Joe Stillwell of NEEDTOBREATHE
With their latest album “The Outsiders” NEEDTOBREATHE has really come into their own with their personal brand of southern infused rock that defies all boundaries. Aptly titled, “The Outsiders” offers up a little bit of everything from the honest, emotive, guttural tune “Something Beautiful” to the more rock oriented “Prisoner” where guitar solos and blues take over to the more orchestral elements of “Garden” to the duet with Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins “Stones Under Rushing Water”. While the band has always made a concerted effort not to be limited to any sort of genre, the overall cohesiveness of the album may be due in part to the band working with three different producers on the album – each with their own purpose. A well thought out decision for the band had them seek out the best producers for certain elements of the album who worked in unison with the band who co-produced.
The band, comprised of brothers Bear and Bo Rinehart and childhood friends Seth Bolt and Joe Stillwell have been together long enough to know each other’s strengths and it’s never more present than during their live show – admittedly their favorite place to be. The energy that they are able to conjure up through their live show is nothing short of addictive and has built them a fanbase that would probably follow them to the ends of the earth, if there was a show scheduled at the end of the journey. The NEEDTOBREATHE live experience is something that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Drummer Joe Stillwell took some time to talk to us as the band geared up for the summer leg of their current tour. Having been home for only a few short weeks the band was already jonzin’ to get back out there and do what they do best.
Interviewed by: Mary Ouellette & Stacie Caddick-Dowty
So let’s talk about the album a little bit. One thing I found interesting was that you worked with three different producers (Jim Scott, Rick Beato, John Alagia) on it as well as co-produced it. Was each producer brought in for a specific role?
We’ve always been so hands on with the recording process. Our bass player (Seth) went to school for recording engineering and he has his own studio where we record most of our demos and a lot of the recording for the actual record as well. Because we’re so familiar with the recording environment we want to learn as many things from different people as we can. I think by working with three different producers you get to see different perspectives on not only the process but we try to play to producers strengths. Jim Scott has been around for many years, he’s an old school engineer who’s worked with Tom Petty on The Wildflowers record and was much more of a vibe producer. It was the first time that we actually did live tracks where we’re all in the room together playing at the same time. Then a guy like John Alagia worked on both John Mayer and Dave Matthew’s first records, has a really good pop sensibility to him. I think whenever we’re getting the songs together and had our short list of producers we tried to divvy out the songs based on what we thought they could bring to the table and who would make the songs the best that they could be. For us, working with a producer we feel like it’s their job to take a song to a place where we either hadn’t thought about taking it or don’t have that expertise yet. It’s worked out great. Rick Beato out of Atlanta, we’ve worked with before and he’s the guy we take the problem songs to to help us figure out. He’s an amazing musician and is great with theory and song structure. I think the biggest thing is we try to play to people’s strengths to make the record the best it could be.
Your song “Something Beautiful” was released as a single in August of last year, but for the past 13 weeks has been on the Christian chart, this week at #7. Talk to us about his song, the making of it, and what it means to the band?
Bo wrote “Something Beautiful” at a place where we hadn’t seen anything inspiring in awhile. For us we thrive off of that –whether it’s a line in a song or a movie we’ve just seen – those moments of inspiration. We had been in a dry spell with that so he wrote the song out of a desire to have that experience again and to have that moment. It’s been great for us, the song has connected with a lot of people. One thing about us is we write honest music and when you do that it’s going to appeal to different people in different ways. Somebody will interpret the song one way and someone with a different background or has experienced something different will take something else away from it. A lot of the time even a song like “Wash By The Water”, was written about a specific experience that Bo and Bear’s father had that their family went through but fans fall in love with it not because they went through the same experience but because they identify with the emotions that went into the writing of the song.
It’s hard to find a review of the band where your southern roots and southern influences aren’t mentioned. How do you feel those roots have helped define your sound, if at all?
I think being from the south that just gets engrained in you. The soulfulness of the music, a lot of that has to do with the gospel and church music that we grew up around, there’s so much heart in passion that goes into that kind of music. Also just Southern Rock, I think it was Gregg Allman who said something to the effect of saying “Southern Rock” was just like saying “Rock Rock” because that’s really where it all started, in the South. There’s a definitely a sense of the roots of the art form and being from the area that we’re from. It’s not something that we try to get away from, it’s something that we embrace so it definitely gets into the music sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally.
Theres a song on the album (Stones Under Rushing Water) where you’re joined by Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek and she’s really a perfect complement to Bear’s vocal. How did this collaboration fall into place? Did you write the part with a female vocal in mind?
We had the song written and before we started the recording process we thought it would be a perfect fit for a girl and would be a great duet. We had tossed around a few names and were thinking about a few people. Jim Scott (producer) is actually very good friends with Sara. She’s from San Diego and he was out in LA and they’ve worked on a lot of things together. Jim mentioned her and right away we thought “Yes Definitely!” It worked out great, she came into the studio, was unbelievable, she’s so good. She’s been doing it since she was a little kid and she just has an amazing voice. We almost had her play violin on some things but it didn’t quite work out but it was a great experience. She nailed it in just a few takes.
You chose “The Outsiders” as the album title. It’s a song on the album as well but did that title have a deeper significance to you personally? It seems to be the perfect title because the band has really never compromised with their sound to fit under any sort of label, does it have that significance to you?
We had the song written for a long time before we decided to name the album “The Outsiders”. I think it’s a sense of comfort with not fitting into those genres and not really being an easy band to label. In the past we had tried a little bit to shape ourselves into one of those genres or shape our music to be more appealing to a particular group of people but as we’ve come further in our careers we’ve got to the point where we just want to make music that we love and music that we can be passionate about and stand behind. People respond to that. It’s a badge of honor.
It’s been about four years since we last talked to the band. What an amazing four years it has been and it’s been so exciting to see your success. Looking back at it from a personal level, how would you say you have grown over these past four years?
I think you see the growth most in our live show. From the last tour to this current tour we’re seeing double and sometimes four times as many people coming out to shows as the last time we visited. I think it’s in response to the new record and it’s in response how we’ve grown as a live band as well. I think there’s a lot of word of mouth going around. I think it goes back to the whole idea of being comfortable in our own skin and enjoying the music that makes us feel good. I think people are connecting with that and getting behind us and that’s very encouraging. We just feel like we made a record that is true to who we are as a band and the whole experience of coming to a live show has become something pretty remarkable.
Speaking of growth… we couldn’t help but notice that you have a fifth guy up there on stage with you now. David Lenard has been listed as a “touring Member” – talk to us about what his part in the band consists of, will he become a permanent member of the band?
I don’t think it’s definite right now, for now he’s a touring member and we love having him out on the road. He brings a ton of energy to the live show and having a separate organ/piano player and his vocals are absolutely amazing. It’s freed us up to do a lot more live than we’ve been able to do in the past. Don’t really know exactly what the future holds but for now we’re happy to have him out and are very blessed to have someone that good that we can share the stage with.
You are a band of Christian men but not necessarily a “Christian Band”. I know you’ve probably talked this topic into the ground, but some of our readers may not realize this connection that you have. I love that you appeal to, and inspire, the masses and not just one segregated grouping. – talk to me about what you see the importance of your Christian relations and your position as a band.
Well it’s the biggest part of who we are. We always set out to be in the mainstream world as much as we possibly could because that’s where we feel we can have the most impact. For us we’re all very strong in our faith and that comes through in the music but I think for us if we tried to actively to put that into the music it cheapens it in a way. The same way that we don’t want to write a song as a request from somebody, we don’t want to write a song thinking “okay this is a Christian song”. Once you put an agenda on your music I think you’ve killed a bit of the magic that makes it connect with people. For us it’s deeply personal but we don’t like to directly address it in our music unless it feels like something that’s natural.
You guys are heading out on the second leg of the “Won’t Turn Back” tour. This tour takes you through the next few months, then straight into festival season where you have quite a lineup of festivals you are a part of. What are you most looking forward to over the next few months?
We’re just looking forward to getting back out there on the road. We’ve been home for two or three months and that’s the longest we’ve been at home for several years. I absolutely love being back out on tour- it’s my favorite part of what we do, playing live and having that connection with our fans. It’s all going great right now so I’m just looking forward to more shows and staying out there as long as we can!!
Catch NEEDTOBREATHE on tour:
Sat 4/17/10 Charleston, SC Music Farm Will Hoge
Sun 4/18/10 Charleston, SC Music Farm Will Hoge
Thurs 4/22/10 Carrboro, NC Cat’s Cradle Will Hoge
Fri 4/23/10 Clemson, SC Clemson University Will Hoge
Sat 4/24/10 Birmingham, AL Sloss Furnaces Will Hoge
Tues 4/27/10 Tulsa, OK Cain’s Ballroom Stephen Kellogg & Seabird
Thurs 4/29/10 Phoenix, AZ Clubhouse Stephen Kellogg & Seabird
Fri 4/30/10 Pomona, CA Glass House Stephen Kellogg & Seabird
Sat 5/1/10 Los Angeles, CA El Rey Stephen Kellogg & Seabird
Tues 5/4/10 San Francisco, CA Great American Music Hall Stephen Kellogg
Thurs 5/6/10 Portland, OR Wonder Ballroom Stephen Kellogg & Seabird
Fri 5/7/10 Seattle, WA Showbox Stephen Kellogg & Seabird
Sat 5/8/10 Spokane, WA Knitting Factory Stephen Kellogg & Seabird
Mon 5/10/10 Boise, ID Knitting Factory Stephen Kellogg & Seabird
Tues 5/11/10 Salt Lake City, UT Club Sound Stephen Kellogg & Seabird
Thurs 5/13/10 Denver, CO Bluebird Theater Stephen Kellogg & Seabird
Fri 5/14/10 Omaha, NE The Slowdown Stephen Kellogg & Seabird
Sat 5/15/10 Des Moines, IA People’s Court Stephen Kellogg & Seabird