BAND OF HORSES: Ponies Up on the Pen

“Hey dude, it’s time.”

Ben Bridwell motions to follow him up the wooden stairs, from the basement rec room of Asheville, N.C.’s Echo Mountain Studios, into the main recording studio housed in the sanctuary of a former Methodist church.“Hey dude, it’s time.”

Ben Bridwell motions to follow him up the wooden stairs, from the basement rec room of Asheville, N.C.’s Echo Mountain Studios, into the main recording studio housed in the sanctuary of a former Methodist church.

Seated at the Neve console in the control room, producer Phil Ek does some last minute tinkering-flipping a switch here, twisting a knob there-while Bridwell and his Band of Horses bandmates file into the room and find a seat.

Ek, whose production credits include a who’s who of indie rock-from forefathers Built to Spill and Dinosaur Jr. to modern torchbearers Modest Mouse and The Shins-is noticeably wary of allowing a stranger in the studio’s control room during playback, and for good reason. It’s only been 10 days since Band of Horses started work on Cease to Begin, the much-anticipated follow-up to their universally acclaimed debut Everything All The Time. And this is the first time that anyone outside of Ek, the band members or a few studio engineers have heard what one of the most talked about groups in indie rock has been up to.

Ek punches a button, and suddenly the room is filled with the bouncing bass line that opens “Islands on the Coast,” a track on the new album. Cascading sheets of guitar clash with pummeling drums and cymbal crashes as the song blasts off into a breakneck gallop. Ek’s hands dance across the mixing board controls like a speed freak playing checkers, his keen ears guiding their every movement. Heads around the room begin to nod along to the melody as the song races to a crescendo.

“That song’s kind of a metaphor for closing the door on certain things from the past and moving forward,” Bridwell explains later. “The lyric actually says ‘eyelids want to close,’ but I always thought it sounded like ‘islands on the coast,’ so I named it that to screw with people. That song deals with some things that went down before we left Seattle. I liked the metaphor of an eyelid closing. It can mean a lot of things, but I thought it worked well for talking about that.”

As his swan song to Seattle reaches its thundering conclusion, Bridwell pumps his fist in the air along with the beat. Ek spins around in his chair with a wide grin as the music fades out, and band members whoop with approval. The scene is joyous and triumphant, which stands in stark contrast to the first time Ben Bridwell put pen to paper in search of a song of his own.

***

The first songs were written out of desperation. When Seattle-based sad poppers Carissa’s Weird finally broke up in 2003, Ben Bridwell was adrift.

Since moving to Seattle with head Wierdos Mat Brooke and Jenn Ghetto in 1996, the South Carolina-native had founded a record label (Brown Records) to release Carissa’s Weird music, stepped in to play drums on 2001’s You Should Be at Home Here, and moved to bass and pedal steel for the group’s final album, 2004’s I Before E.

“I freaked,” Bridwell admits. “I didn’t know what I was going to do after the band broke up, so me and Mat decided to start a new band.”

Enlisting bassist Chris Early and drummer Tim Meining, Brooke and Bridwell conducted a few practices before Brooke’s interest waned.

“Mat didn’t seem to like it that much, so I went behind his back and started writing songs on my own and playing them with Chris and Tim,” he says. “I was kind of embarrassed to play songs I’d written in front of him because I’d never really written before…and he’d written so many songs by that point. I think he took it as me being sneaky but I just didn’t know what else to do after Carissa’s Wierd broke up. I was pretty desperate and knew I had to do something.”

With only a rudimentary knowledge of guitar chords and tunings, Bridwell holed up in the abandoned Carissa’s Weird practice space, detuning instruments until they achieved the tonality he was looking for.

“I just started fucking with what sounded good,” he says. “I didn’t know how to do open tunings or anything like that. Being a bad guitar player, I just tried to see if I could arrange the strings to make it easier on my hands or make it sound a little different. Melodies started coming and I just followed them as best I could. Those guitars are still in the same tunings as when I started writing those first songs.”

The first batch of songs Bridwell penned as a novice songwriter was nothing short of astonishing. From the menacing “Wicked Gil” and the dream pop of “The First Song,” to the rowdiness of “Great Salt Lake” and the vastness of “The Funeral,” the songs were epic and fragile at the same time-dynamic melodies driven by relatively simple arrangements. By the time the band entered the studio with Ek, Brooke had joined full-time and contributed two tracks (“St. Augustine” and “I Go to the Barn Because I Like the”), along with countless arrangement suggestions and support for Bridwell in his first turn as a frontman.

“Ben’s a great songwriter and a great singer but by his own admission, he’s not the best guitar player,” Ek says. “A lot of songwriters need someone else to help them work through their ideas and expand on them. That’s definitely the role Mat played on the first record. Any member of a band has a certain degree of input to how a song will ultimately turn out, but the initial idea and the core of the song is the songwriter’s. Mat’s got a certain texture to his playing that is unique to the first album but the songs were Ben’s.”

Everything All The Time was released by Sub Pop Records to near universal acclaim in March 2006, but the band was already in a state of flux. By the time the album hit record store shelves, bassist Chris Early and drummer Tim Meining left the band after Meining purportedly had a meltdown in the studio. Bridwell invited drummer Creighton Barrett, a longtime friend from Charleston, S.C., who had recently moved to Seattle, to join the band-and Barrett brought along bassist Rob Hampton. Joe Arnone was added shortly thereafter to play guitar. As the band prepared to embark on their spring 2006 tour, Brooke and Bridwell had a falling out, the reasons for which remain unknown. The bad blood between the longtime friends, coupled with Brooke’s need to focus on the opening of his new bar in Seattle, led to the guitarist’s departure from Band of Horses shortly before its appearance on Late-Night with David Letterman in July 2006.

“I basically freaked out at Letterman. Mat had left the band just before our trip to New York, and I didn’t want to fuck up this amazing opportunity and let anyone down,” he explains. “All my relatives had set their alarm clocks to wake up and see it. It was such a big deal to them that it scared me even more. I didn’t watch it until almost eight months after it was on TV. I was in Athens, Ga., visiting my uncle…and he couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen it, so he popped in his DVD copy. I watched it with one eye open.”

***

If the songs on Everything All The Time were the haunted confessions of a desperate man, the songs on Cease to Begin are redemption songs.

Written primarily in late 2006, the 10 tracks that make up Band of Horses’ sophomore release deal in part with the events leading up to the band’s decision to move to Charleston after 10 years in the Pacific Northwest.

“Seattle became weird at the very end,” Barrett recalls. “It felt stifling and a little suffocating. There was some jealousy there. Nothing to the extreme but it was enough to where we all wanted to make the move. Ben and I have family in Charleston and Rob’s family isn’t too far away in Louisville. We all wanted to be closer to family.”

“We had some hard times this year with some falling outs of friendships and stuff like that,” Bridwell adds. “When times are tough, it’s easy to write dark songs, and there are some dark ones on this record. But I think there’s a bit more positive stuff and less desperation on this record than the first one.”

While “Islands on the Coast” and country stomper “The General Specific” speak to some of the darker emotions Bridwell felt about leaving Seattle, Cease to Begin is an album about finding happiness.

“Ode to the LRC” is a sprawling tour-de-force that employs dynamic tempo shifts, from crunchy Crazy Horse rock on the song’s verses to a dreamy string-driven melody for the chorus and la-di-da outro. Bridwell wrote the song after an unexpected inspiration from the logbooks of an inn he visited on a trip to the Washington coast.

“Some people had gone to this inn for the weekend while they fought cancer, and others went there for one last weekend before they passed away. People went there on honeymoons, and others went to try and save their marriages,” he explains. “There were all these different people with these insanely personal stories and they all touched me so deeply. It made me feel happy to be alive, so I felt compelled to write a song about it. That’s probably one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. It’s the only song on the new record that was written all in one sitting. It just wrote itself.”

While “Ode to the LRC” is from the band’s time in Seattle, “No One’s Gonna Love You” is the oldest song on the album, dating back almost to the recording sessions for Everything All The Time.

“I’m not afraid to write songs about women, and I think it’s because I really love to listen to soul music,” he says. “I love hearing Otis Redding just completely murder me talking about some delicious love he got. It’s an old standby, but those songs are really easy for me to write ‘cause I’m totally into the moment when I write them.”

“Window Blues” is a gentle ballad that bears Bridwell’s love of country music and was born out of a simple banjo line he picked one day while sitting on his back porch in Charleston, watching birds swim in a nearby lagoon.

“That song reminds me of ‘Part One’ off the first album,” he says. “It’s so calm and quiet. There’s a line in there that says, ‘Baby, give me something to live for.’ I wrote it right before my girlfriend moved in, and I think it really sums up moving home, falling in love and being really happy. That one’s probably closest to my heart.”

Having finally found happiness after a tumultuous year, Bridwell’s confidence is brimming. The result is a more mature, sonically diverse album in Cease to Begin that expands upon the successes and impeccable beauty of Everything All The Time.

“He’s more confident now to trust his instincts as a songwriter,” Ek remarks. “There’s a song on the new album-‘The Marry Song’-that we tried to record a bunch of different ways with banjos, acoustic guitars and slide guitars, but nothing really stuck. It just didn’t feel right. What worked was the original vision Ben had on his demo. We re-did his vocals and added a really awesome harmony vocal, but Ben did a great job with that one from the beginning. His instincts were right on.”

“I didn’t like writing lyrics for the first album at all,” Bridwell says of his trepidation as a new songwriter. “I was still getting comfortable singing and being out front, so it was a real smoke-and-mirrors approach. With the new album, I’m a lot more confident with writing lyrics. I’m not nearly as afraid of it, and I enjoy it more now. It’s not as hard to get across what I want to say. It’s like I don’t have to write words this time…I get to.”