Out on the Weekend: Interview with Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell
In 1997, at just 19 years old, Band of Horses singer, songwriter and guitarist Benjamin Bridwell, left home in Tucson, Arizona, and travelled with three friends to the Pacific Northwest. They came for the music. And they found it.
In this interview, Bridwell tells the story of how he was just a music fan with a sleeping bag on his back, and got a job washing dishes in R.E.M.’s Peter Buck’s bar in Seattle. Then, throughout the 2000s, Band of Horses gained an international audience, album by album, and became indie rock mainstays.
With their ethereal vocals, strong melodies and scruffy, slacker vibe, the band has long drawn comparisons to Neil Young and contemporary indie successes like My Morning Jacket, The Shins and Iron & Wine. And like those acts they’ve managed to survive the initial popularity that curses so many great but short-lived bands.
As Band of Horses release their fifth studio album, Why Are You Ok, it has the name Rick Rubin on the executive production credits – indicating that Band of Horses is not just soothing sounds for miserable college students anymore, but music for the masses.
When we meet, Bridwell is flown in to Oslo to do a day of press interviews. Sitting under original photographs from Roxy Music album sleeves in the bar of a luxurious new “design hotel” in the city, he doesn’t fit the way Bryan Ferry would. With beard, tattoos, Vans and a cap, he looks more like a guy randomly picked out of a festival crowd, indie club or coffee shop.
Not only does Bridwell have a characteristic voice, he’s also a character. He starts talking, and you realize why the first suggestion that comes up when you Google his name, is “Ben Bridwell teeth.” Wide eyed and smiling, you also realize that this guy is as friendly as his music is.
In July, the band is headlining Picnic in the Park in Oslo, Norway – the first city this side of the Atlantic where Band of Horses reached the lower parts of the album charts.
Welcome back to Oslo. Norway has always been a good country for you. Do you remember the first time coming here?
I do. For sure. It was our first time ever in Europe. Our first actual touch down was here – finally seeing Europe, you know. To get to see the world, even if there was no money, was one of the motivations for me to be in a band. And is to this day. I’m still staring out the window when I’m flying and traveling, ’cause I just love to see a new and changing landscape. We came to Oslo to play the Øya festival. We went: “Oh man, they actually sent somebody to pick us up at the airport!” Then they asked us if we wanted to go to a hotel, and we went “Fuck yeah!” We even had put in a couple of days to adjust. It must have been the summer of 2006 – 10 years ago!
I think I met you during those days, outside a bar or something?
I hope we behaved ourselves! We had so much fun – we partied our brains out!
Do you remember what made you want to become a musician?
I didn’t play any instrument when I was growing up. I had a record label in my twenties, Brown Records – that was my gig. I felt it was my duty to put out great local music. I was always in the realm of trying to get people into music that I loved.
You were a music fan.
Exactly! First and foremost. Then the drummer of my friends’ band was quitting to join a bigger band. I was asked to fill in – “can you just tap along, it’s really slow and minimalistic anyways. You’ve got to have some sense of rhythm…” Turned out he was wrong [laughs] – I’m a terrible drummer! But I played with the band, which was called Carissa’s Weird, for a while. And once the band was broken up, I was getting used to the traveling, meeting people, every day doing some new things. I was in love with the life.
As a music region, Seattle and the Pacific Northwest is known for its garage punk, grunge and alternative music scene. In what ways did the city influence you?
First and foremost: the weather is wet. That’s the main influence. You go to the rehearsal place everyday, ‘cause you need to stay indoors. There’s nothing better to do than to go and create.
I had originally moved up there with just a sleeping bag on my back. I slept outdoors, and finally got a job doing the dishes at a rock club; The Crocodile Café, which is owned by Peter Buck of R.E.M. and his wife. I got to see bands for free, watch the soundcheck and stuff. Smoke cigarettes and see how band’s interacted. And I come from a small town in South Carolina, so I never got to see a lot of bands. They didn’t really come through there. So I was just happy to be in a city where I could go and see all my heroes. I came to Seattle for the music.
Then our friends’ bands were starting blowing up, like Modest Mouse and the Murder City Devils, and in that follows a healthy competition; people starting to push each other. Suddenly you’re surrounded by talented people.
We’re finally going into summer, so I have to ask: What does a perfect day in the outdoors look like to you?
I have a little canoe. I live on a tidal mare, so if the tide’s high I can go on a quiet ride. The last time I did it those jet skis came by and scared the shit out of me! But hmm… the perfect day for me… if I’m not playing: surrounded by good friends, having a cool beverage, kids running around, taking the day slow – there’s nothing better than that, man. What else is there?
What would be the perfect environment to fully appreciate your music?
[long pause, sounding mildly irritated] Well, you always got the car ride, along some nice scenery. Honestly, the best right now would be in a park, near an old fort, in Oslo, Norway, in July. [laughs]
Where do you like to experience music yourself?
Every chance I have, I drive the kids to school and let them curate the music. That is a quality experience to me. It’s the most contemporary stuff that engages them, but I try to sneak in some good stuff. “Oh, you like this? Well it’s time for you to hear Bowie, or ELO!”
Not everyone loves Band of Horses. Can you criticize your music from the perspective of somebody who hates it?
Hehe, OK: “It’s whiney. Fucking self-loathing shit. It all sound the same, a guy singing really high, with some kind of Southern accent, trying to be indie and Neil Young at the same time. God, it’s terrible!”
You said you loved the traveling – is there a place you haven’t been to yet, where you’d love to go?
I’d rather see places that I’ve already been to, than seeing new places. ‘Cause just because you go to play Egypt doesn’t mean you’re actually going to see the pyramids. I need to learn traveling before I can actually go traveling. Traveling with a tour manager means you’re treated like a child. They even take care of your passport. And that’s barely traveling!
I guess we should say something about the new album. How was making this one different?
We had no record label on our backs. There was no cracking of the whip. We were taking our time, moving along in our own pace. And then chances erupt, like getting to work with Dave Fridmann, who mixed the album. First we heard he was busy. Then he called us and said his schedule opened up.
Those are things that happen when you don’t rush it. We had Jason Lytle from Grandaddy producing it, and J. Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. is singing on it. I got to work with some of my heroes! And a lot of these things became possible because the record wasn’t hijacked from industry forces.
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