If you catch a fleeting glance of a photo of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the group looks like three wannabe biker gang dudes—only in more stylish garb and with better hair. If you take a second look you’ll notice one of them is a delicately beautiful girl with chiseled features and not a trace of masculinity. This is Leah Shapiro, and she is no curb monkey.
The Danish-born drummer joined bandmates Peter Hayes and Robert Been in 2008 after stints with the Raveonettes and Dead Combo. Shapiro replaced the group’s former drummer, Nick Jago, who had been with them from their start in 1998. Completing music programs in Nottingham in the UK and Boston and New York stateside, Shapiro’s formal accomplishments enhance what she naturally brings to her ferocious drumming. To quote Been, “[Shapiro] is not as sweet as she looks [but] she is incredibly talented.”
Shapiro lets her drums do the talking for her. Pounding away with relentless force and boundless energy, from this spot is where she is the most imposing. In the flesh, she is unfussy and not a big talker. Keeping both her person and her chatter sparse, Shapiro has nothing to prove.
Now on her third album with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, this week the band released Specter At The Feast, Shapiro shares in the loss of Michael Been—father to Robert and sometime father to Peter as well as the group’s erstwhile sound engineer. Not exactly autobiographical, Specter At The Feast is nevertheless the sonic representation of the grief process Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was, and is, experiencing. Fluctuating between dark and dense and light and dreamy, Specter At The Feast reflects the rollercoaster of emotions accompanying a great loss. Boxx Magazine contributor Lily Moayeri talks with Shapiro to get the inside perspective.
LM: How comfortable are you with Peter Hayes and Robert Been, not just as a later band member, but also because of their longstanding friendship from childhood?
LS: We all got really lucky finding each other. I get along with both of them quite well. It’s hard to find people that you can spend such a huge amount of time with and still want to be proper friends outside of the band stuff. With those guys I have that. They are my best friends and brothers for sure and I’m lucky to have that with them.
LM: How do you fit in the songwriting process with Hayes and Been?
LS: A lot of stuff in the songwriting process comes from us playing up and loud. The energy/telepathy between us guides the music and has been a starting point for a decent amount of songs. But sometimes the initial idea is a guitar riff or a melody or a drum part. There isn’t really one set recipe for songwriting.
LM: How did you decide on the drums as your instrument of choice?
LS: It just seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn’t really something I had thought through at all, I just did it.
LM: Were there particular drummers you admired growing up, particularly female drummers? What about their style drew you to them?
LS: The first female drummer I remember admiring was Cindy Blackman. I remember seeing her in a Lenny Kravitz video and she just looked so fucking cool and powerful. I later found out that she is actually a really incredible jazz drummer. Aside from that, the first drummer that was sort of forced on me was Ginger Baker. When my dad found out I wanted to play drums he made me sit and listen to Ginger Baker drum solos quite a bit. Ginger Baker is a crazy genius.
LM: Touring is physically demanding. How do you get physically fit prior to hitting the road—especially for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club who has extended tour dates?
LS: I try to do cardio before tours. It makes it easier to play. Also as much practice as possible. Starting a tour in bad shape is the worst ever.
LM: What are you most comfortable wearing when performing? The reason I ask this is because one of my drummer friends was always despairing about finding something that would be comfortable and light but still look good as he sweated so much his clothes got heavy and hindered his playing.
LS: Jeans and a loose T-shirt is all I ever wear. I feel comfortable in that. I don’t know that it looks that good but I suppose I don’t particularly care either.
LM: You’ve moved to different cities, mainly for music education opportunities. Was there a particular place that resonated with you more than others?
LS: I think New York is my favorite. A lot of really great things happened while I lived in NYC. I met the Raveonettes there and ended up playing with them and that sort of led me to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. It’s a really inspiring place to live, and I miss just wandering around aimlessly there.
LM: How did you get into riding motorcycles? Did this help in you finding common ground with Hayes and Been [who are also bikers]?
LS: When I moved to Los Angeles. It’s a great place for riding and at the time I couldn’t afford a car so I got a bike instead. I suppose it helped find some common ground. All three of us like to go on trips so we do have that in common.
LM: What are some of your favorite spots to ride—anywhere on the planet? What makes these places special?
LS: I think the best bike trip we ever went on was a three-day trip in Japan back in 2010. We were riding around the countryside, sort of around Mt. Fuji. It’s just a beautiful country and its always more fun exploring on a motorcycle.
LM: What one negative experience can you draw from to give advice to female musicians starting up so they can avoid the same situation?
LS: I haven’t had to deal with too much crap thankfully, but sometimes I’ve come across the attitude that men are inherently better drummers than women. That’s laughable, not true, and should really just be ignored.