Whatever Happened to our Rock and Roll?
In an industry where the rising pressure of commercialisation looms large, sticking to your guns can often be tricky and bands can often surrender their roots in pursuit of mainstream popularity. But there’s no denying that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are still carrying the flame for authentic rockers around the world. Formed 20 years ago by high school friends Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been, BRMC have shown little sign of stopping: they continue to tour relentlessly and release flawless albums, all the while keeping the spirit of rock’n’roll truly alive.
With their upcoming eighth studio album out in early 2018, I was patched through to Leah Shapiro’s Berlin hotel room to talk about the new record, Wrong Creatures, and picking her drumsticks back up after undergoing brain surgery.
Hi Leah, how’s your day going?
All good thanks! We’ve just got into Berlin. It’s a normal, sort of greyish day – but at least it’s not raining!
Does it feel good to be back on the road?
Absolutely! I love touring, and I’m happy that we’re doing a full album cycle as well.
How are you feeling about the upcoming release?
I’m excited about it. We’re slowly coming out of that vortex you’re in when you’ve been working on something really intensely for a long time.
The album release will mark your 10th year in the band. How does it feel to be reaching that milestone?
Yeah, that’s really crazy. I can’t believe it’s been that long because it certainly doesn’t feel like 10 years. There’s something about time moving so differently, especially when you’re writing a record and touring. It doesn’t feel like that much time. Usually with an album cycle we’re touring for about 18 months and back home everybody is living their lives, which can make it weird going back to reality because you’re kind of in this little bubble.
This record has been a couple of years in the making, hasn’t it?
Yes, we went back on tour in the summer of 2015 and more or less right after we got home from that we properly got back into the headspace of writing again. Then we recorded it in two different chunks, like six months apart. So yeah, a lot of time was spent on each individual song, which can sometimes make it hard to figure out how things are going to fit together as a whole. But my strategy is to just not think about that and to have some faith in the fact that everything is going to make sense and come together in the end – and it usually does.
This is the first studio album the band will release since you underwent brain surgery. How did it feel going back into the studio after what I can only imagine to be a very difficult period?
Well, I think when we started the writing process I was still healing to an extent, which meant in the beginning I wasn’t able to do the marathon writing sessions. So I think we eased into it a little more gently and slower than we usually do. I guess maybe I was part of the reason we kind of took our time in a different way than the past two records. But being able to play without all those issues I had before was a nice experience.
Did it feel different in any way compared to previous albums?
You can never predict how the writing process is going to go. You have to explore the ideas you’re working with and figure out which ones you want to dive deeper into. I guess the only difference really was that we were working with Nick Launay, which made it a bit different because the previous two albums were more just us on our own.
What was it like having Nick’s input on the album?
It was great. It’s always helpful to have someone who has a different perspective than your own because it brings a bit of a reality check and a sense of grounding to the process. He was a nice, patient voice of reason and he also helped push certain things in different directions. At least for me there were a couple of instances with drum parts and arrangements where he got me to go a bit further out of my comfort zone.
I read that your surgeon is a fan of the band and was able to create a recovery programme to help you get back into drumming. Did this sense of starting again change you as a drummer in any way?
It changed me in the sense that I’m much more aware of my body when I play. I obviously want to take care of the work that he did so I don’t have to go through that ever again. He knew our band and had a very good sense of what the physical tolls of touring are, especially for a drummer. If he hadn’t had that knowledge I probably would have started too early and gone way overboard too soon. He oversaw the whole process and cleared me every step of the way.
The journey surrounding your surgery is quite touching, with your fans and the band raising money for the operation.
That was absolutely incredible and not something I expected at all. It was very humbling and incredibly sweet. On the first tour back as well I could definitely feel the support from the BRMC community, which was awesome. It kind of made that tour almost a therapy tour for me because I was so burnt out with all the doctors and rehabilitation stuff that getting out there and playing was a great feeling.
You’ve already released some tracks from the album including ‘Haunt’ and ‘Questions of Faith’. What made you pick these as some of the first tracks people would hear from the album?
I think overall the album is maybe a bit moodier, that’s just sort of where the music took us. I’m still wrapping my mind around the album and figuring out my own thoughts about it. I’m trying to listen to it as a normal listener and not in that studio mindset where you’re listening with a very critical ear and trying to find flaws.
Do you find it difficult to listen to it normally?
Absolutely, especially at this stage. It’s similar, I suppose, to writing: if you spend an extreme amount of time on one thing you get so absorbed trying to make it the best you possible can. We’re pretty critical of ourselves and that can go overboard, which is why it’s good to have an outsider like Nick who can put a stop to it when the critical part of your brain becomes too much.
The title of the album is taken from the lyrics of ‘Little Thing Gone Wild’. Is there a particular reason you chose this?
We had a couple of ideas in mind for the album title and were trying to figure out what kind of visual references each of them had. Everyone we talked with had a different visual interpretation of what ‘Wrong Creatures’ meant to them and we all liked the idea that it was open to interpretation and not just this one well-defined label. I think all of us are still trying to figure out what it means to us and it’s probably going to change over time. If you ask me in a years’ time I’ll probably say something different.
BRMC have long been seen a truly authentic rock’n’roll band in a music industry where a lot of bands are seen to “sell out”. Is this something you’re conscious of?
I don’t know. We sort of just do the music we want to do, in the way that we want to present it. I think you’ve just got to feel attached to your songs and feel good about the way you present them, not to just churn stuff out. That’s a problem with music today: everything moves so quickly and feels so disposable. At the end of the day, music is still a business and keeps a roof over our head. But I think it’s important to find that line, in any art form, where the art and the business meet. That can be tricky, but I feel like we do that well.