Here’s why Ben Bridwell had to leave Charleston, South Carolina, a decade ago: In one week, he’d burned down his house after a candle lit his mattress on fire, been hit by a car while delivering burritos on his bike, then landed in jail for a fistfight. He headed to Olympia, Washington, to crash with musician friends, but the small town didn’t appeal, so he migrated north to Seattle, jobless and homeless.
“I never thought I would be in a band at all,” says Bridwell, whose blend of spooky Southern rock and shoegazer indie pop has made Band of Horses the most promising young guitar group going. Their 2006 debut, Everything All the Time, was the quintessential choice of hipsters and classic-rock fans alike, a spacy gloss on Neil Young’s stoner anthems. Their new one, Cease to Begin, has the same echo-laden vocals and gently crashing guitars, but the melodies are even more gorgeous, as if Bridwell has let a little sun into his shadowy world.
Until a few years ago, he’d never written a song. When Bridwell arrived in Seattle in 1997, it had nothing to do with the music scene. “I was into some sketchy shit around that time,” admits the heavily tattooed twenty-nine-year-old, who’s got one of those bedraggled beards that look like they’re groomed by hedge clippers (if at all). He’d stay with accommodating drugged-out women, or sleep in the back of unlocked Ryder trucks. Being homeless, he says, wasn’t all that bad: “I’ve always been really independent and didn’t want to cause anyone a fuss.”
Finally Bridwell took a job at the Crocodile Cafe (co-owned at the time by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck), shoving his tips into a hole in one of the venue’s speakers so he wouldn’t fritter them away on booze or drugs. His plan: to release an album by Carissa’s Wierd [sic], the band fronted by his Olympia friends Mat Brooke and Jenn Ghetto. And in 2000, he did, on his label Brown Records. When they asked him to sing harmony on a song, “I got the bug,” he says. He started teaching himself guitar, bass and lap steel —— anything, he says, to find some sense of melody. He became their bassist, but they split up, so in 2005 Bridwell started writing tunes with Brooke under the Band of Horses moniker, joined by drummer Creighton Barrett and bassist Rob Hampton, who now plays guitar (Brooke quit the group last summer to pursue his own project, Grand Archives.)
The Horses got their big break after Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam, an old family friend of Bridwell, asked them to open a few shows that were attended by Sub Pop executives. Within months, they had a record deal and were studio-bound. For Cease to Begin, seeing major labels offering unfavorable deals, they stuck with Sub Pop.
Bridwell (who last fall moved back to South Carolina) says his bank balance is modest, but he’s still shocked to have come so far so fast. “There are bands around Seattle who were heroes of mine,” he says. “I saw them go on tour and wanted to be those guys so bad. And a lot of those bands, they didn’t get to where we are now. Sometimes I wonder, ‘Why us?’ But I always figured, ‘Start writing songs, make them really good, get on a good label, do some great tours, work your ass off and you’ll be successful.’ And it fuckin’ worked. It’s the weirdest thing.”