We’ve Got A File On You: Band Of Horses’ Ben Bridwell

Stevie & Sarah Gee

We’ve Got A File On You: Band Of Horses’ Ben Bridwell

Stevie & Sarah Gee

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

“Jesus! Shit, man!”

This is more or less Ben Bridwell’s reaction to virtually each era of his career that I bring up. The more we talk, the more surprised the Band Of Horses frontman becomes at his own milestones, collaborations, and endeavors. It seems that he’s remembering his life in real time; after all, Band Of Horses’ debut album was released in 2006, and he was involved in music well before then, too. Bridwell is a musician with a rich history, however much he understates it himself.

Despite his hectic schedule, Bridwell says he has a difficult time turning down projects. Perhaps that’s what has led to his impressive bevy of achievements. Later in our conversation, I reiterate his refusal to turn down projects, and he nearly shouts, “Hell no! No, I cannot. I just want to help wherever I can. That’s my job: to help wherever I can.”

This Friday, six years after their last release, Why Are You OK, Band Of Horses will return with a new LP called Things Are Great. Bridwell describes them as companion albums, with a connection similar to the one between 2006’s Everything All The Time and 2007’s Cease To Begin.

“I want there to be some Easter eggs there for those four records,” he explains. “I know that’s a lot to unpack, but as far as the whole discography goes, I hope that those are all friends. It’s hard for me to tell though.”

Chatting over Zoom from his home in Charleston, South Carolina, Bridwell affectionately reminisces on old times, from his adoration of his close friend Sam Beam from Iron & Wine to his effusive fandom of British rockers Biffy Clyro; from his all-nighter with My Morning Jacket’s Patrick Hallahan at a Detroit hotel to his initial dreams of operating a record label.

Things Are Great (2022)

Where does the album title stem from? Is it a nod to 2016’s Why Are You OK?

BEN BRIDWELL: It’s funny. I didn’t think of that until today. Our first reviews are coming out, and I didn’t even think about those two being correlated or whatever. But, no. Even Why Are You OK was a cheeky nod. I think all of our titles have been cheeky nods in that way. It just happened to line up, but it seems fitting now in retrospect.

I was like, “Are they winking at us?”

BRIDWELL: We have been the whole time!

How do you think this record paves a new path forward for you guys?

BRIDWELL: We finally decided, or maybe I did, to take the reins in the production realm. At least that’s a new path. We got tired of people telling us, “You’re not supposed to do that.” Luckily, we’ve had great tutelage over those years where they were right. But this one, at least it felt like there was a greater sense of independence with the band members. Linking up with [co-producer] Wolfgang Zimmerman, Wolfie, he helped me tell my truth a bit clearer without so much editing for better or worse.

In what ways did that independence show itself?

BRIDWELL: The sloppy guitar-playing for one. A lot of times we’ve rested on the better players we’ve had in our lineups over the years. I feel like we definitely stake our flag down there with the sloppy guitar playing and the weird tunings I use, just my weird style of writing songs. We didn’t try to go, “Oh, this is what it should sound like. This sounds more palatable for what the radio’s going to like.” Some people can play, but everyone plays better than me. We were like, “Just let all the warts be shown. Don’t hide them. Let them be in the forefront. Let’s embrace them, and let the band still be as amateur as it’s always been.”

You wanted the imperfections to shine.

BRIDWELL: There’s no doubt about that. As hard as it is to do, with so many records in so long a time, sometimes that’s dangerous because you’re chasing the demo kind of stuff because my demos, that’s what they start as. It’s like, “OK, how can we get that to where it’s acceptable?” But this is like, “Nah, man. Let’s let it rip the way it is and embrace it.”

How do you think this record will fit within your broader discography?

BRIDWELL: That’s hard for me to know because I don’t listen to our music. But I would say I knew, from the start of the last record, Why Are You OK, I wanted this to be a sister record to that, much like Cease To Begin was to Everything All The Time. I wanted to go back to those things, like going back to the steel guitar on Why Are You OK. “The First Song” from Everything All The Time is the steel guitar strum, and I wanted to do that with Why Are You OK.

Playing Drums In Carissa’s Wierd As A Teenager (1997)

When did you start playing in Carissa’s Wierd? Was it when the group initially formed, or was it later on?

BRIDWELL: It was later on. I had met Mat and Jen from Carissa’s Wierd outside a café in Tucson, Arizona when I was probably 16 or 17. I dropped out of school and became good friends with them. I had a car; that’s all it was. They wanted to start this band, and I was just there to drive them around. Whether it be a gig in Tucson or if they went up to Portland to play a gig, I was their friend. I went up to Seattle and started a record label, just basically to put their music out, so they’d have CDs to sell after the shows. That kind of grew into its own little monster. Eventually, they became a four-piece band, and Robin Peringer, who later ended up playing with Modest Mouse for a while, he had to leave the band. So they asked me to play drums, which I had no idea what I was doing. So I kind of fell into it, and I fell in love with the idea of being in a band.

Had you ever played drums before?

BRIDWELL: I had never played anything before. I was a mixtape guy. I wanted to be a record-label dude. That was my aim, just to get people into good music that I loved, not playing it. I didn’t see myself in that role ever. I still have a struggle figuring it out.

Now that you’ve moved into a frontman role, what did you learn from playing drums in Carissa’s Wierd?

BRIDWELL: I realize the backbone and the stresses that drummers deal with, especially with recording. In a lot of traditional scenarios, it’s like, “Well, we can’t get the bass down until they’ve got the drums down correctly.” I mean the stresses those people hold in bands can be daunting, and sometimes they get pushed around and bullied. I see it now from a different vantage point, and I have utmost respect for drummers.

The Ubiquity Of “The Funeral” (2006)

Your song “The Funeral” has been used in dozens of TV shows, movies, and advertisements. Why do you think the song has come to occupy the cultural throne that it has?

BRIDWELL: I don’t know. Sometimes I think it almost sounds like, you know the chime for NBC? You can almost hear it in your head. It’s almost like a chime. Those first chords from it immediately strike people in a weird way. I just got lucky with that chime of those notes. Obviously there’s a lot of pull with people going through hard times and losing people. I was honestly thinking about the sadness of the thought of losing people that I still haven’t lost yet. I’m gonna knock on wood. Maybe I’m not allowed to know in a way, but it came out that day, and somehow it still endures. I gotta think it has to be the chiming of those notes mixed with the sentiment being portrayed there.

While you were making the song, did you recognize how special it was? Or did you simply think it was another song to throw on the record?

BRIDWELL: It being my first record to make as a singer or songwriter, I tried my best to not finish it, so it wouldn’t be on the album, which caused quite a stir with [producer] Phil Ek and even Sub Pop. They were like, “Come on, man. That’s a song. That’s a real song. We gotta finish this thing.” Kicking and screaming, as I’m sometimes wont to do, I agreed to finish the dang song. I didn’t expect it to be the first single. I didn’t expect it to be the bell cow of what Band Of Horses is known for.

The song was also sampled on a rap song: the Grouch & Eligh’s “Comin’ Up.” How does it feel to be sampled on a hip-hop track?

BRIDWELL: Honestly, I think it was sampled first by Kid Cudi on a song that he had called “The Prayer.” I think that was a big launching point of the song. I still get people talking to me about it at times, like they came to us by way of Kid Cudi. He had come out with, I believe it was “Day ‘N’ Nite,” and he was just popping off. Then he had this mixtape, and at least at that time, you could get away with sampling stuff on a mixtape without having to pay any royalties, which is hilarious in hindsight. It was a big magnet to get people into Band Of Horses. I even got to meet Kid Cudi because of that. We’ve been sampled with all kinds of EDM artists. That song seems to have these weird legs still. I don’t know how, but it still has legs. People from different genres can either sample it or borrow from it and not pay royalties, which is kind of hilarious and fine by me. The fact that it endures is all that matters.

It’s given us a career, no matter how it gets used or how we’ve got into their lives. It gets people to shows. It gets people to our other songs, too. Far be it from me to curse that. Let them have it. I don’t give a shit. I just want people to hear us and enjoy us if they can.

Covering George Harrison And The Jesus And Mary Chain (2010)

You covered George Harrison’s “Your Love Is Forever” for a Starbucks compilation. Do you remember why you decided to cover that song?

BRIDWELL: I’m a huge fan of George Harrison’s, and at that time, I was digging into his later solo records. It’s easy to get into All Things Must Pass and stuff like that, but I think I was just digging around. I’m just like that. I always want to have compilations of stuff that other people don’t know about certain artists. I think that’s probably where it stemmed from. I fell in love with that song. I was living in Minneapolis at the time, and I was lucky to work with these dudes that had this art gallery/studio, and they helped me record it because, again, I’m a bit of a journeyman in my musical career. They helped me realize the song better than I could alone. I’m not sure how it got to the Starbucks compilation, but I would like to think that we recorded it on our own just for fun. We were recording a solo record of mine that never came out.

That’s what it’s from?

BRIDWELL: It’s from those sessions; yes, sir.

Gotcha. The premise of the Starbucks compilation was artists covering their favorite love songs.

BRIDWELL: I’d like to think it was just sitting around because I’m recording a million love songs all the time, and that was just the best one I had that day. I might have made a concerted effort to record it properly for them and be able to pay those dudes for helping me. But I love love songs. Hell yeah.

Is the George Harrison track still your favorite love song? Or do you have a new favorite love song?

BRIDWELL: I mean, “Be Here Now.” That one sticks hard. I’m thinking about the later stuff now. I’d make you a double CD package with probably a gatefold thing. I’d work on the art for two days if I had a chance to tell you what my favorite George Harrison songs are.

Another cover I want to get to is the Jesus And Mary Chain’s “Sometimes Always” that you did with Courtney Jaye. What was it like covering that song with Courtney?

BRIDWELL: Man, I completely forget about things. I want to say we were in Nashville, and I had some time before soundcheck, and I just went to the studio. She was working with Seth Kaufmann, who is also known as Floating Action, and Thad Cockrell. They were working on Courtney’s record. I’m not sure how it came about, but I can see what the studio looks like, and I can see the conversation that got started between Courtney and me about doing this for some reason. I don’t know why. I remember what it was like. I’m just not sure why this happened! I don’t know what it came out on. I just remember what it felt like in the studio, and it was jubilant. I’ve always wanted to work with Courtney. I wanted to work with Thad, and I wanted to work with Seth. Seth and Courtney are still good friends; I lost touch with Thad. I just wanted to work with those people because I thought they were highly creative. That’s all it was.

Collaborating With Macklemore & Ryan Lewis On “Starting Over” From The Heist (2012)

What was it like working with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis?

BRIDWELL: I was finishing a record with Glyn Johns in LA. I probably had a new baby around that time I bet, and my wife was sick of me being gone working on Band Of Horses. But Megan Jasper from Sub Pop, who I consider my mentor, one of the greatest friends I’ve ever met, she had called me and was like, “Hey, these dudes are making this record and need a couple of collaborators. They’ve mentioned your name. Would you be willing to stay in LA if they came down there to work on a song with you?” I’m like, “Oh my god, my wife would kick my ass.” But I followed Megan’s instinct and said, “Well, of course, Megan. If it’s worth it, I trust your instinct. I’ll call my wife and say I need to stay a couple days.”

I ended up booking the studio I worked in before, Perfect Sound Forever, which is a Pavement nod, I believe, up in the hills of Hollywood. I had never met the guys before. They sent me some demos, and I sent them some really wack vocals on top of the stuff they’d sent me. They were smart enough to be like, “We’ve got a song for you. Never mind that.” I’m really uncomfortable writing in real time with other people in the room, but the day that we worked, I had to write a hook. I’ve never written a hook before in my damn life. I’ll tell you this also. They seemed satisfied, and they were like, “Hey, my lawyer called me and they wanna give you writing credit on this song.” I was like, “Hell no, pay me $200 or whatever it costs a vocalist at your normal session.” They insisted that I got writing credit on that song, so now I have a gold record in my house from them because they insisted I take credit for the little tiny bit I wrote on that one song. They made sure I was taken care of for that, and that’s what good people do I guess, but I still don’t think I really deserve it.

Did you have any idea about how popular that record would go on to become?

BRIDWELL: No, sir. They were still a bit of an obscure, Northwest hip-hop act up there. They were getting some traction in Boise, Portland, Spokane, things like that, but they were not breaking into the mainstream at all at that time. I took a gamble based on Megan’s recommendation.

Was it intimidating trying to come up with a pop hook while other people were waiting for you to show them something?

BRIDWELL: It was intimidating, but at the same time, they were so kind and so new to the business. They reminded me of me. You’re on your heels a bit at times. You’re like, “I don’t know if things are going to work out.” I guess I saw kindred spirits in that way. I let my guard down and allowed myself to give in to that process of trying to do my best for them. I’m not sure that I gave them my best, but I gave them what I could.

Appearing On Two Songs From Biffy Clyro’s Album Opposites (2013)

BRIDWELL: Jesus Christ! I forget some of these things, Grant. I think it was a double record.

It was! You appeared on “Opposite” on the first half and “Accident Without Emergency” on the second half.

BRIDWELL: Jesus Christ! OK, well I can tell you this about that. We were playing with Foo Fighters at this soccer stadium in Sweden. Somehow they were playing before us. We were main support for Foos at this soccer stadium in Sweden. They all had their shirts off. It was only three of them, and I watched their show, and they blew me away. I just could not believe what racket these three dudes could make. I was immediately terrified we had to play after them, by the way. I guess we’re nice folks. We make connections easily. We kept in touch, and Simon from Biffy reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in singing on a couple songs. Anytime anyone does that, whether it’s someone on social media or a kid in high school, I’m like, “Hell yeah! If I’ve got time, I’ll help you.”

I always take it seriously. I remember recording it. I was at the MGM Grand in Detroit, Michigan. We were touring with My Morning Jacket, and the night before, I had emptied my minibar with Patrick Hallahan from My Morning Jacket. We stayed up all night talking about music, and I’m sure I paid a pretty penny for my minibar getting drained while we just talked about music all night long. I had to wake up before soundcheck and try to record this stuff for Biffy. Bill Reynolds, our bass player at the time, came in there with a mobile unit, and we recorded those vocals and sent them off before we had to get to the gig.

I love them so much. They’re such a huge phenomenon. I really wanted them to come over here and play with us to get more people into them. I don’t think it lined up correctly at the time, but they deserve a good look over in the States.

They’re huge over in Europe and the UK.

BRIDWELL: One day I ran into Simon on the streets of Amsterdam, just walking around. I was going to get some lunch or something, and he and his partner were out walking around. I ran into Simon out of nowhere, and I hadn’t seen him in years. Those guys are a class act, and I’m forever grateful they’d have me on their record at all, that anyone would have me on their record at all. I’m grateful. That’s all I gotta say.

Working With Iron & Wine For Their Collaborative Covers Album Sing Into My Mouth (2015)

How do these musical partnerships inform your own music in Band Of Horses?

BRIDWELL: Well, being not so good of a collaborator in a way, where I’d rather do it myself and send you my tracks, you realize some folks work better face to face. Maybe I’ve gotten a little bit more at ease with that. I don’t think I have though. It still scares the crap out of me, honestly. I think Sam [Beam] from Iron & Wine had the biggest weight to it because we grew up in the same town around Irmo, South Carolina. He’s from Chapen. I’m from Irmo. They’re rivals in football and soccer and all that. But some of these things are unnerving. The one with Sam was really special for me because I came into Sam’s music before I was ever in a band or anything. I was doing Brown Records, so I was hoping to put out his record and quickly realized that I’m gonna stunt this dude’s career if I put it out. I sent it to Sub Pop and Thrill Jockey. His music has meant so much to me over those years. To collaborate with him was a really big undertaking because I hold him in such high regard as a songwriter and as a friend and as a person that my family has known for so long.

It’s funny, Grant. I was talking to someone last night that was asking about one song I’d written, and I’d forgotten about the live stuff that Sam and I had recorded on the tour promoting that album. My idea was I wanted us to record an album of originals that we’d maybe cast by the wayside and hadn’t come to fruition. He was like, “No, I wanna do a covers record.” And he’s older than me, so he gets to win. Big brother stuff, right? So I’m like, “OK, Sam. We’ll do that, but once we get on tour, we’ve got to collaborate on each other’s songs from our catalogs.”

I was reminded just last night by seeking out a tune we had covered live from our catalog. He gets to sing lead and I get to sing backup, and, damn, what a pleasure that is. Or, I get to sing lead on one of his songs, and he sings backup, and I would hope that’s a pleasure for him, too, to take a bird’s eye view and look at the whole of that feeling and get a different perspective from it. To me, that one stops me in my tracks. Collaborating with Sam probably means the most to me over these years. It’s not just “fortuitous” or a “good look.” This is family, and this is where we come from.

Do you think it goes back to those hometown origins and friendship?

BRIDWELL: So much. We were both mixtape guys. Before we were releasing records, we were just sending mixtapes back and forth of the songs that we liked. Our collaboration was meant to be a mixtape, like what our friendship had started to be. Perhaps he’s smarter than I am because that’s what he wanted to really bring back home. Or perhaps I’m smarter and we still need that one record of songs that we haven’t exactly gotten over the finish line to do together. We’ll see which one charts better!

Do you think you’ll do an album of originals like you wanted at some point? Or is it difficult trying to get your schedules lined up?

BRIDWELL: It’s strange. Sam and I both have a bunch of daughters. He’s got five daughters. I’ve got four daughters. We’re both from the same dipshit town. We’re both busier than crap in our respective projects, and it’s hard to tie us down sometimes. I tell you what, Grant. I would be over the moon to do another project with Sam. Maybe this is the seed that we plant right here.

Forming The Supergroup BNQT With Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos, Granddaddy’s Jason Lytle, Midlake’s Eric Pulido, And Travis’ Fran Healy (2017)

What led to the formation of that group?

BRIDWELL: We were lucky enough to have Midlake come play a couple of shows with us, Band Of Horses. We played some shows together and hit it off real quick, especially the drummers, honestly. The two drummers hit it off like crazy. We kept in touch over the years, all of us. Eric, he’s kind of the ringleader for Midlake. He hit me up and asked me if I’d be willing to contribute some castoffs, like we were saying with Iron & Wine, some castoff songs that I had to contribute to this project they were working on, and [Jason] Lytle’s on there. I can’t say no to a project! So I’m like, “Of course, I’ve got these songs. They might suck, but I’ll send them your way. If anything strikes your fancy, I’d be glad as hell to record them correctly finally.”

We were talking about how hard it was for you and Sam to line your schedules up, so how hard was it for all of you guys in BNQT to line your schedules up?

BRIDWELL: You know, it helped bring Wolfie and I together here in Charleston. I needed a place to record correctly, not just in my basement. I wanted Wolfie to help me because he was making these great records with bands around here in Charleston. It’s funny. It became kind of the seed that planted us working together. It was fine because those guys are so very incredible. These guys are some of the best musicians I’ve ever heard play. It was easy for them to record their tracks. We were promoting Why Are You OK at the time. Getting my ass into the studio with Wolfie was a little bit tough. To get it out and promote their album while Why Are You OK was out, I couldn’t do shit honestly. My hands were tied with Band Of Horses stuff where I couldn’t get out and play with them. I’ve never performed with them. All I could do was contribute and try to make the songs as good as I could, which I regret a bit.

Do you think you’ll reunite and perform with them?

BRIDWELL: You’d have to ask them if I’m too much of a pain in the ass to work with! But just like any of these folks we’re talking about, like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, or the Midlake bros, or Sam, or Courtney Jaye, I would hope that working with me was enough of a pleasure that they’d want to work with me again. I’d be glad as fuck to do that.

Writing The Theme Song For The Wrestling Drama Heels (2021)

BRIDWELL: Well, I got lucky as shit. Someone cared enough to think that my voice might be good on it. The folks hit me up, and I just tried my best. Again, I worked with Wolfie on recording it. In half of a day, I tried to dig deep into the subject matter and tried to find some words that might fit it. I can’t believe that they were OK with it or pleased enough to want to use it for the show.

Was this your first time writing for a TV show?

BRIDWELL: Yes, sir. I had done some movie stuff a little bit. I tried to do a score for a short film once, which probably no one knows about. This is probably the most high-profile thing I’ve done in that realm.

What was it like making music for TV?

BRIDWELL: I didn’t think of it that way. I wanted to do service to that song that had been sent to me. You could tell such great care had been paid to the music. I just wanted to rise to the level of what was needed of me. I mean, not just voice- and recording-wise, but lyric-wise, I wanted to provide them with good enough fodder to fit the scene. So it was a bit scary, honestly. I can’t believe they used it.

Are you used to working with such a tight deadline? Or do you prefer to give yourself leeway when it comes to creating things?

BRIDWELL: At my age now, I find that I need to get kicked in the pants regularly. I need my ass to get kicked. I don’t work as well as I used to with hindsight. I feel like I need the motivation that comes from pressure. But who knows? It depends on the project, right? It depends on the song. Also at the same time, I don’t want to be frivolous and put something out that’s not what it could be.

Things Are Great is out 3/4 via BMG.

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