Connor O’Neal and Shawn D’Amario met in Colorado Springs in 2013. Both of their fathers had recently died, and the new friends bonded over their loss, finding three ways of coping: drinking, fishing and playing music.
Every morning, they'd hold down a corner on Tejon Street in the Springs, belting out their ragged punk-infused country and raising money for beer; they'd fish in the afternoons and hit open-mic nights in the evenings. They named themselves the Tejon Street Corner Thieves, and never stopped playing.
“It was a coping mechanism for us, and we quickly realized that live music is a coping mechanism for pretty much everyone who goes to shows," recalls O'Neal. "We fell more and more in love with performing as time went on. We just never stopped. Since then, we’ve had 'breakthroughs' as far as media and community recognition went, but our outlook hasn’t really changed. We play for ourselves and for the people who need a break from the daily grind. We love being that outlet for people.”
While the bandmates spent years making their reputation as a live act, they recently struck a deal to drop an EP, Demons, as the inaugural release from Liar's Club Records, a new label founded by brooding Texas folk musician Amigo the Devil in partnership with Regime Music Group. They also just released a music video for the bawdy, alt-country “Never Meant to Be,” which quickly racked up more than 60,000 views on YouTube. The video pays homage to such alt-country heroes as Colter Wall, Dead South, Shawn James, Days N' Daze, Orville Peck, Bridge City Sinners and Harley Poe.
While COVID-19 forced the Thieves to cancel tours, O'Neal and D'Amario have recently offered live concerts from their short bus, modeling socially distanced ways of playing shows.
Westword caught up with O’Neal to talk about the new video and album, navigating the pandemic, and how the band has turned a habit of busking into much broader success.
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Westword: What role has busking played for your group?
Connor O'Neal: Busking has been a huge part of our band. We’ve never had a formal practice. We just play our songs hundreds of times on corners. Our band name comes from being accused of stealing a corner on Tejon Street in Colorado Springs because we’d play there so much. We started as two dudes with no money to our names, and got everything started with tips from people. From our first CD to our current release, we attribute it all to our start as a busking band.
What's the folk-punk/alt-country scene like in Colorado Springs? How do you fit into the music scene down there?
Honestly, we don’t really fit in — but that’s what makes it special. There are a ton of jam bands, bluegrass outfits and country cover bands, but there’s not much here like us. We hold the record for single-night booze sales at several bars here because our fans love to party! We always play mixed-genre bills in town. We’ve even played 71Grind, a local metal/thrash festival.
Talk about the new EP and the collaboration with Amigo the Devil's label.
These songs are our best yet, and I’m not just saying that. We were supposed to go on tour, so we brought in Lightnin’ Luke on fiddle and King Strang on bass for the run. They recorded with us and absolutely killed their tracks. We had to call the tour because, you know, the world's on fire, but we busted this EP out before we did.
Amigo the Devil signing us shortly after the pandemic hit was a miracle. Never in my wildest dreams did I even think that was a possibility. He’s been one of my favorite artists since my wife turned me on to him four years ago. Amigo’s her favorite artist...small world, huh? Danny [Kiranos, aka Amigo] and his team at Liar's Club Records have pushed us to a whole new understanding of the industry, tirelessly working behind the scenes to make our vision a reality. The whole situation is surreal. I feel like I’m going to wake up any minute. It’s literally a dream come true.
You're spoofing alt-country in the new video. What's your relationship to the genre? How did you pick which artists to poke fun at?
When people ask what we sound like, we usually bring up some of the bands we roasted in the video. I guess alt-country is as close as anything to describing our sound. We picked artists we admire for their creativity. So many bands just play shows; these bands cultivate an experience. I’d urge everyone to check out these bands' videos and live shows to see what I’m talking about. They’re next-level entertainers. They say impersonating someone is the highest form of flattery, and we agree.
The Front Range has such a strong bluegrass scene, but it's so damned cheery and un-punk. Talk about how you fit into that (or don't).
Well, we are diverse...and very good at reading a crowd. We have tons of bluegrass traditional songs we play when the time is right. But we always put our own twist on them. We like playing our originals more, but every once in a while, we bring an old-time tune back from our early days. We’ll just add a few lyrics to make it more fun and personal.
How have you been dealing with the COVID-19 shutdown?
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I mentioned our tour getting canceled, but that was just the beginning. Since our last show on March 14, we’ve canceled two major tours and countless local shows. We were doing Facebook live-stream shows for a while, but then it hit me: We have a short bus. People are stuck at home. Let’s bring the show to them! It reverts back to music as a coping mechanism, and God knows we all needed one. We ran an inverter through the floor of the bus and mounted our PA speakers to the windows. We’ve been taking requests for curbside shows since.
People listen from their porch, and we perform from the safety of the bus. We still have around 300 emails requesting shows. The response has been absolutely bonkers. Between that and our work with Liar's Club, it seems like we never skipped a beat.
The city has even reached out for our input and involvement on a new program they plan to launch using our concept to help other bands get back in the spotlight. ... We refuse to quit, and as artists, overcoming obstacles with creativity is part of the job description. It has been wildly uplifting to see our artist community work together to overcome this thing, and we couldn’t be more proud to be a part of it all.
For more on the Tejon Street Corner Thieves, go to cornerthieves.com.