Bridwell, the lanky, scraggly-looking singer with a gifted voice and brilliant songwriter chops, has been at the helm of the adventure alongside drummer Creighton Barrett for over four years. In that short period, they've survived a few difficult lineup changes, lengthy road trips, a half-dozen exhausting studio sessions, and mind-blowing collaborations with bona fide pop and rock legends.
"It really has been an ongoing scheme to get the right people in there," says ringleader Bridwell. "We've gone through lineup changes since the beginning of this band, really. I've said it before in recent interviews: I finally feel like we've actually become a band. The dream has been realized."
Four summers ago, Band of Horses headlined a gig at the Village Tavern. The cover charge was 12 bucks. (This was just weeks after making an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman). Their debut album had just earned terrific reviews in Rolling Stone, Filter, and the usual alternative rock mags and sites. Critics and fans stayed busy learning Bridwell's roller-coaster biography, which followed his hard-luck Midland days growing up in Irmo and Columbia, into his two-year stint as a dishwasher and scruffy fill-in musician in Seattle, and, ultimately, his happy and successful return to South Carolina with the Horses in 2006. The most significant changes for the band since the earlier days gigging the Village Tavern and similar little clubs have been more logistic than in spirit.
"I don't think of it as really changing," says Bridwell. "Honestly, I feel like we can play any room or any outdoor arena or anything. If we were going to play the Village Tavern tomorrow, I wouldn't be thinking twice about it as being a step back. Or going to play Madison Square Garden — I don't see that as a massive step forward either. It's more like, 'What is the day calling for?' Maybe I just don't think about things too much, which might be a good thing. I know that we've grown, but I just don't think of it in those terms. It's more like, 'Hey we're finally getting to play in Myrtle Beach!' It just doesn't matter. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do this and make my dreams come true and make a living. I love playing small rooms and big rooms."
Last week, Bridwell, Barrett, and their ever-expanding lineup of new faces embarked on a June tour across North America. The roster currently includes Bill Reynolds on bass (replacing Rob Hampton), Tyler Ramsey on lead guitar, and Ryan Monroe on keys and organ.
The dates include a slot at the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tenn., last week, and a headlining concert at the House of Blues in Myrtle Beach on Thurs. June 18. After the early summer dates, the band plans to perform some big events in August at Lollapalooza, the Outside Lands Festival in San Fran's Golden Gate Park, and festivals in Sweden, Denmark, and Finland.
While extensive tours loom on the horizon, the two veteran Horses aren't the least bit worried. They've survived the ascent into underground pop stardom with their claim to indie-rock authenticity intact.
"Besides the ultimate excitement doing all these big things, my favorite part about being where we are is the people who are with us as this is going down," says drummer Creighton Barrett. "There's not an asshole in the entire house. It's insanely great to be with each other during the crazy times — from changing from small clubs to the festivals. Having the right people is everything. I think that shines through in the music as well."
Three years ago, the drummer might have responded less positively to an inquiry about the state of things in Horseland. As a core trio with occasional guest players, Bridwell, Barrett, and Hampton were on a rumbling roll, rapidly moving from garage-band status to international acclaim behind a strikingly morose but beautiful collection of Bridwell tunes titled Everything All the Time — the band's first full-length album, the first of two releases on the Sub Pop label.
The emotional and physical wear and tear of numerous U.S. and international tours took a toll on the relationship between the three bandmates. A few cracks started to show in 2007 as they completed several intense studio sessions in Asheville working on the follow-up album, 2007's Cease to Begin.
If Everything All the Time balanced its depressing and morose moods against grand and beautiful soundscapes, Cease to Begin swung with a slightly happier vibe. Sounding much more innocent and undistracted by life's darker side, Bridwell's high, triumphant tenor reached even greater heights amid the echo-laden chimes of guitars, organs, and cymbals.
"We knew that we needed more people because Rob was doublin' duty on guitar and bass, which he actually did on the second record," remembers Barrett. "But we didn't exactly know what we needed or even what we wanted to be. We went into Cease to Begin by our shirt-tails. We met Bill [Reynolds] at the studio, where he was working as an engineer. I just happened to walk in on him killing it on the bass one day. He's a good engineer with his own success, and he has such a great ear for music, so he was an obvious choice. Tyler [Ramsey] came next. He was friends with the Echo Mountain studio guys, and it's a very family-unit kind of place. We had him open some shows for us, and eventually, we said, 'Why don't you open up and join the band,' [laughs]. He's incredibly talented. We have a tendency to pretty much try to do what we have to do to get what we need. Luckily it worked well through Echo with those two guys."
Through 2008, the strain, stress, and fatigue weighed heavily on the band as they toured in North America and abroad. Barrett describes Hampton's departure last summer as amicable but somewhat awkward. "Going through any kind of band [situation], no matter what level or stage you're on, there comes hard times," he says.
The adjustments of 2008 may have been difficult at times, but the results have been delightful. With solid support from Ramsey, Monroe, and Reynolds, the new situation on stage allows Bridwell to be a proper lead singer — a genuine front man, juggling a variety of auxiliary stringed, keyed, and percussive instruments while carrying on at stagefront.
"Everyone gets along," says Bridwell. "It's very positive. There's a great feeling within the band, and it's really fun for us to be together. It's just a pleasure to be able to play this music, so it also brings out a lot of ideas, you know? It's not a drag to play together."
It's as much of a collective effort in the studio as it is on stage these days, too. That's the case as Bridwell and his mates write and record new songs for a forthcoming album.
"This new record has a lot of songwriting input from everybody," Bridwell assures. "Creighton behind the drums co-wrote one with Bill, who has at least one other song in there ... Tyler has two songs in there, and Ryan's got a song in there. It's really becoming a band effort. That last record came as close to a solo effort as I ever hope to come in this band. We're at that point where everyone feels comfortable to be able to provide input like this. Honestly, I'm so grateful for it. I welcome it with open arms."
Brushes with greatness
So far, the band's run between late 2008 and early '09 has been an ascension of increasingly triumphant performances — many alongside a few big-time members of rock and pop royalty.
Last fall, fresh off a performance at Austin City Limits, the band landed a slot on the bill at Neil Young's 22nd annual Bridge School Benefit concert at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, Calif. They opened the all-day event ahead of Jack Johnson, Norah Jones, Sarah McLachlan, Death Cab For Cutie, Wilco, and Cat Power. Bridwell banged a tambourine with a drumstick while singing lead on Cease to Begin's "The General Specific" (while Monroe took the low harmony).
In February, the band took part in the annual Tibet House benefit concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City, sharing the stage with Ray Davies (of The Kinks), Philip Glass, Nawang Khechog, Ashley MacIsaac, Marisa Monte, Sufjan Stevens, and Tom Verlaine (of Television), among others.
"To sing on stage with Ray Davies and Neil Young ... I swear, I don't know how we could possibly top this stuff," says Bridwell. "It sure is fun to be a part of that kind of thing."
Bridwell and the band performed under bright blue lights on the Outdoor Theatre stage in April at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, Calif.
On May 3, Bridwell and Ramsey had the honor of attending and performing at folk music legend Pete Seeger's 90th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden. The event was an elegant, star-filled benefit show aimed at raising awareness for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, founded by Seeger, which strives to preserve and protect the Hudson River.
"God, man, I'm still at a loss for words about it. It was such a cool thing to be a part of," Bridwell says of the Madison Square Garden gig. "They asked us if we'd come up to play it, and then it turned out that they could only afford to bring one of us — me — to perform. I didn't want to just play solo ... I was lucky enough to steal Tyler away to do it, too. We got a call about two weeks out telling us we were doing 'Turn Turn Turn' with [The Byrds' singer/guitarist] Roger McGuinn. I've always loved that song, but I'd never played it, worked on the harmonies, or anything before. I was definitely crammin' all the way up to the last minute.
"You know David Crosby and all them were good singers, so we had some pretty big shoes to fill.
"We did another song with Warren Haynes, Pete Seeger's grandson, and Patterson Hood from the Drive-By Truckers. And we got to do some encore stuff with Bruce Springsteen, Richie Havens, Billy Bragg, and a bunch of people. It was basically like rock 'n' roll fantasy camp come true," Bridwell says.
Obviously, the Horses can easily hang with an unlikely variety of rock or Americana artists, whether it's the earnest vintage folk music of Seeger, the modernized Southern rock of the Truckers, or the chic/retro dance-beat sounds of some of the top UK bands of the decade. They seem completely capable and at ease with such unique overlap, which has encouraged them all to broaden their horizons even farther.
"Honestly, I think it's just like a stroke of luck ... mixed with the fact that we have really well-connected management that put us in those situations," says Bridwell. "I don't feel like Roger McGuinn or Neil Young listen much to Band of Horses ... maybe they'd never even heard of us before."
A bright, independent future
While Sub Pop has been an integral part of the Band of Horses adventure for the last four years, the band is not tied to any record company at the moment.
Bridwell explains, "That's not to say that we won't be with Sub Pop for this record; we just don't really know. It's not like Sub Pop has pressure on you anyway, but right now we're free agents. Without any sort of person besides me to be calling the shots, it's pretty easy to be like, 'You know, if it's not right, let's take more time to do it differently.' I don't think we're going to get looked over if we take our time and it comes out next year."
For all the on-stage rock bluster and global hustle behind Cease to Begin, the Horses are determined to aim for different musical experiences and goals — on stages and in the studio rooms.
"We want to make this next record great," Bridwell emphasizes. "On the last record, we really did rush quite a bit, and that does affect things. Looking back, I feel like Cease to Begin suffered greatly, feeling like we were rushed for time."
This summer, the band is very close to wrapping up the basic tracks and initial mixes. The recent studio action actually began last fall in Muscle Shoals Sound Studios (the famous studio in the small Alabama town).
"It ended up being a glorified demo session," admits Bridwell. "It's not like we all live in the same town, so we can't rehearse twice a week or anything. We didn't really have a chance to really work on the songs before we got to the studio, and we were still going through a bit of that weird thing — after the drums, bass, and basics were down — where the movement and feel just didn't seem right. We thought, 'Maybe we should just start over.' So we took our time, because we actually can now."
They relocated the sessions back to Echo Mountain Recording in Asheville, where they tracked and finished Cease to Begin in 2007. "We're feeling really good about working at Echo Mountain again," says Bridwell. "Asheville has become another one of our hometowns, with Bill and Tyler being from around there. It's a great vibe, and we're really enjoying the process now."
Between the numerous studio get-togethers and the big road trips this year, the musical collaboration between Bridwell, Barrett, and the diligent new men in the lineup is at a healthy level.
"It's exciting that this culmination of ideas and tones hasn't been there before," says Barrett. "It not only takes a lot off of Ben's shoulders — having to be the sole writer and stuff like that — it really shows the color of everything. This [new] record's going to show the individual players as themselves, and it's going to show what they can do as they join together as a band."
For the summer tour and beyond, young musician and studio engineer Ludwig Böss — a friend based in Malmö, Sweden (just across the straits from Copenhagen) — has signed on for extra guitar duties as well.
"Ludwig is awesome, man," laughs Bridwell. "As he learns the songs more and more, we'll probably diversify what instruments people are playing, in order to get certain textures. It's nice to have three dudes that can pick up something extra, like pedal steel or banjo or whatever. We're kind of simplifying things a bit for a big sound, but we will diversify more this year."
While the musical ideas expand and intersect, so do the bandmates, who split their time either touring as a tight unit or scattered across three adjoining states (and Europe). With Bridwell and Barrett based in the Charleston area, the spokes extend to Reynolds' place in Atlanta, Ramsey in Asheville, Monroe in Columbia, and Böss in Scandinavia.
"It can be insane ... the craziest thing about the band is that everyone lives apart and in different places," says Barrett. "We have to do things a certain way because of that. More than not, that element kind of helps things out. It can be frustrating, but when we get together, we make the most of the time. There's not necessarily a heavy sense of urgency, but usually it's like, 'Dude, the time is nigh.'"
Band of Horses perform at the Myrtle Beach House of Blues (4640 Hwy. 17, 843-913-3740) with support from Arbouretum on Thurs. June 18. Showtime is 8 p.m. Presented by WKZQ 96.1, it's an all-ages show. Tickets are available for $21.50 and $24.50. Check out hob.com and bandofhorses.com for more.