Rivers In The Wasteland, NEEDTOBREATHE’s latest album, opens a new chapter in the South Carolina-based rock band’s story. But the band, comprised of brothers Bear and Bo Rinehart and Seth Bolt, couldn’t have arrived here without the tumultuous narrative that came before, each aspect of their career building up to this point. After the band’s previous album, The Reckoning, was released in 2011, the group spent over two years on the road, where the musicians began grappling with both significant inner turmoil and the external pressure created by notoriety. With the Rinehart brothers, sons of a pastor who hail from the rural town of Possum Kingdom, as the songwriting core of the band, NEEDTOBREATHE has built a successful career, earning a sizeable fanbase with their extensive touring. But tension between Bear and Bo was so high by the end of the touring cycle there was discussion of ending the band. The brothers kept to separate dressing rooms, uncertain that this was the sort of band they’d wanted to become, the possibility of quitting lingering in their minds.
“We were asking ourselves ‘Are you willing to change yourself in order to succeed?’” Bear says. “I think, in some ways, we tried that for a while. It was so tough on our souls and our stomachs and I think all of us knew that we couldn’t do that any longer. There was a moment where I thought the band was over. We had to take a break and meditate on what we each wanted NEEDTOBREATHE to be.”
For all three musicians, the answer was to return to the band’s roots and find the anchor of musical simplicity. They agreed that the most important moments of touring came at the end of each show, when they cut off the sound system in each venue and played directly to the fans. It’s a moment of realness NEEDTOBREATHE wanted to capture on their new album, a means of letting go of everything that isn’t truly essential to the song. Bear and Bo began writing a year ago, while still intermittently touring on The Reckoning, doing most of the initial work at their own Plantation Studios in Charleston. The band then spent time at Fairfax Recordings (formally Sound City Studios) in Los Angeles and at Blackbird Studios in Nashville, to co-produce the album with the help of various producers, including Joe Chiccarelli, Kevin Augunas, Jerrod Bettis and Ed Cash. It was a long, sometimes tumultuous process, that ultimately yielded a collection of songs the band feels reflect who they want to be as musicians now.
“We had a few goals as a band for the album,” Bear says. “I had them written in my notebook while I was writing songs. They were really basic: Keep it simple, not too many instruments, and have fun with it. And the last one was: be ourselves.”
“There was so much over-the-top production on the last album and on our tour,” Bo says. “We wanted to blow it all up and start over. The idea for the record was to get as much of the production elements out of the way and then force ourselves to not rely on extra stuff and studio tricks and technology. We wanted to force limitations and see how far we could take the songs with just us. Probably 90 percent of the record is all live takes. It’s very much an honest record.”
The album reflects these sentiments, each song lending itself to the idea of honest expression and genuine identity. “More Heart, Less Attack” is the heart of Rivers In The Wasteland, written in the studio as a response to the pressure of doing something for the wrong reasons. “Rise Again,” a twanging acoustic ballad, is about the necessity of adversity in order to move forward and the pensively soulful “Difference Maker” contemplates the qualities the musicians hope to embody in their lives, embracing a sparse instrumentation that lends to the emotional tone of the song. “The Heart,” the disc’s lead single, is a stomping number imbued with an infectious sense of hopeful anticipation. In the end, after the album was complete, the band saw the connectivity of the songs, each songwriter’s contributions threaded together in a surprising way.
“On the other side of it, it’s crazy how these songs really show a clarity that I don’t think we had while writing them,” Bear says. “These songs feel very timely for us. They feel like they were written for this time that we’re in now, not when we actually wrote them.”
“Being in the band for years now, there’s only a handful of moments where everybody in the band is on the same page,” Bo adds. “Going into this record, there’s no doubt that we were all of one mind and being inspired by the same things. We wanted to say the same things. I think this record is mostly about the journey of the heart. Ours were in much different places when we started this record but now, like the first day we started the band, are of the same heart.”
The past few years have seen NEEDTOBREATHE touring relentlessly, crisscrossing the country on multiple headlining tours, playing standout sets at major festivals like Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits, and performing throughout Europe (which included a personal highlight of opening for Sting in France). They’ve experienced the departure of their longtime drummer and a harrowing band scuffle that landed one member in the emergency room, but have also seen the birth of Bo’s first child and found a sincere reconciliation between brothers. Rivers In The Wasteland balances a palpable tension between two very different songwriters with a sense of brotherhood and shared voices. The album reveals that truly honest and authentic music can only come when everyone in the band believes in the same thing. For the musicians, the hope is that the songs inspire their fans and emphasize how committed NEEDTOBREATHE is to doing what they love in a way that doesn’t compromise anything.
“We’ve come through some rough moments and some amazing moments,” Bo says. “We’re the most energized we’ve ever been. The band is young again. We’ve got a new sense of purpose and we believe in what we’re doing and are completely honored and humbled that there are fans out there who appreciate that and love the music along with us. We just fell back in love with the idea of what we get to do.”