Band of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell talks new songwriting strategies

Bridwell, second from left, brings his Band to the Cosmo.
Photo: Andrew Stuart
Annie Zaleski

Last June, Band of Horses released the stellar Why Are You OK, which combined the group’s twin strengths: heartfelt alt-country twang and strident ’90s rock ’n’ roll. Frontman and main songwriter Ben Bridwell checked in from his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, about overcoming writer’s block, working with Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle and more.

You’re in the calm before the touring storm. It’s a decent break, maybe like two months. It’s pretty nice. The record must not be doing so good; we can actually stay home.

I thought it’s the other way around; if the record’s not doing well, you need to hit the road. (Laughs.) You’re right. It’s doing so great we just stay home now and watch the money pile up.

Is it tough to adjust to real life again, given how much you guys tour? Yes, it’s a constant push and pull of acclimation that seems fresh and new every time it happens. … Especially with having kids, the dynamics change when you come home. Sometimes three weeks is a long time in a kid’s development. You can come back and they look different; they look bigger. Things are constantly changing.

When you made the latest record, you wrote songs when they were at school or asleep. As a songwriter, how different was that for you? It was a big adjustment. The prior 10 years or so, I’d gotten used to doing what the hell I wanted, honestly—going to places where I could get the kind of solitude that I thought I required to write songs. That has evolved with the responsibilities of being a dad. That was a pretty big change, to give a lot of your comforts up to be able to be in two places at once. … Even to the point where I’ll have one headphone ear off, listening for the door to get knocked on, and one earphone attached to the music that I’m making at the time. You might be surprised at any second if someone needs your attention.

How would you say that influenced the music? [I spent] a very large swath of that process feeling stymied with some writer’s block issues. I’d say that it worked itself into the material in a huge way. I didn’t know what to talk about, [so] I started to talk about the process itself, and then thereby be freed up of the writer’s block cloud by actually being honest.

How did producer Jason Lytle of Grandaddy fit into the picture once he came aboard? I was lucky that Jason and I had found each other, as kind of kindred spirits, a couple of tinkerers that tend to shun a whole lot of community, at times, and go into our own bubbles of creation. I found a sympathetic ear in him. He had liked my weird-ass demo recording that I do at home, and I like what he does also when he’s left to his devices.

We became fast friends, at least to lean on when one of us was working on a project that was just, you know, a song that’s f*cking hilarious to us and maybe not funny or good to anyone else. We always know we can reach out to one another to play a stupid song to. That’s where the theme, I guess was created.

And then as it was time to think about making the record, I just wanted a person like that. I wanted a confidant. It was just a hunch, and I didn’t really consider a Plan B. I put all my stock into hoping that Jason would do the album and, luckily he agreed to do it. He put all of his talent and effort into it. And I believe we have a better album—a much better album—because his talents are applied.

What was the best part about working with him? The friendship part. It’s being fans of music, first and foremost. It’s someone that you want to hang out with, and goes back to wanting to play them something, not even one of your songs, but a song that you like right now. A song that’s blowing up your mind, a new artist or an old song that you’ve found. It’s those moments of friendship after the work is done, or while the work is being done. Like, “F*ck the Band of Horses record right now—let’s talk about how cool music is!” Or after the work is done, being able to blow off steam with competing DJ sets of our favorite music. That’s the stuff that puts everything into perspective and makes what you’re doing seem smaller, when it can seem really intense and do-or-die. It’s having someone around you can trust and that you’re actually having fun with, and take the edge off the careerism that comes with making albums.

I love that [Dinosaur Jr.’s] J. Mascis is on the record, too. I know you guys have traveled in similar orbits in recent years. How did he actually end up being involved? Well, the damn song wouldn’t get written. I stumbled upon a lyric—I actually was just at my desk, and I’m like, “I’ll just look in the f*cking drawer, and maybe there’ll be a memento or something that will trigger a memory to give me a different set of words to go by.” And the drawer contained nothing that helped me at all, so I just ended up writing about the drawer itself.

And then I was like, “Oh, sh*t, it sounds like a Dinosaur Jr. title, ‘In a Drawer,’ not thinking that “In a Jar” is a Dinosaur Jr. song title. So I was like, “Maybe I should sing like J. Mascis.” I parodied him in a demo I was doing, and sent it to Jason, as I’ll do. And we were cracking the f*ck up, thinking, “God, that sounds hilarious.” And Jason’s like, “You should call J., and see if he’d do it.” And I got lucky as hell that he accepted the invitation, no doubt.

And I should mention that there’s also a great list of heroes working on that record. Two guys from Archers of Loaf appear. Two awesome ladies from a previous band I was in, Carissa’s Wierd. Dave Fridmann, who works with Flaming Lips and Spoon and MGMT, mixed the record. We have a really cool-ass cast of characters that helped enthuse the damn record.

Archers of Loaf is so underrated. Growing up in South Carolina, that was our band. They’re from North Carolina, but we co-opted Chapel Hill as our local scene as well. We were living outside of Columbia, South Carolina, as kids. And Archers of Loaf, they were our version of Pavement. They were national contenders for the indie-rock crown. Like, “Oh, this is a real indie rock band that writes real songs.” That was everything to us. They were our heroes.

It’s cool to have that role model when you’re a young musician growing up. It shows you, “Hey, I can do this. I can be in a band and write songs and go on tour.” No doubt about it. And especially around then. You had these bands that were everyman type of people, that could be your brother or your sister and just happened to be in a damn band that creates songs that are timeless.

Do you have any new music ideas percolating? Oh, yeah. It started immediately. I was very enthused by the process of making Why Are You OK. Finding Jason, trusting your gut even with getting over writer’s block and writing from the heart. It absolutely enthused me to want to keep pushing forward.

I’m currently doing pre-production for the new record—actually I’m supposed to be down there in 15 minutes. I’m recording down here with some friends in a storage unit. They just have a random storage unit that has a ProTools rig in it, and a computer. Jason’s busy with Grandaddy’s album launch, so I’m just trying to get as much pre-production as I can out of the way, so when he’s ready, hopefully we can pick up right where we left off.

Band of Horses with Wilderado. May 26, 8 p.m., $29-$55. The Chelsea, 702-698-7778.

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