In the last decade, Austin, Texas has built a reputation as the hub for the South’s eccentrics, artists, and musicians. The city has a distinctly independent flavor that, by now, reaches across the entire country. So how does a band break through all the noise? Bright Light Social Hour has done exactly that with a finely honed blend of art-rock flair and good old-fashioned rock and roll, funk and soul. O&A spoke to bassist Jack O’Brien about life on the road and how they stand out in a sea of people doing things differently.
O&A: You guys first met in Austin at Southwestern University, right?
O’BRIEN: The school is so small that you could send campus-wide emails out. Our guitar player, Curtis, sent one out looking to start an experimental art-rock collective. He was citing all these really obscure post-hardcore bands that I was shocked to know anyone else liked. I jumped at the chance. We didn’t sound great at first, but our personalities clicked.
O&A: How does that art-rock hardcore attitude influence your current sound? Something tells me the stuff you’re writing now is nowhere near as far out there as the early stuff may have been.
O’BRIEN: Over the years, we’ve reinvented ourselves a lot of times. We only have one full-length album under our belt, but we’ve been together for nearly ten years. We still have the fire and passion for letting out ferocity and open emotion. It’s important for us to try to break boundaries with what we’re doing. Our first stuff was all screaming vocals, odd time signatures, just crazy stuff. Since then, did a couple EPs that were more the indie rock vibe. Our full-length dug into rediscovering funk, classic rock, and old soul.
O&A: In college, you spent a year studying abroad in Spain. What effect did that time have on your songwriting?
O’BRIEN: Mainly, I spent a lot of time alone. In the States, I always had family or roommates that I lived with, but in Spain, I lived in a small apartment with three older Spanish women that worked a lot and I did a lot of exploring on my own.
O&A: You won six awards at the 2011 SXSW Awards including Best Album. Was that domination surprising?
O’BRIEN: Absolutely. There’s always so much going on in Austin. We were surprised that what we were doing something that was cutting through all that.
O&A: Was there any pressure for you guys to follow up with a record that’s just as successful?
O’BRIEN: A little bit. We wrote a whole album’s worth of material right after that that was very similar. We ended up scrapping all those songs after realizing we didn’t want to force ourselves to do the same exact thing. It would be much more exciting for us that way. As time passed, the pressure has faded and freed us to try some new things to challenge ourselves.
O&A: What’s it like living in a town like Austin that’s so art-centric?
O’BRIEN: It was very intimidating in the beginning. No matter what you’d do, you couldn’t get more than 15 people out to a show. You have to be different. You have to hone your craft. Once we did that, we were embraced more by the community. There are so many artists in town that I’ve gotten to know who are looking out for each other. It’s a great place to be.
O&A: How does a band that depends on high-energy shows approach a show like that with so few people in the crowd?
O’BRIEN: You have to reach inside yourself and rely a lot less on the crowd. It taught us how to make a good experience out of what looked like hard circumstances. Every crowd is different. Some are huge and some are initially indifferent to what we’re doing. We still face that at times, but we try not to force it down the crowd’s throat in those situations. It’s more seductive and appealing that way.
O&A: How do you compare recording versus playing live?
O’BRIEN: You can stop time when you’re recording and think about what emotion you’re trying to convey. There’s time to stop and explore that. Once a live show starts, it’s a freight train. You’re either on board or you’re not.
O&A: What was behind the decision to press the last record to vinyl and the gorgeous blue art on the record itself?
O’BRIEN: We’ve always been vinyl junkies. It’s so much fun to pick through record bins. And we’ve always loved analog in general. It’s so much more of an experience. You sit down and know it’s gonna be 20 minutes or so before you change it over. Having the giant artwork in front of you helps you to immerse yourself in the record. It’s too easy for CDs and digital music to become background music.
Photo: Bright Light Social Hour Official