Finding Their Crutch: Band Of Horses Interviewed

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Band Of Horses have been through changes. The group’s last studio album landed some six years ago, and the intervening period has seen the Trump Presidency, coronavirus, and the Putin-enabled spectre of a Third World War. In Charleston, Georgia the changes were a little less global in their sweep, but no less transformative. Songwriter Ben Bridwell – Band Of Horses’ guiding force – came face to face with an intensely personal sense of failure, only to find himself lit up once more by the energy of a new generation of musicians.

Out now, new album ‘Things Are Great’ taps back into the band’s roots, a crunching, guitar-led feast of songwriting drenched in all shades of Americana. “If it sounds like a garage record, then I guess that’s because we started work on it in an actual garage!” the songwriting laughs. We’ve been patched together on a Zoom call, with Ben’s dog sleeping on the couch beside him, an acoustic guitar perched against the wall.

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The new record, Clash observes, is hungry, raw, and dynamic – not qualities often associated with career musicians two decades into their catalogue. He nods, then says: “I think as far as the hunger goes, I mean, it probably stems from having four kids, you know, it’s like, what else am I gonna go do? What, am I gonna go work at the cafe again? Or like, you know, check IDs at the door? It’s very motivating factor.”

The spark for the record came when he was introduced to younger musicians in Charleston. Entranced by their anything-goes creative, bracing lack of finesse, and desire to simply play – no matter the time – he came away completely infatuated by the simple thrills of music-making. “Man when I heard it, it was just, like, immediate. I just, I got it!” he smiles. “I needed to catch some of their youthful energy for sure.”

Another key aspect was gaining outside voices. The work of a songwriter can be solitary, he notes, and it’s vital to step outside of yourself now and again. “I just needed to see an outside perspective, looking in, where a lot of times I couldn’t see the forest for the trees,” he chuckles. “Sorry for all the damn cliches here! But I sometimes when you’re working on something, it’s hard to see it from an outsider’s perspective. It reminded me of some things that I’d probably forgotten.”

Returning to the guitar as his focal point, Ben set about sketching out new material, working alongside close friend and engineer Wolfie Zimmerman. Progress was haphazard at first, before the floodgates eventually opened. “I second guess myself a lot,” he admits. “Fear of failure can lead you down the wrong path.”

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The results are glorious. Take lead single ‘Crutch’, a blast of passionate energy that became Band Of Horses’ first ever No. 1 radio hit in the United States. “I stumble into things,” he admits. “I wrote that staying at this place in rural Georgia, getting stung to death by wasps and flies while recording directly into a laptop. I don’t know where it comes from. And that’s the magic, or the mystery, right there for me.”  

It’s a mystery which he freely admits is still unfurling. The process of making ‘Things Are Great’ spun him round in a 180, with personal and stylistic shifts fundamentally altering his methodologies. “I had found, before this pandemic shit, that that my eye was best suited for repetition and structure,” he says. “But after the pandemic… it kind of messed me up, dude, in a way where I was like, I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to go into the damn room, and go through those barriers. I think now, it’s more on instinct.”

Of course, there’s a profoundly personal reason for these shifts – Ben Bridwell’s marriage ended during the making of the record, an experience he found incredibly difficult to navigate. “When you take children into account, I mean, it’s just absolutely brutal,” he sighs. “You hear about people’s divorces and shit, and it sounds like: okay, that’s probably terrible, right? But man, when you experience it for yourself – and please don’t ever, by the way – but man, it really threw me. For me, it turned my insides out.”

“I don’t think that suffering leads to good art because I was… I mean, just devastated. I mean, that’s part of why I didn’t work so much. I was just, like, mostly hanging out with my kids, y’know, crying and shit. So, it definitely provided some material to speak on. But I do not believe it was a productive thing to feel that amount of suffering.”

The pandemic, then, came at an opportune time. Able to spend unlimited amounts of time with his children, he was able to focus on being a father, just when that was most needed. “The space to be a person and to be with my kids has been really amazing and important and probably needed, in a way,” he reflects. “Maybe humans need to calm the fuck down. It’s been beneficial, in a way. But God I’m so looking forward to getting back to touring! We have a big operation, and I like to take care of my people, too. I like to make sure that my people are taken care of.”

“The sheer act of performing, and the exercise that goes into that, keeps me alive,” he says. “I mean, not just metaphorically. It actually keeps my heart pumping faster. I get to sweat out the toxins, and I get to exorcise the demons.”

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Indeed, the topic of songwriting seems to bring out Ben’s deepest passions, veering from blunt rhetoric through to some sweetly poetic answers. Honing in on the creative act, he’s almost lost for words before describing the act of songwriting as “retracing a dream that I don’t actually remember dreaming.”

The over-riding feeling, though, is one of relief. “We actually got the record done finally, which felt like an eternity in itself. It was done right before the pandemic hits. We’re like, Oh, snap. So now we’ve been waiting for two years to release it!”

Out now, the process of constructing ‘Things Are Great’ taught its maker some key lessons, both about music, and the way he approaches life. “I think this record taught me to talk the way I talk. Don’t be afraid to tell the story as you see it,” he says. “But also think of it as his, hers, and the truth. You know, you got to take three sides of the story in a play when there’s such a harrowing story on display. I can’t be so selfish as to control the narrative.”

“But also, making the record taught me not to be afraid to say fuck, and to say shit, and to talk the way I talk. And I know, it might sound funny, but saying fuck and shit, the way I talk… but can I just fucking talk the way I fucking talk?! And I think that was really important!”

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‘Things Are Great’ is out now.

Words: Robin Murray

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