Band of Horses: Honest Themes
When it came time to write his band's fifth record, Ben Bridwell decided to work from home. The result is one of Band of Horses' strongest records to date.
About two minutes into “Dull Times/The Moon,” the slow-burning epic that opens Band of Horses’ fifth album Why Are You OK, a speaking voice emerges. Buried under washes of shimmering electric guitar is a recording of auteur director Robert Altman, who is being interviewed about the cyclical nature of Hollywood. Following the disastrous reception to 1980’s Popeye, which crashed critically and commercially despite the star power of Robin Williams, the music of Harry Nilsson, and the guiding hand of Altman, the director is in a reflective mood.
“I think I just keep doing the same thing,” Altman says of his work. “And occasionally what I do crosses with the general attitude of the public, and it becomes very successful. And then I am a failure and a has-been, and then I cross back again. But I am going straight—to me, I am going in a straight line.”
The sample fades, and eventually so do the crystalline chords and the steady drum click, before a riff appears, gangly and thick with distortion. From there, the Pink Floyd vibes feather off, and Band of Horses engage in some unabashed rock moves, all crashing cymbals and pounding drums, like Crazy Horse playing post-rock. It’s no coincidence this grandiose, dreamy song begins the group’s first record in four years.
The Altman quote lingers. Over the last decade, Band of Horses have enjoyed consistent popularity, but they’ve also earned their share of critical scorn. With the quote, songwriter Ben Bridwell draws a straight line from the band’s debut, 2006’s Everything All the Time, back to the present, where everything’s changed for Bridwell, except for all the things that haven’t.
Bridwell used to have a sort of method for making records, which included packing up and heading to a beach house or a cabin somewhere far away from everyone, where he’d listen to records and read and claw into the solitude for inspiration. But around the time he was writing the material that would end up on 2012’s Mirage Rock, he recognized the formula wasn’t working like it used to.
“I remember leaving the damn cabin early on the last record, being like, ‘I’m not doing shit out here,’” Bridwell says, his voice draped in South Carolinian twang. “I was just kind of pacing around, listening to anything but my own music—or reading a book, not even to relax, just looking for some kind of spark. I wasn’t getting a whole lot of action from that. That’s pretty depressing, man, when you’ve left your home, you’re putting stress on your family, and you’re not getting good work from it.”
The songs on Why Are You OK, which were recorded in California and Upstate New York, weren’t written in seclusion. Instead, Bridwell wrote them at home in Charleston, in the company of his four children and wife Elizabeth. He jokes that he was “scared” to ask Elizabeth to leave town to write anyway. “Some of that is a direct result of having a small village here at the house now,” he laughs.
Bridwell jokes a lot, and he’s exceedingly easy to talk to. He gripes sympathetically about his frustrations with the local government of his native state, and he peppers his sentences with unnecessary “damn”s, calling me “friend” as he explains, with near constant self-deprecation, how the songs bloomed slowly for the album. While the writing didn’t come any easier than it had before, the four years between this record and the last provided him something he hasn’t always had when making records: time to reflect.
“I didn’t think of it like that when I started the process for this [one]. I just knew I didn’t want to have that conversation anymore of, ‘Hey, can I go to some damn cabin and be held unaccountable for whatever I do to myself?’” Bridwell says. “I’ll just adapt. There’s a common theme of that in my life now, I guess.”
“I’ll just adapt. There’s a common theme of that in my life now, I guess.”
Bridwell’s ease into domesticity isn’t all that uncommon for a thirty-eight-year-old guy, but when Band of Horses broke back in 2006, the narrative surrounding his music didn’t suggest a settled future. He left South Carolina in his teens, moving to Tucson, Arizona, where he founded indie rock outfit Carissa’s Wierd with Matt Brooke and Jenn Ghetto. The band relocated to Olympia, Washington, and from there Bridwell moved on to Seattle, where he was briefly homeless. Somewhere along the line, he heard the music of Granddaddy, led by songwriter Jason Lytle.
“I must have been nineteen or twenty when I first heard ‘Ghost of 1672’ and I was smitten from the get,” Bridwell says. “From then on, I was a lifelong fan.”
Bridwell eventually met Lytle in 2008 after the songwriter attended a Band of Horses gig in Montana, where Lytle had moved after the initial dissolution of Grandaddy. They kept in touch, collaborating off and on. “We did a Townes Van Zandt cover [together] because I was in an Italian hotel room and I couldn’t get a damn football game so I said, ‘I’m just going to cover this,’” Bridwell says. He recorded his half and sent it to Lytle, who finished it up.
“We definitely share some common ground as far as our mode of operation,” Bridwell says. That led to finally asking him, “Will you please help me with this damn record?”
With Lytle on board as producer, Bridwell and the band—drummer Creighton Barrett, bassist Bill Reynolds, guitarist Tyler Ramsey, and keyboardist Ryan Monroe—began experimenting. The result is Why Are You Okay, their first album for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings via Interscope. It’s also the most varied Band of Horses release. There are familiar vibes, like the charging “Solemn Oath” and the widescreen whopper “Hag,” which feels cut from the same cloth as Everything All the Time’s “The Great Salt Lake,” but there are weird, augmented touches on even the most straightforward of jams—a buzzing synth or echoing vocal, breaking up the staid pattern that made Infinite Arms and Mirage Rock feel less engaging than what the band is capable of.
“There are a lot of textual things and peculiarities in the arrangements that were absolutely [from Lytle’s] psyche; his stamp’s all over the damn thing,” Bridwell says. “I guess we match up well like that: we both get excited for those weird little asides in songs.
“He makes our shit seem a lot more sophisticated than we are,” he adds, laughing.
Recorded over several sessions, the record came slow and steady, and there was room for detours: the band cut a live record, Acoustic at the Ryman; Bridwell toured solo; and he teamed up with his old buddy Sam Beam of Iron and Wine for a collection of covers.
“I wanted to have the benefit of digestion,” Bridwell says. “I wanted to be able to take breaks in between the sessions and have time to know I was comfortable with what we’re going to put out there. The last one was a bit of a shotgun wedding—I wanted that benefit of time to make sure it represented where we were in our lives.”
“There is a common link between all the Band of Horses songs,” Bridwell explains with a chuckle. “Which is usually me complaining about something.”
He’s talking about “Casual Party,” a song that feels “definitely close to the bone.” It’s about a dinner party—one that really happened—where Bridwell felt stifled by the conversation about television and hobbies. The band performed it on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, packing three guitars while surrounded by weirdo Muppet-looking creatures. “Awful conversation at the casual party,” Bridwell sang, chewing up the words. “It never stops.”
But the record goes deeper than just an uncomfortable guy chafing against conventions. Gone are the political slogans of Mirage Rock’s “Dumpster World,” replaced by songs in which Bridwell incisively questions the institutions around him. On “Hag,” he expresses hesitant devotion, but also shares his deep fears: “Are we really in love, completely in love?” The question comes up again, on “In a Drawer,” with the singer Sera Cahoone adding in falsetto, “Do you love me, baby?”
“There is that balance between this music-life thing that we do [and] being a dad and a husband, [and] that balance is a bit fragile at times,” Bridwell says. “It feels like we’re always making up for lost time.”
The record offers no easy answers. “Even Still” closes things with a foreboding line: “I could just leave.” But conversation with Bridwell often circles back to family, both the one he has at his happy home and the one he’s found in his bandmates. And there is some ambiguity, he admits, left in the songs for the listener to decide exactly how the story turns out.
“I also don’t want to put all my cards on the table and be like, ‘This is about me, here’s what happened in my day.’ Like, fuck off, dude,” Bridwell says. “That can be boring as well. You want to give the listener a chance to make it their own.” FL