In the past few years, Robert Levon Been and his band, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, have adopted the same hardship-coping mantra that many parents feed their heartbroken high schoolers when things don't work out with the captain of the football team: "Some things just weren't meant to be."
While high school-hallway love affairs are fleeting, Been believes that a band -- especially one that's kept black leather, noisy bass and dirty guitar riffs cool for a decade -- is a terrible thing to waste.
But around 2008, that's almost what happened.
BRMC had hit a rough patch. On-again, off-again drummer Nick Jago was spending tour nights stowed away alone in his hotel room, and 2007's Baby 81, still purveying the garage-rock thunder of the band's 2001 eponymous debut, felt stale.
"We gave our all on Baby 81," explains Been. "But every prior record always led into the next. When we finish one record, the songs that trail off [and aren't included] are the blueprint for the next album. The story keeps telling itself. But at the end of Baby 81, we didn't have any leftover songs. The story was over."
But now it's 2010. BRMC isn't playing for quarters at the bus stop, but rather at Mr. Small's, supporting its just-released return to greatness, Beat the Devil's Tattoo.
These days, BRMC "sounds more like us than we have in years," says Been. He calls it a honeymoon: After Jago finally left the band midway through the Baby 81 tour, Been and guitarist Peter Hayes picked up drummer Leah Shapiro, "the only person we knew who played drums and we respected."
The newly minted trio finished the tour and was soon in the studio tinkering with new ideas, all before having the discussion: Was Shapiro actually a member of BRMC? Was it even the same band?
Like a new couple afraid to call itself one, "we didn't want to jinx it," says Been. "It just felt right. When we played with her, it was a whole other animal that came out, and it shot us full of life."
More than having talent, or chemistry, or creativity, though, Shapiro was different. And for being able to recognize that, Been thanks lost compatriot Jago.
"There's something to learn from all the people who come into your life. If you don't, you'll probably just end up being with another person who is exactly the same," says Been. "It was a love/hate thing we got into [with Jago]. Sometimes that madness gives back to the music. But in the end, it had turned a corner and was taking away from the music in us."
Whereas playing with Jago was "like dating some Spanish girl with sexy teeth and nails ... you don't know whether to fight her or fuck her," Shapiro is "like finally meeting the person you were supposed to be with," says Been.
The recording sessions with Shapiro that became Beat the Devil's Tattoo were some of the band's most inspired, says Been, though he and Hayes "held our breath in the beginning, nervous that we wouldn't have that magic element that can't be manufactured."
The trio first bashed out the churning, grimy "Mama Taught Me Better" in only 20 minutes. "We looked at each other and didn't say anything except, 'Well, let's try another one,'" says Been.
The resulting Tattoo, BRMC's fifth album, doesn't stray too far from the band's consistent style, but the whole album lurches forward like a Panzer: The riffs are harder and rougher, the choruses bigger and the drums more brutal. And it was all created without ever asking Shapiro to officially join the band.
"If we'd been more neurotic and anxious, we would've asked her to do this or that. Thankfully, we were patient enough to let the sound come on its own," says Been.
In the end, Been says, BRMC seems less a club and more "a nice dysfunctional family."
"Being in this band has been like getting married at a young age. We started idealistic and stupid, and you'd want to kill them half the time, but you have this baby -- the music -- so you stick together for that. The family portraits are the album photos. And the stage is the sex," said Been. "And right now, it is the way it should be and hardly ever is. As long as we keep our mouths shut and stay out of the way, it seems to work out."
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club with Alberta Cross and The Cobbs. 8 p.m. Wed., April 7 (7 p.m. doors). Mr. Small's Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $15. All ages. 412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com