Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Leah Shapiro says new material is “in the works” for an eighth studio LP from the Lafayette, California-founded group, but the band has been on a complicated road to get there.
For BRMC’s Denmark-born drummer, who joined the group in 2008 after founding drummer Nick Jago departed, the past two years are complicated with the discovery, surgery and recovery from chiari malformations, a condition in which brain tissue extends into the spinal canal.
The group is currently on tour with Death From Above 1979 and Deap Vally, with a gig on Oct. 22 at The Masonic in San Francisco.
The diagnosis meant brain surgery for Shapiro, which she underwent in 2014, a year after the release of the band’s last studio effort, Specter at the Feast. Given that symptoms included headaches as well as messed with her depth perception, coordination and balance, the condition caused both a physical and emotional crisis, she said.
“I literally felt like I was flying through space on a roller coaster while trying to play,” she said from Cleveland, before a gig at the House of Blues. “We were out on tour with Specter at the Feast and I had so many fucking problems. I thought I was losing my mind. It would be way worse every time, even from soundcheck to the show it would be worse. … I had no fucking clue what was going on.”
By the time an MRI discovered the chiari malformations, her condition had degenerated to the point that Shapiro was walking into stationary objects and her headaches were “horrible.”
“It was pretty miserable,” she said. “Once I knew what was going on, it totally makes sense why I had all those problems on tour.”
Shapiro thinks the physically demanding work of playing drums for a living helped her notice the condition faster.
“I thought I was just randomly getting shitty at my job or something,” she said. “I talked to other people that had it. It was so bad, they couldn’t lift a spoonful of cereal to their mouth, so definitely the drums were part of what helped me figure out what the hell was going on with me.”
Because so much of BRMC’s catalog is fast, aggressive alternative rock, she had to create what she called a “drum rehab program” with her surgeon as part of her recovery. The comeback came in stages: First, playing alone, then practicing with bandmates Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been, getting in shape for the tour, and then finally making her comeback less than a year after having surgery.
“I was whiny and I did have pity parties, but I didn’t have option to stay in that mode,” she said with a laugh. “It was a lot more work. I don’t see that as a negative. It kind of forced me to kick my own ass and not be whiny.”
After surgery and rehabilitation, Shapiro was healthy and back behind the kit by June of last year.
Though the upcoming Masonic show marks a homecoming for Hayes and Been, the Danish Shapiro doesn’t have the same history with the area.
“As much as I love San Francisco, I don’t have the same (connection),” she said. “We have a few hometowns—San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denmark. … It’s a different connection for them. Their San Francisco is my Denmark.”
Jumping into an established band was a challenge for Shapiro. She said after initially focusing on mimicking Jago’s sound and style, she’s now put her own stamp on material from his era and the band itself.
“The thing about this band is we never play anything exactly the same on every tour,” Shapiro said. “All of the songs have a life that exists after the record. They continue to develop and change, sometimes night by night, depending upon the energy in the room. It’ll be different. I’ve been able to twist it more into my own thing.”
As for the new material, Shapiro said the trio has “taken the daunting first step” of working on its first stuff since the release of Specter and her diagnosis.
“There is new material in the works,” she said. “We’re getting back to that after this tour. We’re going to be trying out some new songs, most likely on this tour, to see how they go over and how we play them. There’s still a lot of work to do before the album is done, don’t get me wrong.”