Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Drummer Leah Shapiro chats to us by Alice Inggs
Leah Shapiro is slighter than you would imagine, almost delicate, completely incongruous with the rolling, smashing drumbeats that drive Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s sound. In fact, the band – all black leather, motorcycle boots and cigarettes – is hilariously discordant on the patio of a swank hotel, in the midst of uniformed waiters and sun-tanning geriatrics in floral-print bikinis.
While vocalist, Peter Hayes, and guitarist, Robert Been, get caught in a revolving door of interviews, Leah sits aside, almost removed from the boys’ overt rock ‘n roll presence. She’s quiet but not withdrawn, reticent in a vague kind of way.
Serene, haloed by the glaring reflected light, ethereally grunge, shrugged into a military jacket with rolled cuffs from which emerge thin wrists and hands that don’t flutter, the drummer – and newest addition to the band – is effortlessly cool, but it’s something that doesn’t affect her at all. She smiles at us from under a long fringe.
I become intensely self-conscious. Should I put on sunglasses? I am literally being blinded by the light (and possibly the aura of cool). I manage to formulate a question:
WO: Was it difficult coming into a band that already had a very established sound?
LS: Yeah of course. I think in any situation it’ll always be difficult to walk into a group of people that have been working together for so long cos there’s, like, a certain dynamic and you have to get into that without disrupting the identity of the band – or whatever it is you’re working on. Yeah.
She has a dreamily guarded look. Her voice is quiet, a calm Californian drawl. Mine verges on nervous hysteria:
WO: I noticed that just after you joined, the band released The Effect of 333. Um, was there any reason you guys decided to release an instrumental album?
LS: Well, it was something that was done before I joined the band, it was something that Pete and Rob had been working on for, like, a long time, sort of on and off, tinkering with it in hotel rooms and random places, I think…It was something different, so why not?
She laughs. I mentally skim through ten years of band history and album direction. ‘Why not?’ indeed: after four studio albums of restless rock, The Effect of 333 slows their sound in odd arrangements that seem to mimic the patterns of sleep. An ode to the unconscious that can be summarised by Track 7’s title: ‘Sedated With Sterilized Tongues’. I am mute. Murray steps in:
WO: Peter said something about that album – he wanted to make an album to put him to sleep –
– Do you know if it worked?
I couldn’t – I dunno if you’ve listened to it – but I couldn’t myself imagine going to sleep to that. Cos it might give you nightmares…It’s a little bit scary once you, like, actually get wrapped up and go into that world
The musical world of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is a sonic parallel of Easy Rider-era American history, with a highway of Americana running through the albums: Blues, Rock, Edgar Allen Poe, Beat poets, mysticism, religion, Marlon Brando – in addition to the (often troubled) human condition – are themes and references that signpost the way.
WO: Your music includes a lot of American folklore, and American literary influences, I guess. Who or what inspires or influences you as a musician?
LS: Well…I think…there’s a lot. Other musicians or other bands or drummers in particular, I guess. Mitch Mitchell is one of my favourite drummers…there’s, uh, Josh Freese who used to play with Nine Inch Nails. And there’s, like, you know, a ton of stuff I think that influences me as a drummer...
Robert and Pete are people that influence each other by playing together and there’s a strange kind of telepathy that goes on, which is really cool – and quite rare in my experience, but um…yeah…Tons of stuff…travelling and seeing new places…it all has an impact, you get influenced by just about anything.
The track of her speech is potholed with pauses, and her answers often take a detour from the original question, but at some point reconnect, offering a broad view of the band…She’s probably heard all the ‘band dynamic’ questions before though. I decide to change track:
WO: You’ve got quite a huge following here in South Africa, and I was wondering if you had heard anything about the South African music scene at all?
LS: No, I haven’t and I would love to.
WO: Do you have any…I dunno, like, ‘advice’ for musicians here?
Oh god. It’s hard, you know, it’s a difficult industry to be in, but most people are probably aware of that already.
She pauses and smiles ruefully.
It’s not uh…You gotta really love it and do it for the right reasons or you might get disappointed by it…I dunno…I think that it’s an incredible thing to be able to do…Yeah and, um, music industry tips…yeah, I dunno about that…I got lucky. I got really, really lucky.
I take a break for a bit to work out how to take a reasonable picture that will inevitably be backlit by the glare of sun on white walls, glass, water and tiles. Murray is quick to take up the thread:
WO: I ask this of many people who come to the country for the first time: when you heard you were coming here, what was your initial reaction and what was your reaction a week later?
LS: I heard that the show might be happening and my initial reaction was, like, ‘Oh that would be absolutely incredible, but this is something that’s almost too good to be true – it’s not going to happen, it’s going to fall through, we wont be able to do it’. And then it actually came through and I was…I don’t think I was really believing it. And I don’t think I believed it until after I’d been here for a day or two…like, shit…we’re actually really here…it’s just crazy to think that music has gotten us here…so far away from where I’m from…It’s kind of surreal.
WO: And what have you been up too?
We rented motorcycles and took a long ride yesterday and will hopefully get to do some more rides. It’s kind of heaven – riding motorcycles.
It’s easy to envision the band on the road. A Jack Kerouac drifter journey with a BRMC soundtrack. A fading American dream.
WO: What’s your favourite bike?
Um, well, the bike that I have at home is a Honda Shadow. I love my bike, so that particular bike is my favourite bike…
It was my first bike as well. I think you always get kind of attached to, like, you know, first drums, first bike, that kind of stuff. You have a weird emotional connection to it, even though it’s just a thing…I dunno, but yeah.
WO: Can you spend any time at the festival [Synergy Live], or are you just there for sound check and then play and then leave? Will you get to see any of the local bands?
I’m hoping to…I’m definitely hoping to get out a little bit earlier to see some stuff. If you have any recommendations let me know…
We champion the South African music cause as best we can without sounding like crazed band reps. The interview ends with her typing band names into her phone (win!), then dreamily smoking another cigarette in silence.
She’s the girl you want to be, or be with. An addition to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club that neither the band nor the fans will regret. A mix of immense talent, quiet self-assurance, a variety of interests, and style – truly multifaceted – it’s almost impossible to sum her up for conclusion purposes. All I can think of is the concise title of her fan blog: Fuck Yeah Leah Shapiro.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club will be performing at Synergy Live Music Festival
this weekend (25 -27 November).