Ben Bridwell, lead singer of Grammy nominated indie-rock group Band of Horses talks of new album ‘Why Are You OK?’, veganism and doing the carpool run with the kids.
Awaiting my call to Band of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell, I sit down nervously at my desk. Admittedly, this is my first over-the-phone interview so I am not quite sure what to expect. All anxieties wash away as an energetic American voice answers the call, the South Carolina twang rippling kindly down the phone line. A lot is to be taken from our conversation, particularly, the naturality of it. In fact this doesn’t feel much like an interview at all, more like two friends discussing their passions in life.
In true rockstar fashion, Ben discloses the details of the night before’s antics at The Strongroom Bar in Shoreditch, where they played an intimate acoustic gig for some lucky dedicated fans. “We let loose on these new songs. We’re just shaking off last night’s festivities. They were kind enough to let us take over their spot for a few hours. I kind of felt bad for the regulars cause it’s like their usual bar and we didn’t want to run them up by rabid Band of Horses fans. They couldn’t have handled it with more grace, they were very, very hospitable.”
As I begin to address some of the questions burning to be answered, Ben intercepts with a point to make about his music. “I didn’t start this whole career or life in music until very late in my life so it still is a bit of a surprise when I do find something that actually works. There’s a song on the new album called ‘Barrel House’ and someone was asking me whether it had a broader theme, something a bit more universal than I was intending on. I just remember writing that in one sitting and what a gift that was.”
It is not just their striking sound that keep fans across the world hooked. The humbling nature of the band’s fan base interaction has meant that there have been vast memories made. Ben goes on to explain that, “We get people who ask us to help them propose. We were playing a show in TromsØ in Norway, the biggest city in the most northern part of the Arctic Circle and these two fans had met at a set in Oslo, Norway. They were getting married the day that we were coming to TromsØ and they were just like ‘Will you come to the chapel and play at our wedding and stop by to play a song?’ and he surprised his bride-to-be there. It was a genuine moment of surprise for this woman on her biggest day. It was amazing that we could pull that off and give them that experience.”
It’s clear from the way that Ben talks about his fan base that he is in a limbo between being aware of their presence and still being shocked by the vast numbers of people they have impacted through performing as a band. “We just celebrated the 10th anniversary of our first album and I we did a Q&A on Facebook and Twitter and we shared some mementos from that time, kicking up those old memories. I read through a lot of stuff for the first time that I’ve always turned a blind eye on. Man, I think I got through about twenty messages before I was reduced to tears. It’s crazy that we can have that kind of impact on people. It’s still daunting and I feel like there is a lot of responsibility to make a soundtrack for people’s most vulnerable moments.”
To be an artist in the digital age where music is few and far between and new artists are emerging daily on the music scene, I begin to delve into Ben’s interpretation of the art and how he writes music. “There are no rules at all. I think the only process I really adhere to would be diligence. Like sheer volume and then skim the cream off the top. I tend to be quite regimented in my approach. I’ll go and mess with everything, as I am not beholden to one instrument. I play them equally poor.” I interrupt hastily, reassuring him that that isn’t the case. “I never learnt how to play anything properly so it is poor amateurism at its most middle ground. I wouldn’t even say at its finest.” The modesty is humbling, although something about his gentle tone seems almost vulnerable. I can see that this openness has enabled such raw and engaging lyrics to become woven into the musical fabric of their band. As random as some lyrics can seem, they can be windows into an unknown life. Ben explains that “we hear a lot about people’s personal stories and the way I write songs, I am completely oblivious to the connection it’s going to make to other people. I have to make sure I don’t think about that too much, because it’s special to me. There is some happy medium of retaining a bit of yourself in the process and not whoring yourself out at every second you can.”
Of course I had to ask about his thoughts on the different mediums of listening to music. “Any way that suits you at the time is the best way to consume music. Due to the amount of travelling we do, I have gone down the route of downloading more.” He reassures me that “I never download illegally, I will always buy the music. I feel like it’s the least I can do for other artists.” This gesture of musical goodness is on par with his services as a parent. I initiate a conversation about festivals and experiences of being pushed around at gigs. “I’m the father of four daughters and the thought of someone pushing someone against a barricade like that, please be careful.” I immediately want to know his recommendations when attending a festival. “We have such creature comforts provided to us so I’ve never really had the true festival experience. Living in South Carolina we didn’t have many bands come to town, like you do here. You guys can drive like an hour to find an amazing wealth of talent on a festival site. I’d be honest and say I don’t know what the essentials would be, except an open mind.”
Festival-ing and touring in countries all over the world can be both an incredible experience and a bugbear when it comes to finding food. He begins to confess that, “I suffer from veganism, so I tend to be a habitual creature of habit. I eat the same thing at home almost every day. My wife thinks I’m mad. I like to make this dish with mock chicken, pesto and pasta so I can get my carbohydrates and protein in one hit. I tend to make a huge batch of it twice a week and then eat it throughout. It’s like dog food but I can eat like an animal, honestly.”
There is an elusive charm about Ben that is keeping me gripped to my phone. Maybe it is his kind disposition or the consistent mentioning of his love for his four children and wife that permits me to see past his bearded indie rock demeanour. “My kids know what I do but we talk about it so rarely that I think it surprises them when I have to go again and play on tour at concerts for thousands of people.” Relaying the normalities of his life Ben adds, “I’m the morning guy. I take them all to school so that’s my moment to try and get them into some music like The Flaming Lips. I can at least try. But I do what my parents did to me, and I’ll let them run the stereo on their way to school. Whatever they’re into they get to have turns. They might choose the same song twenty times but it’s like ‘OK let’s do that again’. When talking about music choices specifically Ben tells me that, “I am open, they can choose anything. I try not force anything on them whatsoever.”
It is such a reassurance to speak to an artist that doesn’t fall into the inevitable trap that most famed performers get themselves stuck into; a bottomless abyss of ego. Instead, I am understanding his tastes and styles within minutes and it makes me want to praise him more. This 38-year-old South Carolina born singer is offering something much more than just well rehearsed PR material. I am talking on the phone to someone who had the power and fame to push me away, but instead let me in; and for that I am able to compliment Band of Horses, and recommend their album to the highest extent. To be able to hear the album prior to its release was a privilege, but to converse with such a down to earth artist was even more so.
‘Why Are You OK?’ available June 10th.
Words by Alice Bradley