Austin's bright and shining light

No indie rock band has ever banked on the marketability of a mustache quite like The Bright Light Social Hour. The handsome handlebar of bassist/singer Jack O'Brien earned the Austin foursome a good chunk of the money to record their 2010 eponymous debut.

"We'd heard about a lot of bands doing donation campaigns," O'Brien said when I chatted with the musicians by phone last week. Some bands have found success via online crowdfunding platform, but TBLSH ran their own quirky yet effective campaign completely independent of Kickstarter. "AJ had this idea to put my mustache in charge of the fundraising. So we set up, where you would donate different amounts and in exchange receive different services from the band — dinner cooked by us, or a car wash. Pre-ordered CDs really helped. We funded about a third of the record from donations that way."

Getting noticed in the "Live Music Capital of the World" isn't easy, either. "There are a million startup bands here, so it can be hard to rise above the pack." said O'Brien. "Which is good because it forced us to really take a look around us and do something new and inventive and really hone our sound in our live show. Once we did start developing, the city became very supportive and enthusiastic about what we were doing."

So much that TBLSH took home "Best Indie Band" honors at the 2010 Austin Music Awards, SXSW's closing celebration. Past honorees include high-quality Austin exports Okkervil River and The Octopus Project, a good sign for Bright Light's own future.

The music is definitely attention-worthy – fist-pumping Southern rock and 1970s-style prog-psychedelia marked by muscular funky grooves, blues-soaked swagger and house-influenced rhythms. A trio of appealing vocals are set against it — bassist O'Brien does mustache gruff, guitarist Curtis Roush serves blue-eyed soul, and keyboardist AJ Vincent delivers sweet-toned tenderness that rises to powerfully emotive howls and smoother falsetto wails, all three trading between lead and harmonies. Drummer Joseph Mirasole contributes modern-minded beat-keeping fueled by a long-standing love of electronic music. "There's a lot of rhythms in house music you don't really find in rock music that I like to bring into the mix," he explained. "A lot of tribal house, a lot of African influence."

Bright Light first took shape when O'Brien and Roush met as students at Southwestern University in Central Texas, and became friends and musical collaborators performing in an experimental art-rock collective. That project dissolved, O'Brien studied abroad, Roush did music at home, and upon O'Brien's return in '07, the two decided to form a new band. "We found Joe on Craigslist," O'Brien recalled. "He was in a high school drumline at the time. And AJ was a friend of my brother's I've known for years, a good singer-songwriter and great pianist, so we got him on board, too. And that was the birth of the 'new sound.'"

The fresh young band dove into the Austin scene in '08, spent the next few years road-testing material and after successfully completing the mustache fundraiser, started working on their first LP last summer. The Bright Light Social Hour was recorded in five studios around Austin with producer Danny Reisch, who incorporated vintage and modern recording techniques to get a '70s-evocative hi-fi sound.

The feel of the album changes from track to track without ever sounding awkward or erratic, from the anthemic march of "Bare Hands, Bare Feet" with its infectious get-up-and-go sing-along chorus, to the slow and unrelenting dark psyche groove of "La Piedra de la Iguana," to the made-for-shaking-it disco-funk of "Back And Forth" and fiery 10-minute prog-jam epic, "Garden Of The Gods."

Roush said they stumbled upon a few common themes just writing from their experiences at the time. "A lot of those songs ended up being about issues of getting together as a band and having some solidarity, 'cause a lot of this stuff sort of isn't easy at first — it's a lot of work with minimal rewards. It's about keeping positive and keeping together and focusing on the collective benefits that we all enjoy, like making music together."

The eye-catching album cover materialized after a series of fortunate events that started when O'Brien met an artist while working for the U.S. Census Bureau and ended in a band-artist brainstorming session and final vision of "a rock 'n' roll paradise, or rock utopia party community sort of thing, which fits with the theme of our songs ... getting together with your friends and building something fun."

The final panorama features a big group of crunchy bohemians in all states of dress sprawled up and down a muddy creek bank, the subjects invited to the shoot via Facebook and told to wear "whatever they wanted in a sort of '70s urban gypsy theme, and show up and bring whoever they wanted — friends and dogs and babies and pineapples ..."

The band self-released the album in September and have been promoting the hell out of it ever since. The priority in 2011 according to O'Brien? "Getting our show in front of more and new audiences." The work continues this Thursday at The Hub.


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