Long-held organ chords and a bouncing funk bass line, accented by pulsing drum hits, open the Bright Light Social Hour‘s song “Back and Forth.” The guitar whines, introducing the melody later to be sung by the gritty and soulful vocals of Curtis Roush. The lyrics are simple and catchy – reminiscent of the sexually charged lyrics of classic rock acts such as The Rolling Stones. The song begs your body to move.
The BLSH – as they are popularly known – gained local momentum after winning the 2009 Sound and the Jury competition which gave the band a spot at Austin City Limits music festival the same year. Since then the band has graced the cover of The Chronicle, toured across the country, and won multiple honors at the 2010-2011 Austin Music Awards including Album of the Year, Song of the Year (“Detroit”), and Band of the Year.
While from an outsider view it may seem like they’re on a fast-track to stardom, BLSH guitarist and vocalist Curtis Roush says that their success has never come “too fast or all at once.” Instead, Roush describes their success as, “more gradual growth through constant hard work;” he says, “we would notice every few months that our fan base would grow.”
But in a city filled with talented and determined musicians, this begs the questions: Why them and why now?
Peter Mongillo, music critic for the Austin American-Statesman, acknowledges that while talent is clearly important, luck also plays a part, as there are many other talented bands in Austin. Mongillo suggests that “business savvy is also a factor — i.e. how much does a band cultivate their audience using social media, how good is their publicity person, what bands do they perform with, etc.”
BLSH has clearly polished their social media skills. The band creates humorous promotional videos as well as videos on the road to keep fans updated while they tour. Roush explains, “[Jack O’brien] (BLSH bassist and vocalist) brings a camera around to get footage of life on the road. It keeps people involved and feeling like part of the process. That way when we leave Austin for a while, we haven’t just completely vanished.” Tricks like these help the band to maintain their fan base.
But how did they get such a large following in the first place? Mongillo suggests that their musical style may have had an impact on gaining a fan base. He describes their music as “a contemporary spin on classic rock, a genre that appeals to a wide variety of music fans, both casual and more serious.” Roush illustrates a similar concept when he describes his experience of the BLSH fans. While most of the fans are in a similar demographic to the band (i.e ages 20-30), Roush mentions “some notable exceptions in a wide range.” The band has quite a few younger fans, as well as much older ones which they attribute to BLSH’s “influences of classic rock.”
While they have a dedicated and varied fan base so far, the band still hasn’t quite reached fame on a national level, and saying they will is really only a guessing game. Mongillo notes, “There have been plenty of bands coming out of Austin that looked as though they were about to break out, only to return home and either quit or have a successful local career that doesn’t have national appeal.”
Regionally, BLSH seems to be doing everything right: playing lively shows, winning local awards, keeping in touch with their fans; but it’s nearly impossible to know if a national audience will embrace their music with such high regards. Mongillo accredits this uncertainty to the changing music industry, “The demise of the traditional music industry has set the scene for a more competitive business than ever — bands, even seemingly popular ones, don’t make much money, are reliant on artificially generated ‘buzz’, and there are more acts than ever vying for the attention of music fans. Just look at how SXSW grows every year.”
Yet, Roush describes the main difference between BLSH and other bands as teamwork. He says, “we all value each others opinions and insights. Many bands are dominated by one or two people, but we work together on everything.” While BLSH has had many different members in the past, Roush believes, “with this combination of people that came together 3 years ago, things really clicked.”
Austin’s thousands of BLSH fans prove that there is hope for the band on a national level. Mongillo mentions a few accounts of this success, “Some recent Austin acts, like Black Joe Lewis, have had national success. Another Austin band, White Denim, grew popular in England before anyone even knew who they were in the states.”
As for now, the band is keeping a positive attitude just as in lyrics of their song “Shanty” when they sing, “Don’t matter brother, keep on steady rollin’. We’ll figure out something soon.”