I first learned about The Bright Light Social Hour a few weeks ago when the Austin-based band was featured on The Huffington Post. Intrigued by their music’s focus on millennials, the South, and social justice, I jumped at the chance to interview them. Despite busy schedules and 700 miles between us, band member Jack O’Brien and I spent an afternoon discussing, over the phone, the band’s recent tour of North America and what came out of it—a powerful sophomore album about struggle, but also dreams and looking ahead. We hope you’ll enjoy, and continue, the conversation.
Imagine if you took the South, erased its history, and moved it to outer space. As The Bright Light Social Hour band member Jack O’Brien says, “You’d want all of those great things about it, but there’s no reason to be chained by the ugliness of its past.”
The same can be said for the struggle currently facing millennials, which the band experienced first-hand during their recent tour of North America. Starting in the South, they saw a lot of repeat experiences of young, intelligent, and inspired people struggling to find sustainable, fulfilling work. Those experiences have been fuel to their fire, serving as a backdrop for their second album, “Space Is Still The Place,” which is set for release March 10.
In many ways, the album is the result of those on-the-road experiences and the dreams that formed from them. The band, consisting of O’Brien, Curtis Roush, Joseph Mirasole, and Edward Braillif, spent a lot of time meeting people and talking about what was—and still is—and “dreaming together about what could be,” O’Brien said.
The songs on their second album represent a mix of rough situations and dreamy, optimistic looks at the future. Their sound, also a mix, combines Aretha Franklin’s soul with the psychedelic rock of The Flaming Lips.
For the band, part of the struggle represented on the album is personal. The album’s first single, “Infinite Cities,” speaks to the band’s experience traveling cross-country in a van and feeling like a “circus of outsiders” that would “come upon a town, set up, enjoy life for a minute, take it all down, and move,” O’Brien said.
“The song was about our desire to find comfort in the ever-changing life of being on the road,” he said. “It was about trying to carve a home, the concept of a home, out of constantly moving and constantly being with new people, and looking for peace in that ever-changing rotation of cities and lives.”
Other songs deal with the millennial generation more generally.
“The millennial generation is really the first generation since the Great Depression that is not better off than the previous generation,” O’Brien said. “A question on a lot of our minds as we wrote and recorded the album was, ‘How can we move forward differently to ensure that future generations continue to be lifted up?’ I don’t think the album has many answers, but it does ask that question in a lot of different ways.”
“Part of that,” O’Brien says, “involves taking the best from the past, shredding the part that includes ugly traditions, and moving toward a future that is exciting, new, and a communal kind of enlightenment and frontier,” which the album characterizes with outer space.
The album’s title, “Space Is the Place,” comes from a film of the same name written by Sun Ra, a jazz artist whose career spanned the 1960s and 1970s.
“He had a general philosophy that consisted of a future where all struggling black members of society would be lifted from the earth, taken to outer space, and colonize a new society that was free of its past and that would thrive and be free of the problems they had a hard time escaping at that time,” O’Brien said.
The Ghost Dance religion that swept the Native American tribes in the late 1800s tells a very similar story, that if you follow certain paths, all of the Native American people will be lifted from the earth, taken to a new place, and reconnected with their ancestors.
“That was really interesting to us because it’s a really common lore of oppressed people,” he said. “We felt like we are a people who would benefit a lot to escape from the oppressive parts of our past. That dream is still alive, at least for us it is.”
Although socio-political issues have always been a part of the band’s music, they are more upfront on the new record. Even the band’s name was chosen to represent “a bright light in the dark corners of society,” he said.
“Music is one of the most seductive ways of spreading messages and spreading awareness,” he said. “We think and talk a lot about the things we want to see around us, and putting that into music is a really nice way of spreading those messages without being forceful or aggressive about it. If someone wants to listen, that’s great. But if someone just wants to listen to the music, that’s fine too.”
Dealing with social issues in their music has also allowed the band to “destroy boundaries” between themselves and their audience. Having conversations with audience members after performances, they’ve discovered a host of people who, like Mirasole and O’Brien’s brother, struggled with bipolar disorder.
“We had no idea how common it was,” he said. “But talking about our experiences opened up a lot of people who would talk about their experiences. And that’s what we love—connecting with people and learning from them.”
For more information about the band, album, and tour dates, visit www.blsh.com. Be sure to check out their post-apocalyptic new video, “Infinite Cities” (directed by O’Brien), which premiered on Jay-Z’s “Life + Times.”
After this story was completed, we learned of the passing of Jack’s brother, Alex O’Brien. Our thoughts are with the family.
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