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What happens when a tight-knit trio loses one of its members? If you’re Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, you soldier on.

NINE YEARS AGO, with the release of its self-titled debut, Los Angeles–based trio Black Rebel Motorcycle Club helped usher in a popular return to rock and roll after an era of boy bands and pop tarts. In the decade since, as the group watched the majority of their contemporaries break up or flounder, they went through two major label divorces of their own and lost a founding member. Yet they’ve kept going. Survival would seem to be Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s strong suit.

“Well, cockroaches survive too,” says BRMC bassist/vocalist Robert Been, laughing. “I don’t think it has to do with survival just on its own merit. I like to think this kind of music is still needed, that someone needs it. Or maybe that’s just a nice thought to go to sleep on when all the rest of it doesn’t make as much sense.”

The notoriously independent-minded group — led by Been and Peter Hayes, the band’s co-front man and guitarist — has released half a dozen records over the course of its career, despite splitting with Virgin Records in 2004 and RCA in 2008. The biggest change, however, came with the departure of drummer and founding member Nick Jago during a tour for the group’s last album, Baby 81. “It just got to a breaking point, where he wanted to do his own thing,” Been says.

Taking over Jago’s seat is Leah Shapiro, a member of Dead Combo and a touring drummer who has played with the Raveonettes. For the tight-knit Been and Hayes, the prospect of playing with someone other than Jago was initially worrisome.

“It was that ‘what if?’ thing. If we all sit down together, are we going to have that unspoken communication?” Hayes says. “But Leah fit in perfectly.”

Last summer, the newly reconstituted trio decamped to the same home studio in suburban Philadelphia where BRMC had tracked 2005’s Howl to record a new album. The resulting disc, Beat the Devil’s Tattoo (Abstract Dragon/ Vagrant, $14) — just released on the band’s own Abstract Dragon imprint through indie label Vagrant — feels like a rebirth and a renewal for the group. The 13-track effort manages to marshal the entire scope of the band’s sound into one disc, mixing the stomping roots and gospel of Howl with the high-velocity rock and guitar of the band’s debut, all while touching on the guitar noise of side-project albums like The Effects of 333.

Much of the power of BRMC’s sound remains tied to the chemistry between Hayes and Been, with the longtime friends and musical foils complementing and countering one another. Having two focal points for the band has been a blessing creatively, though it has tended to make the band a harder commercial sell.

“It’s always been a problem,” says Hayes. “People ask, ‘Who’s the front man?’ Record companies had a problem with that: ‘Who do we sell? Who’s the guy?’ Magazines would be like ‘Who do we put on the cover?’ We’d always dance around that — ‘It’s him.’ ‘No, it’s him.’ But we’ve kind of made a pact: Whatever happens, we’ll go down together.”

Having endured a tumultuous decade in the music business, Been says, for BRMC, the music still remains the key.

“People get hung up on all the details: how records come out, how you get introduced to it, the format. But ultimately, all that’s important is if a band has something unique to say and if it’s turning you on in a new way and if it’s filling your soul. As long as that’s still there, we’re going to have rock and roll music.”

Join the Club


We choose three favorites from the BRMC back catalog.

B.R.M.C.
(Virgin, 2001)

A scintillating debut that helped kick-start the postmillennial rock revival.

Howl
(RCA, 2005)

A stylistic turn that takes the band’s sound into soul, gospel and country territory.

Live
(Abstract Dragon/ Vagrant, 2009)

Electric CD/DVD concert collection that captures the essence of the group’s raw power.