It’s been four years since Band Of Horses last released an album – high time, then, for fifth record ‘Why Are You OK’, which is out this June. Frontman Ben Bridwell sat down with NME on a dark hotel patio in Austin, Texas earlier this year to discuss exposing yourself on record, going to Rick Rubin’s house and finding aliens on a nudist beach in Rio De Janeiro.
On this album, you’ve said you’re exposing yourself more…
Ben Bridwell: “It’s a weird thing. I didn’t come into this as a comfortable frontman and no one does – no one ever does, right? I may have just not grown with that profession as well as some others do. They’re like ‘I’m the fucking shit’. I’m just not that kind of person. I’ve just never been comfortable in that role. But, with this, I feel like even with the last couple of records, I wasn’t trying to mask stuff. On the first record, I used reverb to hide the words and then I think it slipped into using metaphors at times to hide the true sentiment of the feeling. I tried to be more honest with myself and tried not to hide so much. I think it worked. We’ll see.”
How hard did you find that process?
“I think what I found hard was that I didn’t know that was what I should do. ‘How can I have writer’s block?’ Well it’s cos you’re not really being honest with yourself or allowing yourself to open up. You’re thinking too much about how to mask things instead of telling it how you really feel. I think it was just realising that that was the toughest part.
“The fella that produced the record [Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle] was like, ‘No one wants to hear a band guy complaining about being in a band in a song’. And that’s a great point! But there is an element in here that got me over the hump, which was telling what I’m going through with writer’s block and shit. ‘Dull Times/The Moon’ is my existence. It’s like a big sigh. I don’t complain, I’m so fucking lucky and I take nothing for granted at this point of my life, but it took saying what was really happening to finally beat the block. Cos that was what was really happening at the time. So once I got that sentiment, the train was on the tracks and it kind of steamrollered from there.”
This record is the first time you haven’t gone to some remote place to write. Did being at home have any effect on the songs you wrote?
“I don’t know if it did, but I can tell you I’m not going to sell that fucking house. For real. Something cool happened in there cos I love the record. There was just no other option [than writing at home]. I was just too busy. Once [the children] are all in bed, it’s like go to work. I’m morning duty guy, I’m the guy who drops off in the morning so I look like the most disastrous father out of all of them. Most of them drop off and they’ve got nice shirts on and shoes and stuff. I’m a fucking disaster. But sorry, we don’t live like that in the Bridwell house. Y’all can make fun of me all you want for having half an hour of sleep or whatever the fuck happened, but I’m doing my darnedest to try hard for [my family].”
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You worked with Jason Lytle from Grandaddy on this record. How did you first meet?
”We were playing a two-gig show, like a matinee and an evening show, in Bozeman, Montana of all places at this place called The Filling Station. We knew that Jason had just moved to Montana just by being fans of his, but I don’t think we’d ever really hung out before. He came to the show by himself, as he’ll do – he’s a bit of a lone wolf. I’m a nerd, I love music so much – I still listen to new music like I did when I was 15. My heroes are my heroes and Jason’s one of them. To have him there was a big deal. We hit off, as much as you can with Jason – I’m not afraid to say that. He’s not the most social fella when he’s meeting people. But we did hit it off and we kept in touch throughout the couple of years that passed. He was putting out a solo record and I was working on a solo record that I never released. We were in touch, just volleying shit back and forth.
“I was taking the band up to a cabin in this place called Bat Cave, North Carolina. I think I had the idea [of getting him to produce] maybe the night before and Creighton [Barratt, drummer] was driving with me. I said ‘I had this hunch, man. I really want Jason Lytle to produce this record’. He was gobsmacked, like ‘fucking great’, but he was like ‘fuck, how do we tell management?’ Cos [Jason] doesn’t have a whole lot of producing credits to his name. They’re gonna be like ‘y’all? Really? Foot shoot every time, square in the foot.’
“I felt a little bit adrift since the first two records. My friend Phil produced those records and helped bring the life out of me. He was really a mentor to me and so was Glynn [Johns], I do not want to slight him at all. There was a different way of nurturing my idiosyncratic ticks – what makes me an amateur professional or whatever – that only an indie rocker could do. Jason, he was the mentor I was searching for. He brought so much life into it and it would be a much worse record without him, for sure.”
You also had Rick Rubin giving you advice throughout…
“Ah man, it’s funny cos he hit me at a pivotal moment cos we’d already started tracking. He just knew. He kind of cold called and was like ‘what are you doing? What are y’all up to? I heard your song on the radio and I pulled over.’ It was like ‘funny enough, Rick, I’m funding another Band Of Horses record and I’m hoping someone will pay me back’. He was like ‘well, do you wanna come by and play stuff and chat?’ I was like ‘I do, I really do. I’m scared as fuck to go to your house and I don’t really know what to expect’. He’s so nice and so smart and he’s got such a great ear – maybe the best ear that exists. [The first visit] was a bit nerve-wracking. ‘Somethings are good, somethings I can see where you’re going and you’re getting there, you could do this’. It’s never a cut and dry, this is how things are and this is how things aren’t. It’s never like that with him. It’s little nudges and suggestions of things you could do, and they’re all brilliant. Even if they’re not right for you and how you hear it.
“So we did that and linked up and then he saved me again cos I put all my money and lifeblood in this thing. He’s like ‘I’m working through the Universal system right now, we could sign y’all and pay you back for all the money you spent?’ I was like ‘fuck yeah, thank you Rick!’ So not only that, but throughout the process he was a great shoulder to lean on or ear to bend, a friend to lean on. Whether it be songs or overall aesthetic. He could see the big picture and have imagination within the framework that it was currently at, the state that it was currently at and say ‘oh I see where you’re going, you’re fine’. Sometimes that vote of confidence is all you need, like ‘well at least I can ditch that one from the baggage chamber in my mind and leave that behind and move on from that song and focus on the ones that maybe aren’t there’. What a relief.”
Where there any songs on the album that were a real challenge for you?
“Last week, we finished a song that started seven years ago. Seven years ago, my first daughter had just been born and I was living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She keeps crying cos her pacifier kept falling out of her mouth. I called her little pacifiers a jammer. Anything was a jammer. That fucking table’s a jammer, beer – gimme another jammer.
“This song refused to die. I don’t think of songs in the traditional framework because I don’t come from the experience of knowing what the fuck to do. I’m sorry that it doesn’t have a chorus, I never considered it. Don’t care, never did. So they’re like ‘Ben, will you write a chorus?’ Sure, here it goes. ‘Pretty good, will you change it?’ Fuck y’all, sure. So I did it over a number of years. I thought it was that one that was always going to get away. In the last week, I swear to you, last week my friend was like ‘you’re Howard Hughes right now, I can’t even come over here. You’ve lost not only perspective, you’ve lost it. You’ve lost your fucking mind. I don’t know what to tell you right now. Keep on at it, I guess? Or just let it go, dog’.
“Wrapping it up in that question, I wrote this new part, this new lyric. “I found it in a drawer” are the words that I wrote, for a real chorus that these bastards want for songs. I listened to it back and I was like ‘it sounds like a damn Dinosaur Jr song’. That’s ‘In A Jar’, that is a Dinosaur Jr song, dildo. So I looked it up online, or looked back at what I have in my collection on iTunes or something and was like I got that EP. So I listen to ‘In A Jar’ and the song that comes after it is them covering The Cure’s ‘Just Like Heaven’. So what I did, I’m listening to ‘Just Like Heaven’ after that and probably staring into the middle distance, not even thinking, I’m singing in the same chordal framework “show me how you do that trick” like J [Mascis], and it fit in my framework. I was like ‘this is cool as fuck, this is it, this is the thing I was looking for’. I hit Jason up about it and I showed him me covering J as J. He was like ‘I stayed up til four am listening to this and I think it’s fucking brilliant and we should just call J and see if he’ll do something and I’ll write a part’.
“So Jason Lytle, my hero from Grandaddy, wrote a part for J Mascis, my hero from Dinosaur Jr, for a Band Of Horses album, which I happen to be a part of. You could not imagine a more dreamlike experience for someone who is a fan of those bands. It’s like playing God! These two girls that I used to be in a band with who are dear friends of mine, I was like ‘well I’m going to pull back in some things that didn’t work that I tried for these motherfuckers. I’m gonna pull them back in’. It’s a shit soup of my friends, but I’m proud as fuck. Yeah it’s a cacophony and it’s a din of madness, but these are my friends and this is where I come from in my fandom. These are the people I worship and this is a friends party so fuck everything else. So I finished that shit last week and that’s the end of that question.
The title of the record comes from a text your daughter sent. Why did you feel it was right for this album?
“For lack of a better answer, her older sister Annabelle, I had a song for her on our third record called ‘For Annabelle’. Ivy is the second oldest and she’s like ‘when’s my song dad?’ They know barely what I do. I was like ‘good question, but again I don’t write like that’. I couldn’t if you asked me to, but I know her time’s coming. They all go into it so much – it’s like ‘if only I could explain to you how many lyrics you’re a part of’.
“But I remember thinking it was funny as shit that she sent that to my kid’s teacher. She was three at the time and just typed in some garbage to my wife’s phone and it happened to be a reply to one of the teachers. And it’s ‘why are you OK’ without any punctuation. I was like ‘what an interesting statement or question’. It was just something that I thought so was funny and I was on a nude-ish beach in Rio on tour, somewhere in south America. I was just staring at boobs and butts and pecs and abs. It was a day off and me and my buddy Creighton and my buddy Chris were drinking caipirinhas and just enjoying the scenery of it and enjoying all of it, especially as Americans. As the sun goes down, the chairs get folded up and you kind of forget that you were looking out there and it’s just the vastness of the ocean again and the sunset behind us. There’s these two alien people standing on the beach with their heads in their hands and the sun’s hitting them. What in the shit could this possibly be besides aliens? They don’t understand that you’re not supposed to be sad in this moment. It’s glorious and it was so strikingly beautiful.
“I took my cellphone out and took pictures of it. I was probably drunk and once I looked back I was like this is a striking image and once I put the two together with the words… it could go either way with it. Yes they’re probably meditating, but are they crying? I think that’s why I chose that. Once the image was settled, what I wanted to do for the cover, the words went hand in hand.”
You mentioned earlier about still listening to new music. What artists were you listening to while making this record?
“One thing I did know while making this record was I didn’t want to listen to white boy indie rock. I was so filled to the gills by my own listening to how I’m going to correct my songs and how to make those good, that I’d had e-fucking-nough of white people singing into my ear. Indie rock, honestly, or rock music in general. This is around the Outkast reunion and that tapped me on the shoulder like damn I love Outkast’s music so much. That took me into a K- or wormhole to listen to hip-hop again, to listen to rap music. By doing that, I started discovering new stuff. I’m still on it. I’m still listening to new stuff in that realm more than I am in our wheelhouse. I’m still very much on that kick.
“Around that time, it was Kendrick’s ‘Good Kid M.A.A.d City’ and a great friend sent me ‘Backseat Freestyle’ from that record, which I believe follows ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’. Like damn, that’s a fucking slapper. But it was ‘Backseat Freestyle’ that really set me off. After that, I started to understand J Cole, Big Krit, Vince Staples came out with his EP. So from all different areas of America. i’ve still got a long way to go. Fuck, I don’t even know shit about grime. I have plenty to discover and I’m grateful for that. I feel like any genre or any kind of music is always waiting for you and that’s why I never wanna die. Honestly, that’s enough reason to live. There’s a million things waiting for you. But mostly American stuff, up and comers kind of. Big Krit set me off and got me into the mixtape scene. Now, even today, Raury, I really love his stuff. What he brings to it, his musicality and his voice is so beautiful, my god. Not even just the rhymes and his spitting, but his melodic sense and his guitar playing. I really love that. I love that he’s melding all kinds of things. There’s no fucking rules anymore. That set me off recently and I’ll probably forget five that I’ll listen to all day. I’m watching everybody as much as I can.”
Band Of Horses return to the UK with a show at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire on July 5. Tickets go on sale on April 22 at 9am.