Tag Archives: UK

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.”

What the budget means for Scottish/UK music.

For those of us who spend our free time at weekends packed into concert venues appreciating some live music or swanning around galleries as opposed to quiet nights in watching The Voice, last week’s Budget, in amongst the usual pomp and circumstance, raised an important question.

What does the budget mean on a cultural level for the UK’s music and arts sectors?

The general mood music emerging from the Treasury was sombre, but, within the statement from a Chancellor in George Osborne that rates NWA, Sufjan Stevens and St Vincent amongst his favourite acts, there are the one or two high notes.

£5m has been pledged towards the construction of one of Scotland’s newest cultural buildings, the new V&A museum in Dundee, while a new tax relief for museums and galleries will be introduced in April 2017, aiming to encourage them to invest in temporary and touring exhibitions across the country.

The government will also provide tax relief to orchestras from 1 April 2016, encouraging orchestras to perform across the whole of the UK.  However, this seems to be the only ‘positive’ announcement affecting musicians.

However, with the music industry contributing over £4 billion towards the £84 billion ‘worth’ of the creative industries to the UK economy – one which employs 17,000 people -it’s fair to say that those involved in it could have expected a better deal.

Firstly, what the budget highlights for many commentators is a clear disparity between what can be regarded as the ‘high’ and ‘low’ arts.

“I do worry that there may be an element of snobbishness in how money is allocated. Opera does very well, ballet does well, jazz does very well – but rock and roll doesn’t do so well,” Shadow culture minister Michael Dugher told the BBC.

“We have a real crisis in the system. We are haemorrhaging small music venues – not just in London, but across the whole of the country. We really need to wake up to that and do something about it. We are extremely concerned that local authorities will be hit by another major cut to their budgets when local arts provision is already under pressure,” he continued.

For music venues up and down the country, the chance to apply for arts funding from local arts bodies may represent a lifeline for them to continue their very existence, against a backdrop of closures that has seen 35% of small and medium size venues shut since 2007 in London alone.

Culture minister Ed Vaisey suggested some time before the budget that “a vibrant music venue which is breaking new acts has just as much right to be considered a cultural venue as a local or regional theatre,” at a conference on live music.

What the Budget seems to suggest is a certain ‘rehashed’ rhetoric that goes far wide of the target of increased support for music and the wider cultural industries in the UK problem.  A report by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) suggests that these often ‘familiar’ claims about the importance of arts and culture cannot always be substantiated due to the lack of thorough research into the impact of arts and in general.

The report, entitled ‘Understanding the values of art and culture’ concludes that the value derived from arts and cultural activity arises primarily at the individual level, but recognises that this can be a catalyst for wider benefits, like better civic engagement, stronger communities, economic benefits, good health and well-being, and positive educational outcomes.

One final consideration from a musical perspective concerns what is known as the “withholding tax”, which may have particular relevance for the worldwide music industry and connected creative sectors.

Transactions involving musical royalties between two companies, one being in the UK and the other abroad, are at the moment allowed to withhold tax at reduced rates (often zero percent) , to reduce the complexity of handling tax across different jurisdictions. However, from Thursday, 17th April the law changes so that tax will now be withheld at the full relevant UK tax rate.

This will no doubt have a knock on effect for the 69,000 registered musicians across the country. A country which represents the second-largest provider of recorded music in the world and accounts for 13.7% of global music sale, actually outperforming the UK economy in terms of growth.

Perhaps it’s time for the Government, and Chancellor Osborne, to show culture some love and appreciate the true benefit our music and wider cultural industries brings not just our pockets, but to our minds too.