FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S FEBRUARY 2018 ISSUE | BY JOHN PAYNE | PHOTOS BY YANA AMUR
Rock and roll survivors Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have a new album in the can and it’s ready to make its debut out on the wild, woolly road. The bluesy noir-garage tunes of Wrong Creatures, the band’s seventh release, feature founding members Peter Hayes (vocal, guitar, harmonica) and Robert Levon Been (vocal, bass, guitar), along with drummer Leah Shapiro, formerly of The Raveonettes, who replaced original BRMC drummer Nick Jago in 2008.
Danish-born Shapiro’s straightforward, slamming style, while honed in music schools, is largely the product of her head-first dive into the very real world of professional rock drumming. “Drums was my first instrument,” she says. “I took a few months of piano lessons, and tried a little bit of guitar at one point — and I absolutely sucked at it! Drums, though, felt pretty natural to me. I started rather late, too, and I only started because I didn’t really know what to do after high school.”
Shapiro’s career indecision pulled her to England for a one-year music program in Nottingham. Then she went on to study with drum teachers in New York and Boston while bouncing around with a drums-and-electronics project called Dead Combo. She scored her first paying gig as the touring drummer for Danish compatriots The Raveonettes in 2008.
While the seeds for Shapiro’s stripped-down and succinct drum work were sown in her touring stints with The Raveonettes, she credits a few surprising early heroes for the inspiration to play the drums with all the individuality a musician can muster. “The drummers who matter to me all had some sort of character to their playing, where you can kind of recognize it, and I don’t think there are that many drummers like that now,” she says. “Josh Freese, for example.
I always loved when I saw him play with Nine Inch Nails. Ginger Baker, too, had a totally individual style; and then Mitch Mitchell had that jazz influence in his style and applied it in a rock and roll setting, which was really cool — there was this lively personality to his playing that was very much his own.”
“Usually the one thing in the recording process that we try to spend money on is a good place to record the drums.”
Those rare drummers who have something special to say with their instrument do so, says Shapiro, by dint of continual refashioning and re-evaluating of their playing chops. It’s a discipline that strikes a chord. “I’m always worried about getting stuck in bad habits,” the affable, low-key Shapiro says. “Everybody has pockets of things that come easier to them than other things; when I’m writing music on piano, I get stuck on certain things and I’m just repeating the same stuff over and over. And, you know, I’m not a technically oriented drummer — there are a million drummers that are better than me. But I try to use the skills that I do have in ways that work for the band. Those skills stay sharp because we all push each other so that we don’t get stale.”
Perhaps the best way a drummer can objectively evaluate her or his skill level is to take an occasional break from the instrument — maybe go for a long walk, read a good book, or take up skydiving. Sharpiro laughs. “Well, I did go skydiving one time, and I’m never, ever doing that again. But when it comes to pushing my chops forward, I do it with the aid of my bandmates. As we write so much of the stuff live and we also do a fair share of improvising when we play live shows, the three of us have to keep on our toes playing-wise. We all keep pushing each other, especially when we write the initial ideas in the rehearsal studio, when it’s time to get the instruments tuned to each other and generally try to make new things happen.”
Recorded primarily at L.A.’s legendary Sunset Sound studios, BRMC’s Wrong Creatures was produced by Nick Launay (Nick Cave, Arcade Fire), who gives the American roots-heavy band a sound that is cooly atmospheric and, where appropriate, brutally banging. There’s a subtly yearning menace in tracks like the echoed-out thumper “Spook,” the moody murder ballad “Haunt,” and the classic garage snarler “King Of Bones.” All of them brim with the languidly swaggering BRMC-trademarked riff mastery, now hewn to resonantly understated effect. (The sassy, rocking single “Little Thing Gone Wild” was recorded during sessions for the band’s 2013 album Specter At The Feast.)
Leah Shapiro fans rejoice: Wrong Creatures does not skimp on this drummer’s preternaturally rock-steady beats. And this time around, the band was extra choosy about how to get the perfect drum sound for BRMC 2017. “Usually the one thing in the recording process that we try to spend money on is a good place to record the drums, and when we’re in the studio all of our attention is on that,” she says.
For Wrong Creatures, Shapiro had to let go of a few old notions she had about “ideal” BRMC drum sonics. “In the past I’ve been running in circles trying to get the same sort of garagey sound of the first BRMC album, rather than just focusing on what is appropriate for the album we’re doing now,” she says. “Nick Launay has done records for like 40 years or something, so I definitely trusted his judgment on mike setup and what he needed to do to get the best sound possible.”
Shapiro also does what’s needed to survive and thrive on the band’s numerous lengthy excursions around the globe. “We tour a lot, so before band rehearsals I always try to make sure I’m in decent shape,” she says. “It’s just for basic stamina, but it also has to do with the fact that I’ve acquired so many injuries and ailments over the years. There are certain things I have to do now or I just kind of fall apart physically. It’s a change that I have to get used to, not being 23 anymore.”
Of particular serious concern were mysterious problems with physical coordination Shapiro began experiencing around the start of and throughout the year-and-a-half Specter At The Feast album tour cycle in 2013. “I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” she says. “I just felt so uncomfortable behind the kit — it was like playing while being tossed around on a rollercoaster. My balance was completely off, and everything that had felt fluid and natural was awkward. Every night it was just such a battle with everything, way too many little mistakes that normally would never happen. And I didn’t understand why. I even thought it was mental — you can psych yourself out to the point where things start feeling like you’re off, and I thought it was some sort of OCD, or that I was just becoming a crappier drummer over time.” [laughs] So it was actually to her relief when a visit to a doctor upon the band’s return from the tour produced a diagnosis for Shapiro’s seemingly diminishing ability to play the drums: “I had something called Chiari malformations,” she says, “which the easiest way of describing is, if you imagine that your skull is too small for your actual brain, and parts of the brain are pushing through the hole at the base of the skull and blocking the spinal fluid. Over time this condition starts creating mainly neurological effects, such as problems with motor skills, depth perception, and equilibrium.”
The excellent news is that the subsequent surgery to alleviate Shapiro’s condition was successful, and after a year and a half of physical therapy she’s well on her way back to 100-percent good rocking health. “At this point, I feel like everything is functioning pretty well, and for the most part I’m fine,” she says. “I’m a little more mindful of warming up before a show and stretching out afterward. And there’re things that I can’t do now, like going on rollercoasters, or bungee jumping — or jumping out of an airplane.”
She laughs. “I’m totally fine with that.”
Transcription by Andy Ziker
“King Of Bones”
Leah Shapiro livens up the shadowy garage rock sound of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club with thematic ideas and well-placed articulations. In the second measure, she responds to the vocal melody and a guitar lick with a tribal groove. Shapiro moves to sixteenth-notes on the hi-hat in the chorus, interjecting openings on 1e and 3e and an unexpected tambourine hit on & of 3 in measure nine. The fills in measures 12 and 14 provide the appropriate connective tissue while keeping the pulse strong.
BAND: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
ALBU M: Wrong Creatures
WEB SITE: blackrebelmotorcycleclub.com
AGE: No comment
BIRTHPLACE: Aarhus, Denmark
INFLUENCES: Josh Freese, Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker
DRUMS: Sonor HiLite
ELECTRONICS: Ultimate Ears in-ear monitors, Roland SPD-SX