Band of Horses

Band of Horses Biography

Not too long ago, Ben Bridwell was releasing albums and drumming for Seattle's Carissa's Wierd - a band that was adored by some (full disclosure: this writer included) and unknown by too many. He'd never written a song in his life. So how did he wind up as the songwriting frontman for Sub Pop's latest buzzed-about debut, a kindred spirit to My Morning Jacket and the ghosts of Americana and Pac Northwest rock past?

Easy! Well, maybe not so easy; like almost every overnight success, this one was a long time in the making. After the breakup of Carissa's Wierd (more on that later), Bridwell started to write songs on his own. Early on, Band of Horses scored their first big gig: supporting Bridwell's old friend Sam Beam (a.k.a. Iron & Wine). This led to a reunion with another old friend: Mat Brooke, former frontman for Carissa's Wierd and eventual co-writer on some of Everything All The Time. More fans began nosing around, and they eventually got their hands on some lo-fi demos that hinted at Bridwell's loving relationship with reverb and his enigmatic but emotionally affecting style of songwriting. Bridwell and boardmaster Phil Ek would later see to it that those skinny demos put some meat on their bones - serious meat, in some cases (see "Wicked Gil," for instance).

When it came time to find a label, it probably wasn't hard to get Sub Pop to take a listen. At one point, there had been a mutual flirtation between the label and Carissa's Wierd (never consummated) -- and Bridwell , who had started his own label just to put out a couple of the Carissa's records, was instrumental in introducing Sub Pop to the music of his ol' pal Sam, who's been doing alright for 'em ever since.

On his way home (temporarily) after a few weeks of shows, Bridwell delays his lunch to catch up with Adam McKibbin and to talk about his surprisingly stress-free transition from drummer to frontman, his late entry into the songwriter club, and the events that led to the end of one band and the beginning of another.

AD: How did you fill your time in between the end of Carissa's Wierd and the beginning of Band of Horses?

BB: Basically, once Carissa's broke up, I started writing songs and played a couple of local shows -- just a handful of gigs. Once we had an opportunity to open up for Iron & Wine, I convinced Mat to come up and play a couple of songs with us. After that, I convinced him to come in as a full-time member. It took me a while to get into that role and to start to put new songs together. So there was some downtime, but then we did a couple of tours with Iron & Wine and then the Okkervil tour -- so we've been pretty busy.

I saw that Mat played a solo show here and there, too, before Horses really started rolling.

Yeah, he did. Once [Carissa's Wierd] broke up, I think he wanted to take some time and figure out what he wanted to do. I'm not sure if, at the time, he really felt -- I think the task of putting together a whole new band seemed kind of overwhelming. So he chilled out for a little bit and worked and waited.

One of my quirks is that I like to wait for finished products, but I've heard enough of the demos to know that the songs are considerably different now than they were in those early stages.

Yeah, I guess they are. Most of that stuff was recorded for the purpose of seeing what I thought I could do better -- or what I was doing right. Some of the lyrics are a little different. The sound, of course, is different -- it was recorded by our friend in our practice space. It was mostly for experimentation purposes.

When it came time to bring in Phil [Ek] to work on the record, what made you excited about that partnership?

Shit, man... His history, for one. I've been a fan of the records that he's done over the years. To have somebody of that caliber -- who you respect and admire -- was the most exciting part about it. But also…before we had even begun talking about working together, we had become friends. Working with somebody I knew I could talk with and explain concerns to -- that was a huge asset, too.

How long did you spend in the recording phase?

I think we'd originally planned to do three weeks. Then we added another week at the end because we had a couple setbacks -- as that will happen.

You mean songs that were being bastards to finish?

Exactly. Some weren't working out tempo-wise or vocal-wise. Some were just a little elusive. We tried 'em a couple different ways until we found the finished product that works.

The reviews have been, with only a couple of exceptions, really positive. I wanted to get your take on something one reviewer said -- basically, he wrote that your lyrics are deliberately impressionistic, that there's no lyric sheet because the listener isn't really meant to follow along with the words.

Yeah, that would be correct. There's a lot of smoke and mirrors with the way I try to express things, just to kind of let the listener choose their own kind of adventure. Or let them find different meanings by garbling some words here and there. In the demos, I did a lot more of that, but Phil was pretty insistent on my enunciation. I mean, I knew what I was talking about, but I try to leave a little mystery there.

So for you, then, are there full stories that go along with the songs?

Definitely -- or definitely direct meaning, for sure.

When I interviewed Mat all those years back, he talked about being conscious of not oversaturating the home market by playing Seattle too often and making people sick of hearing about the band. Is that a strategy that you've followed with Horses?

We did at first. And, honestly, I don't think there was that much demand for us in Seattle. Now we can play some shows -- every month or two, just like any normal band in their hometown. You don't want to overdo it and have people burn out on you, but right now, since the record just came out and we're getting radio airplay and press, it's important to strike while the iron is hot. However it feels at the time -- if we have some new stuff to show the crowd, we'll come back and play a show.

But you must have gotten a lot of fan overlap from Carissa's, no?

You know, I don't think we did. Maybe a couple here and there, but, really, our shows weren't very well attended to begin with. Mat wasn't in the band at that time, so who gives a shit that the drummer from some band is now the singer in some other band? (laughs) I'd be a little bit skeptical myself.

Were these songs all road-tested during those Iron & Wine and Okkervil tours? Or are there ones that are just now seeing the live light?

Shit, that's a good question. I guess, yeah, they all were.

You must have a pretty full head of steam, then, with the live show.

You'd think so. (laughs) Problems will always rear their ugly head. We've gone through some member changes and stuff like that, so we have three new guys. It's always an uphill battle, really.

So it's you and Mat, and then the other three are on their first tour?

The rhythm section did the Okkervil tour, so they're a bit tested now.

You've been on all these great bills already -- and with bands whose fans, at least in my experience, are generally pretty open-minded and enthusiastic. Did you get some bad bills mixed in there, too?

Not really bad bills -- maybe bad shows attendance-wise. But as far as who we've played with, that's something from the Carissa's Wierd days that did carry over: knowing the club promoters and the clubs themselves, and having them trust us to put together our own bills with our friends. So, no, we haven't had to play with any shitty bands.

Did your time touring back then make it easier to make the hop into a frontman's shoes? Or is it so totally different that it was just as nerve-wracking as if you were touring for the first time?

You know, that's a good question. It is quite different, but I think I got a lot more nervous back when I had to hold a beat. It seems like it would be more stressful to be the frontman, but I'm finding it to be a bit easier in that respect. I don't think of myself in that way. Of course, I am the frontman, but I don't think that people are looking at me. I don't know if that's from the days of being a drummer or whatever, but I just pretend that I'm still in the background. But you do have more pressure -- if you're fucking wasted or something, people are probably going to be able to tell. Or if you're an asshole and you're not feeling very friendly -- that's more stressful.

Yeah, how are you handling the banter with the crowd?

That's a tough one. I'm a bit self-deprecating by nature, so I have to remind myself sometimes to not be critical of ourselves on stage -- because that looks bad for everybody. But if something goes wrong, the crowd is definitely going to hear about. At the same time, I can be less than talkative sometimes, so that can be a problem -- being nervous and not knowing what to talk to people about.

Then there are the bands where the between-songs are better than the songs.

No shit! I wish that was the case with us, but, unfortunately, it's not.

Well, you guys have the advantage of having good songs.

We'll see about that. (laughter) Sometimes you have a shitty show and you don't talk.

Is it true that you weren't writing songs during your drumming days?

Yeah, not at all. This is definitely my first time doing that.

Is this your first batch? Was there a batch that was discarded along the way?

There are definitely some that were recorded and didn't make the record -- they'll be coming out later. There were some that I couldn't stand lyrically or thought were cheesy -- so, yeah, there were a handful that were discarded along the way.

So often you'll talk to songwriters and it's "Yeah, I knew I'd be doing this with my life when I was six years old, I wrote my first song when I turned four." It's good for people to know that they can start even if they didn't have their own bands in middle school.

Right. Right.

I don't think I ever heard or read about why Carissa's parted ways. Is that something that's not discussed?

It's tough. I think now that some time has passed, I'm not so afraid to talk about it. It was more of a personal thing with a couple people in the band, and it was a lot of stress traveling so much. Frankly, we never really made any money. Whatever money we made, we spent at bars. I think the toll it took -- all that partying -- on certain people was a bit much, it got hard to handle. All the traveling really started to get to them, and I think it was time -- they wanted to make a clean break.

But, at the same time, we split amicably. It was sad, but you have to know that if it's not working, you've gotta do something differently. There were no hard feelings, and we've evolved to be great friends. Sera Cahoone, for instance, played drums on our record some, and she's got her own thing going as a singer/songwriter and she's doing quite well.

You know, to back up a step, fans of Carissa's Wierd who never made it out to a live show may be surprised to hear about that partying. You guys didn't exactly sound like a partytime band.

Not at all. (laughter) Not in the least. But, yeah, we were definitely into that whiskey stuff. We still are, a little bit, but now we're just a bunch of dudes -- we're a little bit burly and we can kind of take it.

So if we were doing this over a whiskey, what might we wind up talking about?

Well, baseball season is starting and we're really excited about that. We're excited about the damn weather getting warm again because we're sick of fucking driving in the snow.

Mariners fans, then?

We are indeed. Neither Mat or I are from Seattle -- or Washington, for that matter -- but we've lived there long enough that we've really taken in the Mariners at our team. Mat just opened a bar up in Seattle, and he's got a big party going on today at his bar for the Mariners. We try to attend at least twenty games a season. We'll go and have beers -- it's awesome. I adore baseball season.

This interview originally appeared on The Red Alert. All rights reserved by Adam McKibbin.

Band of Horses' debut album,
Everything All the Time, is available now in the ARTISTdirect Store. Click here to listen to a full album stream!

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