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 follow-up. 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. 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.”