The video for Band of Horses' "Funeral" features scratchy, black-and-white footage of a lonely old man drinking himself to death in a smoky bar. His only friends are the bottom of his mug, a jukebox, and memories of a dead dog.
The stark imagery fits the morose song as well as the Seattle band's talented, mangy-bearded frontman, Ben Bridwell. Released last year, Everything All the Time -- Band of Horses' debut -- continues to blow away new listeners. It's the type of carefully crafted work that crosses vast expanses and fills lonely hollows -- part arena-rock glory, part plaintive, lonely-man yelp.
Founded in 2004 by Bridwell and former bandmate Mat Brooke, Band of Horses enjoyed a stunning rise to popularity. The band signed to Sub Pop, toured with country-tinged acts like Iron & Wine and Okkervil River, earned glowing reviews in big-time pubs, and landed a gig on Letterman.
But just as the band picked up momentum, it lost a horse. Brooke, who contributed to much of the instrumentation and songwriting, pushed away, leaving Bridwell to reconfigure the band at the height of its burgeoning popularity.
"When [Carissa's Wierd, Bridwell's previous band] ended, that really felt like it had run its course," says Bridwell, backstage after a show in Chicago. "Mat leaving didn't feel that way at all, and I'll just leave it at that."
Bridwell got his start working as a drummer and utility man for Carissa's Wierd. The outfit garnered critical acclaim and a strong regional following, but little else.
"We did good within our means," notes Bridwell. "In Seattle, we were known -- but everywhere else, it was like we'd get up on tour forever, playing in front of, like, 15 people. After doing that for 10 years, it really felt like it was time to be done."
Around the same time, Bridwell helmed Brown Records, a self-described "hobby label" that released albums by Carissa's Wierd and worked with Iron & Wine. In interviews, Sub Pop execs credited Bridwell with passing along demos from Iron & Wine's Sam Beam and asking them to do what they could for him.
With such sensibilities, you'd think an A&R position would have been a natural next step for Bridwell, but he wanted no part.
"I'm too lazy for that kind of job," he confesses. "And for people to put their trust in me to do a good job -- to make sure their career is on track -- that's just too much for me. I just put out bands, hoping that some other label would pick up the CD, and it would get out there and into the right hands somehow."
After closing shop and wrapping up work with Carissa's Wierd, Bridwell started focusing on songwriting and picking up the guitar. With friends like Beam, Band of Horses quickly found an audience and a full slate of tour dates. On the strength of its live performances and some serious online buzz, the deal with Sub Pop materialized, and bigger opportunities came swiftly. Unfortunately, so did Brooke's exit, which posed some challenges for Bridwell and his mates.
"Mat leaving has definitely been difficult," he reveals. "The toughest thing after losing him is retooling the sound to make it sound like it's supposed to. At the same time, we've been trying some different lineups, and we're bouncing back, so it's all good. The lineup we're using now makes it fun again, and it hasn't been fun for a little while. We're doing some wankier stuff, more solos."
This evening's Chicago performance provided a perfect example. After wowing the crowd with reverb-drenched versions of "The Great Salt Lake" and "Weed Song," Bridwell and crew stomped out a trucker-friendly version of David Allan Coe's "You Never Even Call Me by My Name." The hipsters were perplexed, but rolled with it.
Band of Horses' new energy has paid dividends in recording sessions as well. For The OC, the group recorded a cover of the New Year's "The End's Not Near" with producer Phil Ek, whose work with the Shins and Built to Spill is matched by the work he did for BoH on Everything All the Time.
"[Ek is] such a hardass," Bridwell points out. "I go up to the microphone, and I know he's going to let me do this for like an hour and a half before he's like, 'Yeah, just making sure you're into it -- that you're getting warmed up.' And that's when I just fucking explode.
"This one, he was just, 'You sound great' the first take. 'Do it a couple more times, and I'm sure we'll have some takes we can use.' It seemed really easy. That was also our first recording session not having Mat around."
Band of Horses' next album, Cease to Begin, is slated for release in October. For it, Bridwell searched his roots for inspiration. He took his bandmates back to his home state of South Carolina to do some recording. Although he visits frequently, he hasn't lived in the state for over 10 years.
"Seattle in the summertime is so wonderful and beautiful," he says. "The coast of Carolina does that in the fall as well, and even the winter is easy to deal with. We've got a house, and the entire downstairs is built for practicing. There's no neighbors. It's at the end of a dirt road."
With the latest lineup solidified, Bridwell sounds optimistic, as if he's damn glad not to be like the guy in the video, wasting away into adulthood.
"The best is being able to do this right now without having to have any other kind of job -- to be what we are right now, which is adult babies playing with guitars all day and not really worrying about too much else.
"Even if it all went away tomorrow, if we can just ride this out for a couple more years -- let us keep doing this, pretending that we're children -- that'd be fine."
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