Published on April 19th, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann0
The Stop Light Observations: A Young Band Makes a Smart Debut
If you listen to tidbits of the the first few songs on Charleston pop-rock sextet Stop Light Observations’ well-polished new studio album Radiation, you won’t assume that it’s a rookie band’s debut collection.
Led by exuberant lead singer Will Blackburn and versatile multi-instrumentalists John-Keith Culbreth and Louis Duffie, Stop Light Observations’ carefully arranged, slickly polished sound is emotive and elegant. Based on an onslaught guitar ‘n’ synth and anchored on a solid foundation of Luke Withers’s drumming, Coleman Sawyer’s electric bass and extra fiddle work, and Wyatt Garey’s guitar and keyboard embellishments, the new 16-song album shows a young band determined to display their peculiar talents in peculiar ways.
When Metronome Charleston caught up with Coleman Sawyer last week, he and his bandmates had just put the final touches on Radiation at Charleston Sound in Mt. Pleasant. Their official CD release show at the Music Farm was fast-approaching, and they were still waiting for the final copies of their new studio album to be delivered.
“We went down to the wire at the studio when we finished this up, and we’re cutting things down to the very last second with the CDs, too,” Sawyer says. “We had a song to mix and another to arrange and record during our last day in the studio. It all really came together, though — harmonies and everything.”
The band’s story begins in Mt. Pleasant, where the core members grew up. Culbreth, Withers, and Duffie started played together in garage bands during their middle school and early years at Wando High School. Blackburn joined up during their during those high school years, too. Sawyer signed on as the bulk of of the band approached graduation. Garey completed the official lineup last year.
“They asked me to come on and play a few graduation parties with them after our senior year,” Sawyers says of his bandmates. “Louis’ cousin is actually [drummer] Jim Sonefield of Hootie and the Blowfish, so we became we acquainted with him and [guitarist] Mark Bryan as things started shaping up for us. We actually did our first serious recordings with Bryan at his home studio in Awendaw. We stayed out there for two days and really got a feel for how to do the studio thing.”
While recording and producing a proper studio album in a professional facility was a relatively new adventure for Stop Light Observations, they’d already spent years honing their songwriting craft, technical chops, and general game plan.
“We were very fortunate right off the bat,” Sawyer says. “John-Keith’s parents were especially supportive, setting us up with amps and a PA. Our manager Zach Sisk was a great early supporter, too. Zach came to see us perform, and then met up with us at the band room. After he agreed to work with us, he got us some of our biggest and best gigs. His support has been amazing. I think that’s why we might come off more professionally than some people expect; it’s his influence.”
Stop Light Observations recorded numerous demos at home during their formative years. They collaborated with colleagues and mentors and headlined more than a few shows of their own at local clubs and bars. By the time they entered Charleston Sound last summer with two dozen solid original songs, they were properly prepared and well funded (via a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $12,000).
“This album has been in the works since we were 13 years old,” the band stated on its Kickstarter page. “We have put in our life savings, gig money, and side-job paychecks to take our sound and creation to where it needs to be. We have a sound and story that is going to make a difference, and we have worked so hard and are so close to letting the world hear this creation on an album, so that’s why we’re here.”
On their early demos, Stop Light Observations’ material blended elements of contemporary alternative rock with pop, soul, and Americana. It was a bit straightforward, but Blackburn’s singing style stood out as heavy and expressive with a strong vibrato.
“When Will started singing, he’d never had a lesson or anything,” Sawyer says. “His voice sounded beautiful, though. At one point as the band was forming, John-Keith had a dream that Will was in the band. He called him up the next day and invited him in. At first, Will held back a lot, but John-Keith and the other guys encouraged him to loosen up and get weird with the songs. He’s developed his style a lot since then.”
Radiation takes an unexpected psychedelic detour from the early stuff, expanding into prog/arena rock, hip-hop, and modern soul territories. Some songs have their atmospherically hushed moments, but most of it bounces in and out of classic power-pop mayhem, Brit-rock experimentation, and modernized blue-eyed soul.
“We all brought different influences into the band early on,” says Sawyer, who dabbled in playing Irish/Celtic tunes and bluegrass before joining the band. “The band’s songwriting has developed more and more over the last year. We actually wrote a couple of the new songs on the fly in the studio, but most of them were written solely by John-Keith. It’s funny, he can never figure out what genre we were. I never know quite how to put it, either. Now, I can simply refer someone to the new album.”
Stop Light Observations hosts a CD Release Show at the Music Farm at 8 p.m. on Sat. April 20. Singer-songwriter Andy Lehmann opens the show. Admission is $8 (ages 16 and up). Visit musicfarm.com and stoplightobservations.com for more.
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