Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Drummer Explains The Healing Power of Music

Black Rebel Motorcycle ClubEXPAND
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
James Minchin

Many fans and critics alike felt Black Rebel Motorcycle Club had gone soft, given the tone and sound of their most recent album, 2013’s Specter at the Feast. Album opener “Fire Walker” meanders in with Pink Floyd “Echoes”-like wanderings, and even with the fuzzed-out guitars, sullen harmonies and dark basslines, rarely rises above a whisper. Well, what else to think?

What many failed to realize is that the album was an internal coming-to-grips with tragedy and loss. It was backstage at a 2010 concert that soundman, roadie, and father to bassist Robert Levon Been, Michael Been, died of a sudden heart attack. Specter at the Feast was an outgrowth of these internal feelings, an album of brooding, monotony, and anguished relief. The dark tone and melancholy inherent in much of the album proved as cathartic as possible for Been and the band as a whole, which staggered through that tour’s finish.

“We were all going through a lot,” confirms drummer Leah Shapiro. “Going into the beginning stages of writing that record, I was very depleted. Playing those more sort of floaty songs, like ‘Lullaby’ or ‘Lose Yourself,’ it was just very soothing. It helped me open up creatively.”

Shapiro experimented with a more “psychedelic vibe” during the sessions, and the result is apparent throughout Specter.

“Especially with drums, there’s so much repetition that you can easily go into a trance-like state,” Shapiro says. “And the way the guitars and bass flow over those rhythms as well — it kind of takes you out of yourself for a moment. You’re sort of floating around in the music. It sounds a little trippy, but when I get that from a song, I’m okay calling it psychedelic.”

Like other similar bands in the drone-y alt-rock pantheon — Spiritualized, the Verve, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Slowdive, et cetera — Black Rebel Motorcycle Club takes solace in getting lost in a song. Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce famously chronicled his addictions and agonies among the swirly, spinning, broody, medicinal qualities of fuzz, feedback, repetitive guitar lines, and pounding beats. Specter at the Feast relishes these moments, alternating between dark, quiet, meandering funeral passages, trippy ambient textures, speed-fuel stomps, and glorious release.

The latter is obvious on “Let the Day Begin,” a song written by Been’s father for his 1980s rock band, the Call. It’s perhaps the most uptempo song on the album, sounding almost anthemic in a preachy, U2-like way, and the band clearly was smiling at the elder Been’s memory while putting this one to tape. It feels that good.

Now, five years down the road from those initial recording sessions — and three years since Specter was released — Shapiro says the songs, while initially contemplative, searching, and healing, still feel good and relevant when performed in concert.

“It does,” Shapiro says. “The songs, after they were as complete as they can be for a record, when we go on tour, we don’t play stuff super-rigid, exactly the way things are played on the records. That isn’t how it has to be performed live. There’s a lot of freedom, so the life of the song extends way past when a song is recorded and put on an album. It still has life and goes through different stages. I like playing with that idea.”

Having worked through one tragedy, a second nearly occurred as Shapiro went through a period of wondering if she was “losing my mind.” The drum set never seemed set right. Bright lights made her head swim. Coordination seemed to come and go.

“Pretty much the whole year and a half touring the Specter album, I had so many problems that I never used to have. I thought I was losing my mind, and if not that, losing my ability to play the way I normally would play. Every sound check, I drove everyone insane because I would move my stuff up and down and sideways constantly, and nothing helped,” she recalls. “When we’d be on stage and the lights would come on, I’d have this weird sense that my coordination was not working the way it normally did. I had to force a lot of things through. It was a really uncomfortable, not effortless place to play from. That freaked me out and messed with my concept of feeling comfortable on stage.”

The diagnosis: Chiari malformations, or defects in an area of the cerebellum near the base of the skull that controls balance and coordination, but may also cause muscle weakness, dizziness, and headaches. For Shapiro, surgery, which required cutting into the skull, was the only cure.

“Having such a big surgery done, there’s always the possibility something could go wrong,” she says. “All you can do is follow orders and work your ass off and hope for the best.”

Working with “an amazing surgeon” who provided her with a drum rehab program so she could return to playing again without re-injuring herself, the down time wasn’t horribly long, but still required immense patience.

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“Of course, it was scary,” she confides. “When I first started playing again, it was five minutes that I could do — without kick drum. That turned into 10 minutes with a kick drum, and into a couple songs, then one uptempo song. It was a slow process getting back.”

Playing again with the band demanded patience as well, namely because BRMC is known for playing at extreme volumes.

“At first, when we started playing, I just couldn’t be in the volume of the songs as long as I normally could. But that went away eventually,” she says. “I have no effects now.

“I shouldn’t do anything stupid, though,” she adds with a laugh. “I shouldn’t go on any roller coasters or go bungee-jumping. As long as I take care of myself and use common sense as far as what activities I do, I’m pretty good.”

The band is making up for lost time. A pair of songs have already been penned and recorded for the next album. Both could make an appearance on the current tour. Though Shapiro says these remain unnamed as of yet, she describes one of the songs as “more dark and slow and really moody.” The other “is more of a rocker that’s fun to play.” But, she cautions, “it’s hard to say overall what the record is going to be like compared with other records. A lot changes as we lay down drums and percussion and do production things to create mood.”

Shapiro notes that current events shape the band’s songwriting, and given the political nightmare that is the presidential election, politics may again seep into the BRMC album fold.

“It’s a pretty scary time right now. When you’re writing everything that goes on around you in your environment and personal life — whether you’re being as direct about it in a song like ‘U.S. Government,’ or more subtle about it — it’s there. It’s part of the mood,” she says.

Politics likely will find a place in concert as well.

“We did rehearse ‘U.S. Government’ the other day,” Shapiro confirms. “So, I think it’s going to be part of the set list.”

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is scheduled to appear Saturday, October 29, at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe.

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Marquee Theatre

730 N. Mill Ave.
Tempe, AZ 85281

480-829-0707

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