Ben Bridwell, lead singer and songwriter for Band of Horses, makes success look easy. Each of the band's four albums has sold more than the last, with 2010's Infinite Arms reaching No. 7 on the Billboard album chart and earning the band a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album (eventually losing to some nobodies, the Black Keys). That winning streak looks to continue with the release of Mirage Rock, due out in September. The record was produced by the legendary Glyn Johns, who has worked with other musical nobodies — Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, among others. Mirage Rock expands the band's breezy but epic falsetto rock to include songs with a more subdued, classic-rock-tinged flavor.
It all appears quick and effortless, but Bridwell's dogged work ethic has as much to do with his success as his songwriting. In a rare lull between working and caring for his two young daughters in South Carolina, Bridwell joined The Pitch by phone to talk about the new record, songwriting, and the Band of Horses' upcoming tour with My Morning Jacket. See both bands at Starlight Theatre Monday, August 6.
The Pitch: Where in the country are you? Are you also in the middle of a deathly heat wave?
Bridwell: I am in the Southeast part, around the city of Charleston, on a swamp, just hanging out at home. You know, [heat waves are] always kind of going on here. We don't really notice when the heat index is 120 or something. It's just kind of Wednesday. I don't know if you ever get used to that, though. I'm sweating now sitting down.
You've worked with smaller labels, big labels. You've done lengthy tours, and your songs have been used a lot in TV shows. Does a musician have to do everything, throw it all at the wall, to make a living making music today?
Absolutely. Yeah, really all aspects — all that promo and stuff. Lord knows, TV and film have been a massive help, a shot in the arm, to a lot of artists like us that have certainly been affected by the technology that has come up in the past 10 years. But shit, I'm doing fine. I'm doing much better than I should be, for sure. At the same time, to maintain that kind of thing, you can't rest on any laurels. You have to go out and do that promo and then go to a radio station and do an acoustic set. All of those things, in stores, all that shit. You really have to give people a personal experience and give them a reason to listen now.
I've read that you go off by yourself when you write songs. Where was Mirage Rock written?
Well, a lot of it was written here in Mount Pleasant. I have a storage garage that looks about as beautiful as that sounds — it's grimy with spiders and mice and shit. So I would sit there a lot when my girls would be at school, and just kind of clock in and write it. A lot of it didn't make the cut, but a lot of it did, and I guess on tours and stuff, too, if I had a day off, I'd walk to my hotel room and try to write something or just mess around. I'll go and work on stuff at a cabin in the woods or at a beach house so I can really jump into the mind-set of it and really wreck my brain on it.
You lived in the Pacific Northwest for quite a while and are now back in the South, where you're from. How has the geographical change influenced your music?
Settling into adulthood and being back where I came from has a lot of positive aspects to it, maybe. I'm not as depressing or moody as I used to be. I loved that about the Northwest. It does have that great mood to it. You're allowed to be depressed, and you'd be surprised when you're not. I do miss that kind of gloom because that's when I started that habit of writing all day and kind of clocking in, because it was so wet outside.What else are you gonna do?
One of the things that I think is so exciting about the new record is that you got to work with a pretty legendary producer, Glyn Johns.
We luckily got thrown in to work together through our management. He produced Ryan Adams, who we share a manager with. It still blows my mind that I know him at all, much less that we did this project together. ... We recorded loose and live. His mode of recording suited our style of playing quite well. It ended up being relatively painless, which is kind of scary. ... He likes to have a lot of spontaneity in the process. So there were a lot of core bones of songs that had been fleshed out, but once he got in there, he wanted to tweak them, or he would take something that we weren't crazy about and just see what would happen with it.
Mirage Rock does have moments — and I was wondering how much Johns had to do with this — where the harmonies and guitars line up in such a way that the music has a bit of a '70s classic-rock feel.
We definitely brought stuff to Glyn that we kind of thought was in his wheelhouse, and sure enough, he did a lot of those. Obviously, there's a style that Glyn likes. There was a little bit of pandering on our end to that, but also a lot of stuff we were excited about that maybe he didn't get as much at first. We definitely did want to play to his strengths — guitar, bass, drums and vocals — which does give it that feel.
Which songs are the most fun for you to play?
The covers or anything I didn't write or don't have to sing on. Like playing one of Tyler or Ryan's [Band of Horses bandmates] songs, because I can kind of watch the show go down, in a way, and not have a hamster running full speed in my head.
So are you fully engaged and present the entire time that you play or do you ever lose yourself in it?
You know, I guess sometimes I really can lose myself in it and the vibe of it and can be overwhelmed by a really giving crowd, one that really throws the energy at you. I can get just kicked in the stomach by it — I just got chills thinking about it. Most of the time, though, I'm like, What are the words? What are the chords? I don't play the guitar and sing together naturally. It came very late for me, so it's a multitasking meltdown just waiting to happen. You never know when those things are gonna hit: the transcendent moments or the "Oh, Jesus, what is this song?"
I'm excited to see you play with My Morning Jacket. What do you think the dynamic will be?
We've only done one show with them at Madison Square Garden, maybe a year ago or so. It was really cool because I've always been a huge fan of that band and have seen them without playing with them for many years. So to actually get to bond with them on the same stage, and travel with them now, is extremely exciting. I think the dynamic's gonna be fantastic. They're really easygoing dudes, so that's gonna be really fun. And then the dynamic of the show is, like, showing what a half-assed My Morning Jacket cover band sounds like, and then you get the real thing.