Interview: Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses (2011)

A self–deprecating sense of humor is just one of the refreshing things about Band of Horses founder and frontman Ben Bridwell, who brings his group to the Johnny Mercer Theatre this week for a Savannah Music Festival show.

There’s also this: He writes catchy, memorable songs that still manage to evoke deep–dream vistas, color misty inner monologues and make you think;

His music is “retro” with any sense of obvious rehash, and “contemporary” without sounding like it’s trying too damn hard to impress anyone;

He’s a self–taught musician (guitar, pedal steel, mandolin and anything else that might be laying around) and a self–made business success (he started a record label in Seattle in 1997, and it’s still going today);

He’s addicted to UGA football.

Band of Horses, which began about seven years ago following the breakup of Cassandra’s Wierd (for which Bridwell played drums), released two acclaimed albums (Everything All the Time and Cease to Exist) through Seattle’s legendary Sub Pop label.

So Bridwell and company were already indie darlings when Infinite Arms appeared in 2010 as a split–label deal with Sony and Bridwell’s homegrown Brown Records (with an assist from Fat Possum). In no time, it entered the Billboard chart at No. 7 and was nominated for a Grammy.

The group’s music is an energized blend of rootsy Americana, 1960s harmonies and lush soundscapes drenched in reverb, with fairly straightforward pop or rock ‘n’ roll arrangements hitting your nerve center when you least expect it.

A native of  Irmo, S.C., Bridwell was kicking a soccer ball around with his 3–year–old daughter when he called, from the back yard of his recently–purchased home in Mt. Pleasant, just outside of Charleston.

He was in particularly fine spirits.

I read a short interview with you in – and I’m not making this up – Time Out Abu Dhabi, where you were complaining about how your “whiny girl voice” makes you cringe. I know you came relatively late to music, but do you still have insecurities about what you do?

Ben Bridwell: Yeah, I do. It hits you at the weirdest times. Sometimes it’s nothing but absolute joy and pleasure, and other times it’s still quite a pleasure but yeah, it can be a little bit unnerving that it’s your stupid head singing stuff. For the most part, I’m a lot more comfortable with it now than, say, a couple of years ago when I was just getting started.

You were bartending in Seattle, and you just “started” playing drums. Was music always sort of bubbling up inside you, or did you just one day say “I’m gonna try this”?

Ben Bridwell: I didn’t really think of it like that. I’d never even considered myself qualified to play drums or anything. I was releasing records on my little label, and I felt more in my comfort zone in that kind of position. But then, once I did start playing in a band, and playing the worst drums imaginable – the drums themselves were fine, it was the operator that was the problem – then I got used to touring around the country, and the kind of camaraderie and inspiration that comes from that kind of scenario. And I just didn’t want to give it up once that band broke up.

And coming from a family where music was so important, since I was born, that’s all I really lived and breathed. So it’s really the only thing I was qualified to do besides flip eggs or pour beer. I decided to just work really hard at trying to make songs.

What was in your parents’ record collection? What moved you?

Ben Bridwell: They grew up in Atlanta, so there was a lot of soul stuff. There was a lot of Rolling Stones for one – not so much the Beatles – but a lot of Rolling Stones, and the people that influenced the Rolling Stones. A lot of Otis Redding, James Brown, Motown stuff, all the Atlantic stuff. And a lot of Southern rock, Allman Brothers.

Then they got into some Luther Vandross and some Peabo Bryson, some of the more like modern, ‘80s R&B. So a nice spectrum of sounds, I think.

Interesting. If you say “Otis Redding to Luther Vandross to Band of Horses,” I’m not going to make the leap. There’s a great pop sensibility to your music, and the harmonies at times remind me of the Byrds and bands like that.

Ben Bridwell: Right, and a lot of Neil Young and CSNY stuff. I guess I get a lot of the sense of harmony from listening to a lot of those records.

I’ve always referred to our tag of music as “Mirage Rock,” not garage rock. Where it’s like, from a distance it sounds really good, but when you get really close to it you can tell that there’s nothing really there of substance.

Aren’t you selling yourself short there?

Ben Bridwell: That’s my funny little thing that I thought of one day: ‘I’m going to create a whole new genre of music called Mirage Rock.” I don’t know, man, I do whatever kind of is in the moment for me in a song, and hope that it’s the right approach to it.

Sometimes I’m probably way off, but other times I think it works out quite well. And it’s a new adventure every song. I don’t really know where it comes from, but I just know I have some core sense of what I want to do with it, usually.

It must be pretty great to realize that there are thousands of good bands out there who haven’t reached this level of success. Is there a “pinching myself” element sometimes?

Ben Bridwell: Dude, all the time! When I go to do a lot of writing things, I have to step away from the house – especially with babies everywhere, screaming all the time – and I go to like beach houses, or cabins. And that’s where I’m like “I must have the best job in the world.” If you can call it a job. I go on site to a beach house, and go into seclusion for a week, and scream my balls off and go crazy.

Not to mention, after a lot of different lineup changes I finally have this great family that’s in the band now. So even in those annoying moments of traveling and all the headache that goes with everything but the show, I’m surrounded by really great people. So it lessens the sting of any of the bad stuff.

I always feel like it could all come crashing down tomorrow, and I’ll be back to flipping eggs or something. It’s not lost on me how lucky we are.

At the same time, I don’t want to pander so hard to the people that are fans of the band that I’m not stretching myself artistically. I guess that’s a pretty cliche answer, but it’s true.

Going back to the beach house concept, you locked yourself away to write the songs for Infinite Arms. Tell me why you do that.

Ben Bridwell: I need to be able to whine out loud, really, that’s what it is. I need to be able to sing and not feel like someone can hear me. ‘Cause if I feel like someone can hear me, I’ll immediately – maybe even subconsciously – get self–conscious and pull back a bit.

Maybe that’s going back to the “not feeling that comfortable” thing, but I don’t want somebody to hear me doing that. I don’t want to hear somebody else moving around, because I’ll get scared off. I just try to isolate myself as far away from people as possibly, so I can really squeeze out whatever emotion I’m trying to put into the singing.

I’m just trying to stretch myself, and sometimes that means being loud as hell. I’ll sing like crap if I feel like someone can hear me.

For you personally: Live shows, or studio work? What would you rather be doing all the time?

Ben Bridwell: Man, it’s tough. That one goes back and forth. Sometimes I’m incredibly comfortable onstage, and the performance is so exhilarating that it can’t be matched by anything in the studio.

But more often times than not, I’m more on edge onstage than I would be in the studio environment, where it’s all just creation and pushing yourself to different limits. That maybe in a live performance you don’t get the chance to do, because you can fall on your face in front of the adoring public, or you’re just nervous.

So I think I more prefer the studio environment, at least today. But if you ask me after a show or something that was really good, I’d say there was no better feeling in the world than that.

So I can’t really give a clear answer on that. They’re both terrible and awesome.

I saw the YouTube video of you onstage with Pearl Jam, singing the Temple of the Dog song “Hunger Strike.” I thought, that’s got to feel pretty good for a guy who was still hustling around Seattle when Pearl Jam was on top of the world. That’s kind of a full circle, isn’t it?

Ben Bridwell: Holy cow, yeah. And just remembering when I heard that song for the first time – I was actually a major MTV Johnny, so when I first saw that video and fell in love with that song … it’s kind of mind–blowing to think I was probably 12 or 13 or something.

So it was definitely full–circle in so many ways. But also, completely terrifying. If you see the video, you can tell I don’t even know where to put my hands, I’m trying to hide my smile, I’m trying not to bust out in tears. It was just a fucking mental Vietnam, man. I was having a tough day.

I thought it looked great!

Ben Bridwell: I don’t mean to sell it short, because it went awesome. It was one of those memories that I’ll take with me to my death. It just had me so in a ball of nerves that I can’t believe I actually didn’t, like, pass out on the stage.

I understand you’re quite the Georgia Bulldogs fan …

Ben Bridwell:  I can live and die by some of the games, especially football. I shouldn’t get so wrapped up in it. And fortunately, we’ve been kind of bad the past couple years, so I’ve lessened my depressions when we lose a game.

I love it so much, man. And it’s funny, a lot of people in this music game aren’t that into sports. But I wait for football season impatiently every year.

Do you ever have to miss an important game because of your job?

Ben Bridwell: Every game, I swear to God. Any time something important is going on, Band of Horses is getting in the way of my football habit – and I’m a little bit fed up with it, actually!

Sometimes the game will end right before we’re supposed to go onstage. Sometimes I’m sitting there holding the stage time because we’re in overtime or something. And we end up losing.

And you can’t drag your sad ass on the stage and ruin the show! But it definitely crosses my mind.

@2011 Connect Savannah