It’s not always the case that when you sit down to interview a musician you are immediately disarmed. And it’s definitely not always the case that you smile and laugh later when you listen to the transcript, and then again when you read it over while writing the piece. What I mean is, you aren’t always lucky enough to feel like the artist on the other side of the table, or at the other end of the line, is just being real. But it’s exactly what happened when I got the opportunity to speak to Band of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell.
Sure his charming Southern accent may have thrown me off – largely because it doesn’t come through that heavy when he sings – but it was Bridwell’s easy joking and genuine gut responses that were so refreshing.
For example, here’s how the start of our conversation went.
CS: So, how has tour been so far?
BB: [deadpan] Oh, not good, Courtney, let me tell you, not good.
CS: [caught off-guard] …Oh… uh…
BB: [laughs] Nah, nah. It’s all good! We’re, I think we’re kinda hittin’ the stride right now, hopefully. I’m gonna knock on some damn wood if I can find it.
Ice. Broken. Okay, I see you now, Ben.
And it makes sense. The band’s latest album has the same effect – while previous releases are certainly strong in their own ways, Band of Horses’ fifth studio release, Why Are You OK (out June 10 on Interscope), offers an honesty – especially sonically – that makes it stand out in the catalogue. Apparently, that was Bridwell’s intent.
“With this one, it was a much more deliberate approach to everything,” he said. “Lyrically, textually, I wanted it to be something I wouldn’t be ashamed of. It was easier to stand behind and easier to be enthused to play live, honestly. I wanted the songs to be more honest and I wanted to be more honest with myself. So I believe, even in the sonic sense, it was a bit more of a return to center, and even though it’s a bit confessional and cringe-inducing at times, I wanted to at least tell the truth a bit more than just looking for a clever turn of phrase.”
We hear traces of earlier work (chords from my old favorite “Detlef Schrempf” float around some of the tracks on the first half), but Why Are You OK is decidedly less melancholy, packs a little more punch and seems in some ways even playful. “Casual Party,” for example, is full of catchy pop that masks a slightly darker side in the lyrics, and the intentional twang in “Country Teen” is endearing as hell.
But that doesn’t mean that Bridwell fails to address some of the big questions like, “But are we really in love? Completely in love?” and, “Why spend half the time indifferent and the other half alone?”
Track five, “In a Drawer,” acknowledges the “what could have beens” while still keeping an eye toward what’s next. Musically, the song sounds like that thing you lost or forgot about and didn’t really know you were looking for, which seems to be the essence of the album for Bridwell.
“Maybe it tells a story of starting out and having no damn idea what you’re doing. That first record is the first songs I ever wrote, and that was in my mid to late twenties. I never set out to be a musician, ever, in my life – like it was the most far-fetched scheme that could ever come to fruition. So I think it probably shows some naiveté, being led by the nose at times, but hopefully some redemption, at least where we stand now…in trusting your gut and following your own sense of self, hopefully.”
Band of Horses has a somewhat colorful history of “dabbling in the major label system,” and on the flip side, Bridwell even ran his own label before turning to making music.
“I [thought], well, if I’ve got the right to bitch about music, I should give it a try myself and just see how hard the damn thing is. Turns out, it’s hard as shit but I got lucky as hell.”
After nearly 10 years playing together as the current lineup including Bridwell, Creighton Barrett, Ryan Monroe, Tyler Ramsey and Bill Reynolds, and with a Grammy nomination (for 2010’s beloved Infinite Arms) under their belts, it seems Band of Horses has something more than just luck on their side. Obviously, it’s talent, but it also is perhaps a groundedness. Amid rising fame and being on and off the road, they’re managing to raise families and still appreciate what life has brought.
“I’ve really enjoyed the surprising turn of events that’s led to more than a decade plus on the other end of the spectrum in music,” Bridwell said. “I couldn’t be more grateful for it.”
Before our time was up, I asked Bridwell one more question: “What do people never ask you that you wish they would?”
“Why are Creighton and Ryan so fucking handsome? That’s what I wanna be asked. There you go. God, they look good.”
Band of Horses will play two shows at the 9:30 Club on December 30 and 31. Bridwell said they haven’t played a big New Year’s Eve show in awhile.
“I think we’ll make it fun, and make it a different kind of show than you see from Band of Horses on any other night.”
The band’s December 30 show is sold out, but $75 tickets are still available to the NYE show. Check 9:30’s website for details.
9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; 202-265-0930; www.930.com