Given the state of the world right now, putting out an album called Things Are Great seems like either an irreverent joke or an act of insane optimism. But for Ben Bridwell of Band Of Horses, it’s really just a declaration that he is, after a series of albums marked by compromise, finally doing things his way.
“The rawness of me playing guitar, I think, goes a long way,” he explained in a recent interview. “And not being afraid to play my sloppy, weird style of guitar.”
Things Are Great, which drops on Friday, is a conscious return to the brawny, vision-quest-y rock of Band Of Horses’ mid-aughts era, when they first roared to indie fame on the strength of their 2006 debut, Everything All The Time. Their next album, 2007’s Cease To Begin, continued their winning streak, spawning a hit, the affecting ballad “No One’s Gonna Love You.” After that, Band Of Horses entered the major-label world, signing with Columbia for their third LP, 2010’s Infinite Arms.
The band’s output gets spottier after that, an outcome that the candid and self-effacing Bridwell blames on his own lack of self-confidence. Too often, he says, he’s let other people goad him into artistic decisions he didn’t fully believe in. But that’s changed with Things Are Great, which was previewed last fall with the winning throwback single “Crutch.”
“I feel like I, at least, deserve a shot,” he said. “I, at least, deserve to have my chance to make the record I want. It’s been enough records, at least give me a damn shot to put more of a hand in the production to guide that ship into port. I feel the chickens have come home to roost that way.”
Bridwell talked about the ups and downs of Band Of Horses’ discography — and good-naturedly called me out on a review of one of those albums — in a recent interview.
Everything All The Time (2006)
I was in a fledgling sadcore band that had just broken up. And I didn’t want to stop being in a band, so I just started making songs — not knowing what I was doing, not knowing how to tune the guitar, not knowing how to sing. It seemed very unlikely that anything would really come from it. But then we put out a little self-recorded EP, and Sam of Iron & Wine — who’s a good old friend of mine — came to town and he had me open up for them. And Megan [Jasper] and Jonathan [Poneman] from Sub Pop bought our little demo EP that night. I couldn’t believe they cared.
They had me come in, and they wanted to pair me up with Phil Ek. I already knew Phil a little bit. It all seemed pretty daunting at the time, and even in hindsight, it seems so unlikely. There was a lot of growing pains for that record, just trying to figure out how to work in a studio like that with a producer like Phil, who commands respect and sometimes demands perfection when we were just such, well, novices.
I remember being very surprised when they picked “Funeral” to be the single. I didn’t want that song to even be on the album. I didn’t want to finish it. It seemed too hard. The guitar playing, I couldn’t seem to get it right. And I don’t think I was getting the lyrics correct. I wasn’t finding the right sentiment. I felt it was too trite, maybe. We had some other B-sides — what became B-sides — that I thought were just as good as that song. Sometimes when you’re making stuff, you’re the last to know what’s good or bad to other people. Lo and behold, I’m always wrong when it comes to picking a single anyway, and that continues to this day.
It was surprising when things like commercial licenses were coming up, because at that time, the idea of selling out was such a thing. I remember being a bit worried about what the perception would be there. This was also blog world times — everyone had a blog and there was plenty of anti-sellout sentiment going on.
Cease To Begin (2007)
After we started touring that first record, I made enough money where I could live in my own rental house by myself. By this point, we had moved to South Carolina, so it wasn’t Seattle rent. But I remember thinking, “At least I can keep this going for the length of the lease.” I was also thinking, “I might be able to have a family.” I’d met a girl and I was thinking about becoming an adult.
The second one came pretty quick thereafter. I had some stuff in the tank, like “No One’s Gonna Love You.” I think that that was maybe the second single off that record, but it ended up being a big song, at least for us. I remember being in my apartment in Seattle before committing to writing the words and having to force myself just to write down what I think it should say. I was like, “Oh man, is this too cringey?” But then, I had to remind myself I grew up with a lot of soul music, a lot of Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye and things like that, where the strongest dudes aren’t afraid to be that vulnerable and to say those kind of words. I had to talk myself out of editing what I thought it needed to say and I’m really glad I did.
I remember having a couple good tracks I was working on. I was like, “Let’s just get it going.” I’d gotten my first laptop and was starting to experiment with recording at home — didn’t know what I was doing, still kind of don’t. By this point, we had shed a few band members already and acquired one, an old friend of mine in South Carolina. I was really dead set on a regimented work day, to make sure we could hit this quick because I was afraid that the success that we just experienced would be fleeting. I figured if we could hit them quick, people wouldn’t forget about us and we might be able to carry this on a few more years.
As far as the recording goes, we went to Asheville, North Carolina with Phil Ek, and it was fraught with some tension because Phil’s always been tough on Creighton, my best friend and the drummer in Band of Horses. I knew that we were going to have a pain in our ass with Phil just being tough on him. Also, in that kind of recording situation, you can’t do nothing until the drums are done. We might play the bass and drums at the same time and get lucky, but the pressure was really on Creighton. That’s where some cracks started to appear in that relationship with Phil, because I was going to stand up for my dudes no matter what.
I also remember feeling like we had seven songs that we needed to push to 10 somehow. That’s why you have an instrumental song on there. My first experimentation of recording alone, that’s why it sounds so crappy. We were pushing to find more songs. I had a demo for “Is There a Ghost?” Phil heard that demo and was like, “We can make that into a song, even though it’s only got 12 words.” That ended up being the first single.
Infinite Arms (2010)
We went back to Asheville to Echo Mountain Studios. Phil came with us. It’s a residential studio, so there’s a band house down the road and we’re all in each other’s faces all the time. Those same cracks from before immediately caused some trouble. Creighton’s worried, and Phil’s talking to me behind Creighton’s back, about hiring another drummer. It was aggravating. Just a distasteful vibe going on. Phil was also like, “I might get this Strokes record coming up.” He was being considered for that job, and he was like, “I can’t commit to these dates.” Once we got done with one session out there, we were like, “Let’s do it ourselves.”
Now we’ve got two new guys in the band with Tyler Ramsey and Bill Reynolds, and Rob Hampton had left, but we still got Ryan, Creighton, and me, so now we’re this five-piece. These guys are cats, they can run circles around my ass playing anything. By this point, I have a child, too, so my life’s changed. I moved up to Minnesota for a while, while I was writing this album, had a baby, and then moved back down. The pressure cooker was definitely going now.
We have new management. Our Sub Pop deal is done, so we’re going to be signing a new record contract with somebody. Once we did sign, we had a much bigger budget. This was with Columbia. We’re out in L.A., kind of idle at times, just a totally different vibe. A “lunatics running the asylum” kind of thing.
With “Laredo,” I’ve written that same song so many times, starting with “Weed Party.” Some of it has to do with the weird tunings I use, there’s only so much I can do within them or have figured out how to do within them. But I think it’s all one song in a way.
Mirage Rock (2012)
It got the worst review I’ve ever heard in my fucking life. Don’t you remember? I got it pulled up.
[holds up phone showing a 4.0 review from Pitchfork written by me]
I’ve been waiting for that.
I’m not that crazy about it, either. It was a tough time, too. Who gives a shit about record sales? Well, the record label does. I remember feeling that pressure cooker, for sure. I did, in a way, get pushed around a little bit by the industry at this time. My intentions were not to make that record the way it was made, but that’s cool. I got to hang with Glyn Johns, who’s a friend to this day, and it was an eye-opening experience. I do remember, during the recording of it, feeling like, “This is like a time warp.” We get to be in the studio with Glyn and work the way that he wants to work and create a loose piece of art and maybe it’ll feel like a live record.
In hindsight, though, I don’t think I was writing the best songs. There were lots of songs to choose from, but now you got so many damn people’s voices in your ear, not to mention that pressure cooker ever-heating up and wanting to perform better for the label and not get dropped. I remember thinking it was good when it was done, but quickly thereafter feeling like we didn’t exert our own control over our art enough. We got pushed around and we could have done better and chosen different material. But I look on it fondly, with getting to work with Glyn and I try not to disparage it too much. But I don’t play those songs too much, I can tell you that.
Why Are You OK (2016)
I am friends with Jason Lytle from Grandaddy. I was interested in talking to him about producing a Band Of Horses record, and I knew that he was ready to make a new album. I just knew that he needed to get out and start making music again, so it was kind of a ploy to get him out. I was like, “Oh, there’s a really cool studio, north of Sausalito, that looks beautiful. If you want to hang out for a couple of days and play me some music, we can talk about it then.” We rented this little barrelhouse, like an old water tower thing that’s been converted into an Airbnb.
We end up going out there, and I swear for two or three days we hung out, we toured the studio up the hill, but we didn’t talk about us working together, or I don’t think I played him any demos. We just listened to music that we love. He’s probably playing me ELO, I’m sure, and I’m trying to show him the Dead Kennedys. We’re just riffing and being friends. We get done with the trip and he’s like, “Shit, let’s do it, man.”
Jason works so meticulously. So meticulously. The joke with Jason is he’s going to ask the engineer, “Can I get a keyboard track?” He’s always asking for a keyboard track. All of a sudden, he starts to drive your song a little bit more than maybe you’re comfortable with, so there’s a little bit of friction there, especially because we’re friends, like older brother/younger brother. You don’t want to stand up to your older brother too much, especially when you hold him in such high regard. It ended up being really fun. We went out to Asheville again to do some overdubs and then up to Fredonia, New York with Dave Fridmann,
Dave would mix and Jason and I were just stuck in Dave’s studio house, seething at each other and also walking on eggshells a bit, because I’m with these two absolute studs that I revere, and I’m not sure how much push I can give my own opinions when they have such keen ears.
We had already been dropped from Columbia, so now we’re going to have to shop this record. You want to make it as good as possible. Stylistically, I did want to return more to playing guitar again and to not be too slick, but I think in the end it has a lot of slickness to it, because Jason can fill any crack with delicious sounds. It becomes a bit larger than maybe I saw it. Then, you get Fridmann’s wild ass, the way he mixes things, which is so psychedelic, amazing, and sometimes terrifying.
Things Are Great (2022)
There’s always been a lack of confidence on my part. It comes from never having been a singer, never having been a guitar player or a bandleader or running a business like this that now has crew members and CPAs and shit. I think my lack of confidence has always stayed the same, no matter how big we got. It’s always been easy to get pushed around in the studio setting, especially, because someone is looking over your shoulder.
There was an original album that we scrapped for Things Are Great. We recorded it with Jason Lytle again and mixed it with Dave Fridmann again. I was just like, “I don’t think this is good enough.” I was at that breaking point, where I’m like, “I want to take back control of my band.” No disrespect to them because that version of the record was really cool. It just sounded so much like the last one that I was like, “I’m tired of not being able to get the sound that I want.”
The rawness of me playing guitar, I think, goes a long way. And not being afraid to play my sloppy, weird style of guitar. I don’t mean to disparage it, but it took a good friend to kick me in the pants a bit to say, “Your wack style is a strong point of the band.” Instead of always cleaning things up, let’s let the warts be displayed, if not celebrated. I always think of coming at this as a dirt bag. I want to be safe sometimes and I just forget, again, that self-confidence thing. I start to defer to people, and this dude showed me that we can accentuate those frailties.
I feel like I, at least, deserve a shot. I, at least, deserve to have my chance to make the record I want. It’s been enough records, at least give me a damn shot to put more of a hand in the production to guide that ship into port. I feel the chickens have come home to roost that way.
It’s a breakup record in so many different ways. But definitely lots of hard stuff going on personally and obviously professionally. There’s a lot of sadness that permeates these songs. I really wanted to tell my stories without being too metaphorically slick. I really wanted to get my thoughts out the way I say them, even if it’s saying the words “fuck” and “shit.”
It seems so strange that I would’ve fallen into this thing, whatever it is. It’s not a job, but there’s a lot of work to do. I’m still as wide-eyed and surprised as ever. To go through the catalog, I’m like, “Shit.” It is like a personal timeline, especially thinking about all the stuff that was going on and what informed the records. I tend, though, to be a bit on my heels with all of it still. Some young kid will send me a damn Instagram message asking me if I’ll sing backup on his song that’s going to be on Bandcamp, and I’m like, “Hell yeah.” I’m still innocent, I think. I still feel like a kid in this game and I’ve got plenty more to say.