Most bands created by a couple of kids at the age of 13 never go further than the garages they practice in. But when it comes to the young composer John-Keith Culbreth and his band Stop Light Observations (SLO), it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine a notebook somewhere in his house with a rough sketch of the first 10 years of the band completely figured out.
Take for instance SLO’s approach to their long-awaited new album. Their 2013 release Radiation took many in the music industry by surprise and put the group of young, multitalented musicians on the local music scene’s radar. However, these days the members have stripped the slick production that was evident on that disc.
“With the last album, we went to a professional studio, and on the new one we went out to a plantation built in the 1700s on Yonges Island,” the young songwriter explains. “We packed up and built a home studio, with a live drum room inside of the living room and a vocal room inside an old bedroom. It was out on a river, and we just lived there for three weeks and live-tracked the entire thing. It was completely different from the first album and just a life-changing experience.”
While Culbreth isn’t one to complain about the success that Radiation unexpectedly brought the band, the past two years haven’t been without bumps in the road. The band is currently mixing the new album, with a release date still up in the air. And while the sold-out shows are great, fans are ready for the new material to drop. The band leader realizes that while there may have been mistakes made over the past two years, he’s also seen careers left tattered after labels have picked the talent apart. Things could have gone much worse than just being slow with a follow-up effort.
“We started the band when we were 13 and never played a show until we were 20,” he says. “And then within a 15-month period, we released a demo and then Radiation, and then we suddenly went from having never played a show to suddenly selling out the Music Farm and playing Bonnaroo,” he explains. “Then the music industry people started giving us attention real quick.”
Culbreth thinks that the music world has a preconceived formula they want everyone to follow, but these days it keeps changing. “The industry is falling apart at the same time that music is growing in other areas than record sales,” he says. “It’s just that the industry is lost right now, and I think most of them would admit that — and when they tried to get involved with us, it just confused them even more. We were only 20 years old. We didn’t have traditional management, and we were trying to do everything ourselves. It’s a learning process, and I think in the last two years we have grown a lot — maybe got a little jaded, got a little lost. But luckily we never took any deals and came out stronger, both musically and friendship-wise.”
One thing that has grown since SLO first exploded on the scene is the band’s love for the city that’s embraced them. While many musicians may proudly call the Holy City home, too often they hear the siren call of Nashville or New York and head out to strike it big in a larger media market. Culbreth believes there’s something special happening here, and he wants to play his small part in developing it.
“Charleston has an incredible group of artists all across the board: musicians, photographers, painters, writers, bloggers,” he says. “The way I look at it is that Nashville wasn’t always a great music scene, Seattle wasn’t always a great music scene, and Austin wasn’t either. What happened was that when all of the artists came together and stopped competing against one another, they ended up building each other up, and there was an explosion at the epicenter of the scene.”
He continues, “I think that right now, Charleston is really close to becoming a nationally recognized music scene. It hasn’t happened yet, but the thing is, I don’t want to move to Nashville and miss out on it. Part of our mission is to take all of the love that we have gotten from Charleston, give it back in return, and help Charleston become that recognized international arts scene. We think with the second album, we can do that, if we get the help that we need.”