“To get to belt out songs every night is the most euphoric experience, and I can’t believe I didn’t try it earlier.”
– Ben Bridwell
Pre-show sound check is not the most exciting part of a band’s day. On the thrill-o-meter, it scores just above the repetitive grind of recording a new album. Pit stops at Taco Bell on the interstate can be more fun.
Yet Band Of Horses do not sleepwalk through this task. Warming up for the first of two sold-out gigs at the Showbox in Seattle, they play portions of their second Sub Pop album, Cease To Begin, with vigor. If ceaseless touring has taken any toll, evidence is scant. Laying into “Detlef Schrempf” — a number named for the former Seattle Sonics and University of Washington basketball star — singer Ben Bridwell hovers between dimensions, sounding both eerily spectral and anchored to terra firma by his convictions, even as he leaps into his piercing upper register.
As the band works its way through the new record’s closing cut, “Window Blues”, the interplay between all six players is increasingly obvious. This is one of the quieter numbers in the Band Of Horses catalogue, and everyone — Bridwell, drummer Creighton Barrett, bassist Rob Hampton, keyboardist Ryan Monroe, and guitarists Tyler Ramsey and Bill Reynolds — is keenly attuned to how their contributions, however discrete, propel the song’s gentle circling, with a near-motionless Bridwell as backwoods shaman at the focal point.
“Sound check is never easy,” Barrett admits later. “You have a different room, with a different sound, every time.” Tonight, the pressure is almost palpable. The band runs through assorted variations, and experiments with a few things, as minutes tick away. Bridwell seems amiable but antsy, a suspicion he confirms when the sextet finally winds down in the venue’s dressing room.
“Because we play Seattle so much, we’re trying to throw in stuff that we don’t really perform,” he explains. “It’s stressful.” They were here just five months ago at the same venue, packed to capacity.
Bridwell lifts his baseball cap and ruffles his hair. “We have to have new songs…even though we only have two albums’ worth of material to draw from. So even if there are a couple songs that I don’t particularly care to play live, we at least have to try them every once in a while.”
Despite having just those two albums, Band Of Horses has seen its music find its way into movie trailers, the umpteenth mix CD for prime-time soap “The OC”, and a controversial Wal-Mart ad. In particular, listeners glommed on to “The Funeral”, a hypnotic soft-loud-soft number in which Bridwell’s measured delivery increasingly intensifies, until his larynx practically pops out of his throat. The band’s first album, 2006′s Everything All The Time, was nominated for the Shortlist Prize. They even wound up in the notorious Rolling Stone Hot Issue — not bad for a gaggle of guys with some of the most unkempt facial hair this side of ZZ Top.
Band Of Horses lists Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, as its hometown on their MySpace page. But the group as a whole, and Bridwell in particular, is deeply indebted to Seattle. The smaller clubs and bars of the Emerald City were the launch pad for their eventual international rise. Some locals still harbor unresolved feelings about the sudden departure of founding member Mat Brooke and the group’s subsequent cross-country relocation.
But far more Seattle denizens — the ones lined up outside hours before show time on a cold Monday night in November — simply respond to the same thing the rest of the world did: the music. They dig Bridwell’s reverb-drenched, high-pitched vocals, the band’s quirky guitar tunings intertwined with powerful melodic hooks, and that mix of intimacy and vast panoramas which is particular to music of the Pacific Northwest.
Cease To Begin does not sound like an album born amid upheaval and change. But in addition to the group’s sudden success, there were several twists in the Band Of Horses story that influenced its final outcome. And they came in quick succession.
Originally known simply as Horses, the group formed in 2004. Although its ranks would swell and diminish at various intervals, Bridwell and Mat Brooke were at the core. They played to awed but near-empty houses around town before Sam Beam of Iron & Wine tapped them for a couple of support slots. A deal with Sub Pop soon followed, leading to the release of Everything All The Time in March 2006.
Fast forward to July of that year. Brooke, who had not been touring with the group, was missing for an appearance on David Letterman’s late-night TV show. In an official statement regarding the matter, the band later claimed: “Mat was originally in the band to help with songwriting, and that due to his other projects taking off, he is no longer in the band.” (Brooke’s new band, Grand Archives, made their public debut a few months later; their self-titled Sub Pop debut will be issued in February 2008.)
It was the end of a decade-long affiliation. Bridwell had originally moved to the Pacific Northwest in the mid-’90s, where, along with Brooke and singer/guitarist Jen Ghetto, he was a member of quiet cult favorites Carissa’s Wierd. Bridwell speaks fondly when asked to explain the lasting influence of that group, which nurtured not only Band Of Horses and Grand Archives, but also drummer-turned-songwriter Sera Cahoone (recently signed to Sub Pop, too).
“Mat and Jen influenced the hell out of me, and inspired me to want to do this in the first place,” Bridwell says. “I really looked up to their songwriting — and still do.” The group’s hushed dynamics dumbfounded sound engineers but inspired fierce loyalty in their fans. The numbers never got big enough to turn a sizable profit: “We paid out of our pockets to be in that band,” Bridwell says. What they didn’t earn in dollars, Bridwell reaped in a sense of purpose.
After Carissa’s Wierd splintered in 2003, Bridwell decided to try his own hand at writing. “It was worth it to give it another shot,” he says. “And if it doesn’t work, at least you tried. That was definitely the jump-off point for us.”