By: Christopher David / Photo: James Currie
Interview with Leah Shapiro (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) -Interview conducted August 2016
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club will be live in Chicago at the House of Blues Thursday, October 13, 2016.
In the three years since their last studio album, 2013’s Specter at the Feast, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has celebrated their share of highs and lows. In 2014, drummer Leah Shapiro successfully underwent brain surgery for a rare and frightening neurological condition, which saw the band’s fan community come together, along with musician’s charity organization Sweet Relief to help Shapiro deal with the financial burden of such an experience. Last year, the band released a live package documenting their Paris stop on that tour that included a documentary. We talked to Leah as the band readies for a fall tour with Death From Above 1979.
Christopher David (In the Loop Magazine): So this is the 15th anniversary of the first BRMC record, and in looking back even just with the time you’ve been in the band, that has to be a pretty significant milestone for everyone. You have a really rich history, and I’ve always felt like BRMC has had a very interesting evolution as a band. For example, I was always struck by how abrupt Howl felt upon its release, in terms of the shift in style, in a good way. It feels like the last couple of records have been the process of you guys figuring to bring all of your styles together. Has that been a conscious thing, from record to record?
LS: The writing process is pretty organic. We spend most of our time in the rehearsal studio, which is where ideas are developed, or where we work on ideas that we’ve picked up on the road during soundcheck. On a headlining tour, we have a lot of time in soundcheck to do a lot of jamming and trying to come up with new ideas that we can record on our iPhones or whatever’s available to not forget it. In rehearsals, then, we come back to that stuff, maybe a year later, even, but we feel like maybe a riff or an idea had something to it. That’s basically how it starts out, there’s a lot of forty-five minute songs that eventually have to be turned into arranged songs. So we listen through those, because we’re just kinda jamming blindly a lot of the time, and letting the music kinda tell us where it’s supposed to go.
ITLM: I know at one point, you’d talked about making (2013’s) Specter at the Feast a double record. Was that something you seriously considered when writing the songs, or was it just that you had that much raw material to work with?
LS: Well, we had stuff that was like trippy, wall-of-sound, flowy music, and then we had more aggressive songs like “Teenage Disease,” so at that point in the process, we weren’t really sure how we were going to make all of that fit into one record that made sense. It became a brainstorming process as to how on earth these songs that were so different would be able to go together.
ITLM: It’s interesting to hear you say that, because I think it’s a very natural, cohesive record. The material really does seem to make a lot of sense together.
LS: Yeah, at the time, when that was something we talked about, we mainly just had basic tracks, and there were still lyrics that needed to be written, there were still other songs, so the foundation of the songs was still coming together. The production and the finished ideas and lyrics weren’t quite there. When you have just the basic tracks, the songs may sound really good, but they may not be a reference for what they’re going to ultimately sound like. I think at that point, we were still kinda struggling with the vision for the record and how we’d make sense of all that crazy stuff. But I think it did really come together nicely, and I’m glad you do, too.
ITLM: It’s one of your best records, in my opinion. I can see how when you only have these disparate elements of songs, it could be tough to look all the way down that tunnel and get a sense of how it’ll all sound.
ITLM: The cover of “Let the Day Begin” was a great and obviously now a very poignant choice. Was that something you’d discussed doing prior to Michael’s death, or was that something that came about afterward? (Note: Singer/guitarist’s Robert Been’s father Michael Been fronted 80s modern rock band The Call, and passed away on tour with BRMC in 2010.)
LS: We’d never really made a plan to sit down and go through his catalog of songs and do some version of them, nothing like that took place. It actually came out of a jam where I had this beat I was playing, and I was in the studio for a few hours before the guys came in, just playing with that. And we realized when we all got in there and started playing that it was actually the same drum part as “Let the Day Begin.” It was exciting to hear it like that.
ITLM: So with the live record that came out last year (2015’s Live in Paris), are you guys in the studio now, looking at a new album sooner than later?
LS: Well, it’s hard to plan out how long things are going to take. We have some ideas that we’ve been working on, some new ones as well as some older ideas that we’ve been tossing around. We’re going to be setting up our rehearsal studio over the next few days, and then we’ll be working on a handful of songs and at least getting the basic tracks done. We’ve been at it for a bit now, actually.
ITLM: This benefit you have with Sweet Relief is a cool deal. How did that all come to pass? (Note: BRMC has a benefit promotion for the upcoming tour that gives fans a chance at winning backstage passes.)
LS: When I was going through my medical issues that I by no means could afford—the insurance companies weren’t doing what they were supposed to do, everything was super expensive, and it was so stressful, especially when you’re in a situation where you’re so scared and vulnerable. They help musicians out when those types of things happen, and I know some other people who have received help from them. Sweet Relief gets money from auctions, benefits, and it’s an organization that I love to support so that fellow musicians can have medical care when they need it and they wouldn’t be able to get it otherwise.
ITLM: It’s one of those amazing organizations that’s been around for a long time, and I think a lot of musicians know about them, but I wonder how much the general public knows all the valuable work they do with the musical community.
LS: Yeah, I don’t think that people outside of music know much about it, and it would be great to see them get more recognition. The amount of help that they give to people is incredible.
ITLM: So before we go, tell me one of your favorite songs to play live, something that we can maybe expect to see on this upcoming tour with Death From Above 1979.
LS: I always really, really enjoy playing “Awake.” It’s one of those that, as far as the drums go, it’s not technically super difficult, but the feel and the flow are so important that you have to kinda go into this trancey, meditative state. I love that; it’s my favorite stuff to play.
ITLM: Great choice, and one of my favorites as well. We’re definitely looking forward to seeing you in October!
For tickets to the upcoming Chicago show at House of Blues, click here
For more on Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, click here