Love & Theft are growing up. In a literal sense, Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson, the singing and songwriting country duo at Love & Theft's core, have both gotten married and started families in recent years, seen Top 40 success on a handful of occasions, and found traction on their own as independent artists, eschewing label support in exchange for full creative license. Conversely, Love & Theft's music has started to mature as a result of the personal dynamic of both upheaval and settling down.
"In five years, we wouldn't put out a song like 'Let's Get Drunk and Make Friends,'" Liles says. "Maybe on the next record we'll have a song about having children, being a dad. I'm already writing down ideas as to how to get that out. It's the most amazing experience, the responsibility of raising a child, so I think that as we grow and our child grows, our music will portray that too."
With growth comes a revealing of true colors. Following Love & Theft's departure with RCA Nashville early last year, Liles and Gunderson released Whiskey On My Breath in February on their own Hate & Purchase Music label. Though the record's early single "Night That You'll Never Forget" had been in radio rotation for almost a year, RCA's reluctance to release a new record pushed Love & Theft to do things on their own. The result seems to be nothing but freeing for the pair, despite their lack of major label backing.
"We were marketed early on in our career for the more pop-influenced world, but it's maybe because visually what we look like," Liles says. "Eric and I love to hunt and fish but you probably didn't even know that until the last year or two because a lot of that was kind of hidden. Of course, people want us to make the most of the marketability, but for us, we were definitely leaning more toward traditional country, more of an Eagles style, that vibe."
When talking to Liles about anything professional, and sometimes topics that are personal, he'll start off many sentences with the phrase "For us..." and continue his thought. Aside from just being in a duo, there's a sense of community behind Love & Theft's music and its impact in the past five years. Where country music may not have been ready for the pop and classic-rock influence of their work, it sure is now, and the duo have the right people in their corner to further them along.
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"Talent only goes so far," he says. "You have to have people in your court, behind you, helping push you further in your career and if it's not personal for them then they're not going to work as hard. Especially as a manager, if they have a couple different opportunities for an interview for a TV spot, they're going to push the person they're more connected with, especially if the outlet doesn't mind. If you don't have a personal connection with either your label or the people you're involved with, it's a face-to-face thing that makes it more intimate."
That team will do their part to cement Love & Theft's legacy in a long line of country music duos, but it's their writing that will have to stand the test of time. In a genre whose benchmarks still rely on radio play and programmer's handshakes, and where flash-in-the-pan artists whose social media presence is the last vestige of a career that never happened, Love & Theft know that they have their work cut out for them. Striking out on your own is never easy, but Liles and Gunderson have something that most independent artists don't: each other.
"We love each other, we really do, and when we're long gone I hope that people are still listening to our music going 'Those guys were a real duo. Both of them actually sang lead,'" Liles says. "A lot of groups call themselves duos to be in that category for this or that but Eric and I actually split lead on the whole album. We literally picked songs and parts to literally make it like 50/50. We're not bashing on anyone, but that's us, that's part of our story, it's who we are. It's important to us."
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