Interview: Before Ybor show, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Leah Shapiro talks pups, dead birds, Wrong Creatures and more

The band plays The Ritz on Jan. 23.

Leah Shapiro had no real prospects to make money when she quit her Time Square desk job to play music full time. The decision seemed even crazier since said job had offered her some pretty nice benefits including health insurance. But something — including a dead bird that one day randomly fell out of the sky and landed in front of her — told her to leave with no backup plan whatsoever.

"That moment, and also combined with how much I did not enjoy having to go to Times Square of all places every day. To the office, sit at a computer. I just felt like the world was just going by without me," Shapiro told CL. "I actually got a promotion, they tried to offer me a promotion with healthcare and benefits, and everything right before I quit, but I ended up quitting, and I am pretty sure the bird had something to do with it."

That birdy was right.

On January 23, Shapiro arrives in Ybor City with her band, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The Los Angeles-based group is supporting its brand new album, Wrong Creatures, which was released on January 12. The 12-track effort was produced in part by Nick Launay, and while it wears so many of the same marks from BRMC's previous output, something feels different about this batch of psych-rock that genuflects at the altar of Lou Reed while taking its time to bathe in waters blessed by the Cure's Robert Smith or even Andy Bell and Mark Gardener from Ride.

Maybe it's because Creatures is BRMC's first album since Shapiro — who joined the band in 2008 — underwent and recovered from brain surgery to treat a condition called Chiari malformations, which causes problems with balance, muscle strength, and other life-altering symptoms. That surgery was a success, and Shapiro is ready to bring Creatures — as well another creature, her dog Poof — to Ybor City for a show with Night Beats.

Read our full Q&A — and get more information on the show — via Listen to Wrong Creatures at the bottom of this post.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club w/Night Beats
Tues. Jan. 23, 7 p.m. $24.
The Ritz, 1503 E. 7th Ave., Ybor City.

Hey, Leah. How are you?

I'm good. How are you?

I'm great.

It's raining really hard in L.A., so if you hear a bunch of noise it's because I'm sitting in my car drowning in rain.

Oh no. Well don't get caught in a flash flood. I guess it's good when it rains in L.A., right? Like, L.A. could always use some rain.

Yeah, always. Not like massive amounts though because we get floods, mudslides and all kinds of awful stuff. Anyway.

I used to live in Canoga Park, and when we moved to Florida, so we traded the earthquakes for these gnarly rainstorms. I remember thinking that we needed to evacuate when I experienced by first thunderstorm here.

Where did you say you lived?

Canoga Park.

Oh, I don't know where that is.

I don't know. I think it was near a mall called Topanga Plaza. Anyway, I was kid. That's neither here nor there. Where are you stranded right now, like what part of L.A.?

Uh, I'm sitting in a parking lot, Walgreens parking lot in Echo Park. The phone reception is absolutely horrible at my house and when it rains, for some reason, it doesn't work at all. So I have to sit in parking lots to do phone calls.

That sucks. Do you bring your dog along? Your dog is very, very cute. I was wondering what its name was and who takes care of him or here when you are gone.

He's actually at the spa right now. One of our very good friends in San Diego took very good care of him while we were in Europe. And I think I am gonna try and bring him on part of the tour depending on how much he likes that.

OK, so you're gonna try and bring him on this little January leg?

Yeah. If it seems like he likes it, then I'll keep him along, and if it seems like he doesn't like it one bit, then I'll send him home to San Diego to stay with my friend. 

Cool. What's your dog's name.


Haha. That's P-O-O-F, I'm assuming.

Uh huh. Haha.

I wanted to ask you, I think you started learning playing bass and piano, but kind of sucked it so you, and you used to ge into your dads records to learn stuff — I'm assuming this stuff from things I've read — do you remember which drum parts you were trying to emulate when you switched to drums?

I actually started with drums, first. That was the first thing I started on, and then it wasn't until later when I went to college in the U.S. that I tried learning bass on my own, and I was horrible with that. I had to take, like piano, classes for school, but literally I can only play scales which is fairly useless, so I just, yeah, since then I have not bothered or tried any of that again because that was clearly not meant to be. But, yeah, I started with drums in Denmark while I was still living there. Yeah, but the first teacher I had there, he was just teaching me the foundations, the basics, and he taught me how to read and write drum notation, which actually was amazing to learn that way and was really helpful later on when I had to learn, you know, other people's songs and I didn't have a lot of time. It's a good skill to have.

Cool, so that helped you. I like the romanticized version of you having to learn all of the BRMC parts, so that's what you did when you were going to be called in to figure it all out in a very short period of time.

Yeah. There were some fills I couldn't quite figure out by ear, I would sit and listen to it again and write it out in drum notation and remember it that way. For some reason that was always, like, worked the best for me.

So you had your biological dad, and I wanted to ask you about Robert's dad, who is sadly not with us anymore. He really kind of re-tweaked your approach to drumming, and I am assuming that had an effect on Specter at the Feast, and I guess you've also said that you take a lot of queues from Pete and Robert's playing when you are composing for BRMC, but have you ever had moments where you can kind of hear Michael's voice and see his advice kind of come full circle, specifically when you were writing for Wrong Creatures?

Uh, I hear his voice always. Yelling at me. Haha. I mean, he really, he was a total drill sergeant when we were writing Beat the Devil's Tattoo and also during rehearsals and the touring that I got to do with him and BRMC. He just taught me a lot, and all of that is still with me, and my approach to parts, the way they're executed, the feel, tempo, and everything. It's part of everything, really.

And I wanted to ask you about your bandmate Robert. I don't really know that you can speak for him as far as this question goes, but I was curious about what are some of the healthy things — I know you kind of kept going with the tour after Michael passed —  but what are some of the healthy things that Robert did, or still does to this day, that helped him cope with the loss of his dad? I know he talks pretty openly about depression and stuff like that.

Um, you know what, I don't feel comfortable speaking for Rob regarding, especially that specific topic, and I think, um, that should be his own voice.

That's cool.

Yeah, that's not for me to say.

So switching gears a little then. BRMC stuff is obviously always a little dark, and Creatures doesn’t really do a good job of letting you manifest some of the positive emotions you’ve felt in the aftermath of your diagnosis, surgery and recovery. Is there a vault with sunny BRMC songs somewhere?

Sunny songs?

Yeah, not quite juxtapozed to what you guys normally put out, but something sunnier. I mean I always picture listening to your music in a cave bar or somewhere kind of dark. At night, you know what I mean?

Haha. Yeah. I mean, the process, the way we write is so natural. I mean of course, everyone once in a while, during soundcheck, we'll goof around on something, like a 30-second disco cover, or whatever, but I mean the writing, it happens in the rehearsal studio, and it's just the way it goes. It's not really like we come at it with a plan about how we overall want to sound or the tone of the record, like, before we start writing. We just go into the studio and we start playing, and ideas come along. And as it goes on it becomes more and more obvious that ideas are getting developed better than the others. Somehow it ends up making sense in the end, like the whole record, so yeah. I don't know. I guess it's a little bit of a dark record.

It's not, like, depressing at all. Just dark.

The mood in the rehearsal studio doesn't necessarily reflect the tone of the song. We do have fun writing, going through the process. Even though it sounds more on the dark side.

I get it. Staying on Creatures, Nick Launay did a great job with the record — what do you think he did for BRMC that the band couldn’t do itself as far as finishing the record and fleshing out what was brought to the drawing board?

Um, because of the way we spend so much time working on each song, and playing around with arrangements, like a million times over, every computation that's possible, sometimes more than once, you kind of start to lose perspective after a certain point, and that's where Michael would come in and be sort of an outside voice, slightly more objective perspective than the three of us. That was kind of a lot of what Nick did helping us out. We'd been working on the songs for quite a while at the time that he came in. So yeah, some sanity and fresh ears, fresh perspective, definitely. Also, he had certain suggestions regarding arrangements sometimes, and sometimes we'd end up going with it or sometime we wouldn't but he'd challenge us and keep us sane so we wouldn't go too deep into the rabbit hole, which can very easily happen when you work on something for  a long time.

This is your second tour since coming back — you already stretched and took care of yourself before the diagnosis, but what kinds of things did you learn on the run with DFA1979 and Deap Valley as far as taking care of your body? Any goals for your health this time around?

Well, we just got back from a really long European tour — almost two months. I think the main thing, like as far as the obvious — spend time warming up, cooling down, almost like an athlete. Which is a little, not what I used to do when I was in my early 20s, but cold air is something that I can't do. Like the A/C blowing or from outside if the door is open. That fucks with my muscles so bad, all kinds of things. I know that's not super-healthy for me, but obviously I can't always avoid that. Sometimes you have to play festivals outside and you can't really do a whole lot about the temperature if you're playing late at night or whatever the weather is. 

There aren't too many House of Blues shows, so shouldn't be too freezing. 

Haha, that's funny that you should mention that. On the DFA tour we had a lot of House of Blues shows, and that was a little bit of a problem, like every day trying to talk to them to get them to work with us to calm down the stage air conditioning. It's separate, the room and the stage, like most venues. Getting them to work with us. You know, requires some negotiation sometimes, but we're learning to work with it. On the last tour the guys, they were very nice, they built me, like, this toaster because it was obviously winter in Europe and very cold everywhere. So I had this toaster device behind me to keep me warm.

You were too embarrassed to share your first concert ever in the past — will you share it with us since it's a new year?

No, I will not share it. Haha. That will remain my secret to the grave — it's that bad.

I like that you mentioned that the guys were accommodating on the Europe tour. I wasn't gonna ask you this question until I heard that your mom was a burn-your-bra type of feminist.


I could kind of gather from other interviews that you don't really like to frame your job in the context of your gender, and it's a strange time with everything happening now, but you have had a long career with the Raveonettes and Dead Combo, and I talk to a lot of female musicians who have so many stories about guys, sound engineers, talking down to them at soundcheck without even knowing it. Is that something you still have to deal with touring with BRMC? I feel like the band's touring machine is so well-oiled and has so many old-school people on it who get how to deal with sound, other people. Did you deal with any of that other stuff coming up? Still deal with it now?

Um, I haven't really. It's been a while. I remember in the begining with BRMC I would get these weird backhanded compliments that people aren't always fully aware of what they are saying. Like, "Wow, I didn't really expect for you to be able to play like that," or something to the effect of that or people would assume that I was someone's girlfriend or whatever, but I haven't really gotten any of that in a while, and nobody that, any of the guys on our crew, none of that is going on. Yeah, the guys have never treated me like anything other than a drummer. Like, gender was not part of the equation when...

They hired you.

Decided, whether or not, who to hire or takeover for Nick [Jago, who left the band for the second and last time in 2008]. It was a non-issue, but that's just the type of people that they are, and I'm grateful that I ended up in that kind of a family, but I also don't think it would work if there was that kind of a tone or that kind of an environment, I just would not be putting up with that.

And if I could end with an animal question. How often do you think about that dead bird that fell out of the sky when you were working a desk job in Times Square?

Hahahaha. Oh, if there ever was a sign. That's funny. I mean, you asked if I ever think about the dead bird?

Yeah, it seemed like a really important moment in your life, and I was wondering if you ever just see that thing in your head as you move through the world. You've had an interesting career in music.

I think I usually start thinking about it when I talk to people, whether it's interviews or just people in general, like how I ended up being a drummer in a band for a living, which is kind of ridiculous way to, you know, have a career.

Yeah, but it works.

Yeah, I'm super grateful that it worked out, but that's usually when it comes up. That moment, and also combined with how much I did not enjoy having to go to Times Square of all places every day. To the office, sit at a computer. I just felt like the world was just going by without me. I actually got a promotion, they tried to offer me a promotion with healthcare and benefits, and everything right before I quit, but I ended up quitting, and I am pretty sure the bird had something to do with it. Because it felt like that was a sign that I should get away with that or I might end up getting comfortable in whatever, in the job, or whatever, healthcare, perks that come along with a real job, so yeah the bird had some part of the decision to turn that down, which some people probably thought was insane especially at that time when I had no prospects of making any money through music or anything else really. So, yeah.

But it's been weird for you because, I mean, it worked out that your fans loved you and your music so much that they got together to front the money for the surgery. It's just all so crazy how it worked out.


I know you gotta go, we only had a few minutes.

Oh, nah, no worries. I think there's something important about not having a Plan B. I know that can sound a little insane, but even when I quit that job. I thought, "No matter what happens with this I am never gonna do that again." There wasn't really any other option for me to fall back on, so I had to somehow make it work, so a lack of a backup plan kind of made me work a little harder or something like that. I think it does help.

It definitely does. And you’ve talked about enjoying drumming because it takes you to a meditative state where you can zone out and also detach yourself from things. What kinds of things do you wring your hands over from day-to-day? What are you escaping when you go to that place during a show?

I mean, the same noise that everybody has in their heads, you know, it can get really loud with a lot of voices sometimes — like a circus going on. It can be a bunch of little, not really important things, daily life shit, or more serious things, you know. I don't think it's anything much different than what anybody else has going on in their heads. There's just something about drumming, and playing live shows — especially with this band — the repetition and the feel of everything quiets everything down. There's a very intense focus. It's pretty incredible how quickly it shuts everything up. It can help even if it's just me in the rehearsal studio just playing. The repetitiveness of it, just focusing on every hit and the exact way that you want it to feel. It's a trance-like state. 

Well, thank you, and I hope that you don't have to drive in the rain. I hope Poof has fun on tour, and that he makes it to Tampa. And I hope that I get to talk to you another time.

Yeah, and if you're coming to the show come say, "Hi," and we look forward to getting back on the road in the U.S. and playing on some new stuff.

Yeah, and congrats on the record. It's nice to have some new BRMC record to listen to. I think people are gonna love it.

Thanks very much.