Love and Theft Keep “Eyes” on the Prize

Now a Duo, They Score Top 10 Hit on New Label With "Angel Eyes"

Love and Theft have a seven-year itch, musically speaking. It’s been that long since they wrote the songs on their debut album. And, boy, times have changed.

First of all, Eric Gunderson and Stephen Barker Liles are a duo now, following the departure of Brian Bandas. They’re also on RCA Nashville, after the shuttering of their prior label, Carolwood/Lyric Street. Plus, they’ve updated their sound since scoring a Top 10 hit with “Runaway” in 2009.

“It’s a big difference from our first album,” says Liles about their new self-titled release. “On our first album, some of the songs had a hundred different sounds going on, which is not bad, but that’s not the way our influences made records, and that’s not exactly where our heart is. So we’re excited about this.”

Working with producer Josh Leo, whose credits include Alabama and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the duo allowed enough space in their sound so their vocals wouldn’t get lost in the mix. And they kept the arrangements to a minimum.

So far, the tactic has worked. The duo, who took their name from a Bob Dylan album title, returned to the Top 10 this summer with “Angel Eyes.” Other new tracks on the album include “Running Out of Air,” which Gunderson describes as “an Eagles-meets-Maroon 5 kind of vibe,” as well as the rowdy “Girls Look Hot in Trucks,” which they co-wrote with the Warren Brothers.

“We love up-tempo. In our live show, we try to keep it up-tempo because when we go to shows, we like that,” Liles says. “We’re still trying to make a name for ourselves. Most of these people are seeing us for the first time, so we try and keep everything up-tempo.”

Gunderson and Liles listened to hundreds of songs for the new album, and about half of the project relies on outside songwriters. That’s another difference from their first time around.

“On the first album, we wrote every song on it. They were songs we had been writing four years prior to that,” Gunderson says. “We’ve gotten a lot of advice from other artists: ’Just pick the best songs. Some of those might be your own songs. Some of those songs might be outside songs. But if you can put together the best album possible, then go for it. Don’t limit yourself because you wrote it.'”

“We’d be hypocrites if we wanted other artists to cut our songs and we didn’t want to cut other people’s songs, right?” asks Liles, who was a co-writer on Martina McBride’s 2010 single, “Wrong Baby Wrong.”

Despite the career upheaval, both guys are as cheerful and upbeat in person as they are on record. Asked about their positive outlook, they both chalk it up to having the right attitude.

“We feel like we have the best job in the world, in the good times and the bad times, especially getting to play music for a living,” Gunderson says. “Even when we didn’t have a label, we were still writing, still playing, still making music. For better or worse, it’s the best job in the world. It always has been. There are a lot of things that we could be doing that maybe would force us to complain, but to get to make music for a living keeps us positive and happy. We choose to see the bright side in things.”

“We have very similar upbringings, and our parents are very supportive and keep us very level-headed. And so do our siblings,” Liles adds. “It’s nice to have a good support system and not always have ’yes-men’ around you. That’s unhealthy when everyone is like, ’Oh yes, yes, yes! Yes, yes!’ It’s like, ’When the hell am I going to hear a no?'”

For fans curious about their transition from a trio to a duo, Gunderson says, “We won’t lie. At first, it was a little bit nerve-wracking. The day Brian dropped the news was the day that he and I went together to sign our deal to record for Sony. He was like, ’Hey, can we go get a drink real quick?’ I was like, ’Sure. That’s weird.’ We went and had a beer, and he said, ’Man, I think I’m done with this. … I’m not passionate about it. I’m not passionate about country music.’ I was like, ’If you’re not passionate about country music, why are you in the country format?'”

The two remaining members decided to take the high road.

Liles says, “Eric and I talked first, and we were like, ’Dude, this could be really good! We should just go tell [the label] that we want to be a duo and we’re going to keep on moving forward.’ We already had the songs picked we were about to cut. We had a producer and everything.”

“It ended up being a huge blessing in disguise at the time,” Gunderson adds. “Sony really was excited about it. Brooks & Dunn just announced their retirement, and it was perfect because they didn’t have a duo at Sony. We were going to be the new flagship duo, I guess. It made us really excited. We felt like it was a great opportunity, and it’s proven to be great thing for us.”

When fans come to a Love and Theft show now, Gunderson said they’ll notice all the changes.

“We’ve grown up and we’ve matured. The songs that we wrote off our first album — that was seven years ago. So the songwriting, the sound — it’s all changed. It’s all older, it’s all more mature. But our fans have also grown with us,” he says.

“It’s a high-energy show. It’s fun. We try to get as much crowd interaction as possible, and we hope people come away from it thinking, ’Man, that was a party. That was fun. We heard good music.’ We don’t want to disappoint anyone, that’s for sure.”