Brain surgery. A death in the family. Personal mental health struggles. Any one of these challenges could spell the end for a rock ’n’ roll band. The members of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club experienced them all — and came out the other side with their best work in years.
Commonly referred to as BRMC, the California-based trio have created pitch black garage-rock for two decades. The band’s seventh album, Wrong Creatures, is out January 12. Filled with dark, droning guitars and cryptic lyrics about misfits, murder, and faith that’s seemingly never rewarded, it’s quite possibly the first great record of 2018.
In the song “Haunt,” reverberating, noir-ish strings underscore skeptical lyrics: “And I’m wondering if I’ll feel the grace / I’m trying to unlove this world / But it has no other place.”
Guitarist Peter Hayes, bassist Robert Levon Been, and drummer Leah Shapiro have attempted to “unlove” a world that’s been cruel. In 2010, Been’s father, Michael (who had served as the band’s sound engineer), died of a heart attack. Been also has been outspoken about his grapples with depression.
Shapiro’s struggles have been somatic. In 2014, she began experiencing issues with her vision and motor skills. Concerned about these symptoms, the Danish-born Shapiro soon was diagnosed with Chiari malformation, a neurological affliction where the cerebellum is pressed through the base of the skull.
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As treatment, Shapiro underwent brain surgery that same year, and stepped away from the band to rest and rehabilitate. Having lived with no major health issues to speak of until that point, Shapiro felt like her body had let her down. But she had no intention of giving up music.
Weak from the experience, it took a while for her to process her post-surgery reality and to feel confident behind the drums again.
“I was feeling insecure,” she recalls. “The drums are always an extension of me. I was battling my instrument. Nothing felt fluid or normal.”
Shapiro’s large medical expenses were covered through fundraising by BRMC’s fans. (Her surgeon also happened to be a fan of the band.)
When talking about her experience, Shapiro says she feels grateful emotions that seemingly contradict the cynical words that fill the 12 tracks make up Wrong Creatures.
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“I don’t think [my experience] manifested itself on the album in ways that are super-obvious,” she says. “It was with me when we were writing, arranging, and recording the songs because I still appreciate being able to continue doing this. It is a reminder of how quickly you can lose something that you think you are going to be doing for the rest of your life.”
This is Shapiro’s second tour since her operation. And when she considers what the year holds, the drummer is grateful to get back on the road and help share BRMC’s new music. Despite what each member has gone through personally, the three musicians work out their issues together, not only to carry on a secure professional relationship but to nurture their friendship. Shapiro refers to Been and Hayes as her “weird little family.”
“I feel most comfortable when we are on the road,” Shapiro says. “Now that my brain is where it is supposed to be, this should be a more enjoyable touring cycle than the previous one.”
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are scheduled to perform on Tuesday, January 16, at The Van Buren. Tickets are $25 to $40 via thevanburenphx.com.