When it came time to record its new album, Rivers in the Wasteland, Needtobreathe decided to use a few different studios. It went to its home base, Plantation Studios in Charleston, but it also ventured to Fairfax Recordings in Van Nuys, Blackbird Studios in Nashville and Ed's in Franklin. It was as if the band was literally on a soul-searching expedition.
"Honestly, it was a struggle," says bassist Seth Bolt via phone from his Charleston home. The band had just finished the first half of the first leg of its tour in support of the album. "We traditionally have made our albums at my recording studio in Charleston. We wanted to do something differently. It took us a lot longer than we wanted it to."
For its previous album, 2011's The Reckoning, the band had unlimited resources. Bolt says the guys "went crazy" when they got into the studio.
"We had Irish bagpipes and choirs and orchestras," he says. "The more we relied on other people to create the emotion, the further it got away from us. We attempted to get in the same room and try to get the song down in a couple of takes. If it didn't happen that day, we tried another day. We wanted to leave the mistakes in and leave it raw and vulnerable. We didn't want to put too much stuff in there. If you listen to the radio at all these days, there are the biggest sounding synthesizers you've ever heard. It's not believable that there are a couple of people in a room producing that sound. We wanted to do something that made it sound like it was really us doing it."
Bolt said the lengthy recording process for Wasteland didn't have to do with the different studios that the group used.
"We were going through a lot personally," he says. "At the end of the process, things started to click. Each of us had our own revelation about how we were going about it the wrong way. We were able to finish it in a beautiful way that's been absent from the band for some time."
You can hear the band's newfound passion right from the opening notes of the first tune, "Wasteland," a U2/Coldplay-like acoustic guitar and piano ballad that starts with the line, "I'm the first one in line to die when the cavalry comes." And with its Edge-like guitars and crooning vocals, the shimmering "Multiplied" sounds like a cross between Kings of Leon and U2. There's a certain sincerity that comes through in the sparse song.
"Maybe it's because out of struggle comes the most honest art," Bolt says when asked if the struggle to come up with songs led the band to deliver what's arguably its best album yet. "I was talking to a buddy of mine from Charleston who wrote a song recently that I really love. I was asking him about the song. He was really writing from the heart and he admitted it was tough to be that open and he said he was thinking about not doing that in the future to protect himself. I told him that there were people going through the same thing and that he was giving them a voice and a human connection because he was brave enough to talk about stuff like that."
Since 2002, Bolt and singer-guitarist Bear Rinehart and his brother, guitarist Bo Rinehart, have toured and recorded as Needtobreathe, a Christian rock band that has garnered a substantial fanbase over the time period. The Rineharts were initially a coffeehouse folk act. Bolt was their soundman. He eventually joined the band on bass and backing vocals.
"When I first met Bear and Bo, I was 7 years old," he says, adding that he officially joined the band during his final year of high school. "There's a chemistry we developed for a long time. I can't put my finger on it. Honestly, none of us think we're that good on our instrument. Some of us would be scared to death to do a solo. When we play music together, it does resonate in a different way. "
The band's albums all deal with religious reckonings of some sort, but that theme runs stronger on this particular release.
"The record plays like a biographical experience of what we went through, but that wasn't intentional. It just happened," says Bolt. "Bear and Bo said they had no idea how profound the words would be. They were feeling things that became reality in both good and bad ways. It's wild to experience your own song in that way. 'The Wasteland' just came rushing out. We took a listen to it and changed our plans for what we were going to do in the studio the next day and decided to record that song instead."
Bolt adds that each band member "in some form or fashion has had a personal revival.
"That was in the birthing stages as we were finishing the record," he says. "Now, we're on tour and going through the maturing phase. It's great to get it back again and feel like we have a new lease on this opportunity to play music and share our music with fans and get up on stage and have a really good time night after night.
"It's been a while since things have been this smooth," he continues. "I think our story is just a small one but hopefully that inspires other people, especially people who are estranged from family members, to seek reconciliation. I think we live in a crazy, messed-up America where success is what we put before love and before family and before a lot of things for some unknown reason. We're experiencing the joy on the other side of realizing success is a moving target. It's so great to feel joy again and happiness that's not pinned down to a certain chart position or selling a certain number of records."
Needtobreathe with Foy Vance 8 p.m. Thursday, June 5., House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $30.50-$40.50, houseofblues.com.
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