Anyone who's witnessed the maturing of the Lonetones over the past several years knows it's a group that isn't hemmed in by any boundaries.
The group may have begun sounding like a sweet little folk outfit, but over the course of four albums (including the brand new "Modern Victims"), the Lonetones have developed into a genre-bending group that doesn't quite fit into any niche and instead feels right almost everywhere. If the band has a spiritual equivalent in a better-known act, it would have to be Wilco.
"It's nice to have a band that's up for wherever it goes," says co-lead singer-songwriter Steph Gunnoe, sitting at her dinner table with husband and co-lead singer-songwriter husband, Sean McCollough, at the couple's South Knoxville home.
The rest of the members also added to the changes with Maria Williams playing electric bass rather than just acoustic, Steve Corrigan coming up with new things on drums and new member Cecilia Miller adding cello parts.
"The songs have definitely evolved," says McCollough. "For us, it feels a lot different than the last one. We were hearing things in our heads that we hadn't done before and we had to figure out how to make them happen."
"I'd just started playing electric guitar and different things come out of you — even different emotions that you wouldn't write about if you were writing on an acoustic guitar," says Gunnoe. "It's nice to just be able to follow the song."
"Growing up in West Virginia, my dad played the banjo and I was comfortable with rural forms of music, and that's probably where I sing best, in a way, but I felt a little mismatched," says Gunnoe.
There was a definitely an indie rock phase in Gunnoe's past, despite being into the folk scene when she and longtime singer-songwriter/children's artist McCollough met in Knoxville. These days, Gunnoe and McCollough let all their influences shine. They've also opened up with how they create songs.
The two don't typically co-write (the couple's first true co-write is the new song "Alone"), but they do share their songs and accept suggestions.
"Our brains work very differently," says McCollough.
"I'm really interested in the scary part of songwriting," says Gunnoe. "I'll go into the darkness and then show it to Sean and he'll say 'cool' and then do something great with it. He's got bigger ears than me in some ways."
"She goes deep and I go wide," says McCollough with a chuckle.
The "Modern Victims" title cut is the first time in which the writer of the song didn't perform the vocals on the number. Gunnoe wrote it, but McCollough sings it.
"I just never felt like I could pull the song off," says Gunnoe. "I wrote this song and I liked it, but it doesn't sound like me. I wrote it and pitched it as a rap song ..."
"And then I turned it into a power ballad and put the rap in the middle," says McCollough. "It sort of feels like MY song now."
Local rap great Black Atticus free-styles near the end of the track.
"We just gave him a blank spot," says Gunnoe.
The album is dedicated to friend and former Lonetones member Phil Pollard, who died in October of 2011. McCollough also added bits of Pollard's music in parts of the new album.
"The song 'Top Hat' is something I wrote a couple of weeks after he died," says McCollough. "It's about how his death brought so many people together. He was the kind of a guy who would just send you a text that said 'I love you.' Afterwards, people acted a little more like Phil had."
Although the group has done some out-of-town touring, the membership's full-time day job status keeps them close to home, but word on the band seems to be getting out.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say it would be cool to have some windfall success," says Gunnoe. "Some part of me would like that. But in some ways it's almost like it's Sean's and my relationship. It's a weird machine that works for us. It's a whole other plane that we meet on."
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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