Smile Politely

Needtobreathe: A big old rock show

There’s a funny thing about dealing with the Twitter-esque stream of tour announcements, press releases, and other music-related emails that you wake up to on a daily basis here: occasionally, you set up an interview, only to realize that you know nothing about the band you’re supposed to talk to. For myself, South Carolina’s Needtobreathe was one of those bands. However, after giving their latest album The Outsiders a spin, I was kicking myself for not catching them at this year’s Bonnaroo when I had the chance (I wound up seeing Neon Indian — terrible choice). I won’t deny that I had kneejerk reactions to the radio-friendly songcraft and at seeing “Christian rock” under their genre list on Wikipedia, but the former is an ultimately irrelevant criticism, and the band’s drummer, Joe Stillwell, more than adequately clarified the latter for me during our conversation this week.

Smile Politely: Let’s talk about the tour — it starts on the 27th, right?

Joe Stillwell: Yeah, we haven’t started yet, we’ve just been having fun rehearsing. We actually set up in the place here in Columbia where we’re gonna be playing the first show tomorrow, we’ve been here for about a week getting all the production and a couple of new songs down, and getting ready to put on a big old rock show.

SP: How many songs are you working on?

Joe: Well, I’m not sure exactly how many songs, but the set should be a solid hour and a half. We’re gonna be doing a couple of songs that haven’t been recorded yet that we’ve been working on for whatever’s gonna be the new record and going back and doing a few things from the first two records as well. So, it’s gonna be mostly stuff from The Outsiders, but there’s also a good mixture of some old songs and a couple of new ones.

SP: How did you choose the Daylights to open for you?

Joe: It’s not the easiest things to pick an opening band for a tour, you’ve gotta find somebody who is not only cool and in a band that you like, but also somebody who can bring people out and has got something going on to help out the show. We heard about the Daylights from a bunch of friends of ours, and we checked them out and listened to their stuff and it’s really, really good. In the past it’s been situations with a few different opening bands on different parts of the tour, trying to get people who are strong in different parts of the country, but on this we wanted to take the Daylights out for the whole thing, because we’re really encouraged by what we’ve heard of them, and we think it’s gonna be a really good combination.

SP: One of the songs on The Outsiders features Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek, who I’ve gotta admit is not the first person I’d expect to show up on a Needtobreathe album. How did you wind up working with her?

Joe: Ever since we wrote “Stones Under Rushing Water”, we wanted to have a girl sing a duet on it. It lended just itself to that kind of situation. We tossed around a few ideas and sent out a few feelers, but nothing was quite the way we wanted it. We were going in to record the song with Tim Scott in Los Angeles, and he had worked with Sarah and Nickel Creek a little bit, and he was just absolutely over the top about her. And we had heard of her and liked her stuff, so we approached her about it and she was excited to do it. So she came out to the studio for one day, and she had it after the first take. She’s such a consumate professional with an amazing voice … we were amazingly pleased to work with her.

SP: One of the things that comes up a lot when I read about Needtobreathe is the “Christian Rock” tag. How would say spirituality informs your music? Additionally, do you feel that it’s helped or hindered the band?

Joe: Well, our faith makes its way into our music because it’s one of the biggest parts of our lives. One thing that we really value in music is being honest and writing songs from the heart — I think it’s pretty obvious that people can tell when you’re not really behind what you’re saying. I don’t think it’s something that we consciously do when we’re writing songs, we don’t go “oh, we need to write a song for people who are Christian.” That’s not our mindset, it’s just being honest in our writing. As far as if it’s helped or hindered our career, I think it’s definitely helped our career. It’s a give and take a little bit — in the initial stages of our career, a lot of our sucess and record sales came from the Christian side of the market. And I mean, the record labels don’t really care where they sell records, as long as they’re selling them. That gave us another chance to go back in and make a second record — they saw those initial record sales and that we were doing pretty well in building a live market. It’s not necessarily about reaching out or trying to write a song that encourages, you know, certain people. We’re trying to write music that anybody can get something out of. It isn’t tailored to a specific demographic, it’s just us writing music that we love and is honest. So, I don’t think it’s hindered us. I think a little bit, if people think you’re a “Christian” band, they might not give you as much credit as they would other bands, but whatever. That’s not a tag we put on our ourselves. We don’t call ourselves a Christian band because we don’t write songs specifically for Christians, that’s not what we’re about. There are some people who will get turned off because of it, but honestly most people don’t care about that sort of thing, they just want to hear good music and be entertained. The live part of what we do is such a huge part of what we’re all about — once people come out to a show and see us perform, the whole “are they a Christian band? Are they not a Christian band?” thing goes out the window. They see that we’re just a good rock and roll band. It’s not something that we shy away, we wouldn’t be embarassed to tell anyone that we are Christians, but it’s not the primary focus of what we’re trying to do as a band. It makes it’s way in there, it’s honest, and it’s who we are. I guess that’s as plainly as I can put it.

SP: Well thanks very much for talking to us, we’re looking forward to the show.

Joe: Yeah, me too. Is it at the Canopy Club?

SP: Yeah, you’ve played there before, right?

Joe: Yeah, before we even had a record deal, we came out with the Graham Colton band

SP: Yeah! They’re coming here in a few weeks actually [on November 14th].

Joe: Graham’s a great guy, it gave us one of our first shots at touring outside of the southeast, before we’d even signed a record deal, so we’ve got very fond memories of the Canopy Club.

Needtobreathe and the Daylights perform this Saturday (October 30th) at the Canopy Club. Doors are at 6 p.m., and tickets are $18 in advance/

Smile Politely is giving away a ticket and photo pass to this show! The entry deadline has been extended to 5 p.m. TODAY, so get moving!

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