interview / Erica Russell
photos / Nicole Fara Silver
Unlike most nostalgia-focused Southern rock acts who gaze back into glorified decades past for musical fodder, Austin-based psych-rockers The Bright Light Social Hour doesn’t look behind for inspiration; they look forward. On their new record, Space is Still the Place, the enigmatic band tells the story of an idealized “Future South,” a concept that was developed by the musicians after touring and experiencing the South intimately over the past few years. While out on the road, the boys bypassed hotel stays and opted instead to crash at the personal homes of people in various cities, the experience allowing for a unique opportunity to soak up the local cultures and personal stories of their hosts.
Fascinated by their journey, we got some exclusive images of the band during their Mercury Lounge show last month, and we spoke with the boys about their perceptions of Southern American music, the culture of Austin, and the struggling folks they met while out on the road.
You guys are based in Austin, which is obviously one of the – if not the – cultural centers for emerging music in America. How does the energy of the town inspire or influence your band?
It’s the perfect speed for us. So much growth and energy and youth. But it’s also so laid back. And so much art and creativity in abundance. Being around so many artists, musicians and otherwise, as well as so many entrepreneurs and innovative tech people is just so inspiring, it’s really a contagious energy.
Why do you think Austin is such a musical-cultural mecca?
I think being in the middle of big, dry, conservative Texas, there’s such a need to pull the rest of the area into the future, like an oasis in the desert. Going back to the 13th Floor Elevators in the 60s, it’s long been a progressive center for music.
Can you talk a little about the social influences behind your vision of a “Future South?” What would that look and sound like?
Yeah, it was really a lot of staying with people while touring, particularly in the Southern U.S. We really got to see the struggles of young people, working so hard just to make ends meet and having to sacrifice their projects of passion in order to make it month to month. We tried to make a sonic landscape that exemplifies what a future south would look like on this new record. If you took all the beautiful parts of this part of the country, cut off all the ugly history and ugly traditions, and took it all to space.
What are the major themes behind your new album, ‘Space is Still the Space?’
The Future South, as I mentioned, as well as outer space space being a metaphor for a progressive future cutting itself free from a weighty past. There are others too, the difficulty of leaving a comfortable past behind, and the longing that comes with it, as well as the ever-lasting struggle to defeat the ego.
Was there a particular challenge you had to overcome as a band while writing/recording the record?
There were a lot of challenges. Recording this record ourselves was a very intimidating task that took so much time and self-teaching to get what we wanted out of it. There was also our manager and my brother’s being overtaken by mental illness, which began after writing, but was ongoing during recording. There’s a lot of pain and challenge overcome and you can hear it in the music.
There’s a misconception that Southern American music seems to be rooted primarily in country themes, or that it lacks social depth, which is very clearly not the case, especially with your music. What are your thoughts on these misconceptions?
Actually I think Southern music really lacks the innovation and revolutionary spirit that it once had or that music from other ares exhibits, with early southern soul, early southern rock, hip hop, etc. It’s much more common these days that southern bands either adhere to a highly traditional format, replicating old soul/blues/rock/country styles, or that they entirely distance themselves from southern influence and adopt a more coastal sound. Why not take the best of where these southern sounds have brought us and mix it all up, move it to the future? There are some great exceptions of course, but I really wish more artists were doing this more actively.
Your music has a progressive, futuristic vibe while also feeling both warm and familiar. Is that juxtaposition something that resonates with you as artists?
Absolutely. That’s what we were going for. And that’s what we mean by Future South as a sonic aesthetic. Take it all, the past, the present, the future, and make something fresh with it. It’s how we move forward, realistically. We don’t just forget the past and the world around us, we take from it what remains relevant, pair it with new ideas and move it down the field.
You guys also get very political on this record. What’s one of the key messages you’d like to express here, if you had to distill everything down?
It’s so hard to not look out only for ourselves, and those very immediately around us. But if we can embrace our connection to the communities around us, big and small, progress is nearer than we may realize. It’s our struggles that make us feel separated, alone. But really struggle is what we have most in common, it’s what brings us together and connects us, and by embracing it and being open and compassionate to the struggles of those near and far form us, we can more readily work together to move ourselves forward.
What’s next for you guys? Can we catch you out on the road?
Definitely. We’ll be touring like crazy in support of this record, getting ourselves everywhere we can. That’s definitely our main focus. More music too, of course.
CONNECT WITH THE BRIGHT LIGHT SOCIAL HOUR: