For Ben Bridwell, frontman and principal songwriter for the indie rock group Band of Horses, his career still makes no sense. That is to say, Bridwell remains rather astonished by it. That the now-43-year-old Irmo, South Carolina-born artist has earned a Grammy nomination or played to tens of thousands of people at festivals like Lollapalooza makes his head spin. He never started out wanting to front a band. In fact, when he landed in Seattle years ago, he was homeless, living on the street with a sleeping bag tied to his back. But even then, he knew one thing was essential for forward progress in any endeavor: hard work. It’s an instinct that remains with Bridwell today and it shines through on the latest Band of Horses album, Things Are Great, which is set to drop on Friday (March 4).
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“I feel like I have to work three times as much as someone with raw talent,” Bridwell says, humbly. “Being inspired as a human being, no matter what line of work you’re in, I think it leads to a better understanding of other people. Maybe that’s the key for me.”
Bridwell didn’t start off wanting to be in a band. Rather, he wanted to find great music and share it with as many people as he could. Instead of a great song or album, at first, he sought simply to find and understand how other people felt, internally. And then how they might express that artfully. That’s still what drives him, he says.
“I don’t think about success,” he says. “I don’t think of any of that shit. There’s something about being inspired by others to do good work. No matter what that work is.”
Growing up, Bridwell remembers listening to music playing throughout the house as he fell asleep. His parents would play Otis Redding and R&B songs. He says it was somewhat atypical compared to the other homes around him but he was grateful for it in his life. Bridwell also remembers when he found The Rolling Stones. He saw them in Clemson, South Carolina, which is a few hours from the small Irmo. And on the way home from the show, he remembers his father playing Neil Young’s Harvest Moon.
“I was feeling so connected to that moment,” Bridwell says.
As the years progressed, Bridwell found himself traveling the country. In one big move, he traveled from South Carolina to Tucson, Arizona. There, he met musicians who would further change his life. At the time, Bridwell had no designs on starting a music career. He says back then he was the mixtape guy, someone who liked to make and pass on songs. He was also the guy with the car amongst his friends.
“I was the dude that had a car, basically,” he says. “They were the musicians. I was never a musician. I’m still not sure if I am? But they were the musicians. I was the guy that can drive.”
But when one of the group members broke off and went to another band, Bridwell was invited in to play. Mostly, he says, because they were all packed in his car anyway. Bridwell landed in what would become a very accomplished band called Carissa’s Weird, an indie rock group founded originally in 1995. In the group were the now-very accomplished players Matt Brooke, Jenn Champion, Sera Cahoone, and a number of others. And from those efforts arose a small hobby record label Bridwell founded. Bridwell put out Carissa’s Weird debut record, Ugly But Honest, in 1999 on his tiny Brown Records.
“I was more interested in just spreading the good word,” he says.
A self-proclaimed “journeyman,” Bridwell landed in Seattle with some of Carissa’s Weird band members, including Champion and Cahoone. The band played its final show in Seattle at the famed Crocodile Café in 2003. Band of Horses released its debut LP, Everything All the Time, in 2006. Bridwell earned his first Grammy nomination in 2010. It’s a far cry from his nomadic days, homeless and living on the streets of the Emerald City. But Bridwell found a job in Seattle before any of his band’s music succeeded.
“I was lucky enough that the Crocodile Café hired me with a sleeping bag on my back,” Bridwell says.
Bridwell explains that he saved up all his tips to put out Carissa’s Weird music early on. That work helped him “get my foot in the door.” Later, as he toiled in Seattle at various cafes flipping eggs and working in food service, his brother hipped him to a good friend in South Carolina who had an “amazing record.” Bridwell says he planned to release it on his hobby label but thought better of it and decided to pass the work onto the historic Sub Pop Records label in Seattle. That friend was Sam Beam, also known as Iron & Wine. Beam signed to Sub Pop and, sometime later, started having Band of Horses open up for him at shows. That led Sub Pop to sign Bridwell.
“You can’t make that shit up,” he says.
Bridwell threw everything he could into Band of Horses (which is now set to go on tour with The Black Keys). He says it was out of a sense of desperation, tired of making omelets and filling coffee cups. If he was going to be broke, he thought, it might as well be making music and not grinding in kitchens. He pushed himself, repeating some version of the mantra: you can’t get good luck without good work. He went into his band’s practice space every day, telling himself that if he got one good day out of 10, then he was onto something. Now, poised to release his sixth LP, Bridwell is leaning into his instincts.
On Things Are Great, he collaborated with another South Carolina musician, producer Wolfgang Zimmerman, who is currently lesser-known but may one day be quite the opposite. Bridwell met a group of young adult musicians putting out work from a storage shed, he says. Perhaps they reminded him of his former Carissa’s Weird collective. Either way, not wanting to take his ideas into a fancy studio and be pulled and prodded by record executives quiet yet, Bridwell began working with them, starting with the debut single, “Crutch,” which is all about fraught relationships. Bridwell also sought input from Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle and other experienced folks. But the new LP is largely the result of his time with Zimmerman.
“There’s lots going on here,” Bridwell says, reflecting on his home in Charlestown, South Carolina. “There’s a lot I’m looking forward to. I’m really proud of this record.”
For Bridwell, his job is to help people. That’s the essential role. Anything that hinders that, he says, can “basically go fuck itself.” The world is a tenuous, tense, and tumultuous place. So, he hopes his sounds, his efforts, his work, his music can help alleviate some of the trauma that life can so easily display and put on people. In essence, Bridwell says, he hopes his story and music can be a point of light for others to look to. He’s been inspired by music, even in his day-to-day life. So, he says, he hopes he can spread the good work to others.
“I love that music makes me want to get up,” Bridwell says. “It makes me want to take a shower, makes me want to wake up and be alive. I don’t know what I’d do without it. I don’t know how I’d function through the day without it.”
Photo courtesy Grandstand Media