Last year, Rosco Bandana reached a very important milestone in their young career: They got to play on a stage with lights.
Yes, it was a big moment for the seven-piece band from Gulfport, Mississippi, especially since said stage was in London, and they were playing the annual Hard Rock Calling festival (also on the bill: the Killers, Bon Jovi, Stevie Nicks, Rod Stewart). What's more, they had earned the slot after winning the Hard Rock Rising battle of the bands, a victory that would also earn them the distinction of being the first act signed to Hard Rock's new label. So, yeah, there was a lot going through their heads that day ... but let's start with those lights. They were a big deal.
"It was a great stage; it had lights and everything!" vocalist Jennifer Flint laughed. "When you have lights on stage, it gives you such a good feeling and energy. That helps a lot. We're from Mississippi, and we don't have that kind of stuff down there. We play in little bars and dives, not even stages. Like, back then, we were used to playing in the back of a restaurant."
"We never have a professional sound crew or even working monitors sometimes," percussionist Barry Pribyl Jr. added. "Usually, it's [bassist] Josh [Smith] playing and mixing at the same time; it's pretty intense. So, man, a sound crew, and lights ... they were luxuries."
And after spending years sweating it out on tiny Mississippi stages — "We'd usually play three- or four-hour shows," Flint sighed. "That's just what you had to do" — you can certainly understand why Rosco were blown away by that London gig ... not to mention the, uh, reception they received from the locals, who tend to have a thing for scruffy Southerners (just ask the Kings of Leon).
"[Singer] Jason [Sanford] and I got into a little mischief there ... nothing I can get into here," Pribyl winked. "We really got the hospitality of all the Londoners, and we ate tea and biscuits every morning."
And it would appear that the good times may keep on rolling Stateside, too. Their one-year deal with Hard Rock Records — which begins with the September 25 release of their debut, Time to Begin — has led to their first-ever national tour (it kicks off September 20 in Atlanta and runs until November) and raised their profile exponentially. And, at the very least, it'll make the gigs of their past a distant memory.
"One of the venues [we used to play], the Julep Room, it has six-or seven-foot ceilings, and it fits, packed out, like, 20 to 30 people," Pribyl explained. "And one night we packed the place out and we were all so excited, like, 'Man, this place is packed!' And then we went in there the next day and looked at it empty and realized how small of a venue it was, it was a little embarrassing ... we made, like, nothing at all and there was nobody there at all. So it's quite a change to be playing on big stages and have a light system and an actual sound guy who can do the sound right."
But how far can Rosco go? Well, thanks to their new deal ... and the success of bands like Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers, the time appears right for their mix of widescreen vocal harmonies and broiling bluegrass. And depending on which member you ask, they're either preparing for a life on the road, or a world-uniting smash. Either way, it's better than playing restaurants in Mississippi.
"My goal is to solidify something and make this go as long as it possibly can," mandolin and lap steel man Jackson Weldon said. "I've wanted to do this my whole life, and so making it a lifelong thing is what I want. I don't really care how big it gets, I just want to keep it going."
"Nah man," Sanford smiled. "I want to heal the world."
Hard Rock Hotel's Saturday night After Party, held just blocks away from Lollapalooza at the Hard Rock in downtown Chicago, was more than just a chance to catch sets from Chairlift and Midnight Conspiracy. It also doubled as a launch party of sorts for Hard Rock Records, the nascent in-house label founded by Hard Rock International in May.
The label's first signing, seven-piece Southern rock outfit Rosco Bandana, played a rousing opening set Saturday night that channeled their hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi -- turning the Hard Rock stage into a county fair for a solid 20 minutes or so. That the packed crowd was still cheering for more should bode well for Rosco Bandana's first album, due Sept. 25, and their accompanying tour this fall. It's also hardly surprising, considering Rosco Bandana beat out some 12,000 other bands who competed in the Hard Rock Rising battle-of-the-bands competition in 2011, ultimately inspiring Hard Rock International to create its own label that could provide distribution, recording, A&R, touring and, perhaps most crucially, marketing support for developing artists.
Suddenly Hard Rock International is in a small but growing pool of brands creating labels or providing label-like services for artists, including Red Bull, Mountain Dew, Converse and Toyota's Scion. Blake Smith, the label's co-head of A&R, insists the label is not a for-profit venture for Hard Rock but instead a way for the company to give back to the artist community that plays thousands of shows at Hard Rock venues worldwide every year.
Rosco Bandana in particular seemed to embody the unique live experience Hard Rock seeks to create in its 174 locations. "As soon as you stop having to worry about money, we could pick a band we really want to sign," Smith says. "We talk to artists and they'll assume that there's a catch and there's not a catch. You keep everything the whole time, and if labels come knocking we say we hope they sign you."
Recording the album in Los Angeles in itself was a life-changing experience for Rosco Bandana, whose members had never been further west than Louisiana prior to Hard Rock's flying them out for the sessions with producer Greg Mitchell. "They've helped us out in every single way possible," says the band's Barry Pribyl, Jr. "Whenever we play anywhere they hook us up with hotel rooms. We were fortunate enough to work with big producers… Being the first band on the label almost feels like a responsibility. They've just been very supportive of anything we do."
Smith says the label has contracts out to two other acts, and is close to finalizing a distribution partnership with would give Rosco Bandana's album a physical retail release in addition to digital when it's out next month. A massive promotional campaign on thousands of screens across all Hard Rock venues and hotels will roll out over the next few months, featuring custom music video and concert footage content.
A musician himself and former member of "several bands who were signed to major labels but never went anywhere," Smith understands the need for labels who want to help artists develop without intruding on rights or creative control. "As an artist I would've jumped on it," he says. "There's literally no strings attached, no downside."
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