The story of Ohio band Hit the Lights is a cautionary tale of what happens when dreams of stardom collide with the business of music. Frontman Nick Thompson joined the band in 2004 and remembers standing outside the venues they played, because he was too young (under 21 years old) to be in a bar. Now, after ten years of making infectious pop/punk music, Thompson looks back with regret on what he thought was his dream. After two headlining tours and the commercial success of their second full-length album titled Skip School, Start Fights, Hit the Lights signed with Universal Republic Records. Together with Omar Zehery (guitar), Kevin Mahoney (guitar), Nate Van Dame (drums), and David Bermosk (bass), Thompson (guitar/vocals) quickly realized that a major record deal does not guarantee fulfillment of a dream.
When statistics are given top priority, the music becomes secondary. Thompson explained, “They (major record labels) want bands that have a fan base and they want to have that fan base to back them (the band) up. But at the same time they want to be able to change the band into whatever is getting rock radio play.” It was increasingly frustrating for the members of Hit the Lights, because they were not one of those bands. It is ironic that Thompson had read about his favorite bands and their respective major label woes, yet Hit the Lights ended up in the exact same situation. The band was on their way up and they clung to hope that they could make it to the top with a major record label backing them.
Creativity is stifled under the heavy weight of profit. In today’s music market, a major label or radio play is not as important as it once was. Thompson pointed out that if musicians gather a substantial following, the radio play will come, because they cannot ignore what the target market wants. He stated that, “Music should be grass roots building out all the time.” With current technology providing more control for listeners, radio play is not necessarily an achievement. The struggle to write what the label dictated left Hit the Lights in limbo. Four years without an album of any kind set them back in their career and made them question the vision they once had. With nothing left to lose, Hit the Lights left Universal Republic and took control of their future.
Getting ahead often means taking a step backwards. Using a proactive approach in conjunction with their new found creative freedom, Hit the Lights released Invicta, their third studio album. It was a gamble, in that this music was much different than previous releases. Thompson described it as, “We knew what was going happen when we released it. They (the fans) were either going to love it or they were going to hate it.” Getting back to writing music was difficult for Thompson and today he draws inspiration from his emotions, combining mature perspectives with the signature in-your-face lyrics that Hit the Lights is known for. The words in the song “Earthquake” describe it best: “I’ve got some big dreams/Somehow it’s harder to believe/That we only exist/Wanna be more than this/Nothing can stop me.” The vision may have been side-tracked for Hit the Lights, but the dream is alive and well in their innovative new music.
Mature subject matter and meaningful lyrics do not mean a watered down stage show. At a recent concert in Cleveland, Hit the Lights took high energy to a new level. The most recent music flowed seamlessly among old favorites such as “Oh My God” and “Drop the Girl”, driving the audience to sing louder than Thompson. It is impossible not to move during a Hit the Lights performance, and I was not surprised to catch the usually stoic merch guys tapping their feet in time to the music. The long road back from a major label was forgotten as the members of Hit the Lights had as much fun as their fans from beginning to end. Leaving the venue, concert-goers were still singing “Body Bag” and anticipating the next time Hit the Lights comes to town. In the meantime, fans can expect a new release in the Fall and even more shows as Hit the Light continue to tour non-stop.