes me feel good that the music is getting another shot. Hopefully it won’t seem like a Vegas show or a cruise.
Kevin: Tell me about your upbringing. Did being raised in Oklahoma affect your music?
Been: It had a great effect on me musically, but I don’t think it affected me lyrically, other than a desire to get out of there! When I would see movies that showed New York City or London or Rome, that was where I wanted to be. My father got transferred to Chicago, so we left when I was 12 or 13 years old. Because I had lived in Oklahoma, I was totally aware of southern music like Elvis and Buddy Holly as well as gospel and the blues. Then when we moved to Chicago, I got the urban blues influence. It affected me so strongly that I developed a deep love for music.
Kevin: Did you feel like you were making art that the industry had a hard time swallowing?
Been: Well, I stared off very idealistic [laughter]. I thought I was going to make this music absolutely from m y heart and I don’t care if it sells well. I didn’t think art and the commercial side of music were mutually exclusive -- look at The Beatles. But I had no idea the industry was as black and white as it is. It’s about making money, to most of the people calling the shots. That causes people to make desperate decisions rather than heartfelt decisions. The only entertainment business I know of that’s more serious is the film industry. You’re talking $200,000 to make an album, vs. a minimum of $2 million to do a film. Most people aren’t equipped to deal with that kind of pressure.
Kevin: Do you have a message to fellow artists or people just getting entangled in the machinery of making music?
Been: Try to stay innocent, but go into it with eyes wide open. Know that you’re dealing with people who are going to try and turn your heartfelt expressions into money. Try not to be offended by that. You better love this with all your heart because you’re going to encounter forces that are gonna try and rip that joy right out of you. You've gotta stay focused on why you’re doing it. I’m working with some bands now in San Francisco, producing and I guess you would say, mentoring them. I feel like I’m helping them avoid certain pitfalls that would derail their careers by months or even years. That’s very rewarding.
Michael Been has some interesting concepts and some very personal thoughts in the following excerpts from a conversation we had recently. (circa 1989)
What determines the songs you’ll put on an album and their sequence?
With this album we went into the studio with 15 songs, all of which potentially could have been on the album. Of the 15, 11 finally made it and they were, simply, the ones that we played the best. As for the sequencing, the potential singles are usually the first, second or third songs because if it isn’t happening in those first three songs, radio DJ’s and programmers won’t take the time to go looking for them. It’s just something you have to do - one of the concessions in this business. “Let The Day Begin” is a good opening song; it sets the mood and the energy is good. It also would be a good song to open a show. Like on Reconciled, it was either “Everywhere I Go” or “I Still Believe” for the first song. We went with “Everywhere I Go” because it was a little easier to get into.
When you’re writing a song do you ever begin with a finished lyric and let the music flow from there?
It can happen in so many different ways, but it never happens where I have a finished lyric and then put music to it. I go back and forth between lyrics and music. Sometimes I’ll have a musical idea, a chord change, and I’ll start playing it and singing along, just kind of making it up as I go along, and I might come up with a few good ideas then - just things that spark off other ideas. Other times I will have some lyric ideas and kind of mess around with different musical changes to get the phrasing, so that the words fir into a particular rhythm. I’m always writing lyrics. I’ll think of a line and immediately write it down for future reference. Another method is like sometimes when the band is rehearsing Tom may start to create a guitar line, or Scott may start a rhythm pattern, or Jim or I may start just playing something, improvisation, and through that a song may form. With the last three albums, the new one in particular, I’ve started writing a lot with Jim. He will play me a certain chord change or keyboard line or he’ll send me a tape of things he’s come up with. Like today I got a tape of about twenty improvisations lasting from like ten seconds to two minutes. I may hear something that inspires me and maybe create a melody line or chorus or bridge. I think it helps the songwriting, and it certainly helps by taking the weight of writing all the songs off me.
When you spoke about making it up as you go along, wasn’t that just what happened recording the song “Oklahoma”?
Yeah, almost all of it. I mean I’d been thinking about the theme and images but the lyrics themselves were totally of the top of my head except for like three lines that were just mumbled because I couldn’t articulate what I was thinking quickly enough. One of the lines, “the storm hit and the roof gave way and a man said it ain’t easy”, was supposed to be “a man swore duty, body and soul”, but I couldn’t get the last words out coherently because the song was moving so fast. So I went back into the studio to overdub it correctly, to say what I wanted to say. The band was playing and music was coming through my vocal microphone and when the new line came in the whole sound of the track altered because all of a sudden there was this voice that was like it had been inserted from another planet. So I just kept what was on there.
The lyrics are included on Let The Day Begin. How do you feel about that?
I guess I’ve had to adjust to the reality that people don’t have the time or the inclination to really listen to the words. It reflects the fast pace of life today. When I listen to music I don’t like reading the lyrics. I like to get my own impressions. When I was a kid music just seemed to take up so much of my day voluntarily. That’s how I wanted to spend my time. Not just having the music playing in the background or dancing to it. I got into what the song was saying, and how it would make me feel or inspire me. I would focus right in on it. I enjoyed just listening and figuring out what they were saying. Now most people want it right away. So it’s best to include the lyrics.
Do you ever think, “God, if I have to sing that song one more time”? Do you get tired of playing “Walls Came Down” or any of the old Call tunes?
No, not really. It’s just that we don’t practice a lot of the old songs anymore so we wouldn’t be ready. We would have to go and practice them in order to play them. But our heads are much more into the recent songs. If we did a lot of the old songs we would be like our own cover band.
Would you ever consider doing a cover of someone else’s song?
Performing live we’ve played some covers. We’ve done some Stones tunes like “Last Time” and “Oh, Carol”, the Chuck Berry song the Stones covered, and we’ve done “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division. “Temptation”, “Not Fade Away”, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” - we’ve done quite a few. But as for putting one on an album we wouldn’t exactly be opposed to doing it, it’s just that the song would have to fit with the other songs. We wouldn’t just want a token cover song.
One minute a band can’t get played for anything and the next minute it can be overkill. How would you handle that?
You can’t really control radio but I don’t think that’s the main problem. To me the problem is publicity and media overkill which can really be done with your cooperation. It requires a lot of restraint and taste. You have to control that so that people don’t become bored with you. I know that has happened where I’ve really liked a band and they would be everywhere at once. Enough is enough. Like when I look at Rolling Stone magazine it just stuns me how they can justify that many pictures, articles and interviews with Springsteen, U2 and R.E.M.
“Even Now” was the last song you wrote for Reconciled and there’s a line that says, “chased, chased out into the woods”. Is that where you got the title for Into The Woods?
When I wrote the song “The Woods” I didn’t realize I had written that line in “Even Now” until much later. I wanted to call that album Expecting. That was the original title of the album and that’s what I wanted it to be. But no one liked it at the record company and the guys in the band didn’t like it. When they heard it they thought of somebody being pregnant. I didn’t and even then I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that. But everyone liked Into The Woods better so we went with that.
Is Let The Day Begin your most personal album?
They’re all my most personal albums. They reflect what I’m living at the time I write them.
Has it ever been difficult to part with one of your songs, to make it public?
No, not really.
Do you feel you’ve been labeled an intellectual or something that suggests a dark cerebral attitude and do you have a problem with that?
Well, I don’t think of myself as an intellectual. It’s just that so may rock lyrics are like bad junior high school poetry that it just seems intellectual by comparison. As far as the dark cerebral thing, I think if you write about and confront the realities of life it’s going to include the dark and difficult aspects as well as the positive and joyous ones. Part of our rock and roll culture tends to praise misery. We tend to really like knowing that someone is so miserable that they can write these songs that really expose the black, dark, negative side, but I don’t think anger and blind intensity are desirable qualities. So what I’ve tried to do over the years and the way my life has developed is to just find some kind of balance between the two. Not where the light is the absence of the dark and not where the dark is the absence of the light. It’s both of them together.
So do you think you’ve arrived at a meaningful pattern to your existence?
Well, the meaning is slowly being formed in all of us, maybe slower in some then in others but it is being done. It’s important to give voice to your feelings and questions and doubts and fears, and confront them, but I think it’s a terrible place to stay - to be trapped in. I think it’s part of a process but I don’t think it’s the end of the process. But I think some people are so depressed about their lives and have such low self-esteem that they like to hear that hopeless stuff because it validates their own negativity and I don’t think that’s healthy.
Are you shedding your isolation?
I’m trying to.
Have you experienced everything you write about?
Yes, absolutely. I’ll experience it either before or after I write the song.
I understand before - but after?
Yes, and that’s the most amazing, mystical thing about the whole creative process. Either I will understand what I’ve written because it has happened or it will happen. I think it’s because often when you write, you’re writing from a subconscious place. Something inside you is telling you what’s going on before you are conscious its going on. That’s not always the case. Some of the writing is reflective - you reflect back on something or at the present moment that’s what you’re feeling or thinking. But a lot of the time I’ll start writing a song and it will be alien to me and it will be just later on it will turn into absolute action or flesh. And I don’t believe it’s because of suggestion from the song. I believe it’s like dreams - dreams will tell you what’s going on and later on the dream will make sense. I believe there’s a part of us that’s so far ahead of where we consciously are. We are so much more formed than we know, and like I said before, we’re always being formed. Somewhere inside of us we are far more advanced than we can consciously act out and until those things going on inside of us break through into consciousness we go through doubt, confusion and unawareness. But I think something inside is always talking to us, always trying to tell us something. And I think the minute you start questioning, “Why is this going on?”, that’s when movement out of the problem can begin. But the problem existed long before and the solution existed long before.
You’ve explored whole areas of psychology, politics and religion in your songs and you seem to back up everything you sing about with the way you live.
Oh, if only I could. I’m doing better. I’m better off than I used to be. But too often I look at how far I’ve got to go - not how far I’ve come and I think that’s a fault with me. I’m just striving to be human, rather than less human.
Well, it’s damn hard, Michael.
Yeah, it’s damn hard. And it causes a lot of anger. I think most of my anger is directed at myself for not being the person I want to be. Being sub-human in too many ways, too much of the time.
I feel the central tenet in your songs is hope.
Well, I’m glad that comes through in the songs, now if I could only live it. That’s very self-revealing for me because a lot of times in my life the central tenet is wait and see and maybe hope will play a part. I wish I had as firm a grasp in my life as I do in my writing.
The Call have been on the threshold of stardom for a while and it could very well happen with this album. I’m sure you’ve all thought about how it should be handled. You seem to have the kind of protective community that will deflect some of the madness of stardom. I suspect your family and friends would get on your case pretty quickly if you started ‘losing it’.
I do have enough people that would call me on it. I always get a little uncomfortable talking about the ‘what-I-will-do-to-handle-stardom’, you know. It seems like you’re predicting it’s going to happen and I don’t predict that.
Well, I’ll predict it then.
OK. With me it’s I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. I’m certainly not 21 and I don’t believe all the hype. I think that I could potentially handle it but that’s not saying I’m above it all because it enough people told me how wonderful I am I could probably become pretty cocky and arrogant and walk around thinking how great I am.
You mean enough people haven’t told you yet! You mean I haven’t succeeded, Michael!
Well, it’s nice and flattering and all but I know the whole story.
Well, you are pretty wonderful.
I can be pretty horrible, too.
Granted, but we all can.