It’s dusk on the first full day of this year’s SXSW music festival, and Clash is at the hotel of the one band everybody is talking about here. Above the deep end of their swimming pool hangs a sign with just one word, glowing in red neon: ‘SOUL’. The essence of that word will be most significant tonight, when Band Of Horses play their biggest gig of the week, radiating on stage as America’s heartening heroes.
We sit with singer Ben Bridwell who, though essentially the band leader, is currently reveling in the group’s newfound democracy and diversity. Their new album, ‘Infinite Arms’, expands on the group’s first two albums, and consolidates the current – and definitive – line-up in an expansive vision of glorious Americana soundscapes. His bushy, tattooed presence masks an impeccably and infectiously optimistic and jubilant demeanour, which sparks into life as soon as we begin talking about the genesis of the album.
Your album, ‘Infinite Arms’, is infused with the inspiration of America and the places in which it was created. What does the heritage of America mean to someone that grew up there?
Well, it’s funny. Wherever I end up writing or living I just end up soaking up whatever that vibe is. This record, I was living in the Midwest a lot, living in Minneapolis specifically, and I was listening to a lot of The Replacements and Husker Du, just getting the vibe of that culture there, you know? With me, it’s not even really so much a history of the country or the politics of how those towns come about, but more like the music history, which sinks into me, and just the geography in the mountains or by a lake or something. That’s really what speaks to me more than anything. And no matter where you are, that stuff just naturally seeps into your bones.
How did each of the places where these songs came from differ?
With the stuff that was written when I was in the woods in Minnesota on this cool lake, three or four of the songs that made the record were all written right there in a week’s time. They weren’t even trying to be written, they just kind of came out. I don’t really know why it happens. There was calm ones – just sitting there and staring out at the sunset on the lake – but there’s also upbeat stuff. So I don’t really know why or how it gets in there, but somehow it’s just because you’re in that setting. If I wasn’t there, it wouldn’t have got written.
Does solitude help?
It’s the only thing I can do. I can’t write with people. I can’t even jam with people – I’m just trying to learn how to play normal guitar. When I started the band I didn’t know how to play guitar, so I just detuned all the strings to where it felt like, ‘Oh, that sound works’, so I’d never even known where to put my hands properly, you know?
I bet the other guys love you for that!
Oh my God, it’s so annoying! I’d bring in songs like, ‘I have no idea what this is’, but now, with this record, I’ve learned how to record myself, so I can send it to the people with the big brains, who are like, ‘It’s a C chord’. I’m like, ‘Ah, cool!’ So I’m kinda getting there, but yeah, especially writing with people, I guess I’m just a bit self-conscious about it, because I was never a musician – I was gonna be in the business as a label guy and reluctantly became a musician.
Is it more productive being at home?
It can be. I have two different places I call home – I’m lucky to have one place where I go to work, and I can also sleep there. The family is in a different spot – I have a young daughter and I’m married. So home life, when I’m with them, I’m just very focused on that. Our kid’s almost two – by the time she goes to sleep, I’m kinda tired, you know? I just wanna relax. I’ve tried to write songs – it does happen, but it’s really hard to really dig in. That’s why I go on trips and stuff, so I can really get a couple days of solitude.
You’re originally from South Carolina, but moved to Seattle, then you recently moved back. Was the call of home too loud to ignore?
Yeah. I’d been talking about it for a long time. We got to the point where we were touring so much that nowhere was really home. So I figured, at least if I’m gonna come home after these long stretches of traveling, it would nice to be around my family; my parents, and my brother and sister are having babies. So it was like, when I come home, at least I’m close enough so I get to see them at least twice a year compared to like maybe once a year. So that’s all it really was.
Seattle was where you launched your own label, Brown Records. What was your intentions for the label?
I really started it with the idea of it just being like a stepping stone. I would press a thousand CDs, we’d get ’em on consignment in stores, maybe get in a local independent radio station, get some spins, and the band would have something to sell at shows, and then hopefully a real label would pick it up. It got a lot busier than I ever imagined it getting, so in the end it just went out of control, because I never expected it to be a real label. I’m re-pressing thousands again, and it’s like, ‘Shit, I’m actually gonna have to do this correctly. I actually have these people’s livelihoods resting in my hands’, and that pressure was nothing that I could actually allow myself to take responsibility for. So I ended up cracking under the pressure, especially just getting those bands on a real label that has good distribution and real deals set in stone. Ours was just a handshake and, ‘Here’s a bunch of CDs, go sell them!’ But that’s always been my calling, spreading the bands I liked that people hadn’t heard – whether that be dubbing tape cassettes and all that stuff. Now I’ve just heard that call again – I feel like there’s a lot of artists that are unheard that I think I can try to help with.
Did facing those pressures make you appreciate a major label more, not having to worry as much?
Yeah, absolutely, especially now that they’re gonna be able to help me do the thing. This is new for us – I mean, even Sub Pop was huge at the time for us, and still is; I mean, we wouldn’t be here talking if it wasn’t for them. So it’s always been a shock. I never even meant to be a musician, so everything’s been a bit learn-as-you-go, fake-it-til-you-make-it.
‘Infinite Arms’ is coming out through your own label. Will you be doing the hard work for this album, or leaving that to the major label?
I actually don’t really know what my job is in it, but because I did fund the record myself and produced it ourselves, we just really wanted to make sure that we can have our hands in the pie as well. In this age you can.
How did funding yourself work? That can’t be an easy task if you’re not someone like Coldplay.
Yeah, it was tough, especially because the record took so damn long to finish.
So you’re watching the clock going, ‘Come on, guys!’
Oh yeah, but at the same time, because it was me, that pressure was off. Even though I’m not made of money, and I did stretch myself pretty much to being broke, at the same time we didn’t have to worry about anybody even coming in and hearing mixes or anything, we could really take our time with it. With the last record we did, our second record, we did it really fast, because we felt like the iron was hot and we had to get something out there quick or people were gonna forget about us. This time we were like, ‘We’re doing some good touring and people know the band well enough, so we can take our time with this thing and really be happy with it’. So that was way more of a goal than anything financially, and luckily we didn’t have to borrow in the end, and got the thing done.
Where does the majority of the money go when you’re paying your own way?
(Laughs) Well, a lot of it went to the liquor store and to the pizza place! No, seriously, there was plenty of food and refreshments and stuff like that that eats up a lot – or hotels. We’re lucky to get a good deal from our friend in the studio that we recorded most of it at – he helped out quite a bit with the day rate of the studio – but it’s expensive; you’re paying engineers, studio’s expenses… Luckily we all got to live in a house, but it still costs money.
Where was the studio?
Ashville, North Carolina. That’s where we did most of it, and then we did some overdubs in Los Angeles.
When you’re paying your own way and reaching breaking point, do you have to look for new and creative ways of getting income?
Well, to be honest, we’d record for two weeks and then go play some shows, and that would at least put some money back in my pocket to keep it going. And I’ve been really fortunate to be able to licence songs in film and TV and stuff like that, and that’s also come at the best times. It worked out. I got so lucky that somehow money kept coming in, until near the end and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m about damn broke!’
You got a lot of flak for using your music on TV, but more and more artists are doing this because they realise that there’s not that much money in music anymore, so they’re looking for alternatives.
Exactly, yeah. Take it where you can get it. Especially if you’re going to use it to fund your own record and own your art. I mean, I don’t see anything wrong with that at all. This is one of the only mediums where the artist doesn’t own their work. If you can use that kind of money to own your own art, that’s just huge.
Did the group help out with donating some cash, or was it all coming out of your pockets?
I’m the only one that’s been on all three of these records, and the first one generates more money than anything – because of the licencing especially – so I tend to have the money. (Laughs) We all make the same amount of money on the road and stuff, but because I licence my songs that I’ve written, I happen to be moneybags.
Have you learned anything from doing it this way that you never knew before?
Fuck, yeah man. I’ve learned so much. The most important thing we learned was to have fun with it and to just enjoy it instead of having this air of, ‘It has to be perfect!’ We learned that our weaknesses are also our strengths – it doesn’t have to perfect; people made records all the time playing live in a room together, and it’s okay if you have some frailties in songs or some tense moments – those little things in songs are the things I end up gravitating towards. Like, a Rolling Stones song, all of a sudden Mick and Keith are singing two different words, because they’re just going for it – I love that! They’re not actually singing the same word – they messed up and kept the take. Those little things that end up being cooler sometimes. So that was the most important thing – we just learned to have fun and not stress so much about it.
You self-produced the album as well. Is that because you’re uncompromising in what you want, or because you’re a perfectionist maybe?
It just happened to be circumstantial. Our producer had some scheduling conflicts, and so we were like, ‘Aw, crap. We have this time off before we gotta go back out on the road again – let’s just go do it ourselves. We’ll get another engineer… We think we know what the songs sound like – let’s just go for it’. And so we were like, ‘This is actually really fun’. That’s when we really discovered we don’t have to beat each other up on this, we can just have fun with it and enjoy the process.
So you had some songs ready for the album – did you know how you wanted it to sound or what you wanted it to be?
No, not at all. We actually started with a tonne of songs – about twenty-five or so – so we didn’t even know which ones would make it, or which ones were good or bad really. So you don’t really know until you’re recording them, because we weren’t really playing a lot of them live, so once they’re recorded you’re like, ‘Okay, this actually sounds like a real song, and this one sounds like a joke’ – we’re just taking the piss out of some soul song or something, you know? So we kinda learned as we went, like, ‘Oh wow, is what the record sounds like’.
Clash Magazine Issue 50
This is the full interview transcript from an article that appears in the 50th issue of Clash Magazine. Pick it up in stores from May 7th.
Do you listen to the advice of your band mates? What would you do if they said a song was shit but you liked it?
I’m usually the one that says that the song is shit and it’s them being like, ‘No, you gotta do that!’ So I’m like the perpetual drag-downer guy in the band; I’m like, ‘No, that song’s stupid’. But luckily they just kinda force me to keep at it.
How do you think this album differs from the last one?
Oh man. Well, I think sonically it’s a big step from anything that we’ve done, just because the musicianship in the band is at the peak that we’ve ever been. So, there’s that, and then you have the songwriting elements of other people, where the second record didn’t have that. The first record did – we had a guy Matt that was in the band; he had written two songs on that record. So this is also harking back to that, where there’s some other influence – finally – back in there. It’s not so much my solo record with some people playing on it, it’s actually a real band. To me, that’s why it feels like a rebirth.
The press release quoted you saying it felt like the first real Band Of Horses album.
Yeah, and that’s probably stupid to say. But for what we’ve become, this is really our coming out party, I guess I what I was leaning to. Because now everyone that needs to be in this band, that has to be in this band, is contributing and is a real force.
Has the increasing popularity of the band affected the way that you write songs or think about how you’re making them?
Only, if anything, to get weirder, you know what I mean? Right now, because the album’s done, now I can be stupid and write the weirdest crap ever that no-one should ever hear. But with the songs on this record, I didn’t think about it much. I was more liberated by the fact that I could finally record myself, and actually experiment finally, instead of practising with the guys and being really shy about it – now I can actually really go bonkers and give them demos and they can help me refine it.
How about playing live – you’re playing bigger venues now, has that affected the new songs?
It’s hard to tell right now with the new stuff. The old stuff, I feel like we’ve really gotten to be good at playing it. This new stuff is at that awkward phase where… We just started playing some of these all together in a room – some of these songs were recorded where I didn’t even play guitar, I didn’t even know how to play it, so we’re just still figuring it out. So it’s a little bit awkward right now. You really want to be into the moment, but you’re concentrating so hard and you also get the vibe that you don’t want to lose the room, you know? So it’s just a weird awkward time right now. Hopefully once the record comes out, if people like it then we can really sink our teeth into it.
This summer you’re heading out to play with some big names. Is it weird to go out with big bands? Is there pressure to fill that support slot well?
Oh, it’s only exciting. Maybe once it gets a little closer I might start getting nervous, but right now it’s just so exciting. And especially to get to practice playing venues like that, to get a chance to play those shows with Snow Patrol and those massive stadiums – and then the arenas that Pearl Jam are playing. To get that kind of experience under your belt, you can’t put a price tag on that. So we’re just so lucky and feel really, really excited.
Do you embrace fame? Is it something you feel comfortable with?
Just because I never really thought of myself as being in this job or playing music for a living, I’m always a bit awkward about it. But the fact that we’re doing so well and I get to travel around with my best friends at the same time, no matter how popular we get, it’s keeping everybody working. We’re just having fun. I don’t think about it as like a fame thing; the more people that get to hear the music, that’s the best thing in the world. I don’t know about fame, but I know that we’re having a blast.
What’s the best thing that the rock and roll life has afforded you that never would have happened if you weren’t in a band?
My God, we’ve gotten to meet some legends, some serious heroes. We got to sing back-up with Ray Davies at Carnegie Hall, we got to meet Bruce Springsteen, we got to play with Roger McGuinn on ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ at Madison Square Garden…we’ve just gotten to meet these heroes, these people that you really look up to. That’s the biggest thing, when you get that moment. Or Willie Nelson – we got to play with Willie Nelson and go to his house! That’s the best thing in the world!
Did your listening habits change with this album? Do you change what you listen to, and does it affect what you write?
Yeah… God, I wish I had a better answer for this… Besides the fact I mentioned being in Minneapolis and listening to The Replacements and stuff like that, and just being in that area… God, I wish I was better at this! I always end up listening to the same stuff, man; I really do. I try to listen to new bands all the time as well… I don’t know, I don’t think they change that much, honestly, unless I’m in a certain area; I try to soak up what the local sounds are.
Which artist’s career path do you most admire?
The first thing that pops into my mind is obviously Bruce Springsteen right now, just because I just mentioned him and I got to meet him this year. How insane that moment was just had me mining his whole catalogue and thinking how cool that his path has been – he always put out great records, and is still putting out really quality stuff, and is a touring machine! He was touring so much last year, and was looking great: healthy, happy and so into the moment. That’s not a bad person to follow, right there. And Willie Nelson also. Dude, putting out so many records! He’s putting out three records this year, and tours his ass off, and still puts on a great show – and happens to be one of the coolest dudes you could possibly meet probably in the world. If we actually nominated someone to be God, just because we could never find a person, I think we should nominate Willie, because he’s just the nicest person in the world and the coolest dude. There are so many people that do it right – it’s not hard to find them.
Do you think there’s a perfect time or place to listen to ‘Infinite Arms’? Does it lend itself to a particular listening experience?
I think it does ebb and flow pretty well – there’s a lot of upbeat stuff and a lot of slow stuff – and for me, those are always good for road trips. There’s really two sides to the record, I feel like: pretty quiet and maybe sad at times, and then a lot of upbeat stuff that can kick you in the balls a bit. So it’s easy to say it would be a good driving record. I hope it’s a good record for all occasions though, I don’t really know though – I can’t listen to the thing, I have no perspective.
If you could hope that your album inspired someone to do something, what would that thing be?
I swear, I keep getting – even today I got one – people that come up to me and telling me that they had their baby to our record. Or they had it on shuffle and all of a sudden this song came on when the moment actually happened. It’s happened to me three or four times in the past two weeks, and that is such a huge compliment. Some people do it on purpose, you know? That they would welcome a kid into the world and have the first sounds coming out be our band? It gives me chills even thinking about it. So, that or have sex – make a baby to it! (Laughs)
Where does the title come from? It’s obviously the name of one of the songs, but why did that title encapsulate the album?
It’s kind of a secret actually. All the record titles so far have been a little bit of an inside stupid joke, and this one is no different, except for that it just has a bit more of a broad sound to it – I think it does. It has a lot to do with the themes of what was going on during the writing process, and it’s a bit of a riddle, so I’m gonna let it steep for a little bit before we actually pull the mask off.
You like to put riddles in your music too, deliberately putting obscure lines in that don’t necessarily have meaning. But has anyone ever told you that they read something into your lyrics that you never thought was there?
Oh yeah, man. I mean, people get the meanings and the feel of a song sometimes the complete opposite of what my intention was, or what my stupid joke was even. But that’s the best part about it – the fact that it is a mystery. People get the lyrics wrong – I do that all the time with my favourite songs. You read the lyrics five years later, or hear it differently, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I always kinda sang something to that effect when I was singing along, but I didn’t really realise what they were talking about’, you know? In a way it’s like little hints come around and the mystery kinda reveals itself, but the fact that people don’t really know is my favourite part, because that’s what I appreciate about songs as well.
Do you labour over your lyrics? Is that something that comes easy?
It is not something that comes easy. Sometimes the odd song now and again will write itself really easily, but usually that’s the hardest thing for me.
Do you have a favourite song on this album? Are any shining through?
Yeah, I’m really proud of ‘Older’ and ‘Evening Kitchen’ – ‘Older’ was written by Ryan, and ‘Evening Kitchen’ by Tyler – because we fought really hard to make sure that those voices were being heard. I really love those songs so much. We really stayed strong about it and said, ‘No, this is a band and we’re gonna showcase it as a band’. So I’m really proud of sticking it to everybody on that one, because I really do love the songs – they’re probably the only two songs I can listen to, because it’s not my voice singing. But I really do like the song ‘Infinite Arms’, because it is about a really intense time personally, and the song ‘Dilly’, it’s like this poppy number that sounds like something we haven’t done before, so I’m just excited that we’re stretching our legs a bit. I’m proud of the whole record, but I guess my favourites would be ‘Evening Kitchen’ and ‘Older’.
‘Older’ was recorded live in the studio. Was that a good way to work? Could you record a whole album like that?
God, after the nuts time that we… It did take a long time to record this record, especially because we were kind of, in the beginning, trying to control every little thing to make it perfect, and the fact that once we started doing things ourselves and having fun with it, it was really liberating. So, since this has been such a long process of recording this album, it’s definitely easy to be like, ‘Next record, let’s just go balls-out, live, everything’. It’s easy to think that, but, hell, if this record does well, I’ll be back to being stressed about the next one. I’ll be like, ‘Shit, now it’s got to be a controlled environment…’ But two songs ended up being live on this record – ‘Older’ and ‘Compliments’ – and they have two of the best feels, I think, on the album, because of that. So who knows, maybe we can be a little loose on the next one.
‘Bartles And James’ is a great closing song on the album. Was that always going to be the finale?
You know, it became pretty apparent. Once we did that little outro thing – we did that live as well – we were like, ‘You know what? This kinda makes me want to start the record over’. So we’ve known that for a bit – we were hoping that it would be, at least.
Will the song go the same way when you play it live?
We cannot play that song live to save our lives. We’ve tried it, but the tempo of it is so weird because there’s no percussion at all going on, so we can’t really figure out how to sing it all together without some sort of meter to go by, so it always ends up coming out really awkward. So maybe, as the record comes out and if people start wanting to hear it, then maybe it will start giving us some reason to start trying harder or something.
There’s a line in that song about living by your own laws. If Band Of Horses could implement one law, what would it be?
I tell you, we’re doing it right now. The way that we’re taking control of our own destiny and retaining ownership, we’re basically doing that. I have no gripes about anything. It’s hard to think about changing a single thing, because everything is going so well right now. So I would just say we’ve done it; we’re living that right now and enjoying it.
Words by Simon Harper
Watch Band Of Horses’ Ben Bridwell play iPod Roulette online! What are the first five songs that appear on his shuffle? Find out on ClashMusic.com HERE.