HotStar: NeedToBreathe

One can look at South Carolina quartet NeedToBreathe a couple of ways – as a tight-knit, family-based Southern rock band or, because of the group’s Christian radio presence and multiple Dove Award nominations, as a contemporary Christian band. But settling on just one would be grossly underestimating them.

NeedToBreathe frontman and rhythm guitarist Bear Rinehart was still playing football and setting records at Greenville’s Furman University when he co-founded the band in 1999 with brother Bo on guitar and childhood friends Joe Stillwell on drums and Seth Bolt on bass.

The family patriarch, an Assembly of God pastor in the Rineharts’ hometown of Possum Kingdom, was definitely an early influence before Bear and the rest of the group got restless.

“Our dad was a preacher, so when we first started the band, a lot of our opportunities were through that,” Rinehart told Pollstar. “But we decided pretty quickly that we wanted to play the club in our town.”

Because religion remains a part of NeedToBreathe’s music, they’re signed to Atlantic but also marketed to contemporary Christian radio by Nashville’s Word Records. From the beginning, though, the group worked hard to make sure that element didn’t overwhelm everything else.

“We really don’t want to be known as just a Christian band. I think the reason is mainly that our music is fit for more people. I don’t like the implication that you have to be Christian to like our band or come to see a show.

“We used to say if you were looking for a doctor and there were four ads, you wouldn’t automatically just choose the one with the Christian fish on it.

“That’s how we looked at our music. We asked, ‘Are we credible? Can we compete with the big boys?’ So it made sense to us to play where our favorite bands played.”

Turns out it was a smart decision. Over the next few years, NeedToBreathe built a reputation along the Eastern Seaboard as a must-see live act by adhering to a relentless touring schedule based on an absurdly simple strategy.

“I remember drawing a circle around where we lived that included places four or five hours away and saying, ‘We’ve got to be the biggest band in this area and we’ve got to play all the clubs that you should play,’” the singer recalled. “It’s still my favorite thing to do.”

So has the band ever achieved that goal?

“It’s hard to know for sure,” Rinehart admitted. “But we know every gas station on every major interstate on the East Coast.”
Another element that figures heavily in NeedToBreathe’s success is family. CAA Nashville’s Jeff Krones met Bear Rinehart while they were both attending Furman, convinced his dad, Kip Krones, to manage the band and then became their agent after graduating.

The younger Krones was impressed by Bear’s artistic passion, business acumen and common-sense attitude when it came to the music.

“They never made music just for the Christian market,” he told Pollstar. “They made music to be listened to by as many people as possible. And someday they want to be playing that music in arenas. That’s the goal. That’s what every move has been toward.”
“Bear’s been smart,” father Kip agreed. “He plays the same set no matter what the venue is. We don’t play a lot of specific Christian shows: We have a bigger agenda.”

He said that agenda started to become a reality early last year.

“Bear called me and said, ‘I know the numbers aren’t any bigger than they were on the last tour, but something different is going on. I can feel it. You can’t see it because you’re not on the road all the time, but just trust me.’ And lo and behold, on the following tour in the fall, the numbers were double. So he was on to something. And now the numbers are doubling and tripling and, in some cases, quadrupling.”

It would be easy to attribute that growth solely to NeedToBreathe’s touring ethic. But some of the credit has to go to the music on the band’s 2009 release, The Outsiders. Although the songs have an unmistakable southern pedigree, they run the gamut stylistically and should appeal equally to fans of acoustic and alt-rock, chamber pop, sweeping orchestral anthems and hymn-like ballads. And unless you listen very closely, it’s almost impossible to tell which tracks have been marketed to CCR.

“We’re proud that we can really tell if somebody who’s reviewed our record listened to the whole thing or not, because it’s a complete mess from the beginning to the end,” Rinehart revealed. “That was a little bit on purpose, trying to go from one extreme to another.”

And so, without a giant radio hit or massive marketing campaign and despite the fact the band’s musical diversity leaves programmers scratching their heads, NeedToBreathe is moving inexorably toward those arenas.

When the guys wrap their current tour in the fall, they’ll hit the studio to record a new album. But they won’t be away long and when they return, it’ll be to venues twice as large as this time around.

“I think that’s the thing that’s been really turning people on to our band,” Rinehart said. “They know that we’re going to be back in five or six months and we’ll put on the best show we possibly can.

“It’s really been a word of mouth thing. There’s no better setup than having a fan bring a friend they’ve told how great we are before they get there – because they’re fired up and ready to be into it.”