by Carly Schorman
The Sugar Thieves came together in musical love and bluesy harmony more than a decade ago in a smokey dive bar with the fateful partnership of lead singer Meridith Moore and guitar player/vocalist Mikel Lander. Yes, it was Big Fish Pub and the year was 2006, the planets aligned to give the Valley this bastion of music from the American Heartland. They roam from blues, rowdy roots rock, porch-picking Americana, and rollicking swing into the great beyond. The Sugar Thieves can offer other musicians a history lesson that leads right into the present day with all its new promises and challenges.
And, this month, The Sugar Thieves offered fans a trio of new releases that showcases their expansive style. Dreamin’ and Anytown USA both came out on the same day and both LPs feature new, original music. If that wasn’t ambitious enough, the band also released a third album on vinyl, Driftin’ Away, which includes songs from both LPs along with an unreleased single.
As you move through the albums (and you should do this all in one weekend afternoon the first time through), what stands out more than their versatility is the band’s pristine delivery. The songwriter and musicianship is polished to high shine on every single track.
Meridith and Mikel each have their own unique, and uniquely remarkable, vocal style. The powerhouse chanteuse that is Meridith Moore can put a sultry spin on one song and then break your heart with a mere warble on the next number while Lander’s road rough voice sounds like it was made for hopping train cars and drinking moonshine. The fact that these two found each other in the middle of the Arizona desert, and not in a sweaty NOLA speakeasy or Mississippi Delta riverboat, has to make you believe in love.
I had a chance to send Meridith and Mikel some questions about the history of The Sugar Thieves, the new albums, their growing family, and a whole lot more. They were kind enough to oblige me with answers. Check out our interview below and don’t forget to spend some time with the new albums. Driftin’ Away is a limited edition vinyl so you better score yourself a copy now before they sell out. Like, right now.
I can’t even track my memories back to my first Sugar Thieves show. I feel like it might have been at the Sail Inn, but I can’t commit to that answer. Just how long has the band been playing together now and how did you folks come together?
Meridith Moore: [Mikel and I] were offered a Wednesday night residency at the pub, after auditioning during their open mic night. We reached out to some local musicians to come and jam with us. Shea Marshall (sax), David Libman (drums), and the late Evan Brown (bass) showed up every week to play with us. Wednesdays were jumping! We had swing dancers, live artists, and regulars who packed the little bar every week. After about a year of performing together, we decided to make it a thing. We became The Mikel Lander and Meridith Moore Band and put out a record in 2007 titled, “The Solo Sessions”.
Okay, so the band just released not one but TWO (arguably three) new albums this month: Dreamin‘ and Anytown USA. What led to the double-release? Did the band have a lot of material itching to get out there? Or was it more a decision to link up the two albums to coincide with the release of the new vinyl album: Driftin’ Away?
Meridith: The Sugar Thieves have been in and out of the studio over the past few years. We’ve been anxious to release new material but didn’t feel like we had a finished product. We kind of took a break from writing and recording. Then the band started volunteering at Mesa Community College for Andy Seagle’s recording class. It was an opportunity for the band to go in and test out new material without any pressure. The band came up with some great stuff. We started to get excited again about writing and recording. And the music had a fresh new flavor too.
So we realized that we had two products. The album, Anytown USA, represents the more acoustic, singer songwriter side of the band. The second album, Dreamin’, is more electric, rock, and a taste of gospel. We took the best of both albums and pressed vinyl for the first time. Vinyl seems to be making a comeback, as most households no longer have CD players. It’s a great way to listen to music.
Given the size of the band, and the scope of this recording project, I would imagine this was quite an undertaking in terms of production. Where did you record them? Just how long were these albums in the works? We want the gory details of the process. Take us through the tears.
Meridith: We actually recorded these albums in four different places. It’s been a four year process. We started at Blue Door in Phoenix, which is Noah Guttell’s place. Many of the tracks on Anytown USA were recorded there. We tracked at Mesa Community College with Andy Seagle, with Clark Rigsby at Tempest Recording in Tempe for one track, and our last stop was Mia Studios in Scottsdale with Otto D’Agnolo. Otto put the finishing touches on everything and mastered the albums as well. It’s been a long road, but we ended up with 20 tracks to release, so we’re happy with everything.
The band shares songwriting credit on all the tracks. I was hoping you might walk us through the band’s songwriting process? Do you all hang out and jam to get songs started? Do different people work on lyrics and bring them to the group?
Meridith: With regards to The Sugar Thieves’ creative process, we are all over the map. I may have a catchy tune in my head which I’ll bring to the band. Sometimes Mikel Lander will write a guitar part for it and, in other circumstances, Shea Marshall will write something on piano.
Mikel does most of the writing. He brings a new song to the table, and the band either does something with it or they don’t. It just depends on the mood I guess. Todd Chuba (drums) has played a huge roll in helping to add dynamic and structure to the new songs. He’s been with us now for over five years, and he’s brought so much to the table. He goes above and beyond, because he is truly passionate about the music.
Our newest member, Michael King (bass) also adds a lot creatively and helps us make a song idea an actual thing. He is so talented and has an immense amount of talent and experience. Shea Marshall is our robot. He plays just about every instrument you can think of. He can take an idea and turn it into a song faster than you can blink an eye. It’s incredible working with him. He is truly an anomaly.
There’s a little bit of love story in the song “Blues Household” on Anytown USA. To my understanding, the song tells the story of the romance behind The Sugar Thieves, correct?
Meridith: That’s correct, Mikel wrote this tune. It’s about how he and I met and became lovers and started a family. When I hear this song, I imagine our daughters listening to it after we are long gone. They are all grown up, and out there in the world, and they have these songs to take them back in time to when Mikel and I met. Maybe they can feel our memories in our voices and our story will live on that way.
From musical duo to musical family with two kids (and counting)… are you and Mikel building your own family band and kicking everyone else to the curb? You can tell us. We won’t tell Shea Marshall.
Meridith: Well we do have one more on the way. This will be our third child together, and he or she will be here next month already (August 2020). Many friends and fans have joked that now we’ll have enough members for a band. Our oldest, Lilly, loves piano so that’s a good start. It’s a dream of both of ours to be able to sit together and play music, whether it’s ever a professional thing or not. Got to have that family band.
Anytown USA shares some really great family moments with fans in addition to “Blues Household,” including “Lilly’s Song” and “Happiest Life,” which offer a welcome reprieve from some of the harsher realities of American life the album shines a light on. On a personal note, my husband and I worried that children would impede our ability to focus on our creative work, but the band doesn’t show signs of slowing down. Please enlighten me, childless and naive as I am, about how children have impacted your creative life? I think a lot of artists face this same decision and see it as an either/or when you seem to have made it a both/and.
Mikel Lander: What is life if you can’t share it? We have been blessed with 2 baby girls and another baby on the way (sex unknown). It is hard to create with little people running around, because they require so much attention, but, if ever there was a fuel better than heartbreak to inspire song, it’s babies.
The Sugar Thieves are a well known staple of the local music scene and the band also has some serious miles racked up on tour. How has the pandemic impacted the band? I would imagine social distancing was particularly difficult on your 2020 band plans.
Mikel: It’s an understatement to say we have been impacted by the pandemic. Like all artists, we are pretty much dead in the water when it comes to performing live. But, it has given us an opportunity to stay creative. We have made it this far as creative folks, but this is new. We may not get back to packing venues anytime soon. May not be for at least a year or so, but, we aren’t going anywhere, and must continue to make music and grow as people and artists.
A lot of the songs on these albums focus on the plight of working class people in this country, but I would imagine that these tracks were written before 2020 really started throwing punches. Songs on both albums tackle difficult issues from larger looming issues on the political, environmental, and economic fronts to more specific topical matters like the Opioid epidemic. But, through it all, the underlying message on each album feels like one of hope. Does that feel like an accurate assessment? Basically, how are you feeling about the country in the present and future tense? Because there seems to be a sense of foreboding that mixes with a message a hope in the new music.
Mikel: Doom is always fun to write about, but hope is where we live. Life is beautiful and that is the most important thing. This world is in a period of change, no one else can save this life but us. I like to sing about scary things but I trust that most of the people are good and want to live in a fair and just world for all of our kids to grow up in.
Do you find it difficult to maintain a sense of hope right now? Have you found any special ways of holding onto your sanity during this time of upheaval in human history?
Meridith: I’d be lying if I said that our lives as musicians may not be forever changed. Our goal over the past decade has been to sell as many tickets, and as much liquor behind the bar, as possible. Pack the house and sell out the shows. Now, in the presence of a global pandemic, our goal has become creativity. How can we reach our audience without actually having a LIVE performance?
We’ve taken to social networking sites, local online media, and LIVE stream performances, to keep you listening. We want to take this opportunity, in the midst of very hard times, to actually reach more people with our music. We want to broaden our fanbase by offering online streaming concerts that anyone can watch from anywhere in the world. How cool!
We maintain sanity by finding new ways to survive as artists, in a new normal, where nothing seems normal to us.
Okay, shit’s about to get real… The Sugar Thieves have played with some truly stellar acts including B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Willie Nelson, The Flaming Lips, Lucinda Williams, and more. Do you – personally – have a favorite show that stands out in your mind? It doesn’t have to be the most famous players on the bill or the biggest crowd, but your personal favorite show and why?
Mikel: That is too hard to pick a favorite, but, when we opened for Taj we were playing a festival in Northern Cali, and spent the whole drizzly beautiful day next to a river BBQing with Taj and his band. We shared stories and got inspiring advice from a master. That was a truly wonderful day.
What’s next for The Sugar Thieves? A long much-deserved break after this triple-release? Or are you folks always penning new numbers just by the nature of your being? Like, wake up, make breakfast, one of you hums a little ditty, a harmony gets added, someone pulls out a guitar, musicians start magically emerging from cupboards and linens closets, a horn section appears in the front yard… I don’t really know how all this works.
The next step for the Thieves is summer festival booking for 2021. We are going to have to focus on smaller outdoor events for next year’s gigs. Packing sweaty bodies into a club is not going to be a thing again for a while. We’ll have some more online LIVE stream concerts coming up in the Fall. For now we have Oct 17 booked at Westside Jazz and Blues in Glendale. Dec 12 at the Scottsdale Center for Performing Arts, in the beautiful Virginia Piper Theater. Check out our website for more info: sugarthieves.com