Band of Horses are gearing up for next month's release of the band's fourth studio album, Mirage Rock. The album was produced by the revered Glyn Johns (The Who, the Rolling Stones, etc.) – a fact that gave frontman Ben Bridwell a big case of writer's block he had to overcome, he says: "He's the coolest dude that exists."
How are you?
Oh, I'm doing great, man. Just trying to stay cool down here.
Are you in South Carolina?
I am indeed. It's hotter than shit.
Can't imagine – it feels really hot in New York too.
Dude, I'm sure. Ya'll got . . . you're surrounded by concrete and just . . . you're incubating, really.
I love the new record. I love everything you've done, but I feel like this one feels a little more intimate.
I'm glad to hear that. It's a bit nerve-wracking, because it is so live compared to the other records we've done. But I think that was probably kind of a nice, refreshing change after the last record, which was a bit . . . I don't know, it was a bit overthought in a way. So this is nice that it's kind of the polar opposite.
How do you look back on that record [Infinite Arms]?
Well, I'm really proud of it. It's funny, as one of the writers, it can be tough to see that maybe some people fall by the wayside when you come out with a new record that changes the direction a bit. But at the same time, that's what, as an artist or a creative person, you're challenging yourself [with]. With that record, it was cool that we decided to take producing all ourselves after a couple weeks and just go bonkers with it. It was a challenge, and that's good, and so for that, I'll always be proud of that record. But I also am very happy to bring it back down to earth a bit more, working with Glyn and doing it, you know, strictly live and analog. Kind of cool.
I read you talking once about how you liked to have a producer around to tell you if the lyrics suck or not. [laughs]
Oh, absolutely, man. And it's tough for Glyn, 'cause he can be a bit hands-off sometimes with that stuff. He'll be like, "If you took the time to write it and it's gotten to this stage, then far be it from me to tell you what the fuck you're supposed to do." This is only the second other dude we've really worked with, Glyn, after Phil, so it's not like we have all this experience with different producers. Phil was different from Glyn in that respect, where Phil wouldn't hold back, like, "Dude, you can't say the word shit," or whatever. Or even just something I think is really cliché from a funny standpoint, Phil would be the one to blow the whistle and say, "It's not funny." [laughs]
I interviewed Glyn yesterday about the record and he seemed really excited about it. He's done probably more legendary, great records than anyone has ever produced.
Right, there is that.
What did that feel like to work with him in that sense?
Yeah, that weight was definitely on the shoulders at first. I remember I went up to woodshed right in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. Went up there by myself for like a week and a half. And dude, all I did was listen to all my favorite records that Glyn has done. And if it didn't put my head in a spin . . . I hit, like, a massive writer's block. I couldn't even think about Band of Horses songs. All I could think about was the gravity of the situation, working with such an acclaimed and accomplished dude.
So it was pretty weird at first, pretty weird. I didn't really know how to get over it until basically the end of that little writing session, I was just like, "Well, dude, there's nothing I can do. I can't write, you know, a Rolling Stones song. I'm not gonna write a Who song. I just gotta do what I do." And that kind of brought it all back home. The fact that he ended up like responding well to the demos after that gave me some confidence, and he helped guide my songwriting into some really exciting and cool, new techniques that I'm forever grateful.
Wow. Which records did you bring?
Oh man. Who's Next – I love that record so much. And I grew up with the Rolling Stones. My parents – my dad, especially, is a massive Rolling Stones fan. So I'm a big fan of the deeper albums, even ones he didn't work on. Like Goats Head Soup, I love so much. And I was listening to Sticky Fingers, which he did.
He told me you guys would go through all the songs you'd written and you would work together. How much did you guys do that?
Well, it started over just mailing stuff back and forth and him kind of picking apart all the demos. It was really about three albums' worth of material that he had to choose from, or we all had to choose from. So it started there, and then we started trimming the fat. By the time we got to the studio, we had a lot of stuff to choose from, and he did something that I had never done. Which is take an acoustic guitar and all sit around in a room and listen to the song from start to finish, with words. And I started playing guitar by, like, detuning electric guitars and throwing the delays on there. Like, hey, it's tune! You know I didn't even learn what a proper C chord was until a few years ago.
So to play acoustic guitar in front of someone is terrifying for me. I've never really gotten over that. So all your frailties are on display amongst your closest friends and the most legendary producer that's ever walked the earth. It was really cool, though. It really brought out a side to the whole recording process that I'd never tried before. You're not here for an audition. Obviously, you passed the audition – you're here. So play what you have and let's discuss it and figure out where it could improve.
Was that when you guys were at the studio together?
Yeah. Kind of like a song-a-day type of thing. And in the morning, you know, your voice isn't even warmed up. You've barely had any coffee . . . I do remember it only getting easier, because it was so tough to begin with.
What did you learn about songwriting after doing that?
Well, I guess I learned for one that I don't have to be afraid. I've gotten into this bad habit, which I think maybe a lot of people in this day and age [have], where you can demo anything you want by yourself, add as many tracks as you want, and have it completed, almost, in a finished form, to play to them, without really getting down to the nitty-gritty of what the song, what its core is . . . On the last album there was no one there to really say, OK, leave it alone. With this one, Glyn was very much that dude to say, "Don't overdo it. That's how you guys sound when you play it right now. Don't beat it to death by playing it a million times. This is the vibe. Keep it strong and get a good take out of it." Crazy concept, right? [laughs]
I read about Infinite Arms and the making of that album, and how you wrote it during a rough personal time. How is everything now?
It was much more celebratory. Everything. This one, everyone was in a much cooler place mentally and physically that a lot of those, um, those kind of things, I guess health-wise and stuff like that, people were just a lot more fit for the process and just in a really good mental place.
You live on a farm, right?
No, no. Well, I have a house in the country. But it didn't really fit my family's lifestyle, because I have to travel so much. With two little kids and a wife always out in the country, where there's, like, no cops or firemen or anything. It's not the best scenario for them when I have to be gone so much. So we live in the suburbs. We actually just moved. And we're just settling in right now, actually. It's been perfectly timed for this downtime, after the record being done. It's great. I have great new neighbors that I really like a lot and a great little neighborhood with sidewalks for the kids to walk on. It's lovely.
Was there a song that was the hardest to write on this record?
Ooh, that's a good one. I guess the one that was the hardest was "Slow Cruel Hands." Usually, I can just spit them out – even if they're crappy, I'll have fun doing it, and not really worry too much. But I think with all the stuff that was going on in my mind about the pressure of working with Glyn, or being the second, make-or-break record on a major label . . . Yeah, that was really tough. And I didn't even include it on my list of submission at all, but I passed it around to a couple of the guys, and they were like, "We gotta work on this song." Glyn never cared for it either, the demo that I'd sent him, but those guys kind of pushed me to finish it and try it out, and it ended up being my favorite song for the record, and possibly one of my favorites that I've ever completed. It's usually the hard ones that I usually shun that end up being my favorites in the end. I guess it's a good thing.
What were you thinking writing the "Dumpster World" song?
It's a habit of mine to think that I'm being really funny, while sneaking in something, a bit of a tale about myself or something. The double meaning, I guess, with [that song] – it’s like, man, I'd love to destroy my body with drugs and fucking murder people all the time, but unfortunately I can't! [laughs] So, uh, to me, it's very funny, but I realize that even people in the band are like, "No, sorry, I don't really get that joke, buddy . . . "
You've talked about Neil Young as someone you've looked up to. Was he someone you were thinking about when you were writing some of these songs, like "Slow Cruel Hands" or "Dumpster World"?
You know, it's funny. I'm always listening to Neil Young's music, and he's probably the major catalyst for even starting the band for me at all. Growing up with his music, it's in my blood, or at least seeped into the bones. But I didn't think about it in that respect. It's funny, with "Slow Cruel Hands," like you mentioned, I also was trying to channel even some Bruce Springsteen stuff, and I don't realize sometimes that I'm still doing the same thing that I started at, which is trying to pop in Neil's singing style, and some of his vibe. And it's all in respect, of course, and even unbeknownst to me, most of the time.
I heard a playback, actually. I think one of the first songs that we did, now that I think about it, was "Long Vowels." And that was probably the first song we did, I think, where I had to sit down and play the guitar in front of everybody. And I remember, like, a few days [later] we went back to it to add an overdub or something like that, and I was playing basketball out in the courtyard, and I heard the playback, and I actually thought someone was playing a Neil Young record. It was so faintly in the distance, you know, and when I got closer I was like, "Oh shit, it's me. Same old me."