The night before speaking to Rolling Stone, Ben Bridwell went out to a concert and stayed up "late as crap." On the morning of the interview, the Band of Horses frontman took his daughters to school (he has four) and went to a doctor's appointment. "I got a mole removed, because I'm getting old as hell," he says. But getting older has made Bridwell more comfortable with himself and his songwriting, which is evident on Band of Horses' new album Why Are You OK.
Bridwell struggled for months to write the follow-up to 2012's Mirage Rock, which he felt featured stilted performances and some insincere lyrics. "I was stuck, like, 'How many more teenage dorkazoid stories can I share?'" he says. But after encouragement from friend Rick Rubin (who told Bridwell, "You got this, dog" after hearing early efforts), Bridwell wrote several gems, including "Dull Times/The Moon," about the aging process and raising kids. Bridwell says the songs recapture the emotionally raw charm of his band's earliest work. One reason: he played guitar in the studio after largely setting it down last time. "Maybe it's getting older," he says. "But I like my wack-ass style."
How are you feeling about the new record, coming off of Mirage Rock?
Well, I feel damn great about it. I think all 12 songs serve a good purpose. It doesn't seem too long-winded. After that last record, I wanted to kind of flip the coin to the other side and make something a bit different. With Glyn [Johns, Mirage Rock producer], we just did it in such a raw performance aspect. With this one, I just wanted to taste the other side of record-making, which is like pore over something possibly too long and hone every little minute detail, and I think has been beneficial. We really tried to get everything as raw as can be and live as can be on that last record. On this one, I'd be surprised if there are two instruments ever playing at the same time.
How'd you decide to take that approach?
That's to Jason Lytle's credit, the fellow that produced the record. That's how he wanted to record. With the last record, we didn't even use, like, click tracks or anything. With this one we really kind of spazzed over every single damn detail of it. It was exactly the opposite approach as the last one for sure.
The overdubbing approach gets a bad rap. Most bands say, "The problem was that we were in separate studios."
Do people still harp on that?
Well, I was just reading about Blink-182 and they were talking about how before they broke up, they recorded their last album in separate studios.
Oh, god. I better watch my ass. Holy shit. No, that's funny, though. I think that anything goes now, nowadays – a great record can be one person in their bedroom creating everything on synthesizers, or I don't think there's any rules. There's less rules as we go, you know?
You definitely sound like you aren't bound to any rules with songs like "In a Drawer," which happens to be one of the best songs on the record.
I started that seven years ago, and I could just never figure out how to write the dang thing. I could never push it over the hill. It was a boulder, you know? I could just never figure the dang thing out until finally the last minute I got some help from some buddies. I just can't write a chorus. I rarely care to keep that in mind when I'm writing a song. I'm just like, "Hey, it's cool. I'm done." But because I demoed so much at home this time, I had no choice.
The common link I bring to my demos is playing a lot of things poorly, basically, if that makes sense. I don't play anything that well. But I can hunt down a vibe, and I can hunt down a tone. And that kind of makes the thing work, you know? And there's tension in my lack of ability, or whatever. The wrong things kind of become right, I think. That vibe seeps into each one of these songs, for sure.
It sounds like your sound got lost a little bit on Mirage Rock.
On the last album, we needed to get a live take. So if you want a live take, do not have Ben pick up a guitar, for one. That's your first goal. "We'll have Ben just sing the song." So some of the key ingredients to what Band of Horses sounds like have been omitted right from the get-go. At some point I was like, "I need to make sure I play some more guitar on this record, and make sure I write more with my weird tunings and not be afraid to get that back," because, I don't know, it's an important part of the suit, you know? I think that might be a key piece of the puzzle that I kind of left behind.
These songs also sound a lot tighter.
I just really tried to hone in on these songs as much as I could. I paid more attention to my demo-ing and fell in love with them, I guess. Maybe there's a bit of confidence that I've gained over some time, where I'm like, "Actually, I like me." Maybe it's getting older or something, but I kind of like my wack-ass style [laughs], my garbage-ness, or whatever. But maybe it's just becoming more confident and more comfy in my own skin. I know that's cliché. But there is something when you get older – I kind of feel good about myself, and I'm not afraid to display my garbage.
"Dull Times / The Moon" has a great laid-back, psychedelic feel, before becoming an almost entirely different song. What is it about?
Man, it was writer's block. Jason, our producer said, "No one wants to hear you complain about your band and your band's songs. Don't do that." But I was stuck in the muck with writer's block throughout this process, in the two and a half years of writing and recording this stuff. I sort of had a bad stretch where I was like, "I don't know what the hell I want to talk about, man. I don't want to think about them damn feelings."
And so I honestly had to start talking about the process and how maddening it was. Like, just trying to find the time to write, and trying to get over myself. Trying to get past myself. And once I started complaining about it with my words, it kind of opened up more doors, and before I knew it, the block was gone.
Are there lyrics on this record you wouldn't have written a few years ago?
That's a tough one. One of our biggest songs is that song "No One's Gonna Love You." And I remember when I wrote that song, like, in this studio apartment I was living in. I remember sitting there with a pen and being like, "Am I actually gonna put pen to paper and say this right now? Can I do this?" – just to say something so obvious and a bit cringe-y.
And in the end, I resolved it by saying, "Well, shit, what would Otis Redding say? Or Marvin Gaye?" Some of the baddest dudes in the business. You're less of a chicken if you actually say those things and allow yourself to state your genuine feeling. On this record, there's a couple of those love words that pop up a bit that are, well, love songs, I guess. I had to also kind of say, "Don't chicken out here, man. Don't get in your own way here. Just let it be."
How does Band of Horses' career look to you right now? Do you feel more comfortable, or do you still feel a need to prove yourself?
I feel liberated, man. That last record didn't perform as well as it could have sales-wise or perception-wise. But we still built our live show and our fan base over those three or four years. We're playing big shows and playing better than ever. So we didn't fall off too much there. I just love this new record so much. I'm so proud of it. I really don't give a shit anymore about all that stuff I cared about even five years ago, honestly. It's absurd. Really just fuckin' absurd that I get to do this, so I really don't care about any of that negativity shit anymore. I think we're about to take over the damn world – or not, that's fine.
What did you used to obsess over?
I'd get hurt by bad reviews and stuff. I would take it personally. I would just get disappointed in myself. Even being with Columbia and Sony, I was bummed for them. I'm a team player, man. And I want to help everybody, any way I can, honestly. So to not hit the kind of goal that they would have liked, it's disappointing. It got to me a lot more back then. It's like, "Shit man. I tried hard." But, and I say this now, wait till this thing comes out, and I might be a total bastard. But I really do feel like it's a great fucking record.