Bassist Seth Bolt discusses why H A R D L O V E is not a typical Needtobreathe record, how the success of “Brothers” bolstered their confidence, the beauty that comes from new life, and the second year of Tour De Compadres.
From the opening notes of the record, with Bear singing through that vocoder thing, you can immediately tell this is a NEEDTOBREATHE record we have not heard before. Can you walk us through how you came up with this idea and what it was like going down this different path?
Yeah, of course. I think with each record what happens to be inspiring us at the time probably shifts because we’re big fans of other artists that take chances. We’ve started the last couple records out in sort of an off-putting way, partly because we really know that everyone’s first impression is going to be like, whoa, this is going to be different. This is not going to be like the last record.
We felt like kids at times, in a good way, when we were making this record. In the past, we’ve always recorded in a very old school way. We spent a lot of time capturing all the sounds, and this is the first time we decided to really embrace synthesizes. And honestly, I don’t know why in the past we kind of turned our noses up to the idea of doing the synthesizers. I don’t know if it was some self-righteous thing, where we were like, “We’re going to make all these sounds and not use keyboards. That’s cheating.”
Whatever, but then Bo was one of the first to start messing around with a lot of different sounds. It really opened up the palette songwriting-wise for what we could do, and what we could say and how we could say it. So we spent a lot of time being enamored by some of the synthesized sounds we could tweak and make our own, and hopefully still fit in the context of what we do.
The last record you were purposefully trying to make a little more stripped-down and this one is definitely the exact opposite. Like you said, you’re going for more instruments than you’ve used before, with the synthesizers and the horns, along with more of a modern production feel. What was it like playing around with those? Was it a challenge to make that still fit into the NEEDTOBREATHE wheelhouse you’ve developed over the years?
For right or wrong, different things intrigue us at different times. When we were working on Rivers in the Wasteland, it was a pretty raw time in our lives. That felt like the most honest way to represent some of those lyrics, some of which were really dark or hurting. The brothers were going through a lot on the last record.
Fast forward to now and the band is in a completely different place. It’s in a better place. There’s a lot going on in our personal lives that is reflective in the music now. It’s a bigger sound, as we’re moving on and moving forward with our lives. I think it was seeing a lot of beauty around us that we were only beginning to see on the last record.
As you were saying, the last record was about the inner turmoil you guys were going through in the band, and then it seemed like once you finished that record and did the tour there was this new life that was breathed into the band. Once you got off the road, you really fed off that mentality and jumped right into this record. What was the mindset when you got off the road that you wanted to apply to this record?
I think the mindset we got from the tour after Rivers in the Wasteland was that in a way it felt like a victory lap or a second chance at it. Because me and the guys grew up together, it does feel like brothers and brotherhood, in all the good ways and in some of the bad ways. We got to where we were really, really tough on each other, to the point where we didn’t want to be around each other.
Once all that was taken away, it was easy to just look at each other and be like, “Man, we should really try and enjoy this.” It’s so easy to get focused on the business part of it and forget the incredible opportunity we have to make music as a living and do what we do. That started on the tour, and then spilled over into the record. On as many days as we could, we just tried to have a lot of fun.
Yeah, I was reading about how before you went into the studio you did a nine-day writing retreat, which sounded like a really cool time. What was that experience like and what did you come up with during that period?
That was fun. We have a couple different names for that time. We know it now as the Mountain House Session. We rented a nice little cabin up in the woods in North Carolina. It was gorgeous, it was scenic, it was inspiring. At the time, it was just an adventure. We called it a vision quest. We knew we were going to go shut ourselves away from the world.
We invited a few of our friends to help us with production and our longtime touring drummer, Randall Harris. It felt like a safe zone, because it wasn’t like there was a producer over our shoulders. We could literally make as many mistakes as we wanted to and no one would find out. We could experiment with this new sound, so a lot of the vision came from this session.
I think it ultimately shapes how we’re going to make records in the future because it is a lot more fun to feel like no one’s watching when you’re taking chances. I see us moving in the direction of having more of these Mountain House type sessions, where we take a get-a-way trip and write and record. So much of the album came from that Mountain House time.
Was that the first time you had done something like that before?
Pretty much. We’ve made records in New York and L.A. and Nashville in various capacities, but usually we’re always in studios in more of a proper setting. This was the case where I actually pulled a whole bunch of equipment out of my studio and we just set up shop, literally. It was like some Airbnb. We just rearranged all the furniture and turned it into our little recording space.
One of the biggest themes of the record is this idea of redemption. Can you talk a little about that and what else this record means to you on a more personal level?
We’ve touched on some of the redemption already. Some of the parallels at how the story played out are just honest lyrics about the realizations that we’re having about life as it pertains to family. I just got married one month ago. Yesterday was my one-month anniversary. I don’t have kids yet, but the other guys do. It’s been really cool to watch them reprocess life as they think about what they want life to be like for their sons and daughters.
I think just internally all the stuff that we reckon with as human beings, all the emotions and the priorities and the mess of life, there is beauty that comes from new life. As Bear and Bo saw all of that in their families and their kids, more of that affection spilled over into the band. It’s still difficult, but easier than ever to show that type of family love to each other and that kind of respect to one another.
The first two songs you released from the record were “Happiness” and “Money & Fame,” which are pretty good examples of the new directions you go on the record. Can you talk about those two songs and how you came up with them?
So “Happiness” was one of the first songs we cut for the record. We felt like we got a really strong start in the more commercial direction. A lot of times when we write records, we’re not really concerned about that at all. If there’s a single or something, it might come towards the end of the process.
It just happened to work out that way this time around, where we got our start with something that felt like, well OK, I think the record label could probably push this to radio and it do pretty well. We were freed up at that point to just experiment. That’s partly how “Money & Fame” came along.
The sound of that track is really different than anything we’ve done before, but it has some of our favorite elements that we borrowed from in different capacities, like the sound of the gritty drumbeat with these smoky guitars and horns. Never in my life, not even going into this record, did I think we would have a saxophone solo on a record, ever. But it just happened when we were in the studio.
A guy came in to play some basic horn with like a baritone sax. I just said over the talkback, “Hey, how you feel about doing a solo?” He was like, “Uh, sure. I’ll give it a try.” He just blew us away. It was a guy from the small town that we live in around Charleston. It was just a friend of a friend who came over. I don’t even know if he knows he’s got a saxophone solo on a major release [laughs], but he crushed it. We were like, “We got to leave this on!”
Josh and Bear have both said that sometimes you’ve made records in the past that have required a lot from the listener. Bear said this record was about leaving the front door wide open this time. I was curious what your thoughts are on that and what was meant with that.
One thing I don’t think I’ve even told the band before, I think I’ve only told my brother and stuff, is when we got the first batch of demos for Rivers in the Wasteland I nearly cried because there were no songs with any beats on there. I’m a drummer, first and foremost. That was my first love. I just like a good beat, and it was more of like a road song or a right hand rhythm type record. This time around a lot more of the songs are up-tempo and beat-driven.
One of the things as writers that Bear and Bo both do exceptionally well is write these really great and thoughtful creative-sounding ballads. We always have way more ballad options. That’s one of the toughest things to pick, what are going to be the slow songs on the record, because we usually have a good bit to choose from.
So with the tempo and everything else, it’s interesting when you dive into the DNA of anything. I think ultimately all those decisions that the guys make forged the sound. They allowed themselves to do certain things and don’t allow them to do other things. I think, yeah, in a lot of cases early on we did keep the listener at arm’s reach and hope they would come to us. That approach was certainly different this time around.
One simple way was Bo’s oldest son loves the band. Every time he’s around and we’re jamming on something, he either digs it or he doesn’t. I’m not saying that we put a three-year-old in charge of what stayed and went on the record, but it is a pretty good indication. If a child is really moved by music, that’s an honest reaction.
As some of these songs were flowing, Bo’s admitted that his son would be around and take a listen. He’d be like, “Hey, what do you think about this? What do you think about this [laughs]?” So our unofficial listening test went something like that.
Just talking about the last record one last time, “Brother” blew up a little bit at the end there for you and ended up being the biggest song you’ve had to date. That was probably definitely not on purpose, being that you’re over 10 years into this thing and that was the last single off that record. What was it like seeing that song catch on like it did and kind of take on a life of its own?
I don’t think any of us knew really what to expect with that. There were a lot of firsts for us. Production-wise, that was the first step towards some of the sounds we incorporated into the new record. It was the fist time collaborating with Gavin DeGraw. That was something that happened naturally, or organically, as people would say.
Bear knew that Gavin had a brother and that they had sort of a similar story, where they’re really competitive and tough on each other, and it had caused some problems. So Bear reached out to Gavin about that, and then Gavin was like, “I’d like to hear the song. Send it over.” Bear sent it and four minutes later Gavin was like, “Man, we can make this a hit. I want to work on this with you guys.” And then we did.
I mean, all of us certainly hoped the song could be successful, or really just ultimately get out there and have people hear it. It did, and that was a big surprise. I think it probably gave us some confidence towards embracing some of the bigger sonic spaces that we did on this record.
Did seeing that song take off like it did, did that get the wheels turning that you can still reach new heights and another level, and bring your music to a new audience?
Yeah, it did. To use Bear’s analogy of leaving the front door open, I didn’t have much fear or worry that our fans wouldn’t like that. Even though it was something we had never done before, I really thought our fans have been seeing this side of the band sprinkled through the records throughout the years. They’ve been absolutely incredible in sticking with us. I think this was more like an extension of some of those explorations in the past.
I was just mixing some tracks from the Outsiders Tour in 2009 for our fan club, because we give them a free song each week. I don’t think we even realized it then, but when I go back and listen to certain songs through the lens that is this record, a lot of the sound and spirit of it has been there all along in different forms.
Yeah, because “Brother” is essentially a gospel song, just like “Washed by the Water” and “Lay ‘Em Down” are. It’s just dressed up a little differently.
Yeah. Another way to say it is we used to be really intentional about doing everything in a way that was different on purpose, sometimes even if it didn’t really make sense. More recently we’ve all been trying our best to put ego aside and just work on the song in a way that lets the lyric through without having a bunch of other sonic distractions around it.
Simplicity can be a tough thing, you know? Like, really simplifying. When we make records, it’s so easy to just be like, “Ah man, I’ve got this idea for this little part and that little part.” Before you know it, all those stack up, and it’s hard to really hear any of them because there’s so many going on.
So real quick before we leave, you have the second year of Tour De Compadres coming up here in another month. I imagine it’s got to feel pretty good to be at the point in your career where you can launch a signature tour that hopefully will become an annual thing, and you’re able to bring along these close friends you’ve made over the years, with Mat Kearney this year and the Switchfoot guys last year. What’s it like to be able to launch a tour like that?
It’s a lot of fun for starters. The last tour we did was definitely my favorite tour, personally. Being on the road for a long time, and being away from all your friends and family, can definitely be taxing. Having a bunch of long-term friends out there with you makes all the difference.
Any tour that we do, you slowly make friends with the other bands, but there’s something about having a lot of people around you who understand you. You’ve gotten all the small talk out of the way, and you can just dive right back into life and meaningful conversation. That’s a really great way to tour.
Our fans have said they love it as well. I think when we initially started it wasn’t in the plan to keep doing it. It was like we’ve always wanted to do this, and this seems like it would be a lot of fun for us and a lot of fun for the fans. Then the first Tour De Compadres tour just blew up.
Red Rocks was on our bucket list of dream places we wanted to play, but we weren’t sure we could take the tour to Red Rocks because we’ve never played there before. We almost didn’t, but we were like, “Let’s just try.” The capacity there is 10 thousand people. We were like, “Even if we just get to five thousand, that will be a big win.” That show ended up selling out over a month in advance.
That’s just a small sample of what a great surprise that was for us. We’re super excited to be touring like that again and taking the tour to even bigger runs. This is literally the biggest tour we’ve ever done. It’s exciting.
One of the fun things you’ve always liked to do is reinterpret some of the older material live and come up with new arrangements of things. Have you been working on any different things for this tour?
Yeah, we have. We’ve actually been rehearsing all this week for the tour. We have started to bring some things back. It’s not final, so I don’t want to say exactly what they are yet, and they still are developing.
Like I mentioned earlier, I was just listening back through some of our old archives, because we recorded all our old concerts back in 2008. It’s interesting to pop in every now and then to different eras of the band and hear what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong.
A lot of times we’ll come up with a different way to play a song. Maybe it only lasts for a short season but people like it and it stays, or we plan to bring it back or it just plays out. That’s one of the fun things about Tour De Compadres, is the opportunity to revisit some of our favorite moments from touring and also incorporate our friends with the moment to make it even bigger than it once was.