When Black Rebel Motorcycle Club pulls out the stops, few acts around today can match its combination of garage-rock jangle, raw blues bark, psychedelic rush and roar, Gothic drama, feedback-induced transcendence and rock 'n' roll poetry inspired by everything from Romanticism to the beat generation.
Drummer Leah Shapiro, while modest and reluctant to toot her band's horn too loudly, said she loves it when BRMC can lift listeners out of themselves.
"I enjoy seeing it happen sometimes," she said, describing the rock bacchanal. "You'll see people in the audience really losing it while they're dancing—I mean letting go of themselves and coming apart at the seams and just not giving a fuck.
"It's not that it always happens. I mean, everyone has their off nights, and every audience has different expectations of the show. But for us, that transformation is what makes it worthwhile. That's really kind of cool when it happens."
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club will ride into town for a gig on Friday, Sept. 17, at Plush.
The band is continuing to tour following the Aug. 19 death of Michael Been, father of bassist and vocalist Robert Levon Been and for many years the band's live sound engineer.
The elder Been led the alternative rock band The Call in the 1980s, finding success with hit singles such as "The Walls Came Down" and "Let the Day Begin," and collaborating with artists such as Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson.
He died of a heart attack backstage at a BRMC gig in Belgium, and friends and family celebrated his life with a memorial on Sept. 3 in Santa Monica, Calif. Still in mourning, Robert Been and guitarist-vocalist Peter Hayes weren't doing interviews at press time, but Shapiro was willing to talk after a recent sound check in New York. Shapiro wished not to discuss the death of the elder Been, acknowledging only that she and her bandmates are "holding up."
Robert Been formed BRMC in San Francisco in 1998 with high school pal Hayes, a former member of The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Their goal was to indulge a shared love of acts such as Loop, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and The Jesus and Mary Chain, with a little Nick Cave and Bob Dylan thrown in for good measure. For the band's first couple of albums, Been went by the pseudonym "Robert Turner" to avoid the distraction of being tied to his famous father.
BRMC has evolved over the course of its dozen years. Their first two records were influenced by the heavy blues of Led Zeppelin, while the third, Howl, embraced a spare, folk style. In 2008, after being dropped by two major labels, the band released the all-instrumental, mostly electronic The Effects of 333 through independent means. It was available as a digital download only.
Last year, BRMC released Black Rebel Motorcycle Club—Live, a set that includes three discs—two DVDs and a CD—documenting the band's 2007 tour. One of the DVDs contains two hours of live footage from sold-out shows in Berlin, Dublin and Glasgow; the second DVD has behind-the-scenes footage and outtakes. The CD includes 14 tracks from the concert film.
The band chose to go with independent label Vagrant Records for its sixth full-length studio disc, Beat the Devil's Tattoo, which was released this past March.
Beat the Devil's Tattoo also happens to be the first BRMC release on which Shapiro plays. For the band's first decade, it maintained a tumultuous relationship with British-born drummer Nick Jago, who came and left more than once. In 2008, they tapped Shapiro to take care of business. She said she only had about a month to learn dozens of tunes from the band's back catalog before a European tour.
Shapiro, who is half-Danish and half-American, was born and raised in Denmark and rode horses competitively until she discovered rock music in high school.
She spent some time playing with a group called Dead Combo, which toured with BRMC for a few weeks in 2007, and she worked as a hired gun, playing three concert tours with the Danish garage-pop duo The Raveonettes.
Shapiro said the past two years of working as a team with Been and Hayes have been "absolutely amazing and pretty unreal. It has been everything I'd hoped it would be, and more."
She said that among her fondest memories so far, oddly enough, are those weeks of woodshedding in her Brooklyn rehearsal studio, learning all the BRMC material. Being back in New York recently—she now lives in Los Angeles, like her bandmates—brought back that time in a flood of nostalgia, she said.
Shapiro is gratified, too, to be part of the band's creative process, actively recording and creating with Been and Hayes, after generally serving in the role of a backup musician.
She also influenced Been's songwriting direction on Beat the Devil's Tattoo, sharing with him the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, elements of which worked their way into tunes on the new album, especially the title track, which borrows inspiration from the Poe short story "The Devil in the Belfry." The band also recorded a piano-based interpretation of Poe's poem "Annabel Lee," a tough-to-find outtake from the sessions.
Although Shapiro said Black Rebel Motorcycle Club doesn't have a preconceived master plan, she said she also knows the band isn't the flavor of the month.
"The way that rock generally is right now seems to be very controlled and very perfect and put-together, so it has lost something in the process," she said. "It's supposed to be wild and supposed to be loud and have rough edges. I hope we bring a little of that back to rock."