On the evening of Friday, September 7, on the Main Lawn of the Southwestern campus, students, staff, faculty, and their families are invited to attend the annual PIRATE PARRRTY!—a celebration of the new academic year. The event will feature a pirate-themed photo booth, a bounce house, a climbing wall, carnival games, a caricature artist, and an intramural 4v4 volleyball tournament.

Headlining the event will be award-winning psychedelic rockers The Bright Light Social Hour.

From SU Rock Art Collective to International Recording Artists

If you’re a denizen of Austin’s live music scene, you’ve heard The Bright Light Social Hour at ACL Fest, SXSW, and Blues on the Green. You’ll recognize their modern-bluesy sound if you’ve watched Amazon Prime’s Sneaky Pete: their song “Harder out There” is the show’s main title. You might also recognize their anthemic vocals, killer guitar and bass riffs, and intense drumbeats from HBO’s Vice Principals, Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the CW’s Riverdale, or MTV’s Teen Wolf. The band’s kinetic stage performances and 2010 debut album earned them an unprecedented six Austin Music Awards in 2011, including Band and Album of the Year. In July 2012, they opened for Aerosmith in Quebec City. And if you interview them in a restaurant in Cedar Park in 2018, you’ll watch as various passersby can’t help but stop and express thanks for a particular show the band gave last year or the impact their music has had more generally.

Of course, if you were on campus in the early 2000s, you might just know some of the band members from classes or the residence halls. The Bright Light Social Hour was founded by three Southwestern alumni: Curtis Roush ’05, Thomas Choate ’05, and Jackie O’Brien ’07. Roush, a political science major, and Choate, an international studies major focusing on Latin American politics, had started playing music together, and after examining their influences and setting their intentions (as one might expect of typical SU students), they decided to put together a band their senior year. Back in the days when students could send out campus-wide emails, they posted an invitation for potential bandmates, and O’Brien, a Spanish major and biology minor, was the first to respond. “I kinda had this feeling,” Roush recalls. “I was seeing this guy on campus who was definitely the only guy on campus who would be into the music that we would like and who looked like a musician would look. Tom and I both hoped it was him. And it was.”

The three founding SU members teamed with Ryan O’Donoghue, a 15-year-old whose family owned a local guitar shop where Roush was teaching lessons. With Roush on guitar, O’Brien on vocals and keyboards, Choate on drums, and O’Donoghue on bass, the newly formed group began playing at the Cove on campus and the Korouva Milk Bar and Page House in Georgetown. Their sound at the time was, as O’Brien and Roush put it, an “effeminate take on hardcore punk and screamo,” with “disco beats and dream-pop moments. We were into real moody music, so we kind of mushed it all together.”

And the etymology of the band’s name? That has its roots in Southwestern, too. Roush was taking a religion class, Introduction to Hinduism, in which they watched a documentary featuring Indian activist Arundhati Roy, who had described the role of the activist as shining a “bright light” into the dark corners of society and on injustice. Roush connected with that image and felt that the artist’s role could be similar: not just providing entertainment or creating beauty but also questioning and creating something potentially transformational. The “social hour” part derived from a desire to make performances feel like inclusive community spaces.

Layers of Sound and Reflections on Music History

Fourteen years later, Choate and O’Donoghue have moved on, Joseph Mirasole commands the drums while Edward Braillif shreds on guitar and keyboards, Roush has joined in on vocals, O’Brien has taken over the bass—and the band is still rocking audiences. Their sound has changed along the way: They’ve traveled musically through punk, ambient, blues rock, southern rock, R&B, electronica, and dream pop. In fact, it’s a bit pointless to try to classify their eclectic stylings. “I think one of the things that marks us as progressive artists is that once we do something, we feel a need to react against it, to be very different,” says O’Brien. Their eponymous first album is a perfect example: “We took on a lot of classic rock and Southern rock feeling because we felt like that was a thing no one had done: marry them with future-leaning things like psychedelic and house and techno. So we did that, and it felt like we had found a unique space in music, but then it felt like it no longer needed to be done now that it was done.”

Today, their sound blends influences of crowd rock, motorik (the propulsive beats usually associated with krautrock), beach house, African rhythms, and Afro-Cuban beats—with psychedelia, funk, and soul remaining the “ties that bind,” as Roush says. Artists from Sly and the Family Stone and Marvin Gaye to the Flaming Lips and War have all helped inspire The Bright Light Social Hour’s sonic reinventions. The rich, layered album Lonerism (2012) by Australian psychedelic band Tame Impala, which began as a home-recording project by an individual artist, also galvanized the band’s turn toward thinking not just as musicians but also as producers and sound engineers.

And just to be clear, psychedelic music does not mean “good if you’re on drugs,” as O’Brien explains. “It’s music that invites the listener to be a part of it. It leaves space for you to meditate in it and expand your mind and consciousness … to contemplate and question.” As Roush adds, psychedelia is also a genre that’s changed over the decades. The psychedelic family tree includes the krautrock (experimental German rock) of the 1970s as well as the dream pop (think breathy vocals and textured, moody instrumentals) and shoegaze (ethereal vocals with layers of distorted guitar) of the 1980s and 1990s. “We’re informed by all those moments in time, not just 1960s psychedelia,” Roush says.

The connection goes beyond just music: One of their cited influences is the avante-garde Chilean–French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who scoffed at the term “psychedelic” because he didn’t want his films viewed under the influence. Rather, he believed that film itself could elicit an experience of alternate reality. O’Brien has rewatched Jodorowsky’s latest autobiopic, Endless Poetry (2015), four or five times over the past few months because he’s captivated by the idea that everything can be poetry. “We’re just trying to find the most direct path to the soul and the imagination,” he says.

The Pursuit of Music as a Profession

The Bright Light Social Hour might be one of the most critically acclaimed and popular bands in the Austin area now, but being professional musicians was not always the plan. “My life had always been weaving in and out of believing music was not a possibility” as a career, O’Brien recalls. But fate was calling, and his journey is a testament to the rewards of following your instincts.

He started at Southwestern as many college students do, assuming he’d follow the premed pathway. “It wasn’t until a year and a half in that I realized, ‘I actually hate this.’ … It just felt not right. So I considered every single major—business, political science—but nothing was feeling very appealing.” He knew he wanted to study abroad in Madrid, and the only way he could take part in that experience while still graduating in four years was to major in Spanish. So he declared the major, and the band took a brief hiatus while he studied creative writing, Peninsular Spanish literature, and translation strategy abroad. On the late Professor of Spanish Sonia Riquelme’s recommendation, he studied Flamenco guitar and delved into the local music scene.

When O’Brien graduated from SU, he was accepted to the University of Texas at Austin’s master’s program in linguistics—the field in which his mother had earned her doctorate. At the time, O’Brien thought, “I’m going to try one more avenue of something viable professionally. And it was that experience that proved to me that actually ‘something viable’ wasn’t really an option for me,” he says laughingly. “I might have a job and a steady paycheck, but I was going to be pretty unhappy.” He realized that building relationships and performing with The Bright Light Social Hour were what truly mattered. So O’Brien ended up finishing his master’s and taking jobs that were flexible and paid enough so he could get by, but the band became his mainstay. “It was pretty wild how immediate we saw beginner’s luck… . You get a taste of some good success—just enough to get you addicted to trying to recreate that.”

Roush agrees. After finishing his political science degree at SU, he took a year of audio engineering classes at Austin Community Colleges and then began a master’s in media studies at the University of Texas. “In college, the career path I envisioned for myself was to eventually teach and have an academic life,” Roush recalls. “I figured that music would always be more of a comfortable side thing.” He thought perhaps he might emulate the career of Sam Ervin Beam, the artist more popularly known as Iron & Wine, who had been a professor of film and cinematography before releasing his first album: He’d finish his master’s and return to political science for a PhD.

But one day during Roush’s first semester of graduate school, while crossing the South Congress Bridge in Austin, he experienced “an existential panic” mixed with a moment of epiphany, during which he realized he absolutely didn’t want to pursue a PhD or continue on as an academic. “I was doomed; I was stuck with music,” he says facetiously. “I had to figure out how to make it work.” He finished his M.A. while always looking forward to weekends and holidays of performing around Austin.

Roush recalls that he and O’Brien had to overcome self-doubt and pressure from family that they needed to have something to fall back on. “But if you spend all of your time developing your fallback plan,” Roush says, “you’ll never really do the plan itself, so I think it really took clearing out all the space in our lives to do it.”  

The Value of an SU Education in a Music Career

Nevertheless, O’Brien expresses immense gratitude that his mother pushed him not only to go to Southwestern but also to finish school here, in large part because if he had decided to commit to music earlier, he wouldn’t have been prepared. “I learned so much at Southwestern that really became crucial,” O’Brien says. “Being a musician is not just writing songs and performing. You’re really an entrepreneur, a business owner. You have to work on deadlines. It’s constant group work.” That work entails much more than creating music or editing videos; it also involves attending to administrative details, responding to constant emails, and marketing the band through social media. But the coursework the bandmates completed as SU undergraduates continues to apply to the creative aspects of their career, too—especially, as O’Brien remarks, “the critical thinking and analysis of taking apart works of art or literature or research and being able to distinguish between things that are really meaningful and things that are fluff.”

Both artists attribute their political consciousness and worldly perspective to SU as well. Roush remarks, “The culture of college has been really important to us, too, [such as] the development of social and political values and awareness [and] our interest in justice and change.” For Roush and O’Brien, the Southwestern Experience opened their minds to questioning “what freedom really is, … how we got here, and how it can be better.”

Roush affectionately looks back on the various personalities he encountered during his years on campus. “I always admired the eccentricity of the culture there,” he says. “There were all these sorts of hodgepodge hybrid cultures always bumping up against each other. I feel like people had a real willingness to do their own thing and be weird.” O’Brien quickly adds, “And support each other in being weird.” During those early years of The Bright Light Social Hour, the close-knit SU community was the ideal home: “If you go back to the music we were making back then, it was bizarre; it was out there—difficult to relate to. We really had people who would never be into the type of music that we made but were just really supportive and thought it was cool we were doing it and would come to our shows. To me, [it was] just an artistic and individualistic support system embracing that diversity.”

O’Brien also credits the relationships SU students could have with faculty, including his mentor, Dr. Riquelme, with shaping their passions and ambitions: “The ability to have access to professors that would be really real with you, that would give you all kinds of advice and feedback… . To feel like a professional who’s very established in their field would take you seriously and encourage you to think in your own way is really inspiring.”

Roush and O’Brien are looking forward to returning to their alma mater to share The Bright Light Social Hour’s distinctive sonic blueprint with the SU community on Friday night. “It’s really fun and really exciting,” O’Brien says. And their return performance—their first since Clusterfest 2012—won’t be the only cause for fans to celebrate: The band’s performance at Pirate Parrrty will coincide with their debut of a single and video from their newest EP, with their latest album scheduled for release later this month.

Roush and O’Brien provided a list of albums and artists that captures their Southwestern Experience in the early 2000s. Listen to their soundtrack below. 

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