In the following phone interview NEEDTOBREATHE vocalist/guitarist Bear Rinehart explains the personal struggles behind making the band’s fifth effort Rivers in the Wasteland, why this is their most vulnerable album yet, and the irony in seeing how the music industry has come to embrace the folk-rock/Southern sound.
How’s the tour going?
Good. We were out for a couple weeks and now we’re home for a couple weeks to kind of regroup, but we’re ready to roll now.
I saw you guys are playing a lot of the new album.
Yeah, which is a really good thing. Our fans haven’t thrown us off the fence yet or anything. It says a lot about how the record’s being received, I think. The big thing for us is really enjoying the sound. Having been together for so long and putting five records out, you don’t think you’re going to get the chance to play so much new material, but the fans are really behind the new stuff. It would have felt weird to not play enough of it.
We’re playing a couple hours every night, and we’re playing most of the new record. It just feels good. It feels fresh to us. I think people are getting a mix of just enough of the old stuff that it keeps them happy, but people are coming out and liking the new record.
Yeah, it seems to have gotten a really good response. This was the longest time gap you’ve had between albums but it debuted at a career-best No. 3, which must have been pretty cool to see too.
Yeah, man. I always try not to judge by how it sells, but really how the fans receive it. By the comments we get from it, we normally can tell how it’s doing based on that. A lot of times really how a record’s going to do, you can’t really tell until about six months into a record. If it’s got any legs, it will tell you about then if people are passionate or not.
With this record, it was like that when we first put it out. Our fans thought it was our best record. I think that made us the happiest more than anything, more than any of the numbers. Just seeing people that have been fans for a long time admiring it in that way means the world to us.
Last year you put out that documentary on YouTube called Prove the Poets Wrong, which chronicled a little bit of the making of this record as well as some of the behind-the-scenes drama that was going on. It’s a very honest and open perspective that you provide in that. Were you nervous about putting all that stuff out there?
Yeah, we were, especially by the time we put it out a lot of stuff had changed. We taped the thing a couple years ago, so by the time it came out it felt like we could barely recognize ourselves. It was an interesting thing to have that coming out and it be so raw and emotional the way it was.
I think it was a nice set-up for the record because the record is really about us coming out of that place and solving a lot of those things. It’s really about dealing with a lot of those issues we were going through at that time, which I think was a pretty huge thing for us. I think fans seeing that, if they wouldn’t have known that, I don’t think the record would have been as effective. All it would have been was music.
Looking back at that period now what do you think ultimately allowed you to get over that rough patch and keep on going?
There were a couple of things. We were forced to in some ways because it had gotten so bad that we basically couldn’t function anymore. It got to where me and my brother were pretty much not talking to each other, and artistically we’re the ones that write the songs. It just took us forever to do anything. The first six weeks we went to make a record out in L.A., we came back with three songs done. All the songs were written and ready to go. It should have taken us a few weeks to record the whole thing. We spent six weeks and did three songs. Obviously, stuff was not the way it should be. We weren’t communicating at all.
Finally, we were forced to take some time off. We took six weeks off. I went into the hospital for a surgery, so we had to take some time off. Really, that was the first time where we were all like, “Man, we have to slow this down and decide if we want to keep doing this.” We came to the conclusion, me and my brother especially, that we don’t want to keep doing this if this is going to continue the way it is. We had to make some pretty major changes.
I went over to his house with this speech in mind, basically we have to change these things or else I’m out. Not really necessarily I felt this way, more that I want to be brothers with you more than I want this band to succeed. I don’t want us to end our relationship and our family over this. He had spent that same time coming to those same conclusions and had a similar speech ready for me. When we got back together, it was fairly easy to make those changes because we believed they were absolutely necessary.
As far as this new record with the lyrics, it seems to almost be a concept album where most of the songs talk about struggle and perseverance, and then the first and last songs open and close the record with this image of a river. How much was that planned out on your part and how much was it the way things worked out?
I think mostly it happened to us. When we started the record, we thought we might call the record “Wasteland,” which is the first track. Really that’s where we were when we started out writing for the record. It was a pretty dark place for us as a band. We didn’t know the record was going to follow this path that it ended up taking. It took us more than a year to make the record, and a lot of the songs really follow the journey that the band was on. Obviously, we didn’t know where that journey was going to lead. The songs came out as the turns and changes happened to us.
When it was over, it was obvious to us, like, “Oh, this is what was happening to us artistically as well this whole time.” I definitely can’t say we had a master plan for it when we first started. It was so raw and everything was happening to us emotionally, it’s just what came out. It’s crazy to me to look at it now because it seems so simple. You definitely could have thought of it before, but we definitely didn’t.
Going along with that, would you say this is the most personal album you’ve written?
It’s the most vulnerable one, for sure. As far as the way we recorded, it set it up to be that way. We knew we wanted to make a record that was stripped down and I guess more raw, for lack of a better word. The last record had a bunch of instruments on it and was very over-produced on purpose, which we were really into at the time and thought would be a lot of fun to make and a lot of fun to play live.
We wanted to go in the opposite direction on this record. When you start doing that, then the songs that you write start catering to that, and it just started to happen. We started to get into what we were really going through and our personal demons were starting to come out. To have all the stuff happen to us during the process, that just made it right there on the tape for everybody to see.
This was also your first record without the original drummer in the band, Joe Stillwell. What impact did that have and what was it like doing it without him for a change?
It was definitely different. We felt like in some ways we had something to prove, but in another way I think we just avoided having a traditional drum kit kind of sound for the most part. We had a touring drummer, Randall Harris, who had been playing with us for a little while when we got into making the record. We were really fortunate to have him and we had worked out most of the songs with him, so we felt pretty comfortable.
When we went into the recording, we didn’t feel like we had to use just a straight set-up. We ended up doing a lot of different kinds of kit set-ups. A lot of percussion, a lot of junk kits, a lot of beating on things. You can kind of hear that on there. Joe was always a straightforward rock guy, which we loved about him. He was a really hard-hitting drummer. There’s a lot of subtleties and things, and it forced us to be a little more creative with the way we approached the drums.
Do you think you’ll ever add another official drummer at some point or are you happy with it only being the three of you right now?
You never say never. I think we’d like to. My dream is to add a bunch of guys. We’d love to have a James Brown, E Street Band kind of thing. I could see us going down that road at some point. Josh Lovelace has been in the touring band for a while. He’s on keys and he’s an incredible player. We always see those guys as being in the band now, so I don’t know what we’re waiting on, really.
So I have a couple songs I wanted to ask about. The first one is “Difference Maker,” which I believe was the first new song you started playing live last year and seems to be one of the key tracks on the album. It’s a real interesting song lyrically because it’s written from a different perspective on the verses and the choruses. How did that song come about for you?
It was a little bit of a struggle lyrically. It’s a fairly simple idea. I was wrestling with this idea of if you’re doing something because you think it’s good to do, then it can’t be good. It’s a very simple idea but I felt like a lot of people, especially musicians, can get confident and arrogant in what they’re doing and what they’re saying and believe that it’s powerful in some way, especially Christians. That was something I wanted to challenge people that were believers. Be careful about how arrogant you are and how much you know because the minute you start being that way it devalues what you’re saying.
That song challenges that, and at the same time it’s still saying be available, be willing to say something, be willing to be there is also what lets you be a difference maker. It’s still a hopeful thing, in a way. But as far as struggling with that idea as a musician, it’s about what do you say and what do you not say, and what are your real motives.
A track that was surprising vocally is “State I’m In,” where the harmonies almost have like a Beach Boys sound, which I thought was a really cool touch. How did you come up with that?
That was a Bo thing, screwing around. Bo tracked all of those vocals himself at his house. He had taken that to mess with the drums or something like that after we had recorded that. We had had that song around for a long time. He got into his little home studio thing and went crazy with a bunch of vocals and layered them all. We all loved it, so I think we pretty much left it like it was, whatever he came up with that night. I don’t know how he did it, but he just tricked it out and made it crazy. Unfortunately, we have to figure out now how to sing all that stuff live, but, yeah, he’s a little wizard.
Obviously, you’ve already mentioned “Wasteland,” which is where the title Rivers in the Wasteland comes from. Since that’s such an important song on the record, how early on in the writing process did that come?
It was a couple of weeks into it when we were in California. Lyrically, I was just trying to write what the record was about up until that point, which was a sort of wasteland and what is that feeling like. What we felt like going into it was not knowing what the answer was. Having a sliver of hope, but not knowing where we were headed. On a journey, but not knowing where the destination is. That’s one of my favorite lyrics in there, or some of my favorite lyrics on the record, are on that song.
When you’re really going through that, seeing everybody else sitting there just fine, you see people around you happy but you’re so stuck in that place that you hope that they’re not as happy as they look because that would mean you really are in a bad place and hoping everybody is in the same boat as you. That’s where we started with the record. That’s why we ended up naming the record Rivers in the Wasteland because it didn’t make sense at all to call it “Wasteland” by the end of the process. We really felt like something new had happened and something completely different was happening in our band. Something had changed.
One other song I wanted to mention real quick was “Multiplied.” Worship music is obviously all over the map in terms of quality and stylistically, and I think you are really good at writing non quote-unquote “worship” songs. You started out with “Signatures of Divine” back in the day. I’m curious have you ever heard of any of your songs being played in a church setting, and then what is the story behind “Multiplied” for this one?
People have told us that, which I think is cool. The real meaning behind the song was about us not overthinking how people would take the song. We’ve been so careful at trying to look at how people would perceive us all the time. We have always hated that term Christian band because it’s so limiting. People are going to think they have to believe like us, or they’re going to think our music sucks because they call us that. There’s always been this fight a little bit about that, even though our faith is something that’s really important to us.
That song is really about us letting go of that and saying, “Look, we’re going to be who we are. This song is not under our control. This is about us writing what’s in our heart, and what happens after this is out of our hands.” I think it’s a real sincere song. It was something Bo wrote and brought to the band, and all of us were like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” It was as much a reason to put it on because most people thought we shouldn’t. As anything, it’s something we hold true and something we believe in, so why shouldn’t we put it on?
Since your second record, The Heat, you have played around with a folk sound at times, with more of a Southern feel. The last several years, especially, that sound has really exploded onto the mainstream stage. How does it feel to see that sound more widespread now than when you first started out?
It’s really interesting and I think it’s cool. I obviously like that kind of music. For us, it’s always been a part of how we grew up. We grew up in South Carolina, so we grew up playing roots kind of music, we call it. We grew up playing gospel music. We grew up playing blues music, bluegrass music. All that kind of stuff was ingrained in us. When we first got signed, our labels were like, “Do not play the harmonica. Do not play the banjo.” These were like rules you could not break. I remember very vividly them telling us, “Be more international,” which was code for be less redneck.
It’s funny now to see the opposite is true, like, “Put more banjo on there.” It’s hilarious that the industry has changed the way it has. I think it’s cool the kids are into it. To me, it does represent real music, most of the time. I like that type of stuff as opposed to a straight digital guy DJ, or something like that. I appreciate that.
If you would have seen one of our practices even 15 years ago, it would have sounded like the Black Crowes meets bluegrass meets Ray Charles. You know what I mean? That’s where we learned how to play, that’s how we learned how to play. I think now for our stuff to be tinged on those sorts of elements, it’s really natural to us. A lot of times it’s us just letting ourselves come through, and those Southern elements just come out without us even trying.
Looking back even before The Heat to your first record Daylight, that seems like such a different band now than what you became because none of that stuff was on there. Looking back at that record now, what do you think about it? Do you consider it being a learning experience more than anything else?
I think so. We were listening to a lot of opinions when we made that record. I mean, I like a lot of the songs on that record. I think as far as the production of the record and the sound, people were telling us, “This is what people like about your band. This is what you should do,” and we were listening. We were small town kids and we didn’t know any better.
I remember us being in the studio the first week and us all looking at each other at night being like, “Is this the way you’re supposed to make a record? We don’t know how to make a record, but these guys have made records before, so surely they know how to make a record.” Obviously, we’ve learned a lot since then, but we didn’t have the wherewithal then to stand up and be like, “This is what we want to sound like.” I think there’s a lot of that on that record. When I listen back to it, there’s some songs on there that I think if we redid now would be great songs.
Have you ever thought about reimagining one of the songs on there live?
Yes, we have. We talk about it all the time. Bo is, we call him a hoarder of musical ideas. He can’t let go of any of that stuff, so he’s all the time talking about redoing it. Maybe when we get a chance we’ll come back and do some of that stuff.
So what do you planned out for the rest of the year? I imagine they’ll be a lot of shows and stuff.
Yeah, we have a big tour planned through the end of September, and then we’ll probably go to Europe and do that thing. There’s also some cool stuff going on musically that we plan to release out. We’re going to do a live CD and a bunch of other stuff. The band is really refreshed and rested coming into this thing. The creative ideas are flowing, and they’ll be a bunch of new stuff.