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A Very Funny Forthright Interview with the Dude from Band of Horses

Some choice quotes: “I don’t have any idea what I’m doing,” “I’m a miserable fucker that has a lot of gratitude,” and “We got fucking lucky as balls."

It’s well known that liquor loosens the tongue, so when a beer and a giant tequila chaser arrives for Band of Horses mainman Ben his eyes widen and he smiles. “Bye bye,” he grins in his unmistakably Southern accent. “The interview just got weird.”

This happens right near the start of the conversation; sitting in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn dive bar, he sips his drinks throughout. Certainly, the 38-year-old South Carolinian is fast and free with his thoughts and words—he doesn’t hold back one iota. Today he’s clearly buoyed by the experience of having just played an instore down the street at Rough Trade Records, one of a series of intimate afternoon gigs they take part in to promote their fifth album, the sublimely beautiful and melancholic Why Are You OK. It’s part of what they called an Indie Retail Tour: in return for pre-ordering the record, you get a ticket to a stripped-down acoustic show, a screen-printed poster (a rendered variation of the album art, which transposes the two despondent figures originally shot by Bridwell on his phone to a location regional to the instore), plus a meet and greet/signing with the band. The things artists have to do these days…


A decade after the release of their debut album Everything All The Time— which contained “The Funeral,” the band’s best known song and the one that ended up on a number of TV shows—this tour in some ways marks a return to the band’s roots. Yet as much as it becomes clear that their attitude and intentions are the same as ever, things are also very different —not only has the industry changed a great deal, but Bridwell is now a father of four. Somewhat scruffy and covered in tattoos, he looks nothing like you’d expect someone who makes Band of Horses’ brand of beautiful, heartbroken music to look like.

Bridwell calls this album “a friends party”: his buddy, Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle produced, Dave Fridmann mixed, J. Mascis contributed vocals, as did Archers of Loaf, amongst others—even members of his pre-Band of Horses outfit, Carissa's Weird, joined in. It's because, with Why Are You OK, Bridwell took full creative rein once again, doing exactly what he wanted to do with the people he wanted to do it with. Yet this exercise wasn't just about messing around with his friends, it was also about making an utterly uncompromised album. He's very aware that making music for a living is a very different experience to making it for fun, but in turning Why Are You OK into that “friends party,” he managed to combine the two while keeping his artistic integrity intact.

Incredibly affable and warm, Bridwell’s also self-deprecating, apparently devoid of ego or pretension. In fact, talking to him both on the way to the bar—mainly about Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska—and inside it, is more like having a conversation with an old friend. Animated and energetic, he’s also much more ebullient and happy than his songs would suggest and once he starts talking, and once that tequila starts working, he doesn’t really stop.


Noisey: It’s been 10 years since your first album came out, and even in that short time the changes in the music industry have been ridiculous.
Ben Bridwell: Oh yeah, even in between the record cycle for our last album, which was about three and a half years ago, there are major differences in that one little gap. Everyone needs a damn playlist of a hundred songs. It’s like Jesus Christ! Last time, no-one asked for that shit, and now everyone’s got a damn podcast or a radio thing. It’s changed quite a bit, man—you used to tour to promote your album, but now you’ve got an album to promote your tour. It’s funny. It changes a lot. But it’s interesting being around it. Even before this band, I had a record label and then I joined a band and we traveled around for 10 years ourselves, even as kids, playing in coffee houses and shit. So it’s been a good two decades in this thing. And I’m also just a student of the game—it’s the only thing I think I can thrive in. It’s this or flipping eggs or washing dishes. If you do something somewhat well you should be fully invested and care about that. Especially raising kids. I want to be able to take advantage of anything we can to sell more records and reach more people and give them an emotional connection. I love that shit!

It must also be a bit depressing to be in the game long enough to see that change, though, from being able to make money somewhat easily to having to work twice as hard to make ends meet.
But even where we came from we were dirtbags. We were lucky if we could get a damn van that worked. We weren’t making any money off of it back then, so our prospects looked pretty bleak back then. And I wasn’t a musician at all, dude. I was the worst drummer in the world for this band. I had to fire myself!


And then you learned guitar for Band of Horses, right?
Yeah! And I still don’t know what the fuck I’m doing! I can stumble around and find a conduit for some melodies, but I’m not getting better still. Honestly, I’m just as bad as when I started. But yeah, it blew our fucking minds when we got to go to Europe. That was our pipe dream when we were in this other band and we had friends like Murder City Devils and Modest Mouse and Death Cab, and they were all going to Europe and coming back and paying the rent and shit, and we just wanted to get a free ticket to Europe. That would be the top of the mountain right there.

When we first got there and people were singing the songs back to us we realized this was actually a damn thing—that we were going to be around for maybe more than one album. But it never looked like a money-making operation, and it feels strange to also, on the backs of all of our heroes and the bands that we grew up with—Pavement, Archers of Loaf and Dinosaur Jr.—those bands had to grind. They weren’t getting, like, The O.C. licensing songs. So even though album sales went down, we had this new avenue to reach people when radio wasn’t paying attention, and they also gave you a check. So it’s always been a surprise any time we’ve actually made money off anything, and it still is.

But at least you’re making money, which is something, right?
I’ve got to, man, with all my kids.


How much did having a family change the way you approached your art? Because now, like you said, you have to feed four little mouths?
Yeah! Four daughters and my wife. But honestly, I don’t feel like I’ve geared it even a little bit. If I could I’d probably written more [The] Funerals and shit. For real. I don’t have any idea what I’m doing. Ever. I guess now I’ve learned a couple of cowboy chords, but I try not to write with that stuff, because I feel like the best stuff that connects people to Band of Horses are these songs that have these discordant, quirky elements and weird-ass tunings that make no sense to anybody else. So I still have no idea where to even start usually. I just bumble around and hope to find melody somewhere. The only thing that’s changed would have been the process, because I couldn’t go and fuck off for a week and a half by myself. So that was a change that happened to me at home and I’d be doing that one ear and half your brain in the moment and half of you listening for someone to come down the steps and interrupt me.

So that kind of changed things, and also having everything around me, like all my weird-ass instruments that I’ve collected over the years. Usually I can only take a few things out to a cabin because I can only fit so much in the damn rental car, but at home I have all my shit around me. And that was kind of nice.

You seem like such a happy-go-lucky guy, yet you write some of the saddest songs. How do you reconcile those things? And where does that come from? I’m a miserable fucker that has a lot of gratitude and love in his heart. I’m a walking contradiction. But that balance of loud/soft, happy/sad—for want of better fucking terms—has been there from the get, lyrically, dynamically, within the musical structures. I think it’s just who I am. When I’m by myself, I’m private and miserable, but happy when I get the time, but maybe I’m just balanced between the two worlds there. At least I try to be. I can’t gear myself towards a certain way.


But there is one song on this record that I tried, where I was like, “I’m going to make a song just to make people uncomfortable in the audience” by asking “Are y’all really in love or are you just settling?” But I’m not sure it comes off that way. I think it comes off as a sappy fucking love song.

I was definitely looking around the audience when I heard you sing that line.We need to have a spotlight to shine on people and be like “Y’all fuckers do not seem like you even like each other that much!” The words came before the tune, even. I wanted to try to bother people. Because there are some things going on in your life that you can find some counter-balance to what you’re like in your outer personality. That side of you exists within everyone.

So when you were writing that song [“Hag”], were you thinking about a specific time in your life when you felt like that, or was it really just a question to make people uncomfortable?
I was purely taking the piss. Honestly.

But that’s amazing—that you’re taking the piss and it comes off so sincere.
You know what? That’s not entirely true. That chorus part was meant as piss up, but the verses definitely have some real life in there. There’s one line in there—and I don’t often like my lyrics—but there’s this one lyric, “Dazzled by the very thought of it / Like the way dreams are supposed to be,” and I like that. And I remember that came from the heart, for sure. But I try to express little truths within all the songs, but also use double meanings and wordplay to throw people off, not even from fear of them getting to know me too much, but because I want it to become their song. And that’s one avenue to achieve that—maybe I can throw them off the scent and they’re like, “Oh shit, that makes sense to me. This is my song now.”


Right. It’s really weird that people always expect artists to be telling the truth in their songs. Novelists don’t do it and they can still write great books that strike at the heart of the human condition, but we expect bands to be telling their own truths. And I’m guilty of thinking that, too. But there’s a quote I read a long time ago by Jawbreaker’s Blake Schwarzenbach in which he touches on the idea of telling truth through fiction, and then it hit.Fucking right. That’s wonderful. That is it. No damn doubt.

That is it, isn’t it? You can be yourself and tell someone else’s story. It’s what Springsteen’s done his entire career is doing that. And don’t get me wrong, there’s something really special about watching, say, Tim Kasher, bleed his heart out onstage, and that’s all pure truth, but it doesn’t have to be. That wasn’t really a question; that was just a point.
No, I liked that. I learned something, and that’s all that matters. But no, you don’t have to tell the fucking truth. I’m not doing it in this interview. [Laughs.] No, I’m just kidding. But there’s no fucking rules, man. Do whatever you want. Fuck it. But you can tell when people are telling the truth because that quality shines through. And hopefully they get it in the song “Hag.”

Can we also just mention the title of that song? Because it’s such a mean word but such a sad, beautiful song…
…and then Merle Haggard died and it’s like “Is that a tribute?” I’m getting all that stuff. But check this out: I had to approve the artwork, and my wife hadn’t heard the album yet. And I’ll run stuff like that by her, but I won’t run the songs by her, and I was like ‘What do you think of this album cover as opposed to this one?” and I put two or three in front of her like a Pepsi challenge, and the album artwork had the song titles on it, so she finally saw them.


She really gave it to me. Like, “Hag. Really? You motherfucker! You asshole! Give me the damn album, I want to hear what the hell you’re talking about?” And it’s like “No, no, no, no!” I came up with the theme about trying to annoy people in the audience and then I wrote it on a Hagström organ, which is a Swedish brand of guitars and basses, and this is an old air organ, like something you might have in elementary school. I can do about two and a half chords and I wrote it on there, and for lack of a better name it became “Hag.” I hate to take the mask off that one, to unveil that. I don’t want to ruin it for them!

Let’s go back to record store Indie Retail Tour. We were talking about Springsteen on the walk here, and I’ll always remember where and when I bought Nebraska at 11 and it’s such a part of that album for me and even though the store is gone now, I have a lasting connection to that store through the hundreds of records I bought there. I also used to work there. So what you’re doing now is connecting the people who are buying this new record to a physical location, and with the posters, too.
No doubt. I worked in record stores too and I remember what a pain in the ass it was when we had a fucking instore. We had to move all the fucking damn aisles! It took a fucking village to move those things. But to be a part of the other side of that is fucking crazy. Luckily, I don’t think too hard on it or I’d probably get spooked away from it. But it’s not even paying respects to the record stores so much as giving our fans who like us enough a different experience that’s now your average show. People can bring their babies and it’s at a different time. It’s in the middle of the damn day. So it’s different experience for the listener and the band.


Sometimes we have a transcendental experience with our own songs because it is the middle of the fucking day and this isn’t rock ’n’ roll. It should be tough. But to connect with people who can’t normally make it out to your shows because maybe they work nights or maybe they a bunch of kids like me. I can’t go out to a fucking show! I’m not about to ask my wife if I can go out to a damn show. Hell no!

It must be great, too, to be able to look out a crowd like today’s and know that everybody in the audience owns a physical copy of your record.
It’s kind of heavy, actually. At least there’s the anonymity of a dark club or or even a festival slot, because the weight of some of those folks hanging on to every word… because they can be your most dedicated fan base, and that can be a bit unnerving. They’re forgiving, so it shouldn’t be harder, but there’s something about the weight of only getting to do this once because you want to put on a good show, because these people might be the best fans that you can find. So you have to be in the moment, and even talking between songs and shit—I’m terrified as balls.

Always. Always. It manifests itself in different ways. Sometimes it’s like you transform into something else and it’s pure energy and bombast and it’s like ‘Thank God! I can be somebody else for a second,’ but it’s always there. It ain’t really me, being a frontman, or even being in a band.


So why do you do this? Why do you make music? That’s a bad question. Here’s a better question: if you could just make albums and not tour, would you do that?
Fuck no. Fuck no! Honestly, it’s probably the only thing keeping me alive.

Even though it’s terrifying, you still love it?
Absolutely. There’s the mental exercise that goes into it and the physical exercise that goes into it, the action of hitting this thing for two hours a day is fucking bananas. What it does for my body—it’s so joyous and intense. It’s just the fact that other people are there looking at me. There’s a mental side of it that, like I said, manifests itself in different ways at different times. Sometimes I do get on a good run where I feel confident in what I do, but most of the time I’m probably scared shitless. And I’m not afraid to say that. But the privilege and opportunity to affect these people that have put so much into it—bought a ticket, bought the album, attached personal feelings and memories and experience to those songs—that’s a huge responsibility. I enjoy the exercise and I really love those moments, and the responsibility to do a good job for them enthuses me enough to at least get past that mental block thing of “You can’t do it. You suck” and all that shit and self-doubt. Are you worried, when this album becomes insanely popular and sells a million copies, that the couple you took a picture of on the beach find out they’re on the cover of the record and…
Oh, dude. I’ve got to be careful with this. Although it doesn’t really fucking matter—if they’re going to find it, they’re going to find it. A lot of the process for this album, I had to go back to trusting myself and this is one of those times. I took a bunch of photos of those people on the beach—I looked up and they had that pose and it was so contradictory: It was a titty and butt beach and we were drinking daiquiris and it was just boobs and butts and the best day ever because it was a day off, and it was like, ‘Why are these people so crushingly despondent and destroyed by sadness?’ So I’m like “Oh shit! Cell phone, cell phone!” and just grabbing snaps and they didn’t look up.

I just love the dichotomy there between leisure and good times and crushing sadness—and there’s that balance again—and so I submitted to our management and they were like, “We ran it by legal,” and in the end they were like, “We’ll get sued, we can’t do it.” So then we had the great Steve Keene, who’s done so many of my favorite album covers like Pavement’s Wowie Zowie and Fun Trick Noisemaker by Apples In Stereo—albums that I’ve owned my whole life—and he made about 20 renderings, through his filter, to use for the album cover and it’s like ‘Great!’ And management are like ‘We don’t like it. We’re going to use your cell phone picture.’ And it’s just ‘Fuck you, motherfuckers! I have a connection with Steve Keene and now we have to tell him that we’re not using him?’ But I guess they’re prepared to deal with it, so if it happens it happens, and they’ll be due money, because we’re using them to sell records. They would be owed money. And I’d be fine with that.

Where do you go from here? Where do you want this record to take you?
I’d really love to do another record with Jason if he’ll allow it, because I need someone like that to make my whack-ass musical ideas fully realized. So I would love to do a companion record with Jason again, because I feel like he brings out the best in me, and it’s such a relief to have someone who gets me and who’d fight to the death for the song. He’d fight me for the song, like “Fuck you, Ben, the song’s more important than you.” So I’d love to do at least one more record with him—and you shouldn’t do three with somebody—and then it’s probably time to swing the pendulum back the other way and do something that pisses everybody off.

Band of Horses Tour Dates
6/10 – The Basement at Grimey’s — Nashville, TN
6/11– Bonnaroo – Manchester, TN
6/15 – Bergenfest – Bergen, Norway
6/17 – Mad Cool Festival – Madrid, Spain
6/19 – Best Kept Secret Festival – Hilvarenbeek, Netherlands
6/20 – Gloria Theater – Cologne, Germany
6/22 – Zitadelle Spandau – Berlin, Germany
6/23 – Tinderbox – Odense, Denmark
6/24 – Piknik I Parken Festival – Oslo, Norway
6/26 – Glastonbury – Pilton, UK
6/30 – Bravata Festival – Norrkoping, Sweden
7/2 – Rock Werchter – Werchter, Belgium
7/3 – Main Square Festival – Arras, France
7/5-6 – O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire – London, UK
7/7 – Albert Hall – Manchester, UK
7/9 – Nos Alive – Lisbon, Portugal
7/22 – Splendour In The Grass – Byron Bay, Australia
7/24 – The Forum Theatre – Melbourne, Australia
7/25 – Sydney Opera House – Sydney, Australia
8/9 – Aspen, CO – Belly Up
8/11 – Mishawaka Amphitheater – Bellevue, CO
8/13 – Ogden Theatre – Denver, CO
8/15 – Boise, ID – Revolution Event Center
8/16 – Spokane, WA – Fox Theater
8/18 – Seattle, WA – Paramount Theater
8/19 – Troutdale, OR – Edgefield
8/20 – Vancouver, BC – Orpheum
8/22 – Bend, OR – Century Center
8/23 – Napa, CA – Uptown Theater
8/24 – San Francisco, CA – Masonic
8/26 – Santa Barbara, CA – Arlington Theater
8/27 – Ohana Fest – Dana Point, CA
9/10-11 – Loufest Music – St Louis, MO
9/20 – Boston, MA – Orpheum
9/22 – New York, NY – Central Park Summerstage
9/24 – Philadelphia, PA – Fillmore
9/27 – Birmingham, AL – Alabama Theater
9/30-10/2, 10/7-9 – Austin City Limits Festival – Austin, TX
10/3- Tulsa, OK – Cain’s Ballroom
10/23 – Asheville, NC – Orange Peel
10/27 – Charlotte, NC – Fillmore
10/28-30 – New Orleans, LA – Voodoo Fest
11/03 – Toronto, ON – The Sound Academy
11/04 – Cleveland, OH – The Masonic Temple
11/05 – Indianapolis, IN – Murat Theater
11/11 – Milwaukee, WI – Eagles Ballroom
11/12 – Minneapolis, MN – State Theater
11/13 – Madison, WI – Orpheum Theater
11/16 – Chicago, IL – Aragon Ballroom

Band of Horses’ LP Why Are You OK is out now via Interscope Records

Mischa Pearlman is not on Twitter.