Music News

Dark Horse

The video for Band of Horses' "Funeral" features scratchy black-and-white footage of a lonely, broken old man slowly drinking himself to death in a smoky beer-and-a-shot bar, his only friends the bottom of his mug, a jukebox and memories of a dead dog.

Framing morose lyrics such as "I'm coming up only to hold you under" and "Every occasion I'll be ready for the funeral," the stark imagery is a fitting depiction of the song from the Seattle-based band and its talented, mangy-bearded frontman, Ben Bridwell.

Released this past spring, Band of Horses' debut, Everything All the Time, is a truly astonishing rock album, the type of carefully crafted work that's designed to cross vast expanses and fill lonely hollows -- part powerful arena-rock glory, part plaintive lonely-man yelping.

Founded in 2004 by Bridwell and former bandmate Mat Brooke after the breakup of Seattle mainstay Carissa's Wierd, Band of Horses has enjoyed a stunning rise to popularity. The band signed to Sub Pop, rode the high of tours with established country-tinged indie acts like Iron and Wine and Okkervil River, earned glowing reviews in big-time pubs and landed a gig on Letterman.

But then, just as the band was gaining momentum, it lost a horse. Brooke, who contributed to much of the instrumentation and songwriting on the album, decided to push away and focus on solo projects, leaving Bridwell to reconfigure the band at the height of its burgeoning popularity.

"Carissa's Wierd, when it ended, that really felt like it had run its course," says Bridwell backstage after a recent show in Chicago. "Mat leaving didn't feel that way at all, and I'll just leave it at that."

Bridwell got his start working as a drummer and utility man for the gently melodic, revolving slo-core clan of Carissa's Wierd, playing on albums like Ugly But Honest, You Should Be at Home Here and Songs About Leaving. The outfit garnered critical acclaim and a strong regional following, but little else.

"We did good within our means," notes Bridwell. "In Seattle, we were known, but everywhere else, it was like we'd get up on tour forever playing in front of, like, fifteen people. After doing that for ten years, it really felt like it was time to be done. It was like, 'Here -- here's the towel.' Gotta know when to say when."

Around the same time, Bridwell was at the helm of Brown Records, a self-described "hobby label" that released Carissa's Wierd albums and worked with bands like Iron and Wine. On the label's website and in interviews, Sub Pop execs roundly credit Bridwell for passing along demos from Iron and Wine's like-minded and woolly-bearded Sam Beam, asking them to do what they could for him. With such sensibilities, you'd think that an A&R position would have been a natural next step for Bridwell, but he wanted no part.

"I'm too lazy for that kind of job," he confesses. "And for people to put their trust in me to do a good job, to make sure their career is on track, that's just too much for me. I just put out bands hoping that some other label would pick up the CD and it would get out there and into the right hands somehow. It ended up doing up better than that, better than we thought it ever would."

After closing up shop on Brown Records and wrapping up work with Carissa's Wierd, Bridwell started venturing out on his own, focusing on songwriting and picking up the guitar. With friends like Beam, Band of Horses quickly found an audience and a full slate of tour dates. On the strength of its live performances and some serious online buzz, the deal with Sub Pop materialized, and bigger opportunities came swiftly. Unfortunately, so did Brooke's exit, which posed some challenges for Bridwell and his mates.

"Mat leaving has definitely been difficult," he reveals. "The toughest thing after losing him is retooling the sound to make it sound like it's supposed to. At the same time, we've been trying some different lineups and we're bouncing back, so it's all good. The lineup we're using now makes it fun again, and it hasn't been fun for a little while. We're doing some wankier stuff, more solos -- just more laid-back, but bigger and more arena rock."

Indeed. This evening's performance provided a perfect example. After wowing the crowd with hi-amp, reverb-drenched anthemic versions of tracks such as "The Great Salt Lake" and "Weed Song," Bridwell and crew stomped out a trucker-friendly version of David Allan Coe's "You Never Even Call Me By My Name." The hipster-heavy hoi polloi was a little perplexed but rolled with it.

Band of Horses' newfound positive energy has apparently paid dividends in recording sessions as well. The group recently recorded a cover of the New Year's track "The End's Not Near" for an upcoming OC soundtrack with producer Phil Ek -- whose work with the Shins and Built to Spill is matched by the work he did for Horses on Everything All the Time.

"It's weird, because he's such a hardass," Bridwell points out. "I go up to the microphone, and I know he's going to let me do this for like an hour and a half before he's like, 'Yeah, just making sure you're into it, that you're getting warmed up.' And that's when I just fucking explode. This one, he was just, 'You sound great' the first take. 'Do it a couple more times and I'm sure we'll have some takes we can use.' It seemed really easy. That was also our first recording session not having Mat around."

For Horses' next album, Bridwell is searching his roots for inspiration. He plans to take his bandmates back to his home state of South Carolina in November to do some recording. Although he visits frequently, he hasn't lived in the state for over ten years, and he's looking forward to spending time there again.

"Seattle in the summertime is so wonderful and beautiful," he says. "The coast of Carolina does that in the fall as well, and even the winter is easy to deal with. We've got a house, and the entire downstairs is built for practicing. There's no neighbors. It's at the end of a dirt road."

With the latest lineup solidified and several songs already in the can, Bridwell sounds optimistic, like he's damn glad not to be like the guy in the video, wasting away into adulthood.

"The best is being able to do this right now," he concludes, "without having to have any other kind of job, to be what we are right now -- which is adult babies playing with guitars all day -- and not really worry about too much else while we're still young. Even if it all went away tomorrow, if we can just ride this out for a couple more years, let us keep doing this, pretending that we're children. That'd be fine."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Rich Sharp