Music » Music Stories

Band of Horses finds its rhythm from evolution.

Ben Bridwell points out there's no "me" in "band."


Ben Bridwell is inspired. Not from overcoming his checkered past and migratory youth, or by anything particularly grandiose, hip or politically charged. But when reached by phone in early January, the Band of Horses vocalist is simply inspired by Minneapolis, the city he happens to be spending time in at the moment.

"Right now what in-spires me to write is just everyday occurrences, so it's weird," Bridwell says. "I don't think, 'Oh, shit man, you were fucking homeless and a dirtbag on the streets, and that should inspire you to always do exactly the opposite of that.' Honestly, I don't think about it that much."

What the bearded frontman of the tender and ethereal indie rockers doesn't think much about these days could make for a great coming-of-age drama. A native of Irmo, South Carolina, Bridwell left high school early and meandered across the country. He ran into trouble while living in Charleston, South Carolina: Bridwell accidentally burned down a house, was hit by a car and spent some time in jail. He eventually settled in Seattle in the mid-'90s (where he was homeless for a time), but eventually scraped together enough money to found his own record label and start the influential, dirgey, indie-folk band Carissa's Wierd.

In that band, Bridwell mainly played drums and acted as its percussionist (he also contributed occasional bass and pedal-steel guitar parts). In fact, he didn't attempt to write his own songs until he formed Band of Horses after Carissa's Wierd split in 2003. After years of collaborating in the context of a group, Bridwell decided against placing his musical destiny in anyone else's hands — however experienced or capable they might have been.

"I really enjoyed that lifestyle of being on the road and the inspiration that it brings," he says. "I couldn't live with not doing [music], so I figured it was up to me. It can be really daunting when you have to convince yourself, 'Oh shit, it's up to me now.' But I guess I've always been a big music fan, so just the thought of being able to be in a band — and sing — really intrigued me.

"More than anything, I just didn't want to flip eggs for a living. I knew I had good taste in music, [but I would listen to the radio] and say, 'Who the hell am I to [criticize] before I give it my own shot?' How else would I really know how easy or hard it is to be, like, Three Doors Down, or whatever?"

This confession of being a novice songwriter is hard to fathom, considering the quality of the songs on Band of Horses' 2006 Sub Pop debut Everything All the Time. Walls of old-fashioned, Phil Spector-style echo and fuzzed-out, vintage-tube-amp crunch support Bridwell's powerful vocals, which recall the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne and My Morning Jacket's Jim James. Tunes such as "The First Song" conjure the mood of a daydream and float by on wispy slide-guitar flourishes and ghostly, reverb-drenched vocal howls.

It's hard to say just how much of a challenge those early days as a songwriter were for Bridwell, especially since he certainly made it look easy; Time is the type of solid, focused debut that every band strives to make. But that album's back-to-basics, country influences certainly became a more defining part of the Band of Horses sound on last year's Cease to Begin — which makes sense, considering that the three main members of the group (Bridwell, bassist Rob Hampton and drummer Creighton Barrett) left Seattle for the slower pace of Bridwell's native South Carolina.

"There were a few songs with a more Southern vibe that were written from their infancy in South Carolina," Bridwell says, "but most of it, I feel like, had a Seattle hangover because I had about half the album done before we made the move back."

Many of the songs on Begin — like the haunting and atmospheric "Is There a Ghost?" and the fuzz-driven Southern rocker "Ode to LRC" — do share characteristics with Time's country- and roots-driven songs. But Begin's sound relies more on lush vocal harmonies and richly textured instrumentation, via a soft blanket of classic Hammond organ, smooth Rhodes keyboard vibrato and moody pedal-steel flourishes. The songs capture the crisp, refreshing mood of solitary time spent in the country, where it tends to seem a bit easier to acknowledge all of the beauty in the world. In this setting Bridwell is able to convincingly belt out simple lyrics such as "the world is such a wonderful place" with unfailing confidence and honesty.

Despite Begin's expansive atmospheres, Bridwell wasn't yet utilizing the talents of the new Band of Horses members: folksy guitar-picker Tyler Ramsey (who just released an extraordinary solo album, A Long Dream About Swimming Across the Sea, and will be opening this current tour), recording engineer/bassist Bill Reynolds and keyboardist Ryan Monroe. In fact, Bridwell considers Begin "probably the most solo record that Band of Horses will ever make, because now with the band I have, I feel like it's finally what I've always wanted. I can trust it now, so I feel like we're just kind of getting started with exploring what our sound might be."

These explorations might include what Bridwell calls "more soulful jammers," following in the style of songs Band of Horses has covered, such as Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True" and Them Two's "Am I A Good Man?" But the possibilities for the future seem endless. "We'll explore everything," he says. "I think we finally have the talent with us to maybe drum up some soul instead of just my whiny, white-boy ass."

This self-deprecating modesty seems natural for Bridwell, who comes across like a typical dude's dude in conversation, a guy who would be great to just have a beer and hang out with. More important, his personality lends itself well to the more democratic and collaborative vision that he has for his band's future.

"We've really tried to take inspiration from the move, and I'm just excited to keep that going on the tour and start using the influences from those guys like Ryan and Bill and Tyler," he says. "I really feel like we're clicking as a unit, and I can't wait to put their talents to use in the studio next time around."

Bridwell's willingness to take chances, and to adapt to and take advantage of his current situation, is probably a big reason why Band of Horses has been so successful. If anything, the band's music perfectly proves the point that sometimes it's necessary to move far away from your roots to find your way back home.

"There are six dudes in the band now and everyone has an equal say," he says. "And even though I'm the one who has to do the interviews, I really don't feel like the leader so much anymore, or the frontman. I feel like it's morphing into what it was always meant to be — which is a band."

8 p.m. Thursday, January 31. The Gargoyle, on the campus of Washington University at Forsyth and Skinker boulevards. Advance tickets sold out, limited number available day of show for $15.


Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.