Love and Theft's Brian Bandas will leave the band next year, the group confirms exclusively with The Boot. While founding members Eric Gunderson and Stephen Barker Liles will continue the Love and Theft tradition as a duo in 2011, Brian, who has been with the band since they formed in 2006, will depart following the trio's New Years Eve show.

Brian (pictured above, left) calls the decision "bittersweet" but says it's the right move for him to make at this point in his life.

"This is something that I've been toying with for a longer time than probably anybody realizes," Brian tells The Boot. "Love and Theft is so important to me that I really didn't want to rush into the decision. I've spent over five years with these guys working on Love and Theft. It was just an unbelievable experience. It's certainly hard to say goodbye to that, but it's also exciting to move forward into new things. It's an adventure. I certainly wouldn't be doing this if I didn't believe on many levels that this was the right step for me. It's sad to move on from something that has been so great in my life, but it's also exciting to see what the next Love and Theft in my life is going to be."

"He's like our brother, so when he told us the news, I just handled it like I would handle my brother," Love and Theft's Stephen Barker Liles tells The Boot. "Friendship comes first. We're very passionate about music, but if he feels like he needs to go do something else, then that's what his heart is telling him to do. We can't really argue with that because at the end of the day, we all have to follow our own path."

"Stephen and Eric have been incredible, and the support that they've shown me has honestly taken me back," Brian says of his bandmates. "I have been blown away. They have really encouraged me. I know for sure that this is something that is very hard for them because it's hard for me, and I'm the one doing it. I've been so thankful for how our friendships have been preserved through a difficult transition."

Earlier this year when Lyric Street Records shut its doors, Love and Theft were left without a label deal, but continued to look ahead to their musical and personal futures. The downtime gave Brian the opportunity to reevaluate his life and career goals, which ultimately lead to his decision to leave the band.

"As I thought about signing a new deal with Love and Theft, I didn't feel right about that because I knew that my heart was elsewhere," Brian explains. "I knew it was just a matter of time before I really did move on to a new creative venture. I really spent some time thinking and praying and talking to my wife about it. It felt like the right time and things looked to be pointing in that direction. I ended up talking to the guys and presenting that to them because I thought it's only fair for them to know this and for them to decide what they want to do with this information. After talking, we just kind of agreed that it was the right time. I had other things that I wanted to start pursing creatively. The guys were incredibly receptive and supportive as friends. I know that it has not been an easy or a fun thing for them to deal with, but despite some of the difficulties it has presented, they have really been very supportive. I think they recognize and agree as my friend that this is the right thing. Even though it's disappointing to them, they've really been supportive of my decision, which is invaluable. They've been awesome and are always going to be two of the closest friends I will ever have."

Brian, who married Kelly Barons in September, will continue pursuing his own musical path, as well as working on his recently-launched t-shirt venture, Holy Vintage. "I'm going to continue to do a lot of writing and spend some time with my wife," Brian notes. "I'm definitely going to be working heavily on music every day and see what doors open up for me."

As for Love and Theft's future, Stephen and Eric will continue making music together and do not plan on replacing Brian in the band. "I'm going to be 'Love' and Eric's going to be 'Theft'," Stephen says with laughter. "Eric and I decided to keep on making our music and honoring Brian's memory and everything that he's done to help get us where we are now. We still believe in the music we're making, the music we're about to make, and what we've done so far, so we're not going to let this all of a sudden kill Love and Theft.

"We're just grateful," Stephen continues. "We've had five years together. We haven't spent more time with anybody in the last four or five years than each other. We love Brian so much. We're sad, but we're also super excited about the future and about doing something as a duo. Eric and I are on the same page creatively, and we have the same love, goals and vision for how we want to make this next record. It's something new, and it's such a big change that it's actually exciting in a way. We're still making music together that we love."

Love and Theft will close out the year as a trio, including a Grand Ole Opry appearance at the Ryman Auditorium on Friday, December 3. Their final show with all three original members will take place on New Year's Eve in Chesapeake, Va.

"That will be fun to be able to play one last full band show together," Stephen says of the New Year's Eve performance. "I'm sure we'll have a lot of our fans come out for that, because it will be a special night. It will probably be very emotional for us because the reality is he's one of our best friends and someone we consider family, and he's not going to play with us anymore."

In the meantime, Stephen and Eric have been collaborating on songs and ideas to take into the studio in the new year for their fans who can expect more of the same from the band. "We're stoked about making new music and excited about making a big announcement soon," says Stephen. "It's such a big change that it's like God is saying this is what was supposed to happen. Maybe the destiny for Love and Theft was always to be a duo. It gives me and Eric a new outlook and mindset on everything, so it's really cool. At the same time, we're not changing anything. We're still going to record the same songs. Brian is still our best friend, and we're still hanging out with him. I told him we're going to have to call him on nights when it gets a little crazy on the road and give him a hard time! [laughs] But when someone steps out on their faith and does what God is telling them to do, you can't argue with something like that."

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