Love and Theft Find “Runaway” Success After an Extremely Painful Year

New Group Recalls the Struggles of Trying to Survive the Music Industry

Love and Theft are cruising up the country chart now with “Runaway” after a long stretch of spinning their wheels. The harmony-driven trio — Brian Bandas, Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson — rehearsed for six months before playing any shows, then auditioned for several labels until Lyric Street Records offered to sign them to its Carolwood imprint. Woo hoo! And then all three guys went back to miserable day jobs until contracts were worked out.

Asked about their career trajectory, Bandas answers, “It was a year or a year and a-half from the time we got together to the time they said, ’OK, we’re going to sign you.’ And then, another year … .”

“That’s what I was going to say,” adds Liles. “That was the worst year.”

“From the time we knew we were getting signed, to when we actually got signed and our lives actually started to change, was like another extremely painful year,” Bandas continued. “Contract negotiations. Legal and business stuff, and there’s nothing you can do to expedite it. You just sit there and you wait for someone to call and say, ’OK, we’ve finished such-and-such now.'”

“Because if you complain,” Gunderson noted, “they’ll say, ’Oh, you guys don’t want the right contract?'”

So Liles took a job at Blockbuster. Gunderson did some tile work. Bandas worked at an Irish bar. At one point or another, all three parked cars at Maggiano’s restaurant in Nashville. Looking back on it now, Liles says he just tried to hold on until he could get enough money to focus solely on music. Ah, the glorious dream of signing a record deal.

“That was a real balancing act that year,” Bandas said. “We were writing a lot, and we knew that we were going to take this to the next level in a matter of time. We were trying to make sure that once the time came, we were ready. When we weren’t working our crappy normal jobs, we were writing and rehearsing. We played a lot in Nashville for a year.”

All three guys grew up in church, moved to Nashville around the same time and were introduced by songwriter Robert Ellis Orrall. During a playback of an early acoustic demo of “Drowning,” recorded in Gunderson’s house in East Nashville, their three-part harmonies instantly rang true — in more ways than one.

“We were all definitely like, ’Whoa, that was freakin’ crazy!’ We knew that we liked writing together, and we liked hanging out and all that, but when we heard all three of our vocals together, it sounded like we were family members,” says Liles. “When we heard it back, it was a moment — definitely a moment.”

The album’s promotional materials suggest that Gunderson co-wrote the album’s title track, “World Wide Open,” with a troubled mind, partly due to his financial situation. Asked for details about that situation, he replies, “At that point, I think the financial situation for all of us was … nothing.” After a good laugh by everyone in the room, he added, “We all figured out ways to make it work. It was just frustrating.”

“It was like any starving artist, man,” Bandas said. “Just struggling to pay the basic bills. Everybody’s been there at some point. You know, if I wanted to work enough not have to freak out about my finances, I was going to be dog-tired if I actually did that and put the time that we needed into the band. The combination of the two is what was bad. If I wasn’t worried about doing music, then it would have been fine, but I basically had two full-time jobs.”

Now that their career has shifted out of neutral, the guys — all of whom were born in 1984 — don’t gloss over the grunt work of getting a group off the ground. For example, you might think that singing in a record label executive’s office would be exciting. Seriously?

“It’s funny because these Music Row guys, God bless ’em, I mean they act like they’ve heard 30 bands like us before, when we all know — and we knew — that they hadn’t,” said Liles, who happens to be the namesake of the Taylor Swift song, “Hey Stephen.” (Love and Theft, which takes its name from a Bob Dylan album, opened shows for her in 2008.)

“Even if they like what you’re doing, they won’t show you,” Bandas said. “To be honest, that experience is not that fun — with few exceptions. The one fun experience was the label we ended up with, because they were the only people who didn’t do the whole ’poker face’ thing. They just reacted excited and emotionally, like the way we all listen to music. They acted like they cared, and that experience ended up being great, which was a big part of how we knew we really wanted to work with them. They cut the B.S., basically, but that’s not usually how it goes, and it’s not very fun. It’s usually kind of intimidating — or frustrating if you know you did a good job and they do not care.”

With their “Runaway” success, the band has acquired some perks of the biz, like traveling in a bus and meeting famous country singers.

“I think it’s fun for us because we’re so free, man,” Liles said. “We’re like, ’Heeey.’ We’re going to joke around with Carrie Underwood from the first time we start talking to her because that’s just our personalities. I think when you grow up in church, you have an edge on people because you’re so used to talking to people, and you’re like, ’Heeey.'”

“It affirms a feeling of accomplishment,” Bandas said. “These are things that happen because you’re starting to achieve your goals. It’s not even like, ’Oh, yes, I’ve always dreamed of getting to hang out backstage with Blake Shelton!’ It’s more like, ’Dude, I’ve always dreamed about being in a place where I can do that if I want to, because I’ve achieved something.'”