Band of Horses Embrace Life’s Contrasts on the New Album Things Are Great

Catching up with frontman Ben Bridwell about the band’s chart-topping single, its first album in more than five years, and the draw of the Lowcountry

Photo: Stevie and Sarah Gee

Band of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell.

It’s safe to say fans were excited about the first new music from Band of Horses since 2016. “Crutch,” the debut single from group’s forthcoming album, Things Are Great, topped Billboard’s Adult Alternative charts last month, marking the first number-one single in the band’s nearly two-decade career. Unfortunately, eager listeners will have to wait a little longer for the full record: The album release was delayed from January 21 to March 4 due to supply chain issues with the vinyl inventory. That kind of delay is just the latest in a long line of pandemic-related obstacles to disrupt the lives and livelihoods of musicians. But today, at least for the moment, frontman Ben Bridwell is battling a decidedly cuddlier adversary. 

Baby, please don’t eat the damn pillow,” he says, pausing during a phone interview from his home in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, to address his Great Pyrenees-German shepherd mix, Lucille. Bridwell adopted her as a puppy shortly after the wave of tour cancellations hit in 2020. “This dog walked and cuddled me through some really tough times I was going through, but she’s a pain in my ass at the same time,” he says with a laugh. “The contrasts in this life…I’m definitely feeling them.”

Contrast—the “salt with the sugar,” as Bridwell says—appears throughout Things Are Great, which blends plenty of the band’s jangly guitar and catchy beats with lyrics that address hard times and heavy feelings, as in “Crutch” (“I’ve got a crutch on you”). Produced by Wolfgang Zimmerman (affectionately known as “Wolfie” to Bridwell and the slate of Charleston musicians he’s worked with), the album also includes a reshuffled lineup: Longtime members Bridwell, Creighton Barrett, and Ryan Monroe are now joined by bassist Matt Gentling and guitarist Ian MacDougall. G&G caught up with Bridwell about the new music, life in the Lowcountry, and why Things Are Great is his most vulnerable work yet.

You founded Band of Horses in 2004. How did it feel for the band to nab its first number one, especially with such a vulnerable song as “Crutch”?

As far as the single going number one, that was a surprise. It still is. As indie rock kids, you don’t think you’ll get on the radio at all, unless it’s maybe a locals-only show. [Laughs] I’m proud of us, and I’m really proud of all the people that have helped to make it happen. We have a new management team, a new label, and even some new members, so I can’t help but be proud for them. My brother and my dad are the ones that got me into music, so I was proud for them, and for my kids, too. At least my kids will know: “Daddy went number one—one time. It only took him about twenty years.” [Laughs]

On “Crutch,” I was telling a story that came from an actual experience. I am telling the truth. It kind of worried me, actually. There’s some tough subject matter on this record. It’s almost painfully autobiographical. But I thought it was important to evolve in that way, to not lean so much on metaphors.

You definitely delve into some heavy topics, including panic attacks and the complexities of a long-term relationship coming to an end. But those themes can appear in contrast to some of the more buoyant melodies. Is there a message in that duality?

I think Wolfie helped me to not be afraid of speaking the way I speak and telling the story the way I see it, even if I’m also contrasted a bit with another person’s perspective. I try to find a balance always in that—you do want some sweet with your salt. If it’s a slow song, I want something uplifting. If it’s very up-tempo, I’m not afraid to throw some shadow on it. That’s a balance I’ve constantly sought out, to better and worse degrees. I think this local community helped me get some confidence to not be so afraid.

You’ve collaborated with a whole slate of up-and-coming Lowcountry talent. What has the Charleston music community meant to you? 

When Creighton [Barrett, drummer] and I were here in the ’90s, there wasn’t really a whole lot going on. I’d play in someone’s garage or at a skate park. But in 2007, when we both moved back here, things were starting to kick up—or maybe we were just paying more attention. A few years later, when I heard the first SUSTO record, I really felt like things were changing drastically. I actually reached out to Justin [Osborne, SUSTO lead singer], and we became friends. We got to take them on tour. I also got on with Wolfie fantastically. Immediately, I wanted some of that sauce, some of that youthful energy. [Laughs] Now, there are these kids who are about ten years younger than us that I call great friends and admire so much. I want to not just help them as much as we can, but I want them to help me, too. I want us to all collaborate and have fun.

That’s the thing about Charleston. When I met those dudes, what struck me the most was just how much camaraderie there was between all these bands. It wasn’t like living in Seattle, where everyone was so competitive. Everyone here was such a community of people that really lifted each other up. They haven’t changed one damn bit, either. Everyone’s still helping one another.

It sounds like those relationships, especially with Zimmerman, allowed you to open up on Things Are Great in a way you really hadn’t before. Is there something you hope listeners take away from this album and apply to their own situations? 

God, that’s all I want—for it to feel like it’s the listener’s story and not mine. I mean, I don’t want people to feel like their story is as sad as mine. But you want them to feel like it’s their feelings that you’re feeling and focus less on the artist. That’s not out of sheer embarrassment—that’s what I think any person working in the arts wants. I just hope they find their place in these stories. It’s everything to me. 

You’re originally from Irmo, South Carolina, and you’ve chosen Charleston as your home. What about this state and the South, generally, do you wish more people knew?

I don’t know that people understand just how kind people are here. And it’s not just some Southern “Bless your heart” thing, the one that’s a knife in your back after you compliment somebody. There’s a genuine hospitality and sweetness about the Lowcountry, especially. I find there are so many people from different walks of life that get along quite well—you can go to any dang bar or any place where people are gathering and really get along. There’s such a sweetness and a magic down here. It’s hard to put into words. It pains me to leave it most times, but it’s always great to come back. I look around every day and want to be exactly where I am.