BREATH OF FRESH AIR

The road from fandom to stardom is navigated by a band’s new drummer

By PATRICK O’NEAL

Randall Harris ’09 MM ’11 has played in front of thousands of fans and appeared on national television as the drummer for alternative Christian rock band NEEDTOBREATHE. And it all started while Harris was still a Western Carolina University student.

NEEDTOBREATHE, based in Seneca, S.C., consists of three core members – Bear Rinehart on lead vocals, Bo Rinehart on lead guitar and Seth Bolt on bass – and a roster of touring members. The band has released four studio albums, with 2011’s “The Reckoning” reaching No. 6 on the Billboard charts, and is currently on tour and working on a new album.

Harris started drumming at a very early age. “When I was in third grade, I saw the music video for AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black.’ I went outside, whittled some sticks and started hitting everything in the house,” he said. His parents bought him a $100 used drum set and the path to stardom began.

In Harris’ sophomore year at WCU, as he was scanning radio stations, he happened to hear the final 30 seconds of NEEDTOBREATHE’s song “Washed by the Water.” He bought the band’s album “The Heat” and became an avid fan.

Harris had the opportunity to meet the band in 2010, while he was in graduate school studying music and interning as a lighting and sound operator at the Ridgecrest Convention Center, near Black Mountain. It was a cold February day, and during the process of unloading gear from the band’s van for a concert, some equipment crushed Harris’s hand. He hid his injury and continued unloading; his efforts were not in vain – he met the tour manager and the two exchanged numbers.

A couple weeks later, the manager asked him to fill in for two weeks as a guitar tech while the band was on tour. Harris wanted to, but the gig was smack in the middle of the semester. After Bruce Frazier, WCU’s Belk Distinguished Professor of Commercial and Electronic Music, agreed to accommodate his schedule, Harris joined the band as a crew member. “Randy was a conscientious, responsible student,” said Frazier. “When his obligations overlapped, we arranged it so he could complete his school assignments early and satisfy both responsibilities.”

“They threw me into the fire quick,” recalled Harris. “I had 14 guitars, a banjo and a mandolin. In addition, I had to be the drum tech, a monitor engineer and make tea three times a day for the lead singer.”

Harris continued to work in the studio with NEEDTOBREATHE after graduating with his master’s degree and was on hand when the band’s drummer quit unexpectedly a week before the start of a national tour. The departure proved an opportunity for Harris, who had been so quiet about his own musical talent that NEEDTOBREATHE front man Bear Rinehart didn’t even know he played drums. After an impromptu tryout, Harris sat in for a recording session and was then invited to join the band, which in October 2012 performed on the late-night TV show “Conan.” As part of its current tour, the band also performed in the Ramsey Regional Activity Center in April.

Harris is as surprised as anyone with where his work has led. “I always wanted to be part of this band, but I never expected to be in the limelight,” he said.

Patrick O’Neal is a senior communication major concentrating in public relations and journalism.