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INTERVIEW: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Leah Shapiro on getting healthy and keeping the beat going.

This year represents 15 years since San Francisco’s Black Rebel Motorcycle Club released their debut B.R.M.C album. A true milestone for a band in constant pursuit of producing pure, unadulterated rock and roll, they have, in recent years, literally went through hell and back. Firstly, with the death of Robert Levon Been’s father – and BRMC sound engineer – Michael Been, in 2010, followed by the more recent news in 2014 that drummer Leah Shapiro required treatment for Chiari malformations found in her brain.

For Denmark born Leah – former drummer with Dead Combo and The Ravonettes – the thought of not being able to pick up her sticks in the face of her surgery and subsequent recovery was as dark a road to go down as there is for any musician.

“That was a pretty fucking scary thought. The whole year and a half of touring Spectre i had so many problems. I was losing my mind or seriously losing my ability to play the way that I was used to which was pretty scary. I guess there was a sense of relief in finding out why that was happening cause I was kinda going crazy over it . Like every night I would feel like it was flying around in a roller coaster while trying to play drums at the same time. The recovery process was pretty brutal and there was also the fear of how everything was going to feel after it.”


As luck would have it, the surgeon tasked with drilling into her brain happened to be a BRMC fan himself, and he was able to fine tune a ‘drum recovery’ process that enabled Leah to come back to almost full health.

“Yeh he was a fan of the band, it was fucking awesome. He was really incredibly helpful and he wrote out about a whole new programme which I started about three months after the surgery to get back on the drums. Had I not had that I’d have been completely fucking lost. I mean I would have no way of knowing what my limits where or how to pace myself or a what a responsible way to getting back to here was at all so it was really helpful.”

Serendipity or not, her long road from sleepy Aarhus in her native Denmark to life in LA via New York as one third of one of the best rock and roll bands of the last two decades is one that had a little to do with a certain incident with a bird in New York’s Times Square.

“I was working this shitty fucking office job in Times Square and I’d just gotten out of the Subway and like this bird just fell out of the sky dead in front of me. That was kind of a moment when i was like ‘Ok I’ve gotta not be doing this any more, anything else is better than this shit,’ and that kind of led to me joining Dead Combo which was really what opened the door for both BRMC and The Ravonettes – I think the first show I did with Dead Combo was opening with The Ravonettes and then we got to do some BRMC shows during their Baby 81 tour and i stayed in touch with Rob and here we are.”

It’s not often musicians get to support a band on tour before making the transition to become part of that band and its something that’s not lost on Leah, one that gives her a heightened sense of just what makes BRMC who they are and what they represent.

“It was kind of interesting to get to tour with them with an opening band before I joined them. I remember being in the crowd watching and there was this really special energy and, like, some sort of vibe that I’d never really seen before live with other bands. I watched the shows every night and I couldn’t get tired of it. It was always really exciting that you didn’t hear the songs as it is on the records, the set changed from night to night and always had a different element to it depending on what the room was like any given night. Now, every night we play I hope that even though I’m behind the drums I hope that energy is still the same one that I could feel.”

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Having just completed a 16 date autumn US co-headlining tour with Death From Above 1979 – alongside Deap Vally, Shapiro is finding it great being back in the saddle with the band after such a long period of recovery from her brain surgery.

“Yeh I mean this is probably my first proper tour where I’ve been fully healed up from my injuries and shit so it’s is a nice feeling just to play without all of those issues. We’ve toured with Deap Vally before so we know them and the Death From Above guys really well, so its probably been one of my favourite tours as far as the lineup and people.”

And although the present musical landscape seems bereft of bands that share a similar approach to pure, no holds barred rock and roll like BRMC do, Leah isn’t one to start complaining, especially given her love of both of their current touring partners, Deap Vally and Death From Above.

“I’m not that frustrated, I think just being on tour with the awesome bands and watching them kick ass every night kind of takes away some of the frustration away – you get a little jaded but there’s plenty of cool stuff going on just maybe not in the mainstream. Its hard enough at the best of times for bands.”

With a new album most likely in the early part of 2017, the tour has given the band the chance to come up with and road test some new material.

“We’ve always used soundchecks to kind of at least get the process of new ideas started and we have like a million little shitty iPhones; recording our new ideas. It’s a cool setting to start the writing process when your on a big stage with a big sound. Everything sounds better than being in the little confined tiny rehearsal space so its a little bit more fun.”

And with the signs all pointing in the right direction, Leah is quietly confident of a return to a full touring schedule next year in support of what will be the band’s eighth record.

“We’ve been testing out two of the new songs which we’ve done in the studio prior to starting this tour and when we finish up next week it’ll be back in the rehearsal studio writing again and hopefully recording and then we will be back out on the road before we know it.”

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The last few years haven’t been easy on the band, with, alongside Leah’s diagnosis, surgery and subsequent recovery, the death of bandmate Robert Levon Been’s father Michael in 2010 – after he suffered a heart attack backstage at a festival in Belgium.

The loss was hard to take for Leah, who credits Been’s father with her progression as a drummer, thanks to his own unique training regime he placed on her when she joined BRMC following Nick Jago’s departure back in 2008.

“A big part of me getting to where I am now as a drummer was Michael putting me through an epic boot camp when i first started with the band. i wasn’t super happy at the time. It was pretty intense but it definitely helped shape my playing and my approach to music in general. He sort of got me to be a little bit more free and I kind of learned to be OK with the mistakes that were going to happen inevitably both in recording and live onstage and learned just kind of go with it and make the fucked up parts work to your advantage, if that makes sense.”

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For Leah, what has happened is that the band have pulled together more than ever in the face of such tragedy.

“I mean we’ve gone through some pretty insane shit before. We spend a lot of time together so we are all very close and i feel like there’s more of a family vibe than other bands I’ve played with in the past and I like that. A lot of the guys that are on the road with us have been with the band for as long as I have or even longer so there’s that whole element to it as well. I suppose we are our own kind of weird little dysfunctional family (laughing).”

The story goes that Leah learned around 40 songs in two weeks when she first joined the band midway through their tour off the back of the Baby 81 album, and ever since then, Leah has taken more and more of a creative role alongside bandmates Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been with regards to new material.

“In the beginning i was playing all the material that already existed and when I first started I just tried to mimic the drumming as much as i possibly could to make the transition not like too awkward for Rob and Pete and I guess for the audience as well. I think that when we first started writing Beat The Devil’s Tattoo I started to kind of observe what the process was and figure out my place in it. So its now its been like 8 and a half years or something like that so I’m a little bit more comfortable than I was!”

Her footprint on the band’s material is more than present, not just through her military like – pounding drums – which formed the creative starting point to the development of lead single ‘Let The Day Begin’ from Spectre – a cover of Robert’s dad’s band The Call’s original 1989 release. Her interest in literature and poetry has borne fruit lyrically, her input stamped all over the band’s last two album releases.

“Well at the time when I first got to LA, Rob and I were living in this like, sort of one of those furnished short term apartments and I happened to have some of my books my dad had given to me and some that I’d bought myself. So they were around and I remember showing him things. “Annabel Lee” (from 2011’s ‘Live in London’ release) came out of that. It’s not like an intentional thing but when its around I guess it hopefully influences us but it’s not something I try to force on anybody.”

Interestingly given the high intensity required to provide the engine for BRMC’s motoring sound, Leah feels that playing live she often finds herself in a trance-like, meditative state, as the dreamy ‘Alive’, from BRMC’s debut release – and Leah’s favourite song to play – illustrates.

“Well I mean there’s a lot of repetition and a lot of focus on the flow and feel of it so when I really focus in on it and I’m having a good day when I’m playing well It gets really transitory really quickly and a lot of the music – the more psychedelic stuff – it really lends itself to that. Like you kind of float into some other place which is nice. It’s nice to stop worrying about how your are supposed to be feeling, it just kind of happens.”

Brought up listening to her American father’s record collection, she wasn’t the typical wannabe drummer who, from an early age, was banging tabletops and boxes with anything they could find their hands on.

“I started I guess a little bit later than most people would have, but I just kinda immediately got obsessive about it. I tried to learn other instruments and I completely fucking sucked at it and it didn’t feel natural to me at all and I remember the first day playing the drums it just felt natural to me.”

And with no doubt a few UK dates to pencil in for next year with the release of their new album, Leah is keen to get back out in front of British audiences – even if that means dodging the odd flying pint.

“Oh yeh it’s just so rowdy and fun I love that. I like a good drunk crowd throwing beers at us (laughs) although usually they don’t hit me so that’s why i don’t mind it! I remember Rob getting hit with a beer right in the face in Glasgow at the Barrowlands, I think on the 2010 tour. Maybe next time it’ll be me although it’s a little harder to hit me. I guess that will be the challenge for next year at our shows.”

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BANKSY: HOW THE WORLD’S MOST ELUSIVE ‘ARTIST’ MAY IN FACT BE ‘ARTISTS’.

The search for the real identity of Banksy is a story one that never fails capture the imagination of the media and the millions of fans across the globe of the subversive Bristol street artist, ever since he came to the public’s attention back in 1997 with his The Mild Mild West mural.
And with the news that filtered out in March of a scientific study by Queen Margaret University confirming previous studies that pointed out to him as being plain old public school boy Robin Gunningham, the final nail in the coffin was struck in what had left the world scratching their heads.
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But what if Banksy isn’t the one person everyone thinks he is. What if – akin to the Shakespeare consiparcy theories, Banksy is a group of people who have stencilling different locations both at home and abroad. Such a rich body of work done over a decade, across the globe, may allow for the suggestion.
A rumour exists from 2010 that his work that went up around North America was his work but were not necessarily painted by him, but rather by a street team that happened to be following the Massive Attack tour.
And on analysis of his North American work, this makes perfect sense.
Around the time when six Banksy murals were reported to the press in San Francisco on the 1st of May 2010, including the famous ‘This Will Look Nice When It’s Framed’ image, Massive Attack performed a two night stint in the city on the 25th and 27th April, a few days previously.
Also in Toronto a similar pattern arises. Massive Attack played the city’s Sound Academy on May 7th and May 9th in 2010, the latter being the day that three new Banksy murals appeared in the city.
On the 12th of May, a new Banksy mural also appeared in Boston’s Chinatown area, depicting a ‘cancelled’ ‘Follow your dreams’ stencil. Massive Attack performed at the city’s legendary House Of Blues venue one day later, on the 13th May.
We can also jump backwards and forwards to both 2006, 2008 and 2013, when Banksy held residencies at art galleries in L.A. and New York and when new works of his appeared in the country. Again, a link with Massive Attack is evident.
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In 2006, Massive Attack embarked on a US tour which saw them play in California in Berkeley on the 22nd of September and the famous Hollywood Bowl venue on the 24th in Los Angeles, the week after Banksy held his ‘Barely Legal’ exhibition in the city, over the weekend of the 15th-17th of September.
Fast forward two years to 2008, and Banksy returned to the US to produced 14 stencils throughout New Orleans to mark the upcoming third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Del Naja wrote the soundtrack alongside fellow Massive Attack member Neil Davidge to the New Orleans-themed documentary ‘Trouble the Water’. It received its New Orleans premiere on the 17th August that year – the same time period, almost to the day, that the stencils appeared.
And in 2013, when the artist’s month long residency in New York kicked off on the 1st October, the dates coincided with Massive Attack’s four night residency in the city between the 28th September and the 4th October at the city’s Park Avenue Armoury.
What about the wider field of play? The locations across the globe where Banksy has left his mark, apart from in Bristol, London and North America include Italy and Australia, and even, if we are to be believed, Africa.
As order dictates, I started at the beginning. And with that, somewhere close to home. Glasgow.
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One of Bansky’s earliest public displays of his work was at the now defunct Arches nightclub and event space, under the city’s Central Station. The event saw the artist- then relatively unknown, share a billing with fellow, and more established, artist Jamie Reid of Sex Pistols fame.
Running from around the 1st to 18th March 2001, the Peace is Tough exhibition was poorly attended, but saw Banksy showcase some of his early work, like ‘Monkey Queen’. So why in Glasgow?
If Massive Attack are anything to go by, they also found the venue’s rugged charm to be the perfect launch pad. To celebrate the launch of their second album, ‘Protection’ (which came out on September 26 1994), the band played a concert at the venue on 8th December that year.
Looking abroad, one of Banksy’s first appearances outwith the UK was in Naples, Italy. His famous ‘Madonna Con La Pistola’, painted on the side of a church in the centre of the city, appeared some time around August 2004.
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Banksy himself refers to the piece in a photo of the stencil in his book ‘Cut It Out’, released on the 14th of December 2004 – which allows me to make the jump back some months. Searches indicate that photos where first taken around this time of the work, which is still present in its location, covered by a Perspex protective cover.
A work appeared by Banksy in the city in 2010, only for it to be painted over quickly after, with which little information is available. So we know Banksy had ties to Naples, as its the only place he ‘tagged’ in Italy. And that he has visited on more than occasion.
Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja (‘3D’) is a massive Napoli fan and gave an interview to Naples’s Radio Marte  in 2010, revealing his passion for the team – a passion handed down to him from his Italian father. In the interview he reveals he attended a Napoli match in Naples against AS Citadella during their time in Serie C1, a match that took place on the 26th September 2004.
So although Massive Attack didn’t play a show there, at least Del Naja was there around the time the mural appeared. The band have had a relationship with the city stretching back to a decade before then in 1994, when Channel 4 filmed a documentary on their visit to the city to visit Del Naja’s father’s place of birth and record with the Naples band Almamegretta.
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Let’s move on to Australia, jumping back and forward as we do. He first went down under in April 2003, after being invited to attend to participate in the Semi-Permanent design event in Alexandria, Sydney, creating one of his biggest ever art works while he was there – a collage piece stretching 2.5m high by 9m long.
While in the country he also visited Melbourne, being shown around by a guy called Puzle from a t-shirt label called Burn Crew, whom he met in Sydney, where he sprayed some of his famous rat stencils and a ‘Little Diver’ image around the city, including the famous ACDC lane.
When Banksy’s work appeared in Melbourne, this also represents the last time Massive Attack played in the city, at the Vodafone Arena on March 11th that year, before playing at the Sydney Entertainment Centre of the 14th March, Brisbane on the 16th March and Canberra on the 18th, as part of their Australian tour.
In early August of 2005, Banksy visited Palestine, painting a total of 9 pieces on the Palestinian Wall, including the famous ‘West Bank Guard’ showing a young girl searching a soldier for contraband. He returned a decade later, in February 2015, he further stirred the collective conscience by ‘bombing’ his way across slabs left over from Israel’s 2014 offensive in Gaza.
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As for a possible Massive Attack appearance around the time Banksy visited Palestine in early 2005, there is none. Del Naja and Massive Attack have been working since 2005 with the HOPING foundation- Hope and Optimism for Palestinians in the Next Generation –  and have continuously lent their support to Palestine issues. After having played 2 gigs in Israel previously, he joined the movement for a cultural boycott of the country in 2010.
The band also played a run of three benefit concerts in Birmingham and London in 2007 for the foundation, while also made the headlines in July of 2014, with their headline show at Longitude Festival in Dublin including graphics which highlighted their solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. Later that month the band staged a concert in Lebanon in collaboration with the HOPING project to support Palestinian refugees after visiting the Bourj el Barajneh refugee camp.
Perhaps of all the locations tagged by Banksy, Mali has to be the most random of places to have felt his artistic presence. Concretely, his work was uncovered in the suburbs of Bamako in Mali around January/February of 2007, with images first appearing online around four months later.
Bamako is a name that resonates due its links to Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project. Del Naja became involved with the project after visiting The Congo with Albarn in late 2007, and has strong links to the Mali music scene – being cited alongside Johnny Marr in Malian musicians’ Madou and Mariam’s section of the ‘Voices United For Mali’ song of peace, which was released in January 2013 – a song which was recorded in Studio Bogolan in Bamako.
Alburn himself part produced the album ‘Welcome to Mali’ by Madou & Mariam, which itself was part recorded in Bamako in early 2008, around the time when the murals appeared in the city.
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Skip to 2008, and Banksy made his Asian debut after his work was included in the ‘Love Art 08’ exhibition at the end of April at the city’s Art Centre. This was around the same time that the art group United Visual Arts were invited to showcase their award winning multimedia artwork ‘Volume’ at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, from the 11-20th April.
Interestingly, the piece was a collaboration between design collective United Visual Artists, Del Naja and his long-term co-writer Neil Davidge (as part of their music production company, one point six).
Throughout his career, Banksy has spoken of his friendship with the band’s Robert Del Naja – himself a graffiti artist. Del Naja and Banksy are said to have exhibited together at shows in the past, with Banksy citing Del Naja as a big influence on his work.
And Del Naja himself appeared in Banksy’s ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’, speaking about his relationship with the artist from his early days in Bristol.
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The artist also provides the foreword to the tome ‘3D & the Art of Massive Attack’, released in August 2015, which reads… “When I was about 10 years old, a kid called 3D was painting the streets hard. 3D quit painting and formed the band Massive Attack, which may have been a good thing for him, but was a big loss for the city.”
Del Naja was a graffiti artist long before becoming the ‘creative director’ of sorts of Massive Attack, and is held in high regard as one of the pioneers of the stencil graffiti movement, helping to bring hip-hop and graffiti culture to Bristol in the 1980s. And his work has been featured on all of Massive Attack’s record sleeved to date.
It’s also worth noting that Massive Attack cancelled a headline performance at Banksy’s ‘Dismaland’ event in September, citing ‘technical difficulties’. Banksy himself asked attendees to the event to wear masks, with the idea for ‘The Masked Ball’ being that he could attend without his identity being revealed by the paparazzi in attendance.
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Perhaps the assertion then that Banksy is just one person is wide of the mark, instead being a group who have, over the years, followed Massive Attack around and painted walls at their leisure.
And perhaps, at the head of such a group we have Del Naja. A multi disciplined artist in front of one the seminal groups in recent British music history, doubling up as the planet’s most revered street artist. Now that would be cool.