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America Is a Wild Place

Rising from the Ashes of the Beloved Carissa's Wierd, Band of Horses Are Poised to Release One of the Strongest Debut Albums in Years

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Robin Laananen
BAND OF HORSES Big rock from humble dudes.

Even while sitting, Ben Bridwell is constantly moving. There is always a knee bouncing or a foot tapping as he perches his lanky frame on the edge of his seat. He is dressed in a blue-checked shirt, old jeans, and cowboy boots. He is sporting a full beard, making him appear older and wiser, but it can't hide the boyishness he exudes. Judging from the way he nervously adjusts himself in his chair, it's obvious he's not ready for the intense interviews just yet.

Nor is he ready for the praise with which he could be showered when his group, Band of Horses, release their debut, Everything All the Time, on March 21. Even as his longtime cohort and band mate Mat Brooke expresses awe over Bridwell's talent, it's deflected with genuine modesty. "Honestly, I wouldn't have been able to write the songs if it wasn't for Mat."

Fact is, Bridwell is about to release a record that is one of the strongest debuts by a Seattle band in recent years, and that's a heavy trip for anyone to tussle with. Yet Bridwell seems more at ease talking about the two songs he didn't write for the record, rather than his own. In fact, he's closest to his comfort edge when discussing anything but himself.

On the matter of Bridwell's songs, Brooke says: "They're ridiculous. Just fantastic. Perfect songwriting, perfect voice, perfect guitar. Makes me think he should have been doing it years ago."

Even Phil Ek, producer of Everything All the Time, said: "[Band of Horses] make me feel the same way I felt when I saw and heard Built to Spill or Modest Mouse or the Shins or Hush Harbor for the first time. Just a feeling you get when you hear something and connect with it instantly."

Bridwell shakes his head in disbelief.

While no one can deny Bridwell his modesty, anyone who has experienced Band of Horses live knows his talent is not to be underestimated. I've seen a Crocodile crowd stunned to silence by his vocal prowess and discerning folk have positively salivated over the MP3s available on the band's website. Few people deserve to be boastful, but Bridwell, given his circumstances, could justifiably be one of them.

If he has yet to wrangle with the gravity of his situation, Bridwell can be forgiven; it's happened too quickly for even outsiders to believe. They played a couple of higher-profile local gigs that were well attended, but for the most part did the bulk of their touring elsewhere. You could count on two hands the number of Seattle shows they played before being swept away as openers for Iron and Wine and, subsequently, signed by Sub Pop Records.

The credit should go to Bridwell, the good-timing guy armed with an innate sense of lyric and melody. For 10 years he played a role alongside Brooke in Northwest darlings Carissa's Wierd, yet rarely opened his mouth to sing and never contributed a song. Instead, he was a team player, handling drums, some keys, some pedal steel, a little bass. He even launched and ran Brown Records, creating a home for Carissa's albums. Fans of Carissa's Wierd were devoted, to say the least. After disbanding in 2003, the band's members found it hard to shake the burden of being in that band. But in a burst of creativity, the quiet guy in the back, Bridwell, started singing and writing songs. It turns out he was really fucking good at it.

The 27-year-old Bridwell was raised in Irmo, South Carolina, and still carries a strong sense of home and of being Southern. The youngest of three children, he played sports before hitting junior high and discovering the joys of partying.

"I was never really good at school, so at some point along the way I discovered marijuana," he says. "I started to become one of those out-of-control teens that just partied and didn't want to go to school."

Though he consistently skipped class, Bridwell maintained good relations with his school principals. They eventually sat Bridwell down and told him they knew school wasn't for him. He moved to Tucson, Arizona, to live with his mother, who was divorced from Bridwell's father years before.

"I went to school in Tucson and was enrolled for two weeks before I had already missed too many days to qualify passing," he says. "I was just not interested. I really enjoyed marijuana and alcohol."

Details of the past get vaguer as time goes by, but Bridwell knows that around the age of 16, he met future Carissa's Wierd band mate Jenn Ghetto outside a Tucson coffeehouse. Through Ghetto he would meet Brooke and all would soon relocate to the Northwest. Though Brooke and Bridwell were not fast friends, circumstances allowed them to forge a bond that appears unbreakable. Nowadays, with 10 years between them, they resemble inseparable desperados. Brooke, in full beard and flannel-clad, approaches the aesthetic of an old prospector, and is soft-spoken to boot. Bridwell is the talkative one, energetic and charismatic. Together they've been broke, homeless, hungry, knocked down, rode hard, and put away wet.

Carissa's Wierd had a notable run in the Pacific Northwest throughout the late '90s and early 2000s, playing downbeat, whispery lo-fi pop, suitable for sipping green tea to in your apartment. They had a ravenous fan base and had achieved such career highs as touring with Modest Mouse and selling out New York's Knitting Factory. But in 2003, Carissa's amicably separated, much to the dismay of their fans and especially to Bridwell.

"It was really hard to deal with at first," he says. "We had worked so hard and lived this lifestyle; I didn't want to go back to not traveling, y'know? I have a ninth-grade education, what the fuck am I gonna do? But that's what motivated me to get off my ass and do this band."

Bridwell, who was then 26, didn't even know how to play guitar. Brooke showed him some rudimentary stuff and it wasn't long before he was writing his own material.

He tested his songs out at local clubs and even opened for a couple of Brooke's solo shows at the Crocodile. By December 2004, Band of Horses were opening for Iron and Wine at Neumo's and were joined onstage by Brooke, who would soon be a fully integrated member of the band.

This gig was also where Sub Pop general manager Megan Jasper spotted Bridwell's raw talent.

"I thought Ben's voice was amazing," says Jasper. "And even though they had a lot of technical problems, I thought there was something really pretty and compelling about them."

Iron and Wine's Sam Beam recognized it too and invited Band of Horses to be the opener on his Eastern U.S. tour.

Remembers Jasper: "Sam called me a couple times at home once the tour ended and told me that as the tour progressed, Band of Horses got better and better. Then Phil Ek called me and started telling me how much he, too, loved them. Shortly after we learned the good folks at Barsuk were also interested. If Sub Pop wanted to work with the band, we couldn't piss away any more time."

A deal was landed with Sub Pop in 2005 and arrangements made with Ek. For a guy who had never played guitar or written a song before 2004, Bridwell was now fronting one of the country's most talked-about bands.

"I'm wondering how we got to this point as much as the Seahawks are probably wondering how they got to the Super Bowl," says Brooke. "It just kind of happened and no one is really sure how it happened."

If Bridwell is wondering, too, he has only the power of his performance to blame. Everything All the Time is an explosive album, drifting between gentle, swinging country songs and ragged, soaring rock epics. It is a distinctly American rock album, packed with the open-air volume of Crazy Horse, the fist-pumping party aura of Southern rock, and the minor-key flare of much Pacific Northwest music.

What will immediately stand out to virgin ears is Bridwell's Southern voice, for it's an emotionally charged, high-lonesome yelp pushing the record's edges. It's an incredibly sad voice, but one resonating with hope. Ek says it was his intent to represent Bridwell's voice as best he could. The vocals are fed through about 300 feet of reverb yet still remain crystalline, atmospheric, and impossible to tune out.

Lyrically, the album is obscure and intense. Somehow, even with Bridwell's voice as upfront as it is, it's hard to make out what he's saying. Like the words you hear on an old 78 recording, emotion comes before enunciation. He could be saying, "Every occasion I'll be ready for the funeral," on the aptly titled "The Funeral," and that would be a safe bet. But still, you're not quite certain. Anthems like "The Funeral" and "Monsters" are bottled with a lifetime of emotion and frustration. The record is painted with great, cinematic brushstrokes, too: "Wrapping all/the presents I bought" from "Snow Song" and "Look out, Michael/there's a note on the door" from "The Great Salt Lake." On "Part One" he sketches out the lovely, vivid "Awake next to you in the morning, dear/good morning to you/how do you do/more covers for you/sleep soundly, dear, 'cause I have to go." These lines point straight to the heart of both sexes, which could be considered Bridwell's trademark.

Elsewhere, "I Go to the Barn Because I Like the" and "St. Augustine," are soft, acoustic-based songs showcasing Bridwell and Brooke's ear-melting abilities as a vocal duo. "I'd like to think I'm a mess you'd wear with pride," they sing in breathy sighs. Brooke employs the familiar hazy voice that Carissa's fans will immediately identify while Bridwell hovers over the top in his echo-laden Southern drawl. Together they sound like a shot of warm whiskey going down. Although these two tunes sound as if they were written by Bridwell, they were actually penned by Brooke—but it's almost impossible to tell the difference. That's not a slight, but rather an example of the chemistry between Brooke and Bridwell.

Ultimately, Band of Horses is the sound Bridwell heard in his head when he was younger, when rock music offered that supreme divergence.

"When I was a kid and growing up in the South during the indie-rock craze," he says, "all the early-'90s stuff... I just loved that music so much. Certain songs on this record I wanted to have that sort of feel. With Band of Horses, we get to do the big rock stuff that we never imagined ourselves doing, like when you're a kid and you imagined yourself being in a band. A song like 'Weed Party,' I was trying to think about the kind of song I'd like when I was 15 and riding around smoking weed. I always wanted to be in a band like that."

And he sings with the conviction that music is the truest thing he has found in life.

"Music is everything for me," he says. "I can't imagine what the fuck I'd be doing. I mean, with a ninth-grade education, I can't imagine a better profession."

After years of never knowing where he fit in or what he wanted to do, Bridwell seemingly has found his calling.

Like the best American songs, Bridwell's are complicated emotional puzzles marked by fleeting answers. Conclusions are not easy, but with Everything All the Time, Bridwell offers one of the finest reassurances ever laid to magnetic tape. "If I am lost, it's only for a little while," he wails on the banjo-driven "Monsters." It's the most arrestingly transcendent moment in an album awash in transcendent moments. He knows he'll be lost again. But for a moment there, caught in the throes of the song, it sounds like he's found his way.

editor@thestranger.com
 

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