Cruz Contreras has been leading the Black Lillies for just about a decade now, but he's only recently figured out what it means to be a bandleader. "When I first started the band [in 2009], it was just to be happy and have a good time," the singer-songwriter tells The Boot. "I didn't really think of myself as much of a leader of the group, honestly."

In recent years, though, the Black Lillies have been through a number of lineup changes. It was the first of those goodbyes -- when longtime members Tom Pryor and Robert Richards decided it was time to step away just as the band was beginning work on their last album -- that got Contreras thinking.

"[It made me] really preoccupied with this idea of the chemistry of the band as a whole," he reflects, "and thinking of myself as part of the band ... and, as the band leader, being more engaged." Admits Contreras, "How to really create [and] facilitate the right environment and culture and chemistry with the group, that's been a learning curve for me."

About a year ago, though, Contreras found that magic lineup: himself, drummer Bowman Townsend and bassist Sam Quinn, plus their newest member, guitarist Dustin Schaefer. He's learned to delegate and harness each of his bandmates' strengths (Townsend is a master setlist-maker; Quinn pushes them artistically; Schaefer has a drive and swagger that are infectious). And, more than with any previous Black Lillies record, their newest album, Stranger to Me was a completely collaborative effort.

"We were dedicated, and everybody was in. This was a very collaborative process," Contreras reflects. "We all really put our heads together and came up with something none of us could have individually done on our own."

Thirty Tigers

The 13 songs on Stranger to Me began simply: as part of a challenge the Black Lillies issued to themselves during the summer of 2017, to write one song a week. Collaboratively, they crafted a total of 30 songs, which they then shared with their fans via weekly Facebook Live performances they dubbed the Sprinter Sessions.

"It really just kept us focused instead of procrastinating until the last minute," Contreras admits. But the project had another benefit to it, too: It let the band's fans in on the creative process, and on how the band was coalescing in its new form.

"It's great to have that instant feedback and see what people are excited about," Contreras notes, "[but] the most beneficial thing about doing that was, the fans got to be part of the evolution of the band."

Contreras describes Stranger to Me, out Friday (Sept. 28) via Thirty Tigers, as "an expensive, big-sounding, sexy record." The band's four members range from late 20s to early 40s, and it shows: Listeners will pick up on the influence of everyone from Bob Dylan to Tom Petty to the Gin Blossoms.

While the Black Lillies as a name, and Contreras as a band leader, will celebrate a decade in the music industry in 2019, Contreras confesses that Stranger to Me feels like the band's very first album -- and, technically, if the band is these four people, it is. Still, he admits, 10 years feels like a magic number.

"If you can survive the first 10 years, you have a really good chance of making a full career out of it," he reflects. "I think we've got a lot of rewards in front of us."

That is, as long as the Black Lillies can follow Contreras' hard-earned advice, which he delivers with a laugh: "Stay alive, and don't get robbed again."