THE WORKING MOTTO of Austin’s the Bright Light Social Hour should be “Go for it!” It’s how they approach performing, marketing and recording, and it’s encouraged them to make music their collective focus.
Bassist Jack O’Brien and guitarist Curtis Roush met as students at Southwestern University in Georgetown when O’Brien responded to a mass e-mail sent out by Roush. “Sometime my senior year of college I wanted to start a new band, and sent out a campus-wide e-mail or whatever, with the type of music that we wanted to play,” Roush says. “Jack was actually the first person I had over.” The pair originally worked with a different lineup, and had a vastly different sound than their current balls-out blues-rock. “Starting out, our band kinda sounded like more of a hardcore band — lots of screaming, and songs were really fast and there were a lot of changes,” Roush says. “It was kind of like skronky, raw music. ’Cause we both listened to a lot of that stuff at the time. But we discovered really gradually that we also liked classic rock, rhythm and blues, soul, funk, all sorts of stuff. And as we started kind of getting tired of playing such skronky, noisy music, this sort of common ground emerged and we started writing songs more in that vein.”
O’Brien and Roush found drummer Joseph Mirasole via Craigslist, and O’Brien sought out his fellow Westlake High School alum, keyboardist A.J. Vincent, to round out the group. With a permanent lineup, the band began churning out songs that became 2007’s Touches EP, 2008’s Love Like Montopolis EP and 2009’s Back and Forth single. Their raucous and energetic sound on record is enhanced tenfold in live settings. This is due in part to their ethic of being “musicians first, but entertainers even more first.” Roush calls this “another classic Jack witticism.”
“We would probably be musicians no matter what, but I feel like we view the band as not just a chance for us to make music and hang out together, but also as an opportunity to give our best shot at entertaining people,” Roush explains. “If you want people to listen to your music and like you, you’ve gotta work really hard for them, I think. I feel like that’s really important to us.”
This approach has paid off — both in the band’s growing fan base, and their domination in the 2009 Austin City Limits Festival Sound and the Jury contest. More than 1,500 bands from all over the world tried out for the opening slot at the 2009 ACL Festival, and multiple rounds of online voting, plus official judges, eventually parsed that number down to five finalists. The finalists competed live at Antone’s in Austin, and the Bright Light Social Hour were unanimously voted the victors. Roush says playing ACL was a huge game-changer for the band.
“We were already making some progress and building our local fan base, and writing good new songs and kind of honing our sound and stuff, but I feel like that event gave us some quick training in living the band as an everyday thing,” Roush says. “It took a lot of organization and constant vigilance to keep up in the contest. It was also our first round of big press — it was the first time we ever got in newspapers or magazines or anything, and I feel like that was a big deal in terms of getting more of a local profile. I think we all think it was huge. And also just awesome, you know? I feel like we’ve long considered ourselves a band that belongs on big outdoor festival stages and stuff, so it was a total dream to be on one of the big stages in Zilker Park. It was pretty surreal.”
The band hasn’t slowed since its festival performance. They’ve been recording their first full-length record in studios across Austin all summer, and have reached out for funding assistance in a hilarious campaign called “Jack’s Moustache.” For varying levels of donations, the band has offered wine and cheese tastings, apartment cleanings, car washes, and the ultimate prize, O’Brien’s moustache, shaved by the donor and mounted by the band. “There’s a donation for getting your name in the liner notes or something — we had one of those,” Roush says. “We’ve done a couple moves and we did one of the ‘come jam with us’ sessions — that was a lot of fun, actually. We kind of just sat down and thought of things that would be fun for us, and kind of ridiculous to do and stuff. But ‘Jack’s Moustache’ was largely [O’Brien’s] brainchild. Actually, his moustache is approaching its first birthday. We may do some special “Jack’s Moustache” events or something.”
Despite their fundraising efforts, the recording process has proven to be expensive, and all four band members maintain day jobs. “We’re in a really interesting position right now that the band is demanding of time like a full-time job, especially this summer with recording and getting the record finalized — I feel like I’ve been working a 50-, 60-hour-week job, but still needing to wait tables to pay the rent,” Roush says. “A.J.’s family has a family farm he works on, and Jack worked for the census until recently. Jo works at an instrument store. We all have our little things we have to do on the side. But the good news is, things are improving financially, so it seems like it’ll only be a matter of time before we can transition out of our day jobs.”
Still, the guys did have additional ambitions outside of music; Roush has a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin in media studies; O’Brien has one in Spanish linguistics.
“During college, I always figured I’d do music no matter what, but I guess the career goal was to be a college professor,” Roush says. “But then, we got through grad school, and were like, we really should spend years of our life now trying to do this music thing. I feel like I would end up 40 and teaching college and probably happy, but like, man, we really should have gone for it at some point, you know? So we just all made the commitment to do whatever it takes to see the music thing as far as it’ll go.”
So, they’re going for it. With their full-length release party held at a sold-out Antone’s Sept. 17, a national tour to promote the album, and likely many more antics in jean cut-offs and little else, the Bright Light Social Hour will attempt to bring their enthusiasm to the masses on the strength of huge musical talent, chutzpa, impressive facial hair, and an enduring appreciation for their fans.