Not long ago, one could accurately refer to drummer Joe Stillwell as a young musician in an up-and-coming alternative rock band. This year, as he and Needtobreathe toil through a massive 19-week North American tour with mega-star Taylor Swift, his job title earns an upgrade to stadium rocker.
At home in Charleston this week during one of the few, brief breaks in the tour, Stillwell is fit, healthy, and surprisingly unspent. He's especially excited about doing a small-scale benefit show at one of his favorite local venues, the Pour House, too.
"We're maybe approaching a fifth of the way through," Stillwell says of the current state of the road trip. "It's a little ridiculous. It's like 62 shows or something like that, and it lasts through the beginning of October."
Three years ago, Stillwell and his bandmates were clamoring to play bars and clubs around the Carolinas and the Southeast. Originally from the Upstate town of Seneca, they released two indie studio albums — Daylight (2006) and The Heat (2007) — before relocating to Charleston.
This summer, warming up for Swift and headlining occasional one-off concerts, the band finds themselves on stage at big theaters, arenas, and stadiums. It's a grueling run, but the band is totally psyched to work through it.
"We've been busting our butts for years, trying to make this thing happen, so I think we've kind of built up a tolerance to working hard," says Stillwell. "That's just the work ethic we have, you know? Even when we were still in college, we'd play shows every weekend. We're used to the pace. The scale is something completely different that we're trying to keep up with. It's a whole different scope than we're used to."
This week, Needtobreathe return to Charleston to perform an intimate show at the Pour House designed to benefit the Palmetto Medical Initiative (palmettomedical.org), an organization that provides sustainable healthcare and accessibility to global medical missions in impoverished communities around the world.
In 2009, Stillwell, lead singer and guitarist Bear Rinehart, brother/guitarist Bryant "Bo" Rinehart, and bassist Seth Bolt released a gleaming studio album titled The Outsiders on Atlantic Records. The collection earned them several Dove awards (the contemporary Christian equivalent of the Grammy Awards), including one for Group of the Year.
"We're definitely not always perfect gentlemen," Stillwell says of life on the road. "When you have two brothers in a band, they're going to get at each other, and they're going to mix it up a little. But honestly, it's like we're all brothers because we've been doing this for so long. Even before the band, we all knew each other from growing up together, so we know how to push each other's buttons. But we also know how to reconcile and get along with each other to get done what we've got to get done."
In recent months, the band earned additional success with a crossover hit titled "Girl Named Tennessee," one of the more country-accented tunes on The Outsiders. Could it be that contemporary country radio is ready to embrace the quartet as a bona fide country-pop act?
"I don't think we're actively trying to think to ourselves, 'Oh, now we want to try and go a little more country,'" Stillwell says. "We've always embraced a little bit of that twanginess. It's kind of been hard, being from the South. Growing up in the South, you really get away from the fact that you're Southern guys, and it's going to sound a little bit country, no matter what you do. But it's not an active leaning to, 'Oh, now we want to sound a little more twangier.' I think it was more just like this song feels like it could fit in a kind of country environment, and let's explore that idea and see what comes out of it.
"I think you've got to cover that spectrum, especially for us," he adds. "We've got a wide range of influences. We don't want to feel like we're repeating ourselves, but we also don't want somebody to really be able to categorize what we do. As soon as you start getting placed into a specific genre, then you've got trouble."