Band of Horses are rolling along nicely. Now onto their fourth album, the languidly charming Mirage Rock, produced by the legendary Glyn Johns (the Who, the Rolling Stones) and out September 18, the Seattle-born quintet is firmly ensconced in the kind-of-a-big-deal phase of its career. Though the music on the new album remains as humbly winning as ever — a mix of folkish melody, classic rock structures, and slightly stoned, dusk-on-the-dock good time vibes — the band's ascent should continue with much the same easy charm that singer-guitarist Ben Bridwell and his buds conjure onstage.
It's been a smooth ride: Each Band of Horses studio album has sold in greater numbers, with 2010's Infinite Arms, the band's first release for Columbia Records, debuting at No. 7 on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart. They keep climbing the bill at festivals, and touring with bigger bands. On August 3 and 4, they'll play Colorado's famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre with My Morning Jacket. In October, the guys will climb aboard the Railroad Revival Tour with Willie Nelson and his somewhat less-grizzled fellow country star Jamey Johnson.
It's a good life, and one that Bridwell was happy to chat about, as he called before hopping on the bus for a gig in Chicago.
The band produced Infinite Arms. How come you opted to work with such a big name producer for Mirage Rock?
Oh, let's see. We knew that Glyn worked strictly analog, and we thought that would be a really interesting thing to do after our last album, which was a bit edit heavy. It was really exciting to take a completely different approach. And I tell ya, those Rolling Stones records that he worked on are some of my favorites: Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers and things like that. Where the hell do we fit in!
Were you concerned that he might make you sound too, for lack of a better term, 'classic rock'? What did he bring that was fresh?
If anything he made us try a much more immediate style of recording. It's like, "Okay, you're a band, you have to all be in the same room together and play at the same time." That wasn't something we'd done much of before. A lot of the vocal takes on the album come from Glyn wanting me to be live and sing and play guitar at the same time. Before I could get away with just singing or just playing guitar and he really pushed me to try to do both at the same time. That's bonkers, man. It pretty scary.
You guys are lucky enough to have moved past the up-and-coming stage of your career and become an established band, which seems like a comfortable position to be in. What motivates you now?
I guess the fact that I don't understand what it is that I'm doing. That's a massive motivator and probably keeps me sane because I never expected any of this shit to happen. There's that little voice in your head that says, "Okay, you're now on your second Columbia record and if it doesn't sell there's a good chance they'll drop you." Seeds of doubt do get planted in your mind, but mostly it's like doing an art project. The motivation is making something that you're proud of. And getting to work with Glyn Johns is a motivator; getting to relive exactly how he would have recorded the Who or the Stones.
But hoping to relive an era that's gone can't be the main reason why you do what you do. You're right. It's definitely not. You're mostly hoping that the material is your best stuff but it probably isn't, you know? Maybe a couple of the songs are your best stuff if you're lucky. It doesn't really matter. You're just trying your best to make an art project. And mentally we were in a much more positive place than we were on the last album. That's why the new one has a kind of rowdy hoedown thing going on. At the end of recording, I was like, "Fuck, did we work hard enough?" It's a bit unnerving, but I think it's okay to be a creative person and have fun with it and move on the next thing you know. It doesn't have to be torture. And the truth is I worked my balls off.
My annoying curiosity is forcing me to ask this: Is there a real place called Mirage Rock?
I wish! The name Mirage Rock is a total piss take. A lot of the songs were written in this crappy storage garage I have that's really swelteringly hot and dusty and has rats. My space shares walls with welders and they can hear me whining through in my little microphone trying to be quiet while they have a massive air-pump hose or whatever going. The idea behind the title is that I thought it'd be funny if they heard my music in the distance and then got closer and there was nothing there. So the title is a total joke about how someone would perceive my own songwriting.
It seems to me that since the first album [2006's Everything All the Time], which had these sort of widescreen, expansive songs like "The Funeral" and "The Great Salt Lake," your music has been a lot tighter and more classicist in its structures and arrangements. Is that intentional on your part?
That's just me being stuck in the downward spiral, man. What happened is that I learned to play guitar by detuning all the strings because I didn't know where to put my hands. Then for the Infinite Arms album I had actually taken two lessons and learned how to play a couple proper chords. I had no idea what a damn C chord was. So I think a lot of that album was influenced by my playing an acoustic guitar in kind of a limited way. On the new album, I tried to go back to a lot of those weird tunings but the music's still not as epic as it was. I'm not sure if that's because I try not to recreate what I've done in the past or I'm too dumb to figure out how to do it again. I don't really know. The new songs are just not "The Great Salt Lake" and they're not "The Funeral," man. And that's a shame because I'm sure the label would love it if they were.
Were you reading anything or listening to anything or watching anything that you think influenced you to approach the vibe of the album in a way that was new for Band of Horses?
You mean other than pandering to Glyn? I just wanted to please him! Something that he told me was that I had to learn how to vary my melodies within the song — even within the same verse. So I listened to a lot of Radiohead for inspiration. Oh my God, if you ever want to get vocal inspiration you might want to avoid Radiohead because Thom Yorke is so good he'll make you never want to sing again! And then I also read every Hemingway novel. I'd never head any Hemingway before. I dropped out of school in the ninth grade and hadn't paid much attention before that. I'm tracing back the breadcrumbs now. I'm such a huge fan now. The way he put his narratives together and created such sad moments — it was to get exposed to that. A Farewell to Arms, A Moveable Feast — even The Old Man and the Sea. That guy was bonkers he was so good. Though I guess everyone else already knew that.