It’s dusk on the first full day of this year’s SXSW music festival, and Clash is at the hotel of the one band everybody is talking about here. Above the deep end of their swimming pool hangs a sign with just one word, glowing in red neon: ‘SOUL’. The essence of that word will be most significant tonight, when Band Of Horses play their biggest gig of the week, radiating on stage as America’s heartening heroes.
We sit with singer Ben Bridwell who, though essentially the band leader, is currently reveling in the group’s newfound democracy and diversity. Their new album, ‘Infinite Arms’, expands on the group’s first two albums, and consolidates the current - and definitive - line-up in an expansive vision of glorious Americana soundscapes. His bushy, tattooed presence masks an impeccably and infectiously optimistic and jubilant demeanour, which sparks into life as soon as we begin talking about the genesis of the album.
Your album, ‘Infinite Arms’, is infused with the inspiration of America and the places in which it was created. What does the heritage of America mean to someone that grew up there?
Well, it’s funny. Wherever I end up writing or living I just end up soaking up whatever that vibe is. This record, I was living in the Midwest a lot, living in Minneapolis specifically, and I was listening to a lot of The Replacements and Husker Du, just getting the vibe of that culture there, you know? With me, it’s not even really so much a history of the country or the politics of how those towns come about, but more like the music history, which sinks into me, and just the geography in the mountains or by a lake or something. That’s really what speaks to me more than anything. And no matter where you are, that stuff just naturally seeps into your bones.
How did each of the places where these songs came from differ?
With the stuff that was written when I was in the woods in Minnesota on this cool lake, three or four of the songs that made the record were all written right there in a week’s time. They weren’t even trying to be written, they just kind of came out. I don’t really know why it happens. There was calm ones - just sitting there and staring out at the sunset on the lake - but there’s also upbeat stuff. So I don’t really know why or how it gets in there, but somehow it’s just because you’re in that setting. If I wasn’t there, it wouldn’t have got written.
Does solitude help?
It’s the only thing I can do. I can’t write with people. I can’t even jam with people - I’m just trying to learn how to play normal guitar. When I started the band I didn’t know how to play guitar, so I just detuned all the strings to where it felt like, ‘Oh, that sound works’, so I’d never even known where to put my hands properly, you know?
I bet the other guys love you for that!
Oh my God, it’s so annoying! I’d bring in songs like, ‘I have no idea what this is’, but now, with this record, I’ve learned how to record myself, so I can send it to the people with the big brains, who are like, ‘It’s a C chord’. I’m like, ‘Ah, cool!’ So I’m kinda getting there, but yeah, especially writing with people, I guess I’m just a bit self-conscious about it, because I was never a musician - I was gonna be in the business as a label guy and reluctantly became a musician.
Is it more productive being at home?
It can be. I have two different places I call home - I’m lucky to have one place where I go to work, and I can also sleep there. The family is in a different spot - I have a young daughter and I’m married. So home life, when I’m with them, I’m just very focused on that. Our kid’s almost two - by the time she goes to sleep, I’m kinda tired, you know? I just wanna relax. I’ve tried to write songs - it does happen, but it’s really hard to really dig in. That’s why I go on trips and stuff, so I can really get a couple days of solitude.
You’re originally from South Carolina, but moved to Seattle, then you recently moved back. Was the call of home too loud to ignore?
Yeah. I’d been talking about it for a long time. We got to the point where we were touring so much that nowhere was really home. So I figured, at least if I’m gonna come home after these long stretches of traveling, it would nice to be around my family; my parents, and my brother and sister are having babies. So it was like, when I come home, at least I’m close enough so I get to see them at least twice a year compared to like maybe once a year. So that’s all it really was.
Seattle was where you launched your own label, Brown Records. What was your intentions for the label?
I really started it with the idea of it just being like a stepping stone. I would press a thousand CDs, we’d get ’em on consignment in stores, maybe get in a local independent radio station, get some spins, and the band would have something to sell at shows, and then hopefully a real label would pick it up. It got a lot busier than I ever imagined it getting, so in the end it just went out of control, because I never expected it to be a real label. I’m re-pressing thousands again, and it’s like, ‘Shit, I’m actually gonna have to do this correctly. I actually have these people’s livelihoods resting in my hands’, and that pressure was nothing that I could actually allow myself to take responsibility for. So I ended up cracking under the pressure, especially just getting those bands on a real label that has good distribution and real deals set in stone. Ours was just a handshake and, ‘Here’s a bunch of CDs, go sell them!’ But that’s always been my calling, spreading the bands I liked that people hadn’t heard - whether that be dubbing tape cassettes and all that stuff. Now I’ve just heard that call again - I feel like there’s a lot of artists that are unheard that I think I can try to help with.
Did facing those pressures make you appreciate a major label more, not having to worry as much?
Yeah, absolutely, especially now that they’re gonna be able to help me do the thing. This is new for us - I mean, even Sub Pop was huge at the time for us, and still is; I mean, we wouldn’t be here talking if it wasn’t for them. So it’s always been a shock. I never even meant to be a musician, so everything’s been a bit learn-as-you-go, fake-it-til-you-make-it.
‘Infinite Arms’ is coming out through your own label. Will you be doing the hard work for this album, or leaving that to the major label?
I actually don’t really know what my job is in it, but because I did fund the record myself and produced it ourselves, we just really wanted to make sure that we can have our hands in the pie as well. In this age you can.
How did funding yourself work? That can’t be an easy task if you’re not someone like Coldplay.
Yeah, it was tough, especially because the record took so damn long to finish.
So you’re watching the clock going, ‘Come on, guys!’
Oh yeah, but at the same time, because it was me, that pressure was off. Even though I’m not made of money, and I did stretch myself pretty much to being broke, at the same time we didn’t have to worry about anybody even coming in and hearing mixes or anything, we could really take our time with it. With the last record we did, our second record, we did it really fast, because we felt like the iron was hot and we had to get something out there quick or people were gonna forget about us. This time we were like, ‘We’re doing some good touring and people know the band well enough, so we can take our time with this thing and really be happy with it’. So that was way more of a goal than anything financially, and luckily we didn’t have to borrow in the end, and got the thing done.
Where does the majority of the money go when you’re paying your own way?
(Laughs) Well, a lot of it went to the liquor store and to the pizza place! No, seriously, there was plenty of food and refreshments and stuff like that that eats up a lot - or hotels. We’re lucky to get a good deal from our friend in the studio that we recorded most of it at - he helped out quite a bit with the day rate of the studio - but it’s expensive; you’re paying engineers, studio’s expenses... Luckily we all got to live in a house, but it still costs money.
Where was the studio?
Ashville, North Carolina. That’s where we did most of it, and then we did some overdubs in Los Angeles.
When you’re paying your own way and reaching breaking point, do you have to look for new and creative ways of getting income?
Well, to be honest, we’d record for two weeks and then go play some shows, and that would at least put some money back in my pocket to keep it going. And I’ve been really fortunate to be able to licence songs in film and TV and stuff like that, and that’s also come at the best times. It worked out. I got so lucky that somehow money kept coming in, until near the end and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m about damn broke!’
You got a lot of flak for using your music on TV, but more and more artists are doing this because they realise that there’s not that much money in music anymore, so they’re looking for alternatives.
Exactly, yeah. Take it where you can get it. Especially if you’re going to use it to fund your own record and own your art. I mean, I don’t see anything wrong with that at all. This is one of the only mediums where the artist doesn’t own their work. If you can use that kind of money to own your own art, that’s just huge.
Did the group help out with donating some cash, or was it all coming out of your pockets?
I’m the only one that’s been on all three of these records, and the first one generates more money than anything - because of the licencing especially - so I tend to have the money. (Laughs) We all make the same amount of money on the road and stuff, but because I licence my songs that I’ve written, I happen to be moneybags.
Have you learned anything from doing it this way that you never knew before?
Fuck, yeah man. I’ve learned so much. The most important thing we learned was to have fun with it and to just enjoy it instead of having this air of, ‘It has to be perfect!’ We learned that our weaknesses are also our strengths - it doesn’t have to perfect; people made records all the time playing live in a room together, and it’s okay if you have some frailties in songs or some tense moments - those little things in songs are the things I end up gravitating towards. Like, a Rolling Stones song, all of a sudden Mick and Keith are singing two different words, because they’re just going for it - I love that! They’re not actually singing the same word - they messed up and kept the take. Those little things that end up being cooler sometimes. So that was the most important thing - we just learned to have fun and not stress so much about it.
You self-produced the album as well. Is that because you’re uncompromising in what you want, or because you’re a perfectionist maybe?
It just happened to be circumstantial. Our producer had some scheduling conflicts, and so we were like, ‘Aw, crap. We have this time off before we gotta go back out on the road again - let’s just go do it ourselves. We’ll get another engineer... We think we know what the songs sound like - let’s just go for it’. And so we were like, ‘This is actually really fun’. That’s when we really discovered we don’t have to beat each other up on this, we can just have fun with it and enjoy the process.
So you had some songs ready for the album - did you know how you wanted it to sound or what you wanted it to be?
No, not at all. We actually started with a tonne of songs - about twenty-five or so - so we didn’t even know which ones would make it, or which ones were good or bad really. So you don’t really know until you’re recording them, because we weren’t really playing a lot of them live, so once they’re recorded you’re like, ‘Okay, this actually sounds like a real song, and this one sounds like a joke’ - we’re just taking the piss out of some soul song or something, you know? So we kinda learned as we went, like, ‘Oh wow, is what the record sounds like’.