Belly Up | September 18
Telluride Blues and Brews Festival | September 19
By Brian F. Johnson
“It sounds very weird, but his death was actually kind of a relief in a way because he was so tortured in the period before that,” said The Bright Light Social Hour bassist and singer Jack O’Brien.
“It was similar to him having cancer or something because it was a long protracted road of watching his physical and mental health deteriorating over time. He lived in our studio, so we lived with him every day and he was really suffering.”
It was January 19 of this year, the day before Austin’s The Bright Light Social Hour was to make the announcement that their new album Space Is Still The Place would be released in March. All of the details for the announcement were already in place when O’Brien discovered his brother and long-time manager Alex, had taken his own life in the midst of a long battle with mental illness.
“He passed away the day before we announced our record release, and in a way, it was almost — he was always so into the band and obsessed with what we were doing — I felt like he was saying ‘Alright. I’m letting you guys go to do your thing and kick ass with it.’”
The recording of Space Is Still The Place was already finished and the album was practically ready for stores when Alex “let go,” but it’s hard to not hear the lyric “My brother walks on crushed glass,” from the track “Ouroboros,” without thinking there was some sort of premeditated universal intervention that allowed that particular line to highlight Alex’s struggle.
In many ways both Space is Still the Place and The Bright Light Social Hour are all about embracing struggle. Psychedelic party rockers are supposed to put forth happy vibes first and foremost, and at no time does the album or the band take on a ‘woe is me’ approach to life, but neither the artist nor their recordings survive on superficial planes — at least not anymore. “Our first record was a lot more Pollyanna. It was like celebrate, ’cause fuck it. But then you start to realize that you’re facing struggles and being open and embracing the suffering makes the joy in life become so much more powerful. It means so much more.”
On a very practical level that approach to life translated into the band taking on not just a do-it-yourself, but a build-it yourself attitude to nearly everything they encountered. Early on in the album’s development they had a hard time finding a producer and studio that they thought could capture the ambition they had for the record. “So we thought, why not take this money and invest in a few choice pieces of gear like some pre-amplifiers and microphones and take a shot at doing it ourselves,” said O’Brien, conveying the earnest optimism and naiveté that they had as a group.
“But it became a thing where the more we spent and the more we started dialing in the sounds, the more we realized that we needed more equipment to get the sounds we wanted,” he continued. “There were a lot of science experiments; buying equipment and trying it out for a couple of weeks and getting a bunch of test recordings and liking things for a moment, but then getting over it and trying to sell that piece of equipment for something else. That was a huge part of what took so long to make this record. We would record the skeleton of a song several times and then kind of strip it back down and build it back up.”
At one point, while touring through Minneapolis, the ongoing quest for gear presented a slight predicament for the group. A guy in the area that was selling a Soundcraft Ghost mixing console — once the gold standard of boards, originally selling for close to ten-grand — for only $600. Since it was too big to fit in the trailer, it would require the band van to be down one bench for the rest of the tour and it could mean several thousands of dollars worth of cable, but the deal was too good to pass up. After carting the Ghost back to Austin though, their need to keep costs down and their hunger to learn their craft of recording found the band lining up factory-style to breathe life into the board. “Cables are one of those really unexpected costs,” O’Brien said. “When you’re amassing gear you don’t think about cabling, and the amount of cabling we would have needed for that board would have been insane. So we put together an assembly line and spent four or five days just assembling cables and in the end we ended up saving several thousand dollars. We put it together for like $200 bucks.”
In creating their own studio to create their own album, The Bright Light Social Hour have not only embraced struggle, but they’ve come away with something tangible that they can continue to build on. “It was painful to sink all of that money into it, but now that we’ve learned it we are able to record other artists and we’re able to record ourselves now at no cost,” he said.
The follow up to their 2010 self-titled debut —which took home an astounding six awards as SXSW 2011 Austin Music Awards — Space Is Still The Place has a spacey, heady psychedelic party rock sound heavier on the om than it is on the untz. Huffington Post called it a “mélange of southern sounds, laced with species from a more adventurous palate.” O’Brien himself told one reporter that a lot of the album was influenced by “watching Cosmos and listening to Miles Davis.”
In going the road less traveled, the band members also realized how lucky they are to be some of the few folks of their generation to self-actualize in an era of expanding inequality and declining opportunity.
Since the band’s early days the touring circuit between Austin and Florida was well worn with rubber from The Bright Light Social Hour’s touring van. And, like most bands short on cash, crashing with fans and friendlies along the way was a necessary way of life. Leading up to the recording of Space Is Still The Place, O’Brien and company started to really open their eyes to the struggle and financial woes that kind of plagues young people across the country, but particularly in the south. “It was surprising how often we would meet people and kind of buddy up with them to crash at their spot and how often we heard the same types of stories, like ‘I went to school,’ or maybe even got their masters, ‘but now I’m working at an Outback Steakhouse just trying to make ends meet.’ We found so many people who didn’t have the ability to fulfill their desires and do the things they wanted to do in life as a result of having to take care of financial situations,” O’Brien said.
They were all so inspired by the stories, that the band has started a blog titled Future South, which they say “takes a lens to some of the gritty realities of modern life, while espousing an optimistic frontier looking gaze into the future.” O’Brien explained that despite trying times, and maybe even because of them — financially based or otherwise — most of the people they ran across were still positive and giving, often to inspirational levels. “What was impressive was that people were still so positive and generous and hospitable. We got to meet a lot of creative and ambitious people and we were very interested in their struggles,” O’Brien said. “Because struggles are something that we all share and we think that it’s not kosher to talk about, but it’s probably the thing that connects us more than anything.”
One tale of such struggle that hit very close to home for O’Brien and company actually came from one of the bands that had joined them on the road, Houston indie rock group The Tontons. “I had noticed that in 2014 the band had been really quiet, and as I talked with them I found out the lead singer Asli had been diagnosed with and defeated cervical cancer and that the group’s drummer and guitarist’s [brothers Adam and Justin Martinez]mother had passed away during that time,” O’Brien said. “But by the time we were on the road they had all really bounced back and were understanding the fleeting nature of the life that we live. Like losing my brother, those struggles had been so tough for them, but they had also reinvigorated and really reignited their whole journey.”
Hodi’s Half Note | September 16
Fox Theatre | September 17
Belly Up | September 18
Telluride Blues and Brews Festival | September 19
Go If You Dig:
- Tame Impala
- Explosions In The Sky
- The Black Angels