Southern Comfort: An Interview with Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell

Band of Horses’ Everything All the Time was one the most celebrated releases of 2006. The group’s fuzzed-out guitar anthems led by Ben Bridwell’s high-pitched croon garnered comparisons to indie stalwarts like Built to Spill, The Shins and My Morning Jacket. Soon enough these southern transplants were Sub Pop’s “next big thing” from the Pacific Northwest. With the release of their sophomore effort, Cease to Begin, the band makes a subtle attempt to show off those southern roots while at the same time casting Ben Bridwell as the reluctant frontman and indie rock’s most unlikely spokesperson.

The group returned to Bridwell’s native South Carolina to record Cease to Begin, but the singer is doubtful that the move was the only thing responsible for the album’s southern tendencies. “I’ve always wanted to explore more of the American roots side of songwriting,” Bridwell explains. “I guess lyrically the moving had some effect, but most of the songs had been written before we went down there. Maybe there’s a bit more twangier moments [on Cease to Begin] than the first record. There was definitely some of those moments on the first album but maybe it’s just a little more heavy-handed this time.” Twangier might be one way to describe Cease to Begin. The album has been cast as a more mature, subdued, country-tinged version of the band. Rather than a new direction, the effort might just show Band of Horses’ true talents on what I think is more aptly described as one of the best rock records of the year.

Bridwell, former drummer for the Seattle group Carissa’s Wierd, seems to have an aptitude for learning new instruments; “I’m more of like the dude that can’t play anything well, but plays a little bit of everything.” Bridwell not only made the switch from drummer to lead singer and guitarist but also does some work on pedal steel, although his expertise on the instrument is admittedly in doubt. “I don’t really play [pedal steel]. I’m really terrible at it, I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ll just pick up something like, ‘Hey I’m gonna learn banjo for a week. I’ll be shitty at that for my life but at least I can play one fuckin’ song.'”

Less of a rock star and more of a regular ‘dude’, Bridwell is the kind of guy you wanna have a beer and watch the ballgame with. “I was watching the Yankees and Indians game right before I went out last night with Phil Ek, for him to beat my ass at pool,” says Bridwell, referring to the acclaimed producer of Built to Spill and The Shins, as well as Band of Horses. “Yeah, it was 3-0 Indians and all of the sudden you see the Yankees just climb back; you could almost see the spark leave the Indians and I’m afraid that we’re gonna see the Yankees in the ALCS.” (Fortunately for Bridwell, the Yanks lost the series the following night.) “I hate the moneyball aspect of it,” he says referring to the extraordinary salaries of the New York Yankees. “I wanna see any team beat those guys.”

His affinity for sports has even spilled over into his songwriting, naming a track on Cease to Begin after the former Seattle Supersonic Detlef Schrempf. “I was dealing with some Seattle issues when I wrote that song so I aptly gave it a Seattle kind of title. I love the dude’s name. I love his style or whatever. It’s more of just an homage to the way he spells his name, more than it is about himself as a person.” After a brief moment, a thought occurs: “I guess next time we’ll have, like, a Rollie Fingers song,” Bridwell says jokingly about the handlebar mustache-wearing Oakland Athletic who revolutionized the art of relief pitching. “Maybe I’ll do a whole new album just dedicated to sports heroes,” he kids.

Bridwell’s modesty reveals itself often, and not only in regards to his music. Known for his long scraggly beard and various tattoos, I asked him how his facial stacked up against some of his contemporaries, particularly Sam Beam from Iron & Wine and Doug Martsch of Built to Spill. “I trimmed the shit outta my beard,” he says, quickly admitting defeat. “Sam, he’s got the long flowing mane of beard; me and Doug seem to be a bit more scaled back on it. But Doug’s got one of the most influential beards in indie rock.” Indeed he does.

Bridwell’s low-key demeanor and humility is atypical for a high-profile front man, and in this case it has been known to rub some people the wrong way. The blogosphere was up in arms last year when the singer chided a YouTuber for taking a video of his show after he requested that she stop. And the band’s licensing of songs for Ford and Wal-Mart has caused a mini-uproar. But Bridwell seems less concerned about pleasing the internet critics than he is about making music and creating a shared experience at the band’s performances. “I can interact with our fans and leave people with a good vibe at our live shows. I’ve had a misstep or whatever — that was amplified and blown out of proportion. I don’t see myself as a bad guy. People that know me I don’t think would see me as a mean person at all. It’s just funny that those things can automatically put you out of favor with such a large group of people.”

When it comes to addressing his critics directly, Bridwell is decidedly less diplomatic. Speaking of the ubiquitous presence of the hyper-critical indie bloggers Bridwell says: “To me it’s just sad. I just don’t like it. I think it’s a sick, sad little fucking aspect, that I don’t know if society as a whole has gotten into, or maybe it’s just the indie community, where people need gossip and they need fucking rumors and they need information and they need it fast. New York as a whole is a bit scary in that way where you come in and everyone seems like they write a blog. Everything’s so amplified there. It’s not a good feeling to me. I just try not to worry about that stuff and just know that the things I like are playing shows.”

Bridwell has learned a thing or two about licensing his songs from his experience with “Funeral”, the band’s epic indie hit from Everything All the Time. Basically for Bridwell, it comes down to weighing the the benefit of the exposure against the egregiousness of the corporate practices. “The Ford thing is an obvious one for me. Sure Ford’s a fuckin’ massive company and they have an impact on the planet, which definitely concerns everybody, but at the same time to be able to have that kind of exposure, to have our song on a commercial is fucking massive, to have your song playing that much on TV is huge. I guess I look at it more like that. The exposure, I think, is fantastic. The money is one thing that also helps considerably. I won’t deny Ford from using our fucking song if they want.

“The Wal-Mart thing was a little bit strange in that I guess I didn’t think anyone would see it, which is really a bit irresponsible of me. I just didn’t care, later realizing that it was so important to our fans, some people were really upset by it. I needed to step back and say, ‘ya know, maybe it’s not the smartest thing to go with anyone who wants to use your song, even though the exposure is great.’ For the Wal-Mart thing, I was really flattered that they would want to use a song like that in their television campaign. I later balked and decided that maybe it wasn’t the right thing for us to do, and pulled out of that deal.”

Asked if he will be more selective in licensing his songs, Bridwell explains “I think I will. At the same time, I gotta keep my family fed and I gotta do what’s right by them. I could be dead tomorrow and have nothing to show for it. I would like to take care of my family, but at the same time I don’t want to piss off the people who really care about us.

“I don’t want young people to get the idea that we’re just shitty corporate whores, I guess.”