Overcoming brain surgery and back behind the kit, with BRMC drummer, Leah Shapiro

Photo by: Michelle Shiers

October 2014: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club drummer, Leah Shapiro, announces she will undergo surgery in order to treat a brain condition called Chiari Malformations (CM’s) -which are structural defects in part of the brain and skull that control balance and other functions, such as the flow of cerebrospinal fluid.

November 2014: BRMC fans and bandmates, Robert Levon Been and Peter Hayes, raise over $30,000 to assist in the medical costs.

June 2015: Leah Shapiro has recovered and is back on tour with BRMC for the summer.

January 2018: BRMC releases Wrong Creatures, their first new album since 2013’s Specter at the Feast and Shapiro’s medical condition. The band embarks on a 30-date, North American tour.

I recently caught up with Shapiro on an off-day in Orlando, to discuss her inspiring journey to this point. It was evident that Shapiro’s unwavering determination matches the tempo of her fierce drumming as she enters the Wrong Creatures chapter with a strong sense of gratitude. It’s this relentless passion that allows Shapiro and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, to seamlessly give back both on stage in and in everyday life.

Photo by: Michelle Shiers

You are about a third of the way through your tour to kick off the year, how are you feeling?

We were on a European tour for two months before Christmas and then we had a month off, which is just the amount of time to get out of shape. So, I’m still in the process of getting back into touring shape. I’m on the cusp of being back into the routine and not getting super sore the day after a show. So far, it’s been great. The tour is certainly going well.

How would describe your journey of the past few years?

Going through any situation where your health takes a shit on you and you don’t have any control of the outcome, it drills some realities into your head pretty quickly, and not so pleasantly. To be fortunate enough to come out on the other end of it, and being able to do this as a career and make a living still, as opposed to just being a band, it’s a trip. I don’t take it for granted at all. When you are in your 20’s, you think that you’re invincible and it’s hard to imagine anything getting in the way of what you are doing — especially your health. It was a brutal reality for me to get through. There’s a good lesson in there, though.

Photo by: Michelle Shiers

Did you have any indication when you were playing the drums or out on the road in 2014 that something was not right?

Oh yeah, for sure. The whole Specter at the Feast album cycle, I had so many problems. Most of them were not noticeable to the outside. I could just tell that something wasn’t right. Every show for a year-and-a-half, I’d have to fight my body. It had always been so natural and fluid for me to play music. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I felt the way I did. It was driving me crazy. I would change my drum setup all the time, which in turn was driving everybody else crazy — especially in soundcheck. I had major OCD and just thought I was becoming worse at playing drums. I couldn’t figure out what else it could be. Then I had a MRI and it all made sense.

As you recovered, do you recall the emotion of first picking up the sticks again and sitting behind the kit at a show?

I remember the little things — like when we went on tour during the summer of 2015. The first show was a festival with a lot of new crew members. That alone made me nervous. But this show was a perfect of example of having so much adrenaline going through your body where you forget what actually happened. As we settled into the tour, I was able to really appreciate how much fun it was to be playing and be back with the guys. It was a great tour. Being able to play music again and not have to go to the doctor or physical therapy was such a relief. That was all I had been doing leading up to that point.

Photo by: Michelle Shiers

The first time I picked up the sticks after my surgery was a little frustrating. My doctor helped me put together a plan of when to play drums again, and getting into touring shape. I started a routine of just playing for five minutes, and that was simply on the kick-drum and hi-hat. I’d drive 20 minutes out to my rehearsal studio, play for five minutes, and then drive home. There was a reason for putting a plan together and taking it slow. It was necessary to figure out how to pace myself and figure out my playing. Had I not done that and gotten impatient instead, I probably would have messed up the entire recovery process.

Shapiro from a recorded video for fans during recovery

What was the role of music in your recovery? I imagine it was either a constant companion or you wanted nothing to do with it.

It was the latter. I had never been so disconnected from music before. I had to put so much energy, time and effort into going to doctor check-ups, going physical therapy four times a week and doing exercises at home that I didn’t have energy to do anything else. The recovery period, especially towards the end, became very frustrating. Not only did I start to lose touch with music for six months, but you can’t help but think about why you have to put in all this effort to recover. It was not until I started playing that I realized why I needed to stay on point.

How much did your personal experience play into the themes and the writing of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s new record?

Rob and Pete write the lyrics. I don’t think my situation was directly written about. Any major experience that you go through is going to impact the process of what you do creatively. I’m sure in certain ways it had an influence on the record, but I think it’s more that it changes life in general. That makes it subtle in terms of just the record. The way I approach every day life is different and that is reflected in how I approach work now.

Photo by: Tessa Angus

You’ve had a ton of direct fan support. Being on the road now, do you feel a different bond with the fans?

It was really amazing. A friend of ours, who also works on our website, set up the GoFundMe page. It was incredibly sweet and generous of him to do. Everybody that participated in that was kind. It was humbling to see people care that much. For a little while, there were a lot of people speaking up about having a similar condition or someone they knew had the surgery. All of a sudden, we had a bunch of people talking about this condition that I nor the band had ever heard about. I got in touch with a few people through our Facebook page, who had gone through the surgery. It gave me a better handle as to what to expect. It’s important to research what’s going on with you, but when you search on your own you can get really freaked out. I certainly crossed that line. Speaking to an actual person gave me a more realistic idea. It helped a lot.

About a year after the surgery, I connected with someone from Denmark who had the same condition. He was having problems finding a surgeon and had some questions. It was nice to then be able to pay that forward and help someone going through the same thing.

Photo by: Michelle Shiers

2018 also officially marks 20 years of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. What does that mean to you?

We haven’t talked much about it. It’s 20 years for the group and it will be 10 years for me this summer. It’s bizarre that amount of time has gone by. It’s hard to make sense of that because it doesn’t feel like that amount of time. I know it doesn’t feel like 20 years for Rob and Pete. Touring can turn life into Groundhog Day. Somehow, that makes it hard to keep track of time. It’s definitely an achievement. Most bands don’t stick together that long or make that many records together. There’s something to be said about the accomplishment of being able to maintain a functional, working relationship for that long.

You guys are also making the effort to give back with one dollar from every ticket going to War Child. To often these causes near-and-dear to an artist serve as a subtext. It should not go unnoticed, plus it allows your fans to become familiar with such great causes. How important has it been to you to give back?

It’s just a part of how we operate individually on a daily basis. We want to bring that to the band. It’s the culture within the group. We would not want to operate in any other way. When you get an opportunity to do something, even if it’s in the way we produce our merch or recycle vinyl, you must go for it. War Child specifically is something my mom is involved with, it runs in my family so it’s a cause that is very important to us.

Photo by: Michelle Shiers

When you think about where you are today — with a brand new record out, being on tour, and reflecting on what you have overcome, what is the emotion of it for you? What are you most looking forward to?

I’m proud of the work we have done and what we’ve gotten through over the years. I’m curious to see where this record is going to take us. I feel great about Wrong Creatures. You go through stages in making a record where you feel frustrated with it, but now I’m so happy with it. I can rest easy at night. I hope we get to be out on the road with it as much as possible. That’s what I enjoy doing the most. That’s why I like being in a band. It would so great to get to new places that we haven’t been to yet.

BRMC’s Wrong Creatures is out now
Catch BRMC on tour

North American Winter Dates:
January 31 — Boston, MA @ Royale
February 2 — Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel
February 5 — Montreal, QC @ Club Soda
February 6 — Toronto, ON @ Rebel
February 7 — Detroit, MI @ Majestic Theatre
February 9 — Columbus, OH @ Newport Music Hall
February 10 — Chicago, IL @ Vic Theatre
February 11 — Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue
February 12 — St. Louis, MO @ Delmar Hall
February 13 — Kansas City, MO @ The Truman
February 15 — Denver, CO @ Ogden Theatre
February 16 — Salt Lake City, UT @ Metro Music Hall
February 18 — Portland, OR @ Roseland Theater
February 19 — Vancouver, BC @ Commodore Ballroom
February 20 — Seattle, WA @ The Show Box
February 22 — Oakland, CA @ Fox Theater
February 23 — Pomona, CA @ The Glass House
February 24 — Los Angeles, CA @ The Fonda Theatre

For more information on War Child visit WarChild.org

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