Bright Light Social Hour's radiant spirit
Before the rains came, before the mud gushed out of the ground and the Dillo Dirt coated 130,000 shoes, Jack O'Brien enjoyed a little slice of the Austin City Limits Music Festival at its most Arcadian.
'We're having a great time,' a sweaty and shirtless O'Brien said before a modest morning crowd, bass dangling from his left shoulder. 'And I can tell you're having a good time.'
It was the fabled Friday of the 2009 ACL Fest — you know, the one with clear skies, green grass and pleasant temperatures. Quite possibly the most heavenly day in ACL Fest history, and O'Brien and his three bandmates in the Bright Light Social Hour savored every second of their 11:45 a.m. opening slot.
As the winners of Dell's the Sound and the Jury contest, the Austin quartet competed with 1,500 bands for that chance to play before the early-bird crowd. ACL Fest organizers requested their presence at Zilker Park that morning at 4:30, about three and a half hours after the band wrapped a late-night set at the Beauty Bar.
Those four guys had every right to look haggard. But the Bright Light Social Hour fought tenaciously for that spot and made the most of it: O'Brien bounced around wildly onstage with a smile a mile wide, A.J. Vincent's lionesque mane flew every which way as he jammed on a keytar, Curtis Roush demonstrated the full power of his Guitar Heroics, and Joseph Mirasole disappeared in a blur of flailing drumsticks.
Some proper late-afternoon bands, bands who'd been written up in Spin and Rolling Stone, didn't rock that hard or put on a show that good. Looking in your general direction, Arctic Monkeys.
'That ACL set is a day that will live forever for us,' says Vincent. 'It felt like nothing at all. It was like it was over before it started.'
All the evidence presented that sunny Friday showed that the Bright Light Social Hour had the chops to be one of Austin's next big things. Fans took notice — the band won the 2010 Austin Music Award for best indie band. Almost a year later, they're set to release their nine-song self-titled debut, a long-gestating 40 minutes of spiky, fist-pumping, partially fan-funded rock.
It's taken a while. But, Roush says, that might be the Bright Light Social Hour's saving grace.
'We've probably junked all our material quasi-yearly since we started; at least we did until about two years ago,' says Roush. 'That's what the record is, the culmination of the last two years' worth of writing and playing. It's been a process of writing songs, recording an EP, playing it, eventually getting tired of it, scrapping it, writing entirely new songs and recording another EP.'
'We might have actually matured as musicians,' quips Mirasole.
'Wild guy on campus'
Roush discovered the guitar in an unlikely venue — summer church camp. At 13, the Central Texas native witnessed a fellow camper jamming Everclear's 'Santa Monica' on an acoustic guitar. The adolescent Roush wagered that was probably the coolest thing he was going to see that week.
Years later, as a political science student at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Roush and a roommate decided to start a band, sending out a campuswide e-mail in search of a singer and keyboard player.
'We were listening to a lot of hardcore and a lot of avant-garde but also a lot of indie rock and stuff like that,' says Roush, 26, reclining on the couch of the East Austin home he shares with Mirasole. 'We kind of wanted to condense all of our influences together. And Jack was actually the first one to respond to the e-mail.'
O'Brien's reputation preceded him.
'I remember seeing Jack on campus,' says Roush. 'He had crazy long hair and a beard and a lip ring. He was like the wild guy on campus. I remember when he responded and I was like, "I wonder if that's the same Jack. God, I hope so.'' '
The early Bright Light Social Hour was a different beast, a band bordering on noise rock. Screaming was involved.
'Jack's brother was a really good friend of mine, and he took me to a few Bright Light shows back in the day, and they were insane,' says Vincent, 23. 'They were all screaming and you just stood there and trembled, like "What's happening to my ears?'' '
That iteration of the band withered on the vine when O'Brien ventured abroad to Madrid to study Spanish. Upon his return, O'Brien and Roush began rebuilding the band. They roped in Vincent, freeing O'Brien up to pursue his one true love, the bass guitar. And they enlisted Mirasole, then 17, with an ad on Craigslist. The high school senior — a member of both the school's drum line and a hardcore band — was reluctant, but an entire summer's worth of ads persuaded him to give it a shot.
'When I joined the band I thought it was weird because they were all "Let's rock!" all the time, and as a 17-year-old the notion of rock was like this weird old dude concept that didn't make any sense to me,' says Mirasole, now 21. 'I was into super-heavy music and that was it. Now, I only believe in a couple of things, and rock 'n' roll is one of them.'
'Hard, funky indie rock'
The Bright Light Social Hour spent around a year hammering out a sound, working its way through Roush's aforementioned 'release EP, get bored with EP' pattern, and playing its way across Austin — including a summer 2008 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. residency rocking out for West Campus types at Shakespeare's Pub, surely a dues-paying gig if ever there were one.
But gradually, a Bright Light Social Hour aesthetic emerged: hard-charging '70s classic rock, a throwback to the unpretentious delights of T. Rex or the Sweet, with a touch of disco energy — courtesy of Vincent's keys and O'Brien's thumping bass lines — and a dash of vintage soul.
'It was always a big problem. I'd be at a party and somebody would say, "What kind of music do you play?" And then they'd start tuning out by the time we finished our explanation,' says O'Brien, 25. 'So we just sat down and talked about it for a long time, and we decided a quick, easy answer was "Hard, funky indie rock.'' '
That does the job as well as anything else, but you get a clearer idea from staring at Roush's record collection. Lovingly assembled in his living room, there's bits and pieces of everything — vintage Neil Young, shiny new Radiohead, a beat-up copy of the Faces' 'A Nod Is as Good as a Wink ... to a Blind Horse.'
'Musically we've just tried to find our genre common grounds. The stuff that we all listen to,' says Roush. 'And we all like classic rock, and indie rock, and lots of soul and some dance music.'
Which means 'The Bright Light Social Hour' feels like something of a musical Frankenstein: patched together, sure, but it gets around OK. Intro 'Shanty' has perky pop keys thrown together with O'Brien's snarling voice and a merciless guitar jam. 'Detroit,' a propulsive lament for the economy and the beleaguered titular city, appropriately packs in the Motown inspiration, with soul-inspired organ and note-perfect harmonies. There's even a dash of jam band improvisation and Rush technical muscle on 10-minute epic 'Garden of the Gods.'
And then there's 'Bare Hands Bare Feet' and 'Back And Forth,' the former a stomping singalong with a towering refrain ('We're gonna build a city/Bare hand bare feet'), the latter a disco-infused dance rocker. Like the Black and White Years' 'Power to Change' or White Denim's 'Shake Shake Shake,' it's a perfect local pop song destined for 101X rotation, with a hook that burrows its way into your brain and won't be denied. That 'Bare Hands Bare Feet,' with its can-do spirit, is something of a band manifesto is just a bonus.
'It's kind of a theme that might be subtle in some songs and not in others, but the idea of building communities is really important to us,' says Roush. 'The band is collective. The band always trumps the individual. We all write, but we assemble everything together, and everything has to pass through everyone. It has to have a unanimous vote to stick. Everything is subject to an individual veto.'
A moustache pleads
The Bright Light Social Hour knows a thing or two about community. The band is as much a beneficiary as an architect of it. Taking a lead from Nine Inch Nails and Devo drummer Josh Freese, they financed their first album to the tune of about $3,000 — one-fifth of the total costs associated with the record — from fans.
Raising that kind of cash from their fans took a little creativity. It took a little humor. It took a lot of facial hair.
'(Producer) Danny Reisch, who also has a sweet little moustache, started talking with us about the record and ideas we had, and after we kind of sealed the deal, he wrote an e-mail to the band addressed to my moustache from his moustache,' says O'Brien, owner of what may be the finest 'stache in Austin music. 'And it was all written in lolcats-style broken English. Which I thought was hilarious.'
So was born jacksmoustache.com. O'Brien, an amateur filmmaker dating back to high school, put together videos urging fans to donate, each featuring his moustache as a self-aware, gravelly voiced character. O'Brien shot one on a trip to Eastern Europe. Another featured certified Bright Light Social Hour bromance object Reisch ('I miss him so much,' says Roush) on the verge of a makeout session with O'Brien. And various incentive levels were offered for donations — a T-shirt for $25, a car wash by the band in denim cutoffs for $75, a wine and cheese tasting curated by Roush for $200, and, for $5,000, the ultimate prize: O'Brien's moustache itself, shaved and mounted on a plaque.
Most of the takers were simple pre-orders for the album, but a few fans had their own ideas.
'A guy paid $100 to come out and jam with us. Another guy wants us to come work his tailgate at UT games, ice down the beers, things like that,' says O'Brien. 'An 8-year-old girl, her dad contacted me and really wants to do a canoe ride on Zilker Park with the band. Another girl contacted me and wants us to help her move. I love it.'
Without the band's inclusive, aggressively tongue-in-cheek humor, Vincent says they never could have raised as much — nor cultivated so fervent a following. In the Bright Light Social Hour's live performances, always gracious and goofy, fans see the ideal of rock 'n' roll: fun, energetic and utterly devoid of angst.
'We just try to make it a good time as much as possible. And people do want that,' says Vincent. 'There's no need to be much of anything profound on stage. It's like "We're drinking and smiling and paying some tunes and here we go! Come along with us!" '
Cookies, to be sociable with the audience
Among the ample joys of a Bright Light Social Hour live show — Jack O'Brien's ear-to-ear Cheshire Cat grin, A.J. Vincent's unusually animated keyboard playing, the entire band's David-Cross-in–‘Arrested Development' denim cutoffs — few offer as much immediate pleasure as the cookies.
Homemade by Curtis Roush, the cookies are a Bright Light Social Hour staple, a Tupperware container's worth of love from the band to their fans, quickly disseminated at shows to whoever's quickest to make a grab for them.
‘We were really trying to get into more clubs, and we wanted to play a show at Red 7,' Roush says. ‘So we MySpace messaged their booking guy and said, "We'll do anything to play a show. I will seriously bake you cookies." And he wrote back five minutes later, "OK, you can play this date. And bring the cookies.'' '
Roush puts a lot of love into each delicious baked concoction. When our photographer was set to leave without trying one, Roush was aghast: ‘They may be the best cookies you'll ever have. I think you should deeply reconsider this.'
The band's bigger shows mean Roush isn't always able to swing the cookies anymore — lest he be stuck in the kitchen for 36 hours — so he jumped at the chance to share his finely honed recipe with readers.
‘I've tried a lot of different recipes, but if there had to be one signature Bright Light Social Hour cookie, it'd be this one,' Roush says. ‘This is the more special of the ones I do. The ingredients are top quality. It's delicious, butterscotchy stuff.'
Bright Light Brown Sugar Cookies
14 tablespoons of butter, unsalted
1/4 cup sugar
2 cups dark brown sugar
2 cups and 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 full egg
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Melt and brown 10 tablespoons of butter in a skillet; this takes 3 to 5 minutes or until butter is dark golden.
Transfer brown butter to one large bowl. Add four more tablespoons of butter. Set aside for 10 to 15 minutes.
Combine 1/4 cup sugar with 1/4 cup brown sugar on a plate. Set aside to roll cookies before baking.
Whisk together flour, baking soda and baking power in a medium bowl.
Add 13/4 cups of brown sugar and the salt to butter mix. Add egg, yolk and vanilla; mix. Add flour mixture; mix.
Roll 11/2-inch balls of dough in reserved sugar. Place on cookie sheets, lined with parchment paper. Bake 12 to 14 minutes.
The Bright Light Social Hour CD release
With Brass Bed and the Frontier Brothers
When: Doors at 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Antone's, 213 W. Fifth St.