Success, obviously, has its perks. But it also brings a few challenges.
Needtobreathe discovered that firsthand in touring its 2014 album, “Rivers In the Wasteland.” As the venues got bigger, the group’s show and performing style had to change with it.
“As the venues got bigger, you’re playing to 7,000, 8,000 people, sometimes you didn’t feel like you had that same intimacy with the people in the back as the front,” singer/guitarist Bear Rinehart explained in a recent phone interview.
The group has been playing mostly outdoor amphitheaters and other large venues on previous turning runs behind its latest album, “Hardlove.” But this fall, Needtobreathe is downsizing to theaters and large clubs and may not need to employ the same video and visual production used in the large venues.
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But the group members will still apply some of the performance lessons they have learned to help make sure what they’re expressing on stage reaches each audience member even if the venue is a bit smaller.
“I think one thing is you have to be a little more deliberate,” Rinehart said, comparing playing arenas to smaller venues. “I think sometimes I feel like I’m putting a lot of passion and energy into my vocal performance. Maybe you can see the veins in my neck popping out, that kind of thing. In a theater that really comes across. In a big amphitheater you’ve got to do some bigger arm motions to get that across. It’s got to be larger than life.”
What’s also getting more difficult, as Needtobreathe continues making albums, is deciding what songs to play in a concert.
“I would say this is the hardest set list we’ve ever had to make,” Rinehart said. “When you’ve got this many records, six albums now, it’s like how many songs can you fit in in that period of time?”
Needtobreathe is taking some steps to keep as many songs as possible – particularly from the back catalog – in each show.
“We’re trying to do a few medleys and maybe shorter versions of songs,” Rinehart said. “Let’s give people a chance to sing along to the choruses they know.”
The group is also trying to make room for songs from “Hardlove.”
“The record’s vibe is a pretty fun record,” Rinehart said. “It’s probably the most (sort of) dance record we’re ever going to make, and so that’s really easy to translate live.”
Don’t get the idea, though, that Rinehart is complaining about the side effects of Needtobreathe’s continued success. He’s seen much bigger problems than writing a set list or figuring out how to connect with fans in the nosebleed seats.
Go back five years or so and Rinehart didn’t know if Needtobreathe was even going to remain a band.
Formed in 2000 in Seneca, S.C., when Rinehart, his brother Bo Rinehart (guitar), Seth Bolt (bass) and Joe Stillwell (drums) were still in college, the group made a quick impact in Christian music with its first two CDs, “Daylight” (2006) and “Heat” (2007). With the 2009 album, “The Outsiders,” that popularity began to expand to the mainstream market, as that album reached No. 20 on “Billboard” magazine’s Top 200 album chart.
Then, the 2011 follow-up, “The Reckoning,” hit No. 6 on the “Billboard” album chart and topped the magazine’s Christian music and rock album charts.
But within the band, tensions between the Rinehart brothers were building to a boiling point. The two split songwriting duties, and rather than pushing them to write better songs, the competitive approach they took to songwriting was corroding the brothers’ relationship and the dynamic within Needtobreathe as a whole. Stillwell, in fact, left the group in 2012. (Keyboardist Josh Lovelace completes the current lineup.)
“We were in different dressing rooms. We wouldn’t talk much on show days. We were doing a lot more fighting than creating,” Rinehart said, describing the place he and his brother had reached. “I think probably a lot things contributed to (this), but I think the biggest thing is when you start seeing music as a means to an end, you start valuing the success of things or how many tickets you sold, whatever it is, over relationships or the reason that you do it. Then things are going to go bad.”
Fortunately, Bear and Bo Rinehart realized what was happening, and came to each other to say their relationship as brothers was more important than Needtobreathe. They would either find better ways to work together or they would move on to separate musical projects.
“It’s a strange thing when you’re in a business with your brother because there’s pressure,” Rinehart said. “You both have families and it’s kind of like you feel this thing like I can’t quit because he depends on me. I think both of us at that time gave each other permission, and said, ‘Hey, if you don’t think this is right or we can’t make this work, let’s move on.’ It’s OK if you want to do that. I think even just that, taking that pressure off, changed a lot (of things).”
What emerged was a far more supportive songwriting dynamic between the two brothers for “Rivers In the Wasteland.” And the brothers’ relationship only improved further in making “Hardlove” – even though they evolved the band’s sound notably on the album.
The melodic and punchy rock-pop sound of earlier albums remains, but where the earlier music was guitar based, “Hardlove” brings more synthesizers and a far bigger synthetic sound into the mix. Songs like “Money & Fame” (with its faux horns and slick groove) and the title track, with a soulful vocal that fits with the big programmed beats and cascading synths in the tune, are prime examples of the new Needtobreathe sound.
Rinehart traced the decision to explore the synthier/more synthetic direction back to a remix of the hit single song “Brother” (from “Rivers In the Wasteland”) that was done by Dave Tozer.
“He had done a lot more real kind of R&B/soul stuff,” Rinehart said. “And he kind of put a clap track in our drums and we were like ‘Huh?’ At first, we were like ‘I don’t know.’ But that really grew on us and we really liked it. I think that sort of maybe opened up that can, if you will, for us.”
But while the sounds and tones on “Hardlove” are different, Rinehart said the songwriting approach and fundamentals stayed pretty much the same.
“What’s really refreshing about this record is that we can still play all of the songs acoustic and the songs are still there,” he said. “At the base of it is just hopefully good songs.”