Spotlight On: Country Band Love and Theft

Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson of Love and Theft

Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson of Love and Theft. Photo credit: Jeff Lipsky

By Sarah Skates
Used by Permission © 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
 
Love and Theft has made its big debut — for the second time.
 
The band’s self-titled album, released July 24, is a showcase of its evolution in recent years. Members Eric Gunderson and Stephen Barker Liles approached their latest effort very differently from their first album, with a new team of players boosting their careers.
 
The band has experienced a reincarnation of sorts since its first album, World Wide Open, was released in 2009 by Lyric Street’s Carolwood Records. Member Brian Bandas exited the group and Lyric Street shuttered, but Liles and Gunderson rallied.
 
The duo signed to Sony’s RCA Records Nashville and entered agreements with Vector Management and EMI Music Publishing. They teamed with producer Josh Leo and recorded songs by writers other than themselves for the first time. And today, Love and Theft is ready to be reintroduced to Country Music fans.
 
Just like any other rising artist, the band recently took to the road to share its new music. They gladly spent 12 weeks visiting radio stations to promote the lead single, “Angel Eyes” (written by Jeff Coplan, Gunderson and Eric Paslay). But unlike most new acts, Love and Theft is already familiar with this routine.
 
“We’ve been on radio tour for six years,” Liles said, with a laugh. He and Gunderson were casual and unpretentious on this morning at the Sony Music Nashville offices, swapping stories as easily as they trade lead vocals. Liles is extra cozy, taking meetings in a pair of fuzzy house slippers. They get along well and seem to have a blast everywhere they go. Both laughed hysterically while watching a cell phone video of one of their favorite recent adventures — a trip to the Caribbean, where they discovered a herd of beer-drinking hogs.
 
They’ve grown close since being introduced several years ago by a mutual friend who is also an up-and-coming artist, Mercury Nashville’s Canaan Smith. Liles and Smith met while competing in the Colgate Country Showdown in their home state, Florida. They ended up in Nashville, where Smith eventually introduced Liles and Gunderson. The future members of Love and Theft bonded over their similar backgrounds.
 
“We have a lot of things in common,” Liles explained. “We were born the same year, 1984. Our mothers were born on the same day and year within 200 miles of each other. We both went to private schools and are both preachers’ kids. We grew up singing harmonies in church.”
 
With the cell phone videos put away, Gunderson and Liles grew more serious when discussing their new music. Platinum plaques line the Sony walls, and the duo was in awe while checking out those commemorating Josh Leo’s work. His hit track record includes 21 No. 1 albums, with clients including Alabama, Emerson Drive, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Restless Heart.
 
“Working with him, we got to make a record like we always wanted to make,” Liles said. “A classic producer like that, he does it the old-school way, playing live with the band in the studio and not adding a bunch of tracks later on.”
 
Gunderson and Liles joked that they met Leo through Match.com, but it was actually Jim Catino, VP, A&R, Sony Music Nashville, who paired them with the producer. “I suggested Josh because he has a good track record with groups,” Catino said. “So I thought he’d be a great match. Josh and I had been on the lookout for a project to work on together. We’ve been friends for a long time and I’m a big fan of his work. I introduced Josh and the band, and they hit it off creatively and personally. It ended up being a perfect match.”
 
Leo and Catino helped guide the band through the recording process, following a very different blueprint than that of its debut release. On World Wide Open, Love and Theft was a trio that wrote or co-wrote every song. The group turned the finished project in to Lyric Street, which then released it. Its debut single, “Runaway” (Liles, Canaan Smith and Rob Blackledge) went on to become a Top 10 hit as well topping the Billboard Heatseekers chart.
 
A longtime fan of Love and Theft, Catino enjoyed following the band’s success with Lyric Street. “I’ve been aware of them for several years,” he noted. “We tried to sign them the first go-round. I’ve always loved their music and dug the guys from the first time I met them. When we finally had the opportunity to work together, Gary Overton (Chairman/CEO, Sony Music Nashville) and I looked at the roster. We didn’t have a duo, so we had room for Love and Theft. The timing was good for us as a company, plus I had a good gut feeling.”
 
Equipped with more music business experience, stronger songwriting skills and a new label and producer, Gunderson and Liles recognized the importance of cutting the best available songs for the new album. “For the first time in our career, we did song pitch meetings,” Liles said. “It was really fun because we got to hear hundreds of songs from all across Music Row. There are so many good songs out there, and I can’t believe we got to record some of them.”
 
“For whatever reason, we didn’t even give other people’s songs a shot back when we made our first album,” Gunderson added. “We knew the caliber of songs that were out there, but we just didn’t know how to get our hands on them. We’ve made so many friends over the years here that are incredible writers, so to embrace that this time around was really amazing.”
 
“It was a little perplexing that they’d never recorded outside songs,” Catino said. “They are great writers, but when we started working together, they were very excited to hear what the town had to offer. They just wanted to cut great songs, which is always a smart move on an artist’s part, as long as they creatively fit what their brand is and what they are trying to accomplish with their music. We found some great things for the project that fit their sound and the direction we were going for. They also wrote about half the record, so it all married up great.”
 
In fact, Gunderson and Liles are focused on songwriting like never before. They say they are devoting more time to it and taking greater pride in the craft. The results speak for themselves: Between the two of them, they have scored cuts by Bucky Covington (“Baby Run,” written by Gunderson, Liles, Bandas and John Kennedy), Martina McBride’s “Wrong Baby Wrong” and Sawyer Brown’s “Ain’t Goin’ Out That Way” (both by Liles, Robert Ellis Orrall, Brad Warren and Brett Warren) and Canaan Smith’s “We Got Us” (Liles, Smith and Tommy Lee James).
 
In addition to the focus on quality songs, Love and Theft wanted to create a new sound for themselves. “We are older and more mature now,” Gunderson pointed out. “We wanted to get away from that slick, polished sound of the first record. I wouldn’t say our sound was ever really what was portrayed on our first record. People would come to our live show or see us when we were on tour with Tim McGraw, and they’d say we were way better live than on our record.”
 
“We had a lot of creative talks shortly after signing them, talking about what direction we wanted to take this album,” Catino added. “They wanted to go back to the sound they had early in their career, when they were playing clubs. They wanted to go back to an organic feel, which was more about their vocals and harmonies.”
 
The production on “Amen” (Derek George, Neil Thrasher and Bryan White) embodies the sound Love and Theft wanted to capture. Actually, it set the tone for the entire album. “It was one of the songs we cut early on,” Catino said. “The rest of the project filled in around that track. There are some really fun songs on the record, but there are some pretty deep lyrics too. We covered all the bases.”
 
One of the serious tracks, “Town Drunk” (Natalie Hemby and Daniel Tashian), is a standout. The story of an alcoholic father and his neglected daughter is one of the outside songs that caught the band’s attention and helped add dimension to the album.
 
“When we were looking for a song to round out the record, something with a cool, almost artistic feel, that’s when we found ‘Town Drunk,’” Catino recalled. “When the album was finished, it turned out to be everyone at the label’s favorite song.”
 
“I expected it to be a drinking song,” said Liles, remembering the pitch meeting. “But halfway through the demo, I started crying. I’ve never had a relationship with my mom’s dad because he was an alcoholic. At the end of the song, when the little girl is grown up and happily married and has a baby, it’s like that baby is me.”
 
This summer, the band is meeting plenty of new fans and reconnecting with old ones on Brad Paisley’s Virtual Reality tour, which continues into the fall. Throughout their journey, Love and Theft are savoring the opportunity to reclaim their position in the Country Music spotlight.
 
“We feel very confident and passionate about the team of people we have around us,” Gunderson reflected. “It’s a well-oiled machine. Everybody knows their job and does it really well. It allows us to focus on what’s important: performance, songwriting — the music.”
 

Rebecca Murray

Editor in Chief at ShowbizJunkies
Journalist covering the entertainment industry for more than 13 years. Member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and San Diego Film Critics Society.

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