“This is honestly the first day of talking about this project and I don’t know that much about it,” Ben Bridwell nervously admits. It’s mid-March, and he’s sat opposite Clash in a tranquil hotel courtyard off the trendy South Congress strip in Austin, Texas. He’s a month away from today’s official announcement of the new Band Of Horses album, ‘why are you ok’, and as yet hasn’t had a moment to reflect on the circumstances and process that delivered it. Unfortunately for him, however, that’s exactly what Clash is here to find out.
So, we get comfortable. It’s our first full day at South By South West 2016, so naturally the welcome heat of the afternoon sun is greeted with a cold beer, as we attempt to unravel the making of the group’s fifth album, which will be released this June. Following on from long-time producer Phil Ek, who worked with the band on their first three albums (including 2010’s Grammy-winning ‘Infinite Arms’), and the legendary Glyn Johns, who produced ‘Mirage Rock’ in 2012, Ben decided this time to try something different. Our conversation begins, then, with his choice of Grandaddy frontman, Jason Lytle, who makes his production debut on ‘why are you ok’.
“Jason and I, our communication lies in, I guess, quiet passive aggression mixed with an outpouring of emotion at the end of the day,” Ben laughs. “We worked slowly and deliberately on the whole record. We took our time and had fun with it, but at the end of the day we can finally listen to other music and not feel the weight of, you know, he’s producing his first bigger record, or I’m trying to make a record that improves upon our legacy. So there are some outside pressures there whether we talk about it or not.”
Working with a fellow artist provided Bridwell a creative foil with which to develop his ideas, and the pair would trade edits of Ben’s homemade demos - Jason often furnishing the recordings with a complete and new arrangement. The producer’s intuitive suggestions were embraced by Ben. “I could never imagine that being an option - a producer being like, ‘You could do it like this, or like this, and this is what it sounds like,’ and he would sing it,” he says. “I was like, ‘Damn, dawg, you’re awesome.’”
“It was nice to get back to having a mentor, man - someone that really knows the dirtier leanings of my taste profile, or whatever, and amateurism, and accentuating the amateurism instead of [working against it],” he continues, idly shuffling his pack of cigarettes. “So, taking those demos and stuff, whether it’d be him playing it back for me in a different way or just accentuating the uniqueness of how I do things, it was a breath of fresh air, for sure; a shot in the arm.”
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It was a breath of fresh air, for sure; a shot in the arm.
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Another significant difference between ‘why are you ok’ and all previous Band Of Horses albums is that for the first time, Ben did not remove himself to the seclusion of an inspirational and isolated writing hub, instead choosing to work in his converted studio-garage at home. Married with four young girls, he found himself having to balance his responsibilities as a husband and father with song writing duties, working at odd and often late hours to accommodate himself. This sense of domesticity is inherent throughout the album, and is immediately felt in the opening track, ‘Dull Times: The Moon’, in which he sings, “Home is where the heart is.”
The track also serves as an insight into the personal challenges that Ben faced in the interim between ‘Mirage Rock’ and the sessions with Lytle, when a case of writer’s block found him unable to accurately express his thoughts on paper. It was only when he attempted to describe this hindrance did he begin to emerge from under its weight. “It’s hard to write lyrics,” he tells Clash. “I’ve often used reverb as a mask, or effects to mask a lot of the specific themes that are going on - trying to mask it in any way possible, whether it be word play, metaphors, or the sound quality itself. So, getting over the hump was like, first I actually just have to be truthful, for one - I don’t need to be making up little short stories in my mind about an actual experience - so I just started bitching about the process of having a terrible time with it all, and that kinda set me free a bit.”
After submitting to the “dull times”, reflecting on taking out the garbage and out-of-tune guitars, the pensive opener suddenly kicks off around the five-minute mark, like a burst of inspiration - a horse out of the starter gate. Thereon in, the writer’s block is but a distant memory. Further highlights include the exuberant ‘Solemn Oath’, the nostalgic ‘In A Drawer’, the country stomp of ‘Throw My Mess’, and the romantic finale, ‘Even Still’, which sweetly bookends Ben’s glad acceptance of home rule.
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I’m always trying to be as quiet as possible...
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Recording sessions for the album took place in a residential studio in Woodstock, New York, where the producer introduced the band to cross country snow skiing, beginning each day with an early morning trek. The five Horses - completed by Tyler Ramsey (guitars), Bill Reynolds (bass), Creighton Barrett (drums) and Ryan Monroe (keys) - required patience to finally put together the sounds that Ben and Jason were in pursuit of, as Ben explains: “I was like, ‘Guys, I’m sorry, it’s not gonna be like a full organic record like we did last time, and it’s not gonna be us playing in a fuckin’ room together all the time - it’s gonna be bits and pieces and stone by stone building a house - but I promise at the end it’ll be worth it,’” he says. “So they had faith in me to not have to talk too much about all of it all of the time.”
The group has also today announced a forthcoming UK show - they’ll play Shepherds Bush Empire on Tuesday 5th July - which is great news for all Band Of Horses fans, but it seems Ben is a trifle more hesitant. The lead singer has an awkward complex that may prove unhelpful to a performing musician: he doesn’t like singing in front of people. Even at home, surrounded by the people he loves best, Ben still can’t bear the thought of being overheard. “I’m always trying to be as quiet as possible - mostly because I don’t want anyone to hear me at all,” he laughs. “There’s a bathroom above me and I can tell… the water runs down and I can hear the pipes going and I’m like, ‘Fuck! Someone was up there.’”
It’s an odd paradox, that someone so completely at ease with family life feels the need to shelter them from his creative process. “We just don’t talk about it, and I don’t play stuff for them,” he shrugs. “I don’t want to push it on them - I don’t wanna push it on anybody; I respect their taste too much.”
And yet, though they are apart from the music, his family is simultaneously infused in its very essence. ‘why are you ok’ is a passionate album, which realises the rediscovery of Ben’s muse, found in the self-belief that comes with being comfortable within one’s self - a freedom that could only be explored in the privacy of home. It’s a touching motif, and though immediate in the music, Ben is still too close to its completion to have investigated the influence further. “It’s funny,” he notes, “it could be 10 years from now that you could be singing a song onstage and you finally get why you wrote the lyric. Something might jog your memory. But I really have no idea right now. I’m still a bit lost in the muck of it all.”
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‘why are you ok’ is released June 2016 on Interscope Records/American Recordings. Band Of Horses play Shepherds Bush Empire in London on Tuesday 5th July - tickets are on sale from 9am on Friday 22nd April via GigsAndTours.com.
Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Katherine Squier