I was deeply saddened to learn of Michael Been’s recent death. I’d been a huge fan of his work for years — like a few other people, I imagine, I first heard the band in 1989, when “Let the Day Begin” made a dent at MTV and rock radio. But it was the following year, when Red Moon was released, that I really fell in love with the Call, and spent the next year or so delving into a catalog rich with pleasures. After the Call was dropped by MCA, I tracked Been down for this chat about his career, the state of the band, and what was then becoming his 1994 solo debut, On the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough.
I’d like to start at the beginning. Who would you list as your primary influences? Who did you listen to when you were growing up?
When I was growing up? The Beatles, the Stones…Jimi Hendrix, the Yardbirds, Van Morrison…everybody, when you get down to it. (laughs) I was just a fanatic, you know? All I did was listen to music.
Is there anyone you’d name as a particularly strong influence on you as an artist?
Well, I think all of them have surfaced at different points. In particular…I think John Lennon was big. And I think Bob Dylan expanded the idea of what you could say with lyrics. I don’t think I would have been too excited with rock ‘n’ roll if it had stayed in the “I love you baby, let’s go” kind of place.
You play bass, guitar, and keyboards…
The bass is my main instrument, I think. But yeah, I play keys. Just not enough to hurt. (laughs)
What was your first instrument?
Guitar. But as I was in bands over the years, I remember being in a lot of situations where if we couldn’t find someone, I’d play bass. I’ve been switching off from the time I was 13 or so.
The band you’ve been in for the majority of your career is, of course, the Call. How did that come together?
It was about 1981. I was playing in bars and garages around Santa Cruz; I had just moved up there a couple of years before from L.A. The new wave scene was starting up down there, and I didn’t really like it. That whole skinny tie and sport coat thing, I didn’t care for it, and I wasn’t much aligned with the hardcore punk scene, either. You know, bands like Flipper. I liked it, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do.
So I moved up to northern California and somehow ended up in Santa Cruz. Just got the band together there.
From then until now, the Call has had, for the most part, a pretty rocky relationship with its various labels.
I’d attribute that to not ever fitting into a marketable slot. When I look back on it — and, you know, that’s probably still the problem. Our music just doesn’t fit into one particular genre, to use a horrible word.
When we came out, we didn’t fit the skinny tie image and we didn’t fit the punk image. And when things got bigger throughout the ‘80s, we just didn’t fit in in general commercially. Looking around, it was bands like Duran Duran and Haircut 100, all this crap…and the record company, depending on who was big that year, they’d say “Why can’t you be more like these guys?”
We never related to that. We just kept doing whatever we did — whatever came out. We were never interested in fitting into a particular slot, so we just didn’t fit in well at all. I think that was the biggest problem.
I’d think this would all make you a lot more cynical when it comes to signing contracts.
Well, labels…it’s purely a money situation. Labels love you if you’re making them money, and they don’t care about you if you aren’t. So I’m realistic about it.
If anything, I’m more cynical about radio. Radio is where the power is, and labels bow down to radio. And I’m cynical about the American public’s inability to…I don’t know, keep growing with music somehow.
In fairness, it’s hard to find music that isn’t aggressively promoted.
That’s true — it’s really hard. Ideally, it’d be great to be on an independent label, where people care about you, and you can make the kinds of records you want without anyone looking over your shoulder. But then you can’t get them distributed. Radio won’t play those records. It’s like an old boy network, you know?
That’s a good segue into your experiences at MCA. I’ve heard that the week “Let the Day Begin” went to Number One at AOR, the label stopped making copies of the single.
And that when Red Moon came out, label reps were actually calling stations and telling them not to play the record.
Yeah, that’s probably what happened. I know the first story is — well, first of all, you know, “truth” is not a big thing in this business. (laughs) You never know who said what. It’s like the government. With “Let the Day Begin,” though — that was tragic. That really bothered us.
There wasn’t any foul play, though. It was just that MCA was switching over pressing plants, and they hadn’t printed up enough copies of the single — only 100,000, I think. And the record went to number one, and all of a sudden, there weren’t any in the stores — they’d all been sold. It took five weeks for the company to be able to get back to the point where they could start printing copies again, and in those five weeks, well — you live or die in this business.
I’ve never understood how you went from that kind of success to being dropped — by telegram, no less — while touring overseas, just one year later.
Well, we had done the Red Moon album, which was kind of an experimental thing. You know, kind of acoustic-y, playing other kinds of instruments, and I think the record company felt that it was a slap in the face.
I understood their position. What they wanted to do was just scrap that album, because they thought it had no commercial potential whatsoever. And we said, “well, you could be right”…I don’t know if they actually called radio stations and told them not to play it. All I know is that before it came out, some of the guys at the label said they loved it. But other people, I guess higher up, didn’t want it to come out.
Getting away from business and back to art, what inspires you to write a song?
Oh, nothing in particular. And everything.
From the outside, it sounds like the bulk of your songs are really intensely personal.
Well, not all of it is autobiographical. Some of it is certainly observational, and putting myself in another person’s place and imagining how I might feel. But I guess it’s personal — I mean, I don’t sit down and try to write generic songs about generic relationships. (chuckles)
I recently spoke with Peter Himmelman, and he made a comment about writing essentially the same song over and over again, trying to exorcise demons.
(Chuckles) I don’t know if I write the same song over and over again, but I do think the human experience has a lot of common elements. I think what we feel, what we go through…there’s a similarity for all of us. We all go basically toward the same place — down different roads, but toward the same place. And that common experience makes it difficult to write a lot of different songs about a lot of different things.
So you end up writing songs about — like all of us, I think, have problems in our lives, things we’re always dealing with. We never really change, we’re always trying to overcome these faults or problems we’ve had from the beginning, and your challenge as a songwriter is to find new ways of talking about these things. A new language, a new angle to say the same thing, you know?
There’s only so many things we do in a day. You love somebody, you’re sad…we’re limited beings, I think.
How do you think your artistic vision has shifted from the beginning?
(Long pause) I don’t know if it has changed, other than the idea that there’s got to be a better way to do it. (Laughs) I’m always trying to find a better way to write a song. There hasn’t been a big thing where I’ve wanted to do a different thing, I just want to write better. It’s a slow evolving process.
Your major project over the last year or so has been the soundtrack for Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper.
Actually…not… (laughs) But that’s probably how it’s seemed from the outside. Really, I got a call last fall from Paul, and he’d planned to use Bob Dylan songs in the movie. All of a sudden, he’s done with the movie, and he gets a letter from the record company, and they won’t let him use the music because they’re putting out some compilation. So kind of frantically, he calls me up. I flew to New York and watched bits and pieces of the unedited movie, then went back home and wrote the soundtrack.
For me, it was just about a month and a half of total concentration on that. And then in October, we went into the studio and recorded it all in about ten days. We worked another week or so on it, because there was the idea that if the movie got big enough, they’d want a soundtrack album. Basically what I’m saying is that from the end of August until the end of October, that’s the time I spent working on Light Sleeper.
What I’ve really been working on is writing songs. Jim Goodwin left the band…he had a child, and he doesn’t want to go on the road anymore. We were wondering whether to keep the band together, so I just started writing songs on my own. We’ve been on the road since 1985, solid, every year, so we were just kind of tired anyway.
I’ve been writing with this guitar player friend of mine from back East. I was basically just trying to find out what I want to do. I’d send demo tapes to record companies, and they’d go (audibly wrinkles his nose) “Jeez.” (Laughs) No, it’s been going pretty well.
I hear you’ve signed a deal with Warner Bros.
I’m signed with Warner UK. And I’m in no rush to get something out — what I want to do is make an album that I really, really love. You know, that I’m just crazy about. In the last year and a half to two years, I’ve written and completed about 30 songs, not counting the Light Sleeper stuff, but I’m looking for about a dozen that knock me out, that are the best I can do.
It’s a different thing that I’m doing — it’s all guitars, no keyboards since Jim left. It’s using guitars, but trying to use them in a different way than they’ve been used — without getting into fusion or any crap like that. (Laughs)
I hate to ask this question, but is the Call still together?
Yeah, we are. I just wasn’t interested in making another album and touring, making another album and touring…I didn’t want to look at it that way anymore. Whatever records I make from now on, I want it to be because I’m incredibly happy with them, not because the record company told me “Be a little more like someone else.” It used to be A Flock of Seagulls or whatever. Now I don’t want to be told I need to sound like Pearl Jam or Nirvana. Or, you know, Michael Bolton sells a lot of records, why not try and sound like him?
That’s what you get with record companies. And I’m trying to write songs that are coming out of me. I’m really interested in being an artist, maybe for the first time.