by Susan Lloyd
"...if I were a truck driver from the south, definitely that would affect my music. And so my being a Christian, that definitely affects my music." --Bear Rinehart
Usually early September in Charleston, South Carolina is characterized by scorching heat, and the day I interviewed Bear Rinehart outside of the legendary Music Farm was no exception. Bear had just finished a sound check inside the venue, and somehow we managed to find a cool, breezy spot outside so that we could chat while Moses Mayfield, the band on tour with NTB, was involved in their own soundcheck. The real focus of our conversation was not to be on the heat of the day, but on The Heat, NeedtoBreathe’s latest release. Bear was more than happy to talk about their latest work, and rightfully so. From what he told me, this CD had much more of the band’s creative input than their debut CD, and the whole band was excited about hitting the road and playing the new tunes across the country.
When I asked Bear if there was a particular goal in mind when the band was in the process of writing, producing (they produced 4 of the tracks themselves) and recording The Heat, he was generous with his answer. “Oh, definitely there was a goal. It’s more honest, more southern, more approachable music because that’s who we are. The first time around there were other people who had ideas about who we should be. The key word that was used at the label was ‘international’, but we were all like, ‘What does that mean? We’re from Seneca!’ The first time recording we were pretty humbled by the process not having gone through it before, and we just wanted things to be more soulful and rootsy this time.
"The next goal was to make every song different. With the first CD we went into the studio with over 100 songs, but the ones that were used all had a similar theme. We made fourteen songs for this CD and most of them are about different subjects. At one point, we were talking about making a one word description about every song to emphasize the point that all the songs were about different subjects, but we ended up not doing that. For example, ‘Streets of Gold’ would have been “death” and ‘Washed by the Water’ would have been ‘dad’ and ‘More Time’ would have been ‘promises’”.
I commented that I personally felt that The Heat was markedly different from Daylight and because of that difference, it was also better. Bear met my comment with much appreciation, saying that the band also feels that way about their latest effort. Creating impactful musical moments was important during the writing and recording process because, “All music listeners have moments where they relate to the music,” Bear said. “Really powerful moments, and they don’t have anything to do with radio or wanting your song in a movie or on TV necessarily. It just has to do with you being in your car, or with your headphones, you have 30 seconds or a minute of music that is really powerful.
"I remember a moment like that when my dad played Steamroller Blues by James Taylor for me when I was in like 8th grade. I just sat in silence afterwards thinking ‘Whoa, man, this is the blues!’. Things like that are the moments we really wanted to have on our record. We weren’t really being pushed in that direction on our first CD. It was more of a push for mass stardom. On this record, we didn’t care about that at all. We wanted people to have a record that they could enjoy and that would inspire them. And if they liked what they heard, then they could then tell someone else about it. That’s really the way we approached it.”
It was surprising to hear Bear allude to the fact that the band was given more creative freedom with this CD, so I asked him how the band came about achieving that rare sort of freedom given by a major label, especially with the creation of a sophomore CD. “I really don’t know how it happened, to be honest. I can’t explain it. But we had tons of freedom and the label allowed it. I mean, we didn’t have a major hit on our first record, we didn’t have any major things happen other than we gradually grew as a band and our fan base has grown. Four of the tracks on this record we produced ourselves, we co-produced the whole record. They let us pick our producer, the studio we worked in, all the imaging, the photographers that we used, the video we’ve made. Everything has been home grown about it, and it’s still been major label. Maybe that’s a sign of how major labels are starting to see that things are changing. We had total freedom with this record.”
Amazingly, without huge sales, NTB was given a chance to go in a different direction creatively. And since so much of the music industry is based in sales, I broach the subject of commerce, art and Christianity, all things that NeedtoBreathe has to deal with on a daily basis.
“Is there ever a point where you struggle at the intersection of commerce, your art, and your faith?” I ask.
“I don’t think so,” says Bear. “Definitely not with the fans. The way we approach it with the media, I say, you know if I were a truck driver from the south, definitely that would affect my music. And so me being a Christian, that definitely affects my music. We make really honest music, and this time more honest than the last. So that means this time, it’s more Christian than the last. It’s more overt in that way. I think fans really like that, secular or Christian. I think a lot is made out of that in the media, but I just don’t think that people really do care. I mean, we play a club one night and maybe on a Christian tour the next. You can turn the dial and hear our song on the Christian station and then hear it on the secular station next. I hope that we send a positive message regardless. We definitely don’t try to fill someone’s agenda.
"We don’t set out to write secular songs or Christian songs. We write what comes out. I think that says a lot for us as a band. We don’t have to make Christian songs because we are on a major label and it’s not expected that we do so. We make them because that’s who we are and that’s what we are about. I think people appreciate us singing about something that’s important.
“I was always a big Rage Against the Machine fan. That music was politically charged, and I felt it was more valuable because they believed they were doing something for a cause. You think about Dylan, U2 or any body who feels something that they are saying is important, I think the art is better. And for us, Christianity is something that is important in our lives. It’s not the only thing that’s important in our lives, but then we wouldn’t be relevant to society if that was the only thing we talked about. I don’t think the band struggles with it that much. Sometimes the thing we struggle with the most is the Christian media.”
I ask if NeedtoBreathe has received criticism for not being “Christian” enough and how they’ve been able to handle that criticism with grace. Bear’s answer is incredibly gracious and as he’s observed, “Those people who are the naysayers may be five out of five hundred. They are the loudest, but I don’t believe they are representative of Christians in general. We kind of let that stuff roll off our backs and move forward.”
Seems as if “letting things roll” was a lesson well taught by Bear’s pastor father. “Washed by the Water”, Bear’s personally favorite song on The Heat, was inspired by a specific incident when Bear’s father came under fire by a group at church. Bear has always remembered how well his father handled the situation and felt that his father deserved a tribute for his Christlike reaction to a hurtful situation. The song itself is steeped in gospel overtones, and Bear credits that kind of education in gospel music to being able to play in church at a very young age. “We learned a lot from playing church music and I believe that gospel music is one of the best, if not the best, forms of American music”
The first release from The Heat, “Signature of Divine”, is currently a top ten CCM hit. I found it interesting that this song in particular was situated in the middle spot in the CD and asked if that was intentional. “There was some thought to that. We really like the song and it’s the oldest song on the record. It’s a song that Bo wrote maybe 5 years ago. I think all he had originally was a verse and the chorus, so we rewrote parts of that. It’s the most overtly Christian song on the record. But its placement is because we put thought into making the CD flow, and we didn’t want to end or begin with this song.”
Judging by it’s position on the charts, “Signature of Divine” is a fan favorite, and fans are incredibly important to NeedtoBreathe. As long as fans are enjoying themselves during a Needtobreathe concert, Bear says the number of people in the audience isn’t important. He says the band is in a really good place now and has more confidence than they ever have had before. They are striving to change up the show each night and are thrilled to have material from two CD’s to pull from. “We are definitely a sweaty rock club kind of band,” Bear says, but he also says he wouldn’t turn down the chance to play for 13 or 14 thousand fans either!
It’s obvious that Needtobreathe is excited to be on the road and enjoys playing in front of fans, and this time around road travel is much more comfortable. He proudly points to the touring van which is parked on the narrow Charleston street in front of the Music Farm and comments about the new satellite dish on top. The band’s one technological splurge makes it easier to watch televised football games from anywhere in the country, and football is very important to all the members of the band. That makes sense, considering the brothers Rinehart were named for the coaching legend Bear Bryant (Bo’s given name is Bryant), grew up right outside of Clemson University, and Bear was a football standout at Furman University.
So from football to the creative process, the music industry, church politics, and even a brief discussion about the merits of Homestarrunner (and much to my dismay, Bear prefers Homestar to Strongbad), Bear Rinehart has much to say. He and his band are obviously focused on bringing honesty to their music and to the stage and have no qualms about being true to their southern heritage, gospel roots, and their Christian faith.
Bear Rinehart is a refreshingly transparent person, and one I hope to have more conversations with in the future. That may be a very real possibility considering that soon we will be “neighbors”. Bear revealed that night onstage that the entire band would be relocating to my home city of Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston, the southeast, and yes, even the whole country will benefit greatly from the musical talent, honesty and adherence to true abundant life that NeedtoBreathe has to offer. I know we have much to look forward to as this band continues to grow, write and perform music that “heats” up mainstream and Christian music scenes.
You can check out more information about Needtobreathe by visiting their myspace at mypace.com/needtobreathe. The band is currently on tour until mid-November and will hit cities from east to west coast.
All concert photos by Susan Lloyd.
Copyright Susan Lloyd. All rights reserved.
See more Needtobreathe concert photos at Susan Lloyd's Flickr page here.
Susan Lloyd is a professional photographer in Charleston, South Carolina who specializes in shooting concerts. She holds a degree in Music Education and has worked as a worship leader and as a youth minister. She is passionate about all types of music and enjoys encouraging and supporting bands who seek to glorify God. She also loves movies, animals, traveling, and making new friends. She and her husband have three kids and have been married for nearly 17 years. More info about Susan's photography can be found at www.susanlloydphotography.com or www.susieq3c.wordpress.com