Pacing nervously through a busy Shepherds Bush, checking time, furrowing my way through the early weekday malaise of this part of west London, eventually I spot my target.
For one night only South Carolina-via-Seattle’s Band of Horses are in town. Tonight they play a sold-out, full to the rafters Bush Hall, and as I arrive outside the venue I am greeted by the band’s publicist Alex and Carly from Sub Pop (who has flown over specially). The first score of the day: I’ve made it just in time to watch soundcheck. As we all take our places at the back of the room we question how, exactly, 350 people are all going to fit in this tiny room, which is more akin to a miniature banquet hall, replete with chandeliers, than a concert hall. I assure them it’ll all work out.
This is a small venue for Band of Horses to play by their current standards. Having just arrived on the red-eye from LA after a ball-busting five-week US tour, each member appears remarkably fresh and focused as they go about their soundcheck routine. I can tell quickly that frontman Ben Bridwell, who stands center stage, is not just the frontman of Band of Horses - he is the unequivocal leader. At every moment he takes charge, directing the soundman, hired in just for tonight, of what to check and when, while the others go through the motions of the monotony of “check, check, 1, 2, 3”. After a short three-song set just to check the levels, including the beautiful slow version of ‘Wicked Gil’, Ben seals the soundcheck with high-fives and in his distinctive accent, complete with authentic southern twang, announces: “Alright, we’re done! Oh man, this is gonna be so rad!”. His positivism and good nature is the sort that is infectious, even from this distance, and I’m stoked to have this opportunity.
“I just knew that if I pushed myself I could figure it out. There was the desire to succeed and just to really reach for it.”
As soon as Ben enters Bush Hall’s upstairs bar for a chat, alongside guitarist Rob Hampton, he is all smiles and handshakes. He’s a distinctive guy who sports a giant wayward beard and tattoos everywhere, including the neck (one of which is a lion puking blood, taken from an album cover of his old band Carissa’s Wierd). Equally so, Rob has full sleeves of colourful body art, an echo of his (former) life as the singer in math-rock metal outfit the New Mexicans. I thank Ben for doing this. He smiles and thanks me, even more convincingly, for asking.
“It was definitely time to make a change for the better,” says Ben of the band’s recent move back to their native South Carolina from Seattle, Washington where they formed in 2005. Having found himself trapped within the scene for over eight years, working as a bartender and drummer of local cult band Carissa's Wierd, things had taken their toll both mentally and physically. “It was a mixture of being in the city, that place is pretty much party central and, kinda, not treating your body that well, which can add a little bit of depression. And because of the weather you stay indoors a lot of the time, and the fact that there was dissolved relationships and dissolved friendships – all kinds of things. I don’t know what it was, it just seemed like everything was really heavy before we left.” So in a bid to treat their bodies better and be around their family and friends, people who as Ben says “love us no matter what”, they said goodbye. The result is reflected perfectly on their latest album Cease To Begin (review), a self-assured ‘coming home’ record which mixes the sound of the band’s southern roots with tender, slower moments that reflect where Ben was at the time of writing. However, early on in the process, they found themselves at risk of the record becoming too downbeat. “I was really scared I was going to write a slow record,” he states, noting the initial absence of ‘rockers’. “There was just a lot of melancholy shit going down and whether it was the attitude change of moving back or it just naturally happening, ‘cause it’s what the nature of the beast tends to do - either way all of a sudden there they were.” He adds with a sly chuckle, “It can still be a really sad record, but just hidden behind some loud guitars.”
“I was listening to the radio, even independent radio, and being like ‘some of this is fuckin’ garbage’ and saying, ‘well I guess I can’t complain unless I try it myself’.”
The speed at which Band of Horses have accomplished many of their goals seems, on paper, hard to believe. Ben went from having never previously written a song, played guitar properly or sung before to finding himself unexpectedly thrust into the ears of millions just a year and a half after forming the band. Something was quite clear from the outset: Ben had both an unexpected talent for singing and an even more unexpected talent for writing a melody. With their Sub Pop-released debut album Everything All The Time, the speed at which they became ‘a success’ in their native US took them by total surprise.
“It started pretty shaky in the beginning. I’m not gonna say that immediately out of the gate it was like, ‘Hey! Here’s Everything All The Time’ – it took some work! And we did tours on those songs that sounded terrible and the songs did not sound like what Phil Ek made that album into. It’s not like I came out with all these jams or anything. Phil crafted that record, Matt [Brooke, former guitarist] helped a lot with that record, so if anyone thinks that’s the way it went down – it wasn’t.” Producer Phil Ek (Built To Spill, Pretty Girls Make Graves, Mudhoney, The Shins) acted like a den mother to Ben, providing a relatively inexperienced Bridwell with the help he required to polish his raw ideas and material into something they could both be proud of. “He was really like another member of the band,” says Ben of Ek. “He still is, the way he crafts the sound quite a bit.” Working with Ek on both albums was a big deal to Ben as the records Ek had produced previously formed much of his musical palate. It also helped Sub Pop with their decision to get involved with the project in the first place. “They could trust Phil,” he states. “Phil’s not gonna be in the there just throwing money away. So we ended up making all that money work perfectly. We were still over budget I think – but it was worth every fuckin’ penny ‘cause they [Sub Pop] made their money back.”
Having been attracted to the bright lights of Seattle as a teenager, Ben first found himself involved in the city’s scene after forming his own record label Brown Records, which went on to release the first Carissa’s Wierd record. “I thought for sure that I was going to be like ‘the industry guy’, that I would help my friends get famous,” he recalls. But soon he found himself not only helping to sell and market the band’s records but playing on them, too.
For someone who was “thrown into” music, as he says, after drummer Robin Peringer left Carissa’s Wierd to join Modest Mouse as a tour guitarist, his achievement has been considerable. Everything All The Time went on to shift 100,000 copies, they played …Letterman _and the success continued to flood in with this year’s follow-up _Cease To Begin which peaked at number 35 on The Billboard 200 (the US national album chart) in the first week and number one in the Top Independent Album chart. “I think it all came down to the fact that Carissa’s Wierd broke up and obviously I had to do something... I was in that band long enough to realise, ‘Crap! I don’t wanna quit doing this, it’s the best!’,” he explains. “I was listening to the radio and things like that, even independent radio, and being like ‘some of this is fuckin’ garbage’ and saying, ‘Well I guess I can’t complain unless I try it myself’.” Going down to his old band’s vacant practice space, he set to work, messing with whatever was laying around. “There was just that drive. Being a huge music fan, and knowing what I like, I just knew that if I pushed myself I could figure it out, you know. So there was the desire to succeed and just to really reach for it.” For guitarist Rob Hampton music was at first “the alternative thing to do besides play sports”; neither of them felt it a major calling. But for Rob, who played a significant role on the new album, it soon became “a huge part of my life and I’m glad, because when I lived in Seattle I never wanted to have a real day job. It was always like working so I could play music, working in restaurants and bars and stuff, just so I could play music.” But as Ben notes with animated conviction, “Now it’s like, of course! It’s the only thing. Now I can’t imagine what the hell I’d be doing [otherwise].”
“Take that music snobbery and shove it up your butt. We’ll take the people who don’t give a shit, who are out there to have a good time and can see the forest from the trees and not pick every leaf apart.”
However, quick success isn’t always the blessing it appears to be on the surface. “I think it sucks that I don’t want to look at a computer ever again ‘cause every time I look at anything, I’ll get curious and see someone just trash either me as a person or my bandmates, or just the sound of our band - shit like that. I hate the fact that we’re so on display, like ducks in a pond or whatever.” Ah, he touches on the infamous indie-rock snobs without prompting. The band’s prominent rise was initially helped by a large online presence of bloggers singing their praises. However, it appeared that as time passed the bloggers weren’t so pleased when the band started to progress into the mainstream aided, in part, through the licensing of a few songs to TV shows and commercials. Ben copped some unsavoury flack online. “You know, it’s funny… I was even thinking how we’ve just been on a five-week tour and we’re not gonna make a shitload of money off that tour! And that was like a month out of our lives and basically that’s going to work just to sell more records, and to keep getting the word out – we’re not making massive amounts! There’re six people that all split the money evenly, plus crew to pay out, plus a manager to pay out, plus lawyer, business manager – all that money gets sapped in a second.” He clicks his fingers. “So what else is left? What else can you do except license songs?”
But he’s aware that is the easy argument. “People will probably have another counter argument to that, saying, ‘Well, you’ve got the best job in the world, just keep touring’, or whatever, but it’s fuckin’ hard work. And then there’s also the other argument: everyone works for somebody. Believe me, we have to do something to pay our rents.” At this point it’s worth noting: he drives a 1986 Ford F-150 with broken AC, (Rob: a Ford Taurus station wagon) and they both live in small houses on residential streets in South Carolina. Not the penthouse living, Ferrari-driving city slicker type of dudes some may be picturing right now. He adds of the critics, “Those people are the same people who are perpetually 18 years old for the rest of their lives. If they haven’t realised that everybody works for somebody they’ve got a way to go.”
It’s always been a quandary as to why the public in general apply a different set of ethics to musicians and stars than they do to their own lives. While they’ll happily work for McDonald’s just to afford to get drunk at the weekends, they’ll be the first to criticise a musician for getting something back for their hard work. “On this last tour I felt we were playing some bigger rooms and were playing to a different crowd than we did before,” Ben says happily. The ‘indie-rock’ crowd seemed to be waning. “I think it’s rad that we are losing those ‘fans’ – I really do. Because if those people are coming to our shows, those are the people that are also the chin-strokers that are sitting there, judging everybody else. Take that music snobbery and shove it up your butt or whatever. We’ll take the people who don’t give a shit, who are out there to have a good time, or like, can see the forest from the trees and not pick every leaf apart. So yeah, I’m really excited that we are culling the herd, so to speak. Trimming the fat of those snobbish people man, ‘cause we’re not like that, we don’t give a shit. And who the fuck hasn’t licensed a song at this point to a car commercial or to whatever?” His argument is compelling, but there’s a point where you can go too far. Possibly his lowest point for criticism came earlier this year when he licensed their song ‘The Funeral’ to an online Wal Mart advert – later pulling out. “I understand the Wal Mart thing was bullshit so I took the money away or whatever. I learned my lesson, no one likes Wal Mart.” End of.
“I really want to explore giving the finger to all that snobbery and just do what we’re supposed to do.”
I get back to discussing what really matters, the music. Ben takes a dip of Skoal long cut chewing tobacco between his lips. He believes that not being a naturally gifted musician has had a beneficial effect on his writing process. “It’s usually forcing myself to sit down and just mess with my guitars, or piano’s or whatever,” he explains. “As long as I fuck around with something then I’ll find a melody and those usually end up turning into songs. ‘The Funeral’_ was the same way, any of those songs have usually not come from me walking around and being like [adopting a singing voice] _‘I’m walking, I’m talking...’ _” he says as Rob laughs _“...and running home and picking up the guitar. Because I’ve never been able to play music before this I don’t have any memory to say, ‘That’s like an A to an F’, because I don’t even know what the fuck that is. So it’s mostly just experimentation leads to melody, which leads to Wal Mart ads.” There’s an uproar of laughter. Ben is keen to play devil’s advocate. Undoubtedly he regrets his deal with the corporation but he’s not the sort to brush any subject under the carpet. He takes the honesty and carefree attitude of a rock star but adds good nature in abundance.
“You know its funny because I forget, while we’re talking, that this shit will be up and someone will take the excerpts from that and post it on one blog and then they cut and paste and put it on their blog and all of a sudden it’s like, _‘Ben Bridwell says you can go fuck yourself!’. You know what I mean? Which is true – ‘cause they can!”_ Even though the entire room is rife with further laughter it’s clear he is frustrated. “BUT, I have to constantly remind myself, and I’m obviously not doing a good job of it, but to shut the fuck up about it and not say too much because really now it’s become like after the game [adopting coaches voice], _‘Well I’m just glad we got a good win for the team’ or whatever. It’s almost become like you have to use clichés just because the information is so widespread anytime you say anything that, really, I feel like you have to censor yourself and can’t give good interviews because everyone is gonna take everything you say literally. Who fuckin’ cares? I bet Iggy Pop doesn’t give a shit! You know what I mean? But there’s so much political correctness now, it’s like, we’re in a fucking rock band – go blow yourselves!”_ I’m left with no doubt that he has a firm and honest place in his heart for his real fans but an extended middle finger to the haters. After spending time in his company, it’s quite clear that if sometimes that line gets blurred it’s just Ben wearing his heart on his sleeve.
As we come to the end of our allotted time, Ben kindly invites me to dinner with everyone before tonight’s show. As we leave I meet drummer Creighton Barrett and Ryan Monroe, who plays keys for the band. Walking down the Uxbridge Road towards Shepherds Bush Green, Ben appears pleased to be in London again even though it’s a tough time for him at the moment. Having been on the road for five-weeks touring the US, with a pregnant girlfriend waiting back home in South Carolina, expecting him home afterwards, he has now had to spend another eight days in Europe playing shows and doing radio and TV. To some the life of a successful touring artist may seem an easy one but it’s clear it is anything but. “I’m not gonna sit here and be like [adopts sobbing voice], ‘My job’s too fuckin much’, but when you ask is there negative shit, I don’t think people realise how much work goes in to trying to keep up. I never said [to her] that we’re gonna do three shows around New Years and then it’s time to go back out around the US in January for another huge tour and then straight to Europe and then you’ve got Australia waiting, maybe Asia. It seems like it’s really hard to keep up, which is not a bad thing - it’s a good problem to have - but at the same time, I dunno, it’s easy to feel kinda bogged down sometimes, especially when everyone calls you a fuckin’ arsehole on the internet. You know, it’s like what the fuck do I do this for?”. He laughs. “For my girlfriend to be pissed off and emotional and for me to get treated like shit? Awesome! At least I’m tired and run down!” But the one thing that is driving him on is the thought of those 350 people who, in a couple of hours’ time, will fill Bush Hall in expectation. There, hopefully, with just one purpose – to have a good time. I tell him the fact the show sold out so quickly, people fighting for tickets, is good reason to believe that the right crowd will be in attendance tonight.
Band of Horses: Live in store at Amoeba Music, Los Angeles (43:23)
Ben has one of the most infectiously positive personalities of anyone I’ve ever met. Although he says it’s occasionally pretence, he seems constantly stoked despite the annoyances. At every entrance he makes sure everybody has arrived safely by holding the door. As we sit down to a dinner of curly fries and veggie burgers, early ‘90s electronic pop tracks such as Snap’s ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer play above us. Everyone is loving it. Later the dance remix of Ce Ce Peniston’s ‘Finally’ comes on. Creighton states that these should form the staples of every DJ set, we all agree, and the discussion steers onto Haddaway, Culture Beat and The Shaman.
It’s quite clear that this is a band that you just can’t help but want to be a part of. There are no big egos, just a mutually respectful and friendly bunch. For example, tonight’s lighting technician, who also sits at this table, tells me how he literally begged the band’s label Sub Pop to do the show via e-mail. “I just love these guys,” he beams. “If I wasn’t doing the lights tonight, I’d be stood right in the middle of the audience anyway.” After dinner most of the band go their separate ways to prepare for the show. Ben and a couple of us move on to a nearby pub, The Defectors Weld, for a quick drink beforehand. As we arrive I warn him that there’ll probably be a few fans coming to the show in here and before long a barrage of well-wishers come over in their droves, including the bar tender. Every time Ben thanks them with a beaming smile saying, “Thank you so much, yeah, we’re all gonna have a good time”.
Sweat drips from the chandeliers of Bush Hall from start to finish. Everything is perfect. The people, the sound, the lights, the drums - Ben is in his element. Band of Horses have recently become a sextet and it appears, after going through many line-up changes, they finally have a combination that works perfectly. He tells me earlier: “The way we are performing now and the direction we seem to be heading in, like a solid band, it’d be nice to translate that to a record and bury the first two records.” From where I’m standing, it doesn’t seem at all unrealistic. He has total confidence in their abilities and is ready to relinquish some of the songwriting control. “I really want to explore giving the finger to all that snobbery and just do what we’re supposed to do,” he says. “A lot more rocking, a lot more instrumentation and a bit freer and a bit more upbeat” is the direction they hope to head in next.
As Ben stomps his way through rootsy ‘Lamb of the Lam (In the City)’ (a southern ‘good time’ song that would not seem out of place as an outtake on The Band’s Music From Big Pink) through to his striking voice which soars on songs such as ‘No One’s Gonna Love You’, it’s hard to believe that he nearly didn’t become a professional musician. This is clearly his calling. “This one is the most overrated song in the world,” Ben says self-effacingly before launching into the intro of ‘The Funeral’. The crowd are vocal the whole way through; Ben is relaxed and grinning like a chipmunk. Creighton smashes the skins with the precision of an ex-math rocker. Rob takes a quick look over in my direction: he doesn’t need to say anything, I can tell he is having the time of his life. The cherry atop tonight’s performance comes in the form of ‘Act Together’, a cover taken from Ronnie Wood’s debut solo album. Ben sings the lyric, “Well it's been a long time since I've seen you, You're looking good, Can't begin to tell how much I've missed you" with conviction, as if in anticipation of his arrival home to his loved one. Ryan’s powerful, soulful voice backing him up takes the song to another level all together. The progress they’ve made as a band since their first visit to London in May is considerable.
Backstage, after the show, Ben labels it “the best show we’ve played all together”. He is buzzing. Creighton asks, “You gonna come get shit faced with us?” Absolutely. The night ends with me crashed in a drunken heap at 6am on Rob and Creighton’s hotel room sofa. The room spins; I know my suffering tomorrow will know no bounds.
Band of Horses’ latest album Cease To Begin is out now on Sub Pop. Click here for a review.
The band return to the UK in February to play the following shows:
20 Dublin The Button Factory
21 Glasgow ABC
23 Birmingham Academy
24 Manchester Academy
25 Bristol Thekla
26 London Koko