It’s six miles or so from Furman University to the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina. But for Bear Rinehart, lead singer of rock act Needtobreathe, that journey took over two decades.
“It’s way bigger than we really ever thought it actually would be,” Rinehart tells Rolling Stone. “And the fact we’re still doing it seems way longer. If you asked me, ‘Are you going to do it for 10 years?’ I’d say probably not. That would seem crazy.”
Perched on a backstage couch at Bon Secours, Rinehart is getting ready to take the stage in front of a crowd of thousands. While the rest of Needtobreathe meanders around, Rinehart’s eyes peer out from underneath a flat-brim hat pulled down low, shooting a look of intensity and seriousness.
“But at the same time, we thought we’d be huge within a year,” Rinehart, now 43, laughs. “And we were dumb enough [to think that] coming out of college.
“We always talk about the two mountains in life,” Rinehart continues. “First one’s the simple stuff and you need to build off of that. Then, you get to the second one and realize what life’s all about — that’s where we are now, this sense that we do this for ourselves because we enjoy it.”
The long, winding road of Needtobreathe begins on the campus of Furman circa 2001. Rinehart, a wide receiver on the school’s football team, began playing local cafes with his brother, Bo. With their father a South Carolina pastor, the siblings were raised around gospel music — a vocal style and vibrato that remains at the heart of Bear’s ethereal stage presence.
“Even when I was in high school, I started writing songs and thinking, ‘I’m going to have a band,’” Rinehart says. “I came to Furman and roomed with a guy I knew who played drums. There was another guy in our hallway who played. I spent more time dreaming of what the career was going to look like than [paying attention] in class.”
Titled after a Socrates story about seeking God, Needtobreathe quickly bubbled up from the Furman dorms and into the Greenville music scene, ultimately packing out the now-defunct Handlebar — an early high-water mark for the group.
“Selling out the Handlebar was the thing, and they all came to see us,” Rinehart says.
Crossing the 20-year mark is something Rinehart mulls with both amusement and disbelief as he recounts the steps — and missteps — that led to the group succeeding on the arena level. That’s a rare feat for rock bands these days, especially one that almost fell apart 13 years ago.
Around that time, Needtobreathe were at a breaking point. Rinehart’s forthcoming about how dire things were in the group — overzealous egos and substance abuse both played a role — and the darkness that consumed a band that first started in the Christian music world.
“If we want to keep doing this, we can’t do that anymore,” Rinehart says. “And all of us were growing up, which I think is a hard thing to do when people are telling you you’re great every night. It’s hard to look in the mirror and go, ‘Well, maybe this is my fault.’”
Rinehart says he ran the band the way a football team is coached, where individuals could be penalized for dropping the ball. He once described his ambition to RS as “toxic.”
“There was a certain intensity to what I did,” Rinehart admits. “Early on, if people got in the way, I saw that as getting in the way of [my dream]. ‘You’re messing this up. We’ve got to fix this tonight.’ You learn leadership, you learn what’s motivating each guy in the band.”
Rinehart’s brother Bo left the band in 2020, yet another hurdle for Needtobreathe. But the group was determined to persevere.
“Part of us getting over that period was finding how to use counseling and [asking] for help,” Rinehart says. “Talking about things took away the power of the secrets that you have. When you say those things out loud, you realize, ‘Oh, I’m going to have to deal with this’ — there isn’t going to be somebody else who’s going to fix this.”
The band just wrapped a nationwide tour in support of their latest LP, Caves. Like past efforts, it’s a rock album of conflict — darkness and light, triumphs and tribulations. They’ll return to the road to promote Caves in the spring, teaming up with Judah & The Lion.
Needtobreathe are at their best in the live setting, where they take what’s been cultivated in the studio and allow it to erupt onstage. Their shows can recall those of Imagine Dragons, Coldplay or the Avett Brothers.
“We’re playing for that 16-year-old kid [out there],” Rinehart says. “Remember that concert you went to that first time and you were just blown away by every detail? That’s who every audience member is.”
Bounding onstage in Greenville, Needtobreathe bulldozes the audience with a slew of new material and cherished signature numbers, all backed by an overwhelmingly impressive stage production. But at it’s core, the performance is about a band doing their own thing, in close proximity to where it all began.
“We get to do this. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve played, you can’t deserve this,” Rinehart says. “Yes, you can put in a ton of work. But other people do, too, and it doesn’t work out. You’re not in control of your own destiny, you’re just really fortunate, and I think we approach everything like that right now.”