Interview with Company of Thieves

May 24th, 2011

By: Amy Aiello

The vivacious, upbeat, and inspiring five members of Company of Thieves met me at my West Loop photo loft on Tuesday. It was notably chilly and sunny, but a perfect day for our outdoor photo shoot (an exclusive for the Chicago Music Guide).

The band just released their sophomore album, Running From A Gamble, on May 17th, one week prior to our gathering. We sat down for a quick chat before our photo shoot to talk about the new album, music, and this musical path the band has chosen in life.

CMG – Tell us about your creative process for the new album.

COT- (Genevieve) Marc and I over the past couple years on tour would just write constantly on the road in a hotel or venue, and we slowly pieced together … and then we brought all of those songs to the band, [and] we fleshed them out as a band. We got to experiment with different tones and sounds to express our feelings; how we wanted to make them sound.

CMG – What’s different about this record in comparison to Ordinary Riches?

COT – We recorded [our first record] before we even played our first show, so we did everything backwards, you know what I mean? We wanted to say, “hey, hello. This is us.” We didn’t want anyone to mold us into something. This new record was written after we were touring extensively throughout the united states. We had time to kind of put things together and pay attention to a lot of new music, and focus on our song writing. There’s just growth. We feel our songs are a lot more developed and focused.

CMG – For the new album, what do you have planned, and what do you really hope will happen this time around that didn’t with the first album?

COT – We really want to step up our live show, the visual part of it, and have more of a symbiotic relationship between the visual and the audio experience. That takes a lot more support, and technology and money to do that. I think that’s a huge hope for us this time around so that we can bring somewhat of a fantastical experience visually to our live show.

CMG – What would make you all feel like you made it?

COT – It’s already happening … we’re doing what we love, and we have people that listen to our band who are engaged and participate and respond. … we all really love to play music, and hopefully, everyone wants to do this for life. We don’t want to make a hit song and fizzle out. We kind of just want to make honest music that’s going to last and grow as we grow.

CMG – How do you feel about the Chicago Music scene, and how does your band fit?

COT – I don’t feel like we’ve ever been part of a scene, so it works to our advantage in that it doesn’t matter what the trend is, because we kind of have our own thing going on, you know?

CMG – What made you guys want to do music? Or was it something that you’ve always just had?

COT (Genevieve) – For me, it was hearing my mom singing me to sleep at night, and specifically when I saw Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It was, to me, and still to this day probably one of the most perfect songs I’ve ever heard in my entire life. It was something that moved me, and I felt something, and I had this realization of feeling… Music was like a natural way of exploring feelings for me.

CMG – When you finally had that moment where music was an extension of your emotions, how did it feel for you guys?

COT (Genevieve) – It’s a huge release. You feel alive… Sometimes I’ll sing a song to myself, and I’ll project a feeling/mood in front of myself, and I’ll go meet it; like if I’m feeling awful about something, I’ll kind of cast this line out with my voice, and I’ll follow that line to get through it.
It’s why arts education in public schooling is so important to me, and something I would eventually love to give back to, because I really don’t know how I would have gotten through school and things like that without music education.

CMG – Do you have any advice for up and coming musicians?

COT – There’s never one thing. I think whatever you’re doing, as long as you’re honest and you realize why you’re making music. [Have] reasonable expectations, and then just be happy every step along the way, because when something really cool happens, you’re even happier.

(Genevieve) I remember when I was younger, people would say, “you want to be a singer? That’s a pipe dream. You’d better have a backup plan. You’d better have a plan b. and it was like, I’m not good at a plan b. I’m going to risk everything, and put it all into this, and this is going to be my only plan. You have to figure out what is of value to you… you’re really the only person who knows what’s best for you.

Company of Thieves Biography

There’s a well-known saying that can make a lot of bands uncomfortable while embarking upon their second album: Musicians have their entire lives to write their debut, and a year to complete the followup. But in the case of Company of Thieves, the Chicago outfit couldn’t wait to record its sophomore full-length, Running From A Gamble. Even though Company of Thieves’ famously feverish fanbase is exponentially larger than it was when the band released its first album, the only pressure felt during the making of Running From A Gamble was due to the explosive nature of the songs themselves. And the tremendous results are a testament to how far the band has come in such a short period of time.

“We were very eager to get things moving quickly because we were so excited about the new songs,” says guitarist Marc Walloch. “There’s a sense of urgency in this record that comes through the speakers. “This record needed to come out of me,” says frontwoman Genevieve. “It was extremely confrontational in a healthy way, and I think that’s why I wasn’t too concerned with what people were expecting.

The past few years have been busy and fruitful for Company of Thieves, which is now rounded out by drummer Chris Faller and bassist Marcin Sulewski. Founded in their teens, Company of Thieves’ members already conduct themselves like veterans, even though they’re still just in their mid-20s. The band’s first record, Ordinary Riches, originally issued independently in 2007, was re-released in early 2009 by Wind-up Records and debuted at #5 on the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart. The band toured nonstop, hitting the road with groups like Annuals, OK Go, and The Hold Steady, and along the way played Lollapalooza, Last Call With Carson Daly, and Live From Daryl’s House

“It was really cool to hear Daryl Hall talk about how he liked our writing,” says Walloch. “All the musicians are absolutely amazing—right when we walked through the door they made us feel good and comfortable. It was really cool to be around people of that caliber and not have any fear of playing in front of them because they’re so good.”

When the time came to start writing the new record, Walloch and Genevieve found that ideas were already flowing out of them. Inspired by their diverse influences—including The Beatles, Billie Holliday, Fiona Apple, Radiohead, Elliott Smith, and Nirvana—they inject their triumphant, catchy music with their own energy and soul, making for a deeply dynamic sound that can turn from sweet to searing on a dime. All the time spent on the road not only gave them plenty of opportunities to play around with melodies and chords in the van, hotel rooms, and backstage, it offered a new perspective on America and, ultimately, life in general. That’s when Genevieve began to form the narrative that drives Running From A Gamble, a 13-song coming-of-age story about a girl who, if you listen closely, sounds like she has a lot in common with her creator.

“Karen is the prototypical girl who grows up in the suburbs and feels like maybe she’s destined for bigger things,” says Genevieve. “She leaves home early and goes on this wild adventure of what happens in life, and the relationships that you get into and how you learn about yourself. It’s the realization that we are not our problems, we just struggle with them. And our identity doesn’t have to be consumed by the hardships that we are experiencing.”

The “gamble” in the title can also be referred to as a risk, and instead of running away from anything, Karen runs from risk to risk, the kinds that must be taken by someone who’s moving from a life of dependence to one of autonomy. As Genevieve sings in the peppy, organ-fueled “Look Both Ways,” “You never feel alive until you are risking your life.” Some of the gambles we find Karen taking include facing up to old habits, embracing compromise, risking ostracism by being honest about who she is, and putting herself on display as a performer, which can result in, as Genevieve puts it, “being treated like a marionette in the circus that is life.” All of the blood, sweat, and tears that the singer poured into Running From A Gamble can be heard in the gorgeous wailing during “Won’t Go Quietly,” a song that starts off gently but eventually explodes with unbridled emotion.

Another topic confronted on the album is the environment, and understanding that to every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. The horn-filled Motown-esque extravaganza “Tallulah” was inspired by a small town in Louisiana that the band passed through while on tour.

“There was no one on the main street downtown,” says Genevieve. “All these buildings were completely abandoned, and yet there were these vines growing up from the earth, wrapping themselves around the structures. It looked like they were taking them back into the earth, and it was this amazing feeling that the earth prevails.”

Despite its varying moods and textures, Running From A Gamble is a cohesive, fully formed album, one that Walloch says “you don’t want to skim through.” The band spent a couple of months at the beginning of 2010 fleshing out the acoustic demos made by Walloch and Genevieve. By the time they’d moved operations in the summer from Chicago to L.A., where they hooked up with producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith, Saves The Day), Running From A Gamble was ready to be recorded. Schnapf helped Company of Thieves capture its live intensity in the studio, which included documenting the power of Genevieve’s booming voice. However, at first the band wasn’t sure if they were in the right relationship.

“Our initial conversations with Rob were bad, because he didn’t really give us any answers to our questions, which is what turned out to be so great about him,” says Walloch. “Anything we would ask him about the process, he’d say, ‘I can’t tell you, it has to be whatever it naturally needs to be. I don’t have any plan.’ And we just loved that.”

“I felt like Rob really let me do my thing and would encourage me to get to the point where I felt like I had to sing songs to get them out of me,” says Genevieve. “I don’t know what more I could have asked for.”

Having recorded in L.A., toured the country numerous times, and played overseas, the members of Company of Thieves are certainly a worldly bunch. But they also know where they came from and aren’t about to lose sight of what got them here.

“There’s definitely a hard-work ethic in the Midwest,” says Walloch. “The seasons change your inspiration, they change your mood, they change how productive you are. It’s good to not be conditioned to any one thing or be like a robot and always feel or be the same. I guess that’s kind of like our music.”

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