For John-Keith Culbreth, Stop Light Observations is more than just a band. It's a huge part of his life. The Stop Light singer and keyboardist first formed the much-loved local band — it boasts one of the single most rabid fanbases in town — with guitarist Louis Duffie when Culbreth was only 13. During Culbreth's years at Wando High School, other members joined the Stop Light fold, including drummer Luke Withers, vocalist Will Blackburn, bassist and fiddler Coleman Sawyer, and lead guitarist Wyatt Garey. Although they'd been around for seven years, the band didn't play their first club gig until the 2012 Charleston Beer Works Battle of the Bands contest. Since then, SLO has moved on to the Music Farm and, even more impressive, Bonnaroo.
In 2012, SLO released The Zoo, a collection debuting a distinctly Southern — yet decidedly modern — sound with blues and classic rock 'n' roll undertones packed with gritty vocals, grungy keys, and dirty beats. Less than a year later, the band released the psychedelic Radiation, which included several reworked tracks from the previous disc, including the hard-pounding anthem "Until the Sun Rises" and the indie-transcendental sexiness of "Smilers of the Night." While Stop Light might not get the press of their Holy City peers — we here at the City Paper have certainly been guilty of ignoring them — there's no doubt they are among the best in town. And there's no doubt they have a sound that is more polished and experimental than any other rock band in Charleston. Why these guys aren't already dominating radio is a mystery.
However, SLO's most pressing new venture isn't a follow-up to Radiation. They're joining the Silicon Harbor club. "We are in the development stage of creating a software called EMB (18 megabytes)," Culbreth says. "Picture Twitter with its limited character count but with music in the form of a release that only has 18 megabytes, or about two songs of memory." Culbreth says the inspiration was the old 45-single.
"We are starting a reformation in the music industry and awaking people to the corruption and greed of music corporations," Culbreth says. "Record labels get an artist, burn them out, convince them to put all their life savings into one album, conveniently provide them with loans that they can never pay back, and wash them out. Phillip Phillips is gone. He's not coming back."
The band's EMB software venture would take the typical project of a lengthy, time-consuming album and break it into two-song segments that would be released every month, that way a group's music would be constantly fresh. No more year-or-more-long gaps between album releases. "Some bands might think two songs a month is a lot to ask. My response is that you shouldn't be a successful or famous musician unless you can write two songs a month," says Culbreth.
The logistics of EMB are still being configured; the band is in the draft stages of conducting research and hiring a software coder and a graphic designer to construct and promote the project. "One thing Charleston doesn't know about us is that we have a lot of knowledge about the record industry, and we have a lot of stuff underneath our belts that we are working on," says Culbreth.
Beyond the development of EMB, Culbreth and company are busy promoting the band, honing their brand, and preparing for a fall tour. But they're not all work all the time. "Stop Light Observations stands for taking life slowly and having time to be aware of life's purpose of sharing love and positivity with everyone around you," Culbreth says. "An artist is someone who tells a story of their soul and then paints that on a canvas or creates it in a song. We like to think that we pour out our souls and create adventures in stories."
At Saturday's Music Farm show, the group will make a video. "The theme is good overcoming evil, and the show is all about the illumination of light inside of darkness," Culbreth says. "To tie in with that, there will be a totally dark concert with ultraviolet lights and special visual art effects. Think a neon forest."
Stop Light Observations will also be premiering a new track to open the show, which will be released as a live single.