NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The members of country duo Love and Theft view the last few years as addition by subtraction.
First, they lost their record label. Then Brian Bandas, the third member of their trio, quit. But with a new deal with Sony Music Nashville imprint RCA Nashville and a single chugging up the charts, Eric Gunderson and Stephen Barker Liles love their new lives.
"We're both on the same page," Liles said. "We're way closer friends than either of us were with Brian. We musically have the same influences. We have the same goals and visions with what we want to do with our band."
"And let's be honest," Gunderson joked, "it doesn't take a genius to realize that if you split money two ways instead of three ways, you make more money."
You can't blame Gunderson, 27, and Liles, 28, for feeling nervous upon the release of their self-titled second album, which came out last week. They've been to this point before and had everything fall apart — twice.
Originally signed by Disney Music Group to Carolwood Records, that imprint was shuttered just a few months after the release of their debut album, "World Wide Open." They moved to Disney's Lyric Street, which was already home to another trio you might have heard of, Rascal Flatts. That label closed in 2010, leaving the band to start over from scratch. They didn't even have the rights to re-record their own music.
"At the time, we were like (the closure) is awesome," Gunderson said. "We don't have to pay anything back. We can go get a fresh start and we've already done all the legwork. But then we kind of realized, oh, it's really not as easy as we thought it would be to go find a label home."
Executives at Sony had looked closely at the band early on and were again interested in signing a deal last year. But on the day the offer came through, Bandas called Gunderson and Liles and told them he was quitting.
They weren't about to give up, though, and tried to convince label executives they were still viable as a duo. As it turns out, Sony agreed.
"I think when you hear Stephen's and Eric's voices together that's the answer right there," Sony Music Nashville President and CEO Gary Overton said.
When Overton first heard the group's work as a trio, he said he liked the music but didn't know who was singing what part. As a duo, Liles and Gunderson still trade off on vocals — sometimes mid-song — but there was something more distinctive about Love and Theft's newest incarnation.
"They love to perform," Overton said. "And I talked to our radio staff here and they said they checked them out at radio and radio loves them. But really it just comes down to that music piece. I spent a little time with those guys and I told them I don't care if you're a duo or a trio or anything else, it's just what I love. And they have not disappointed."
Fans have responded, making lead single "Angel Eyes" into a top five hit that's approaching No. 1 and gold sales status. They're making the rounds on television, supporting Brad Paisley on tour and doing all the things they thought they'd be doing three years ago.
Yet, they admit they're having difficulty getting past the feeling that something catastrophic might happen any minute.
"Definitely, after what we've been through," Liles said. "We thought we were out of the tunnel three or four times. We're a little more protective, but we do feel pretty good. We do feel like we're on top of something."