Band of Horses Are Riding High

Band of Horses are feeling more than OK

Nina Westervelt

Ben Bridwell (center) and the other members of Band of Horses before a show at the Newport Folk Festival.

Ben Bridwell is buzzing this afternoon in New York City. The Band of Horses frontman and South Carolina native is in the midst of rehearsals at a
 Manhattan studio for an upcoming tour in support of the band’s mesmerizing new album, Why Are You OK, and the excitement in his voice is palpable. The night before, his exuberance was on full display during an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as the band ripped through two of the album’s best tracks: “Casual Party,” with its explosive rock swirl, and the steady, mellow pulse of “In a Drawer.” “On this record I felt free again,” Bridwell says. “Joy isn’t so hard to find when you’re lucky as balls.”

A couple of years ago Bridwell wasn’t feeling nearly as cheerful. The band had gone through several lineup changes before peaking with the 2010 Grammy-nominated album Infinite Arms. But they switched gears with 2012’s Mirage Rock, a decent but misguided attempt that traded the band’s strength of ethereal indie-laced country rock for a full-blown sludgy rock album. They didn’t pull it off, and Bridwell knew it. “I can get led by the nose by anybody,” he says. “I’ll appeal to anyone’s sound palette, but I didn’t trust myself to have a difficult conversation about fixing it.”

That trust continued to elude Bridwell as he suffered through a lengthy spell of writer’s block. In the past he would retreat to a cabin in the mountains of Western North Carolina by himself to work, but for Why Are You OK he used the garage of his house in Charleston. It was mostly out of necessity, as he has four young daughters, including an infant and a toddler.

The days blurred together: up at six, kids to school by nine, work until one, grab a nap before the kids come home at three. Once they were in bed, Bridwell would hunker down in the garage, sometimes writing all night. Finally, he broke through with OK’s opener, “Dull Times/The Moon,” an epic two-part song that starts as a wandering,eerie lament and then kicks into a fierce rager. “That song was about writer’s constipation,” he says, laughing. “But it brought the light into the moon, and once I was honest with myself, it snowballed.”

Bridwell has one of music’s most recognizable voices, a piercing tenor that he can unleash, as on the twinkle-to-a-roar chug of “Solemn Oath,” or soften to a whisper, as on the string-soaked, majestic “Hag.”

On OK, he found a kinship with producer Jason Lytle, the lead singer of cult favorites Grandaddy, a band that shares Band of Horses’ sweeping, cinematic sound. During recording, Bridwell and his group first set up in the sunny climes of Stinson Beach, California, before moving to the harsh winter weather of Woodstock, New York, where an open pasture sat next to the studio. Lytle—an avid skier—would lay down cross-country tracks for them to try each morning before beginning work. “I’ve seen NordicTrack on TV, but to move on real skis is wild,” Bridwell says. “But it helped us focus, and after the light of California, I needed some darkness. I love that balance.”

A search for equilibrium also prompted Bridwell’s decision to move back to South Carolina in 2007 to raise his family—he was born in Irmo but left when he was sixteen—after several years in the dark dampness of Seattle. And it was amid the daily routines of family life that the album’s name came into
 being. After snatching her mom’s phone, his five-year-old managed to fire off an e-mail to her older sister’s teacher that through the magic of autocorrect read, “Why are you ok.”

“It’s chaos,” Bridwell says. “We’re playing zone defense, four against two, and she grabbed the phone. I thought it was the perfect album title, one that rolled off the tongue.”

Band of Horses will continue to tour heavily this year. “I’ve got four mouths to feed,” Bridwell says, laughing. But he’s already looking forward to coming back home, a place that means the world to him and where the ideas germinated for the band’s best album to date. “It inspires me like no other place,” he says. “You can feel it: College football is coming back, the smell of cut grass, sweating when you’re sitting down. I’ve never felt that anywhere else.”