Bright Light Social Hour maps a ‘Future South’
The Aspen Times
If You Go…
What: The Bright Light Social Hour
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Friday, Sept. 18, 9:30 p.m.
How much: $10 ($5 more for those under 21)
Tickets: Belly Up box office; http://www.bellyupaspen.com
As the members of Bright Light Social Hour started brainstorming what they wanted to say on their second record, guitarist Curtis Roush wrote the words “Future South” across a whiteboard in the band’s Austin, Texas studio.
The words stayed there throughout the making of the album, “Space is Still the Place,” and informed the sounds and scope of its 10 songs.
The new record, released earlier this year, came five years after the band’s breakout 2010 debut, which won Bright Light Social Hour the Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Band of the Year honors at the 2011 Austin Music Awards at SXSW. That launching pad sent them touring around the U.S. with notoriously rollicking shows (including a memorable 2012 set at Belly Up, where the band returns Friday).
The sophomore album took time because the band tours so much and because they wanted to get the “Future South” sound right. Their standards, bassist and singer Jack O’Brien said, were raised from their years as rag-tag road warriors and touring on their self-titled disc.
“Playing those songs every night, we realized this record is really important because we’re going to have to play these songs every night,” he said from a recent tour break in Austin. “So we dug a lot deeper. We wrote a lot of music that was scrapped. And we did a lot of soul-searching.”
The band also built its own studio and practice space, customizing it to the needs of “Space is Still the Place,” for which the band wanted a particular mix of old and new. They used a new cutting-edge microphone, for instance, but ran it through a cheap decades-old tape machine while recording O’Brien’s voice.
“So you get these future-leaning sounds with a vintage feel to them,” he said.
The album incorporates elements of prog, psychadelia, blues and throwback rock. Songs swerve effortlessly between styles, creating a musical world where the exultant “Na-na-na” sing-along of “Ghost Dance”, the hypnotic synthesizers on “Dreamlove” and the foot-stomping guitar rock of “Infinite Cities” make sense beside one another. It’s the kind of album best experienced straight through – a rarity these days – with the final cut, the eight-plus-minute “Escape Velocity,” serving as a capstone. That song’s patient, pulsing electronic bass beat and spacey reverb eventually explodes into a wild guitar freak-out.
“We were trying to find a way that we could take the things we love from old music and say something new with it,” O’Brien explained.
They’d been touring relentlessly since their formation, emerging out of an experimental collective at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas that included Roush and O’Brien.
“A lot of bands wait for someone to invite them to tour, and that doesn’t happen,” O’Brien said. “You have to make it happen. So we were really dedicated to doing that and spending as much time on the road as we could – anywhere that would take us.”
The band’s 2012 Aspen debut – a mud season April show – left an impression with a packed house and party-down rock’n’roll and O’Brien leading some unprintable call-and-response segments with an enthusiastic crowd.
O’Brien recalled that he and his band mates were all recovering from food poisoning that night – one of the occupational hazards of road life.
“The other guys had gotten over it, but I was still reeling,” O’Brien recalled with a laugh. “I’m glad it was still a fun show.”
Barn-storming around the south in their van, they found that young musicians between Texas and Florida essentially fell into two camps: those that embraced the region’s history, copy-catting blues or soul or southern rock with little innovation; and those that ignore the fact that they are making music in the deep south.
“So we realized that there’s this huge middle ground that isn’t really being occupied that we thought was interesting,” O’Brien said.
At the same time, over all those days and nights on the road, the band was observing the idiosyncrasies of the south and its racial and economic struggles as well as the diversity of those struggles. They debated what it meant to be “southern” in the 21st century and found few voices in music offering answers. Those conversations led to the “Future South” concept.
Under the “Future South” banner, they collected stories from people on the road and archived them on the Bright Light Social Hour website with photos and short essays. Most come from 20- and 30-somethings with creative interests who are living month-to-month, much like the Bright Light guys did as a touring band.
“We’re taking a lens to some of these gritty realities and espousing an optimistic, frontier-looking gaze into the future,” reads the band’s statement on the project.
It’s a serious turn for a band that earned a reputation early-on for escapist entertainment, wild party-down rock shows and on-stage spandex attire (and whose fans created a tribute website for the flamboyant handlebar moustache O’Brien used to wear).
Expect to hear a lot more from – and about – Bright Light Social Hour in the days to come.
“We have a lot to say conceptually, so we want to start releasing a lot more music that captures all of the ideas that we have,” O’Brien said. “I think there’s a lot of great artists having a really interesting dialogue right now – Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo – about the future of the country, the struggle of the people and the lack of equal opportunity.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean writing more overtly political music. Nobody will hear “Space is Still the Place” and initially think of it as a message record.
“One of music’s great strengths is that it’s seductive,” he said. “Often you don’t hear the message right off the bat. It pulls you in with the vibe and the sound and the atmosphere. And then you listen a little closer and the message can be really powerful once you’ve been pulled in.”