Stop Light Observations
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Stop Light Observations

Charleston, South Carolina, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2014

Charleston, South Carolina, United States
Established on Jan, 2014
Band Alternative




"An Interview with John-Keith Culbreth of Stop Light Observations"

Charleston, South Car­olina rock­ers Stop Light Obser­va­tions recently released their debut album, Radi­a­tion. In one of our most inter­est­ing inter­views to date, I got a chance to talk to the band’s pianist, multi-instrumentalist, and lead song­writer John-Keith Cul­breth. From men­tions of Plato’s cave to a new app, along with the eclec­tic music of the band, Cul­breth and I cov­ered almost as much ground as their LP.

I fig­ure a good place to start is your name because it is def­i­nitely an inter­est­ing one. Any insight on what it means or is it just a ran­dom phrase?

When I was prob­a­bly 19 years old, every­body went off to col­lege. I’d been with the band since I was 13 and every­body sud­denly seemed like they were going their sep­a­rate ways. I had come to this point where I was won­der­ing if we were gonna keep play­ing music or not. I was think­ing real long and hard about it, but either way we wanted to trans­form and come up with a new band name.

I found myself sit­ting at a four-way stop­light in Charleston, [South Car­olina]. I was sit­ting there in heavy traf­fic just watch­ing all of these peo­ple look­ing around. I thought about how no mat­ter how pow­er­ful, ego­tis­ti­cal, anx­ious, or doubt­ful some­body could be, every­body lis­tens to this robot up in the sky called the ‘stop­light.’ Plus, no mat­ter how busy of a day you are hav­ing, the stop­light gives you that moment to sit and med­i­tate in traf­fic and make all of these obser­va­tions. I then said to myself, “Wow, it’s pretty crazy how all of these peo­ple make all of these stop light observations.”

On the cor­ner of this four-way stop­light – the busiest in Charleston – there is also this old man, who is on the cover of our album, Radi­a­tion. He sat there for 25 years, rain or shine, sell­ing news­pa­pers, and I just thought, “Wow, he must be the king of stop­light observations.”

Right then it clicked. I was like, “Alright, that’s what we are going to name our band.” I called up every­body while they were at dif­fer­ent schools and col­leges and told them the name.

So you all went your sep­a­rate ways for col­lege. How did that work? Did you just all come back after grad­u­a­tion and reconvene?

No. I’m the only one that fin­ished col­lege. Also, Louis, our rhythm gui­tar player, has one year left at Clemson.

Now, let’s talk about the album. I don’t even know how to describe it. It is a pretty heavy lis­ten and it cov­ers a lot of ground. The one thing, espe­cially at the begin­ning, that con­tin­u­ally jumped out at me was this idea of sto­ry­telling. Some songs are even like Jim Croce songs where every­thing is very clear and you can actu­ally fol­low the story, begin­ning, mid­dle, and end. Is sto­ry­telling impor­tant in your songwriting?

Well, I’m from Charleston, South Car­olina, I was born up in the coun­try, and sto­ry­telling is very impor­tant in the south, espe­cially in Charleston and the South Car­olina delta region. Sto­ry­telling is basi­cally every­thing that Stop Light Obser­va­tions is. Our songs are sto­ries, indi­vid­u­ally, and Radi­a­tion tries to tell 16 sto­ries that together make a col­lec­tive story. Basi­cally, the theme and mis­sion state­ment at the cen­ter of our sto­ries is this idea of light over­com­ing dark­ness, good over­com­ing evil, love over­com­ing hate, the impor­tance of shar­ing this with peo­ple, and the impor­tance of fill­ing your thoughts with these ideas so cor­rup­tion and temp­ta­tion can­not over­come you. So absolutely, sto­ry­telling is very impor­tant in what we do.

Obvi­ously, every­body is telling a story, but for most other artists it is not as clear as you guys make it.

We don’t want to just have clear sto­ry­telling but also a clear body and struc­ture. It is almost like a ser­mon, but a ser­mon using analo­gies and metaphors that clearly define a story. Any­body can fit a song in a story, but we like to know exactly what we are say­ing and what the pur­pose is behind it. We want to define as clearly as pos­si­ble the story to the lis­tener while still enter­tain­ing the messages.

Lyri­cally, you have pretty much just cov­ered every­thing I think. You have these incred­i­ble sto­ries and extremely appar­ent dichotomies within each song, but musi­cally the album tra­verses so much ground. For me, it was like lis­ten­ing to an early Queen album where you just don’t know what the next song will be like or what turn a song will take, while still being a cohe­sive LP. At the begin­ning you feel a lot of blues and then by the end, right around “Pur­ple Peo­ple,” you just have no idea where you are. Because it seems so diverse, can you give us some insight of where your musi­cal influ­ences lie? Maybe specif­i­cally name a few albums that influ­enced you guys, if you can.

Our lead singer grew up lis­ten­ing to Ray Charles and blues singers. Our gui­tar player has been play­ing since he was two and has been play­ing for a black gospel church every­day since he was like five. Our bass player, who is also our fid­dle player, has been play­ing in Irish fid­dle groups since he was a child. He has even trav­eled to Ire­land to play. My favorite peo­ple are Elvis and Frank Sina­tra. The rest of us just like clas­sic rock. I guess it’s very, very eclectic.

What we wanted was to tell a story with where we started out with our roots. The album starts out very south­ern and it’s really inter­laced with south­ern cul­ture and sound. Then it evolves into a more new age sound, which rep­re­sents the evo­lu­tion of who we are.

As far as some albums, I have no idea where to even begin. It’s just so eclec­tic, and the way we feel about music is that we wanted to write an album that when we come out with new music it wasn’t gonna restrict us to our sound. We didn’t want to release a bunch of south­ern rock and then release a bunch of stuff next album that sounds like “Pur­ple Peo­ple” and have peo­ple say­ing, “What the hell is this?” We also didn’t want to release some­thing like “The Maze” and “The Kids Can’t Sleep” and then release stuff like “Search into Your Soul” and the begin­ning tracks and have peo­ple [again] say, “What the hell is this?” We wanted to have an album that was a tran­si­tion album, like Dark Side of the Moon, that has an eclec­tic diver­sity of sounds and showed who we were, so then when our careers grew we had more free­dom to play what we wanted.

Nowa­days there are no rules. You don’t have to have an album with ten songs that sound the same. You can do what­ever you want, and that’s what we did. We wanted to cre­ate a piece of art that estab­lished 100% cre­ative free­dom, that lib­er­ated our­selves and the lis­tener to be stim­u­lated by a vocab­u­lary of dif­fer­ent gen­res and styles.

I guess it really is an album that is com­ing from many places. Just men­tion­ing your influ­ences though, you men­tion many older guys, and I feel like that’s where every­body goes back to. Nev­er­the­less, as you noted, the album evolves into this more mod­ern sound as it pro­gresses. Are there any mod­ern artists that have influ­enced your music?

Def­i­nitely, Big­gie Smalls, Tupac, and a lot of East and West Coast rap­pers from the late 90s. Also, Out­cast, Cold­play and Santigold have had a big influ­ence on me. I know our lead singer lis­tens to a lot of guys like Bro­ken Bells. It’s just eclec­tic, honestly.

One thing though, is that we’re not really into artists. We are just usu­ally into songs or albums or any­thing that’s never been heard before. Also, we lis­ten to My Morn­ing Jacket for sure. We just lis­ten to tracks that bring us together rather than artists. If there are artists though, they are def­i­nitely older artists. With new stuff, it’s mostly songs, like Santigold’s “Dis­parate Youth” or Fos­ter the People’s Torches album.

Actu­ally, on the sec­ond half of the album the two biggest influ­ences are prob­a­bly Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven. I got really into clas­si­cal music and we were all mess­ing around with sym­phonic com­po­si­tions. Also, just a lot of sounds, like elec­tronic jazz tracks and dub tracks and mix­ing them with sym­phonic sounds and rock was a huge thing for us.

If some­body were to ask me what sort of genre you guys play or to describe your sound, I don’t even know if I could do it. If you had to describe Stop Light Observation’s sound, how would you do it?

Com­mon advice when some­one asks your genre is ‘don’t tell them, let them fig­ure it out’ because you don’t want to be nailed down to one genre, but, in our case, we started describ­ing our­selves as trans­for­ma­tional rock.

What we want to do as a band is to awaken peo­ple from the cor­rup­tion, con­for­mity, and con­di­tion­ing that has been placed in West­ern culture’s mind. There’s all this hurt­ing, depres­sion, over­stim­u­la­tion, and mis­guided direc­tion and we just want to show peo­ple the sim­ple mes­sage of what life is about: have a pos­i­tive atti­tude and share that with peo­ple. What that is, is trans­form­ing somebody.

Our genre is just an eclec­tic, melting-pot of styles that trans­forms. That’s why we call it trans­for­ma­tional rock. It’s pretty much the trans­for­ma­tion from dark­ness to light and the trans­for­ma­tion of all gen­res into one. By call­ing our­selves trans­for­ma­tion rock, not only is it a new genre, but it also fol­lows the advice of ‘don’t put your­self in one genre’ because trans­for­ma­tional rock is the idea of infi­nite gen­res mixed together. So that’s what I’d say we are: trans­for­ma­tional rock. No inter­viewer can ever say what we are and that is why. We are trans­form­ing all ideas into one. That’s what true art is. If you can nail down your genre then you are just imi­tat­ing and imi­ta­tion is sui­cide. Imi­ta­tion is not art. Only you can be your­self. If you are try­ing to be any­body else but you, you are try­ing to be some­body else but bet­ter than them and that is impos­si­ble. Nobody can be bet­ter at being them­selves than you, and that’s a big idea of what trans­for­ma­tional rock is.

You sound like a philoso­pher. I have never got­ten an answer even remotely like that. Now, look­ing at your cre­ative process for this trans­for­ma­tional rock, one of the most incred­i­ble songs on the record is “Pur­ple Peo­ple” because it starts in one place and then you get to the end and you have no idea where you are. Can you give us some insight on that song? How it came about?

One of my influ­ences for that song was Plato’s alle­gory of the cave. I was in a phi­los­o­phy class and we were learn­ing about the alle­gory and how the world casts this shadow of this real­ity that we all believe.

I was also think­ing of that Bible school nurs­ery rhyme that goes like, “Jesus loves all the children/All the chil­dren of the world/Brown, yel­low, black and white/They’re all pre­cious in His sight/Jesus cares for the chil­dren of the world.” All of these peo­ple are equal, yet I still see these judged, tor­mented and doubted peo­ple. I thought these peo­ple must be pur­ple. They look brown, yel­low, black, or white yet they aren’t treated [equally].

I also had this friend who had been sit­ting on my couch, hav­ing an emo­tional break­down, at 4 in the morn­ing. He also started telling me about this idea, and I just started writ­ing the first words: “Vio­let, vio­lence, vio­lins decrescendo.” The song is basi­cally the clash­ing of all of these col­ors in a riot that become one. This idea is def­i­nitely a huge part of our pur­pose in try­ing to make peo­ple real­ize that a huge part of the world’s pain is peo­ple believ­ing that other peo­ple are so much dif­fer­ent than you.

If you believe that peo­ple are dif­fer­ent than you, then you believe that you are dif­fer­ent from the peo­ple. If you believe that you are dif­fer­ent than the peo­ple, then you will feel like an out­cast in the world, as if you don’t belong, but if you know that we are all exactly the same and have the same sole pur­pose to feel good and live this life with virtue, then you will know that we are all pur­ple peo­ple. We aren’t brown, yel­low, black, or white, but we are all the same.

I wrote that song, but a huge part of the song­writ­ing process is just the magic of the band com­ing together. We came together and got this song. It’s just mag­i­cal and def­i­nitely our favorite song.

That is with­out a doubt the most inter­est­ing answer I’ve ever got­ten for a story behind a song. Those are some really deep, philo­soph­i­cal ideas that you are putting forth. Any­way, I have one more ques­tion for you: what is the goal of Stop Light Obser­va­tion, cre­atively, in the future?

We are hop­ing in the next 6 to 10 months to release a web-based appli­ca­tion that we have been work­ing on. We have found all of the soft­ware devel­op­ers and are very excited and very proud. It’s called EMB.

I was think­ing about how nobody lis­tens to albums any­more. You go to Spo­tify and peo­ple only lis­ten to like the first two songs of an album. It costs so much money to make and then the record com­pany just dries you up from all of your cash flow and you have to pay them back. Cre­atively, this can be really restrictive.

A band like us writes one song a day, but we can never record that fast. I decided that I wanted to recre­ate the idea of a ’45 from like the 40s and 50s, with like an A-side and a B-side. I basi­cally wanted to have a dig­i­tal ’45 that could be released via push noti­fi­ca­tion on an application.

A big thing about being a musi­cian is that you release a sin­gle, and it may blow up, but then you want to know how you will get your fans to lis­ten to your next sin­gle. There has never been an answer to this ques­tion, but when peo­ple sign up for EMB – which stands for ‘Eigh­teen Megabytes of Music’ which is about two songs or ten min­utes of music – every 60 days there will be a count­down clock which counts down to the release of the next EMB.

So pic­ture your favorite artist releas­ing an EMB. You’d know 5 days and 14 hours until the release. You could lis­ten to the song com­pletely for free and put it on iTunes, or do what­ever you want. Then you can see how long until the next release.

This idea of the dig­i­tal ’45 is about non­stop and con­tin­ual releas­ing of music. It is to empower and free the artist. It is to empower and free the con­sumers. We are very excited about that and have lots of songs ready.

That’s a very inter­est­ing idea. I’ve always been an album per­son but increas­ingly, peo­ple are more inter­ested in sin­gles than whole LPs.

Also, albums are usu­ally 40 min­utes long and could eas­ily have been released in four parts. We really believe in the idea of con­tin­u­ous sto­ry­telling. With an EMB you can hear two songs one day and then another two in 60 days. Col­lec­tively, you will have a story.

Peo­ple don’t release albums any­more, any­way. It’s usu­ally ten sin­gles or 15 sin­gles. They don’t release a cohe­sive sin­gle idea like peo­ple used to. - University Primetime

"Stop Light Observations Jam in the Van Session"

"I’m quite confident that by this time next year, these dudes will be showing up to phestivals like old pros. " - Jam In The Van

"Six for the Road"

"you have to create a scene, or a movement, that people want to be a part of and have your own style,...has done exactly that" - Charleston Magazine

"Bonnaroo 2013 artist interview: Stoplight Observations"

"We caught up with Stoplight Observations' primary songwriter John-Keith Culbreth to talk about his upcoming show at Bonnaroo 2013" - The Examiner

"Local band Stop Light Observations to perform at First Flush Festeaval, then Bonnaroo"

"But factor in the groundswell of local support that keeps snowballing behind them, and the fact that they were chosen from about 1,000 bands around the country to play a set at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival this summer, and you’ve got a band poised for greatness." - Charleston Scene

"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."

"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." - Metronome Charleston

"Must See Bands at Savannah Stopover"

Stop Light Observations named one of the 30 must see bands at Savannah Stopover Music Festival - Savannah Now

"The Music Initiative Hot Pick"

"TMI Hot Pick" - Found Magazine

"Stop Light Observatons – Step Away From The Chaos And Enjoy This Band"

Coming up with a good band name is a key element for any group as they start out on their pursuit of fame. It has to be memorable and clever while being unique and let’s face it, with all the bands out there, so many great names and ideas have already been taken. A great band name has to make you stop and think and want to hear the music behind it. A name jumped out at me recently and the music did not disappoint. Come discover Stop Light Observations.

The Charleston, South Carolina band, also known as SLO, has been making a name for themselves with a unique style of Alternative Rock with influences that range from Motown to Arena Rock. It is clear that the group truly loves performing and telling their story along the way. The main members began playing together at Wando High School in 2007 and went through much soul searching playing shows throughout the south-east before reaching the connection that they have achieved today. The name Stop Light Observations came to songwriter John-Keith Culbreth while stopped at a light in busy traffic. The way that everyone seemed to take a moment to take it slow during the chaos made its impression of him and set the band in motion.

Last month Stop Light Observations released their true debut album The Zoo. The 13 track record features touches on all of the bands influences and seems to do each one well. The opener ‘The Kids Can’t Sleep’ has that mellow beat, yet powerful anthemic feeling made famous by bands like Kings Of Leon. A song that jumped out at me was ‘The Maze’. Singer Will Blackburn has a way of using his voice so it sounds like you are the only one he is singing too. The different instrumentals and tempo make the track stand out for its originality. It is clear that Stop Light Observations really enjoy playing the song ‘Search Into Your Soul’. The piano is touching; the drums suck you in, and Blackburn’s voice again grabs you and won’t let you go until he is done with you.

Bottom Line: Stop Light Observations has created an album, in The Zoo, that clearly represents the feeling of an aggressive live performance while remaining intimate enough to listen to over and over again.
- Indie Band Guru


Still working on that hot first release.



Charleston, South Carolina home-grown artist Stop Light Observations, also known as SLO started playing together at the young age of 13 when songwriter, and pianist John-Keith Culbreth asked guitarist Louis Duffie the iconic teenager boy question.... "wanna start a band?" Through the young years of focusing on writing great solid songs, the young duo picked up childhood friend Luke Withers, and Will Blackburn, to play dem' drums and sing dem' songs! Over time the adding of Coleman Sawyer on bass and fiddle, and Wyatt Garrey on lead guitar, formulated the power-dynamic six piece Rock Group know as Stop Light Observations.

Stop Light Observations plays a unique style described as Southern-Retro-Electro-Rock with influences of ; Classic Rock N' Roll, Indie, Motown, Hip-hop and Folk, Revival, Psychedelic, Garage, and Arena Rock. They claim their drive is the fun and spirit of performing and creating great songs, but most of all the camaraderie that is shared with this group of life long southern friends.The truly unique band Stop Light Observations plans on furthering their impact on the national music fan community and have some fun and change some lives for the good in the meantime.

Band Members