Band Of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell came to music circuitously, first founding a record label in Seattle in his early 20s, and then learning an instrument—drums—as a favor to his friends’ shorthanded band, Carissa’s Wierd. Bridwell later switched to bass; then, after Carissa’s Wierd broke up, he learned guitar and formed Band Of Horses, which quickly released two well-received Sub Pop albums: 2006’s Everything All Of The Time and 2007’s Cease To Begin. In the three years since Cease To Begin, Band Of Horses has seen a turnover in membership, and signed a deal to release its music under the shared imprint of indie Fat Possum, major label Columbia Records, and Bridwell’s own Brown Records. Bridwell recently spoke with The A.V. Club about how all those changes affected the recording of Band Of Horses’ third album, Infinite Arms—another strong collection of catchy songs with echoing guitars, soaring melodies, and rootsy undertones.
The A.V. Club: Your first two albums were produced by Phil Ek, but Infinite Arms is credited both to Ek and the band. How did that work?
Ben Bridwell: The story is that we started just as with the previous albums, with Phil all set to produce. But we were really taking our time; we’d do a couple of weeks in the studio, then take off time and tour. Since we were self-funding the album, we needed to keep working while we were recording. But Phil also had to keep his schedule free to do his own work. At one point, we just couldn’t link up. Phil was busy with another project and we really needed to keep the album moving, so we decided to go in and do a session by ourselves. And in the end, we really ended up enjoying that. We took the ball and ran with it from there, just because we enjoyed the vibe of doing whatever we wanted. Just kind of going crazy with it. Not that we couldn’t do that with Phil, but it was exciting to do something different, especially because it’s the third album. If you’re not doing something at least a little bit different, it’s like you’re spinning your wheels. In the end, we ended up using some of Phil’s tracks, but I think we probably produced about 70 percent of the finished album.
AVC: What did you learn from your past producers that you were able to apply when producing yourself?
BB: Personally, having Phil teach me how to sing in the studio was a huge asset. With this record, especially, I knew I had to challenge myself and not be complacent when things were just good enough, y’know? It’s like: Is it good enough, or can it be better? I think that’s the biggest lesson Phil taught me: Don’t settle for okay. Try to strive for the best that you can do.
AVC: You mentioned trying to do something different with this album. How much do you consciously think about moving forward with the Band Of Horses sound vs. sticking with what you already know how to do?
BB: You know, I don’t think that much about it. It’s weird. I don’t really have some grand ambitions to stretch boundaries or anything. I kind of just do what I do, and don’t really overthink it. It would be nice if maybe I had some drive to be outside my own limitations. But doing whatever comes naturally keeps it pure and exciting for me. I think if I was trying to stretch myself too far and do things I’m not used to at this point, I don’t know if I actually would be able to believe in it. So I just do what I do, and that’s what we’re stuck with. But luckily, now that the band has solidified for the first time in our existence, we finally have musicians that can allow us to stretch some boundaries and go beyond my limits of musical talents. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you think of yourself as a collaborative person, or as a leader?
BB: Personally, I can’t write in the company of others. The songs I write, I usually have to go as far away from society as possible and shut myself in. I think coming to music as late as I did, I’ve never really had that confidence, that I could really jam with people or anything like that. This album is collaborative, but in the sense that any songs from any members were all welcome and were received with open arms. Other people wrote their own songs, and then once we got to the studio, we played them. So I don’t know, it’s strange. In one way, I’m still the leader, but I’m finally relinquishing a lot of the responsibilities to the other members. We’re just not all in the same room when the songs are conceived.
AVC: Is it a pure democracy, or is it a democracy with one deciding vote?
BB: With the songwriting and stuff, I can be the leader. On tour, it’s a true democracy, no doubt. Everyone’s got equal say in everything. But the majority of the work falls on my shoulders, and as the only original member, it’s easier to share that burden. It’s a happy, dictator-run democracy, I guess. [Laughs.]
AVC: The other big change before this album is that you’ve signed with a new label. Do you think of yourself as being with Fat Possum, or as being with Columbia?
BB: Well, it’s easy to say Columbia, because we’ve just returned from Europe, where it’s Sony Worldwide. So we’re meeting mostly Sony people in every other territory. Here in the States, I’ve talked more with Matthew [Johnson] from Fat Possum than anybody. And then my label has a little bit of a hand in it, as well. It’s easy to get confused, actually. I’m not sure what the hell is going on. [Laughs.] It’s definitely different. It’s definitely not where we were. So far, so good. It’s kind of an awkward time right now, because it’s so new to us, y’know?
All I know is that when we came to this record, we knew… Because the Sub Pop contract was up and we were free agents, and the music business had changed so much since signing that Sub Pop contract five years ago, we knew that we would be in the driving seat at this point. Especially self-funding it, we knew that we had the option of owning our art—which is a crazy concept in this business, I guess—and having the chance to get the best deal we could. Unfortunately, it meant that we were going away from Sub Pop, but luckily we still remain friends, and I think all parties are happy.
AVC: Is it essential for a working band these days to develop that business acumen?
BB: If anything’s come out of this crazy business changing so much, it’s that artists are finally owning their own art. I think that no matter how big or small a band is, the fact that we finally have those opportunities is nothing but an extreme blessing for us after so many years of musicians getting fucked in the ass, basically, by record labels.
AVC: Band Of Horses’ album covers have a distinctive look, which is reflected on your website and elsewhere. How much do you personally collaborate with Christopher Wilson, your photographer? And how important is it to develop an image?
BB: It’s so important, actually, and Chris is one of the best friends I’ve ever had. We talk quite a bit about anything and everything. We actually worked together before this job; he would wait tables somewhere and get me a job washing dishes. In different parts of the country, if we ever needed each other, we’d be there to help each other out. Once I got this job, I said, “Chris, come on.” He had just started working on photography and stuff, so the fact that we’re so close, and we’ve finally had this opportunity to be in a more creative job together instead of working at a café or something, it’s nothing but exciting. We’ve worked really closely on all the imaging and stuff like that, and finally making the web page look cool. He’s running projection for us now, and doing all the work with videos. This is all new for him, so we’re both learning as we go, but we have a lot of fun with it. When a band has that cohesiveness—the aesthetic properties with the musical qualities—I think that’s one of the coolest things. You can really latch onto a visual aspect with the sound, as well.
AVC: Can you think of an album or two that creates that mood for you? Like, if you could spend your life living inside a record, which one would it be?
BB: Man, that’s tough. Let me think a second on that one. [Pause.] Well, actually, that’s not that hard. I guess, in a more contemporary sense, I really like the mood of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s The Letting Go, the one with the female vocalist [Dawn McCarthy]. The album has such a sparse feel, and I always find myself going back to that. I’m a big fan of Will Oldham’s stuff. I could name maybe four records of his that I could live inside, if not all of them. That one’s easier for me because it’s darker, and puts me in a really introspective mood. I would say on the opposite end of the spectrum, something that’s more upbeat and classic, I think of Exile On Main Street by The Rolling Stones. It was an album I grew up with, hearing probably every day. It’s like my dad’s favorite record. I don’t know, that’s just always been one of my favorites because of that. It has such an uplifting vibe. If I could live in that one, I’d probably be in a good mood every day.