Love and Theft Interview: Stephen Barker Liles on Heartbreak, New Album and Slowing Down
It’s a fair question for Love and Theft, given that both Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson are fathers who are in committed relationships. It’s also fair because the duo has built a pretty good reputation for being one of country music’s most “celebratory” acts. They liked to party after a show, so …
“When was the last time you had a hard-to-remember night that you’ll never forget?” Taste of Country asked Liles during a recent interview, borrowing a line from their new single ‘Night That’ll You’ll Never Forget.’ The track finds Liles — father to 6-month-old Jett, scheduled to marry Jenna in August — and Gunderson, married to Emily (2010), father to 16-month-old Camden — waxing on the irresistible debauchery one finds around him when the music gets a little loud and the drinks start flowing. It turns out, the 30-year-old isn’t too far removed from what he’s singing about.
"When the last album came out we had only been (a duo) for a little while because Brian (Bandas) had bailed on us really quick. … So, Eric and I — we had to figure things out really quick."
Stephen Barker Liles: I was in Key West last week for a national songwriter’s festival and I stayed for a full week, and probably the whole week — it was the best vacation of my life. I got to bring my girl and it was the first vacation since she had the baby. It was really, really good for us. We had a lot of our partners in crime for the week. It was a really good time. I went jet skiing for the first time in a long time. Those things are dangerous!
ToC: Have you guys slowed down a bit as far as after-party activities, now that you’re married with sons?
We have a little bit. We kind of pick and choose a little more so it’s not always, “Alright!” every night. We are more picky, and if it doesn’t always work out naturally, or there’s not radio there and we aren’t going to just go out of our way — we’d rather just stay on the bus and watch some playoff basketball … but when we go hard we go hard. [Laughs]
On ‘Love and Theft,’ the two of you sounded more confident than ever before. Is this new album an extension of the last one? Or a new sound?
Yeah, we’ve really honed in everything with this new album. We self-produced it. I think we had more fun making this album than any before. We spent a lot more time in the studio. Which means more sessions and more money, but you can definitely tell in the production and the sound of it.
We wrote a lot for this album, and in three years you make a lot of songwriting friends and connections in Nashville, so we have a lot of new friends that we had to pick songs from. We wrote about half and the friends wrote the other half. It’s pretty exciting and the label is real stoked about it.
You guys took a great chance with ‘Runnin’ Out of Air’ and it wasn’t a huge radio song (peaked inside the Top 40). Does that make you nervous about trying something like that again?
I think that (‘Runnin’ Out of Air’) was a couple of years ahead of its time. Because if we were to put that out right now, there are songs way way more different than that out right now. I think we were just a little bit ahead because when we play it live you can tell — it did well in a lot of markets — that you know people really get excited about it and that it is a bigger song. That is an exciting song to have as part of the set because songs like that grow over time and people are still discovering Love and Theft.
You say you “honed in” on that album and the last album. Is that a result of time and maturation, or did you have a conversation and make intentional decisions?
A lot of it is, Eric and I, when the last album came out we had only been (singing as a duo) for a little while because Brian (Bandas) had bailed on us really quick. We had always had the format down all three of us, because we had been playing together for four years. So, Eric and I, the album before that, we had to figure things out really quick and now we’ve been on the road for three years together, seeing what works and what doesn’t work. A lot of times we had communications and talked about certain songs.
"We kind of pick and choose a little more so it’s not always, ‘Alright!’ every night. We are more picky, and if it doesn’t always work out naturally … we aren’t going to just go out of our way."
We’re going back and forth on lead a lot more on this album, and that’s something I’ve always wanted to be, a true duo where we both sing lead equally, and that’s what we’ve done on this album.
What’s another song that you’re really excited about?
A song called ‘Candy Land,’ it’s pretty aggressive. There’s a little rap in it. Then we have a song called ‘The Blade’ that’s a real heart-wrencher. It’s a heartbreak song. We haven’t done many of those. We got it from some really good old school songwriters in Nashville. I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised with this album. It’s going to turn some heads.
When you’re singing a heart-wrencher, being in a fairly newly married, happy place, how do you get into the character?
Eric had his heart broken before and he sings lead on it and I’m singing the harmonies. Most songs we go back and forth, but on a song like this it’s important if only one of us sings on it. Eric can feel the song and you can definitely tell in the emotion of the song that he went back to a place where he’s been before and you can just tell in the emotion in his voice that he’s not just singing it. That’s what makes the song even better. A lot of times, you can sing a song but if you don’t have any emotional attachment to it sometimes there can be a disconnect. We might even name the album ‘The Blade.’ The tag is, “you caught it by the handle and I caught it by the blade.”
You’ve never had your heart broken?
No — knock on wood.
I feel like you’re missing an experience there, it’s something.
I know, I feel like I am. But I don’t want to feel that right now. I’ve been around so many people who have, and I’m okay living vicariously through them.
Have you broken any hearts?
I think I’ve probably broken a couple of hearts. I really didn’t start dating — I was so focused on sports and music through high school. I really didn’t really date anyone until I was about 18. I dated one girl for so long, then I moved to Nashville and met Jenna. Then was my story. I haven’t had many hearts to break.