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“Why are you ok”
The question was asked by one of Ben Bridwell’s daughters, on a machine that was not hers, using four-year-old fingers to reply to an alert in a language she couldn’t read, much less write. In fact, the message could have very well been a declaration, not a query. Either way, it was definitely a cliffhanger. The daughter mashing random keys on her mother’s phone, was and is Bridwell’s second child of four, bringing the grand total of females in his house to five (six if you count the nanny). Six women. In your damn house. It’s enough to turn a child’s nonsense words into an existential probe… or to make you move into your garage and carve out a nice, warm place to write a record.
Why are you OK? Why, are you OK? Why are you, OK? Why are you. OK?
Leader of Band of Horses since 2004, Bridwell recently learned that the path to creative epiphany can start with staying home, looking inside, and letting childlike wonder flourish. After years of searching for inspiration outside—rocky shores, dense woods, desert plains—he has uncovered a new conduit by growing roots: being a husband and a father, and channeling the resulting sense of exploration, uncertainty, fear, love, and courage into his music. In the process, he has brought his true inner self to the outside, and found additional guidance from a new producer, an old mentor, and his beloved bandmates, resulting in the fifth full-length Band of Horses album, Why Are You OK.
After Band of Horses’ 2006 debut Everything All the Time, Bridwell would escape to various isolated retreats to write the subsequent three albums—most often alone. Having indulged his transient tendencies since his teens, Band of Horses also recorded in numerous studios across the country, taking themselves in and out of comfort zones while working with producers from Phil Ek to the legendary Glyn Johns. Bridwell would thrive on change: welcoming now permanent band members in the process (Creighton Barrett on drums, Bill Reynolds on bass, Tyler Ramsey on guitar, and Ryan Monroe on keyboards). Why Are You OK marks the third album with the current Band of Horses lineup (including 2010’s Infinite Arms and 2012’s Mirage Rock), and was recorded and funded by the band before signing to Interscope Records—their third label home. But this time, Bridwell did not travel to a remote location to write the bulk of the songs and instead holed up in his Charleston, South Carolina-area home to work in his converted garage-studio, writing in the odd, quiet hours when his children were at school or asleep.
“In the past I would always run away from life to go and train my mind on creativity, but I didn’t find that was actually working anymore,” Bridwell says. “I felt like I was more paranoid, kinda stuck in a rut being alone too much. There was a balance that being around a million females at home brought to it. That was a cool thing—to realize I don’t have to run away from writing.”
Writing Why Are You OK was Bridwell’s chance to cleanse himself of doubts, balancing this new confidence in his work with an ever-present humility. “I’m always writing, and for people like me it’s hard,” he says. “You have to work three times as long and more embarrassingly. I work every second I can; I don’t stop. For the first time I just stayed home and did it. I had to work within a certain time frame. Once all the girls are asleep I can finally go for it, and then I’m the morning guy, up by 6:30 to get them to school, so sometimes I would not sleep at all before taking them.”
Post-writing, Bridwell and the band rented an old house in the tiny North Carolina town of Bat Cave (really), played all kinds of songs together, old and (gradually) new. At the height of these relaxed good vibes, they realized it was time to start tracking a new album. Free of demands and deadlines of a record deal, they worked at their own pace and for no one but themselves. Seeking a producer who shared their sense of vibe, humor, and joy, Bridwell reached out to Jason Lytle of Grandaddy, indie stalwart and longtime BoH champion.
Despite Lytle's meager experience producing music other than his own, Bridwell knew it was the move they needed. A huge Grandaddy fan who forms intense bonds with producers, Bridwell recalls, “We were taking a risk on indie rock in a way, and just having fun, making songs the way I make them—which is amateurism at its worst, but fun as fuck… We didn’t have anybody bearing down on us like an established taskmaster might. We really got to go slow and get deliberate and take it back to something more ‘us.’”
Bridwell and Lytle clicked immediately on one early 2014 studio scouting trip to Stinson Beach in Northern California, forming a strong bond based as much on mutual admiration as shared tastes in others’ music, humor, and work ethic. They brought the entire band back to Stinson later in the year to work as a unit on recording an album. In the interim, Bridwell and Lytle’s creative rapport bloomed via email, Bridwell's ideas and demo sketches met with replies featuring Lytle’s fleshed out ideas (including instrument parts and stand-in vocal melodies). Bridwell looks back on the pair’s shared wavelength as rare and exciting. “We can smell our own for sure: we’re both a bit grumpy, enjoy a cold beer or twelve, and like to laugh at funny shit. There’s a brotherly connection. We share the same ears.”
“It was fascinating to be put into this position,” Lytle says. “As any music fan can attest, it was like that feeling when you see one of your favorite bands and you kind of see the path that they’re on and you can almost think, “God, this is the record I want them to make.” I got to have some sort of hand in helping direct the direction the record is gonna go.
Band of Horses worked with Lytle in Stinson for most of October 2014, continually inspired by their progress as well as by the incredible weather, surf, and picturesque surroundings. The residential situation provided a habitat for the band, allowing big-picture motifs and album-related philosophical discussions to take shape outside of the actual studio. Like politicians getting the real work done at the bar after Congress lets out for the day, the band was able to achieve an important focus in their off hours and in a more friendly, familial environment.
That sense of relaxed discovery and progress was reestablished at Applehead Recording in Woodstock, New York, in February 2015. “We were nearing the end, and we’d been in Stinson, this amazing church of weather and stars and peace and quiet, and it was like we needed another side of the coin,” Bridwell says. “We thought, ‘Let’s go to Upstate New York, another residential studio, and maybe we’ll get some snow and a shut-in vibe, more of a hunker-down thing.’ The beauty of it was inspiring as hell, especially when you’re from the South; snow is magical.”
Introducing the band to cross-country skiing, Lytle would rise early each morning to “lay the track” for the day’s course outside in the fresh snow. The “tracking” irony was not lost on the band and became a symbol of their bond with their producer.
“I’ve always been a big proponent of balance, and I think there’s definitely a black art to the producer and the things they’re doing that are going to somehow affect the morale,” Lytle says. “I would rather have it be as enjoyable, lighthearted, exciting, and creative as possible. It definitely did get to a point where it was up to me to have the overall focus on the song and attempt to relay that back to Ben, and then we would start honing in on the shapes of the songs. There was a big emphasis on taking it back to the ‘kid in the bedroom’ thing and lots of laughter and lightheartedness and everyone being available to chime in.”
Or, as Bridwell says, “The fact that he was actually laying down tracks on the snow for us to ski in and then going back in the studio and producing our album was not lost on us. It’s fucking hilarious. It’s a very stupid irony that we could not get enough of.”
Lytle gained impressive insight into the way the band works, and was well suited to capture them at their best selves, learning to understand what makes them tick. “Everyone in the band will look to Ben and defer to him, but I think he has done a pretty amazing job of surrounding himself with people he’s comfortable with,” Lytle says. “He knows that he is a collaborator, that he is reliant on people with awesome skills and talents. He’s opened himself up. He has a big responsibility, too, of looking after these guys. He would always have to remind me that it’s just as important to make sure that everyone feels involved and that everyone has a say. That was always a good lesson to relearn in the face of my impatience.”
Another mentor who helped guide Bridwell through the creation of Why Are You OK was Rick Rubin—marking the second time Rubin has played a role in shaping a Band of Horses album (he also helped to bring the band to Columbia Records for 2010’s Infinite Arms).
“Rick came along at the perfect time,” Bridwell says. “We’d amassed a group of songs but were still a bit listless, swinging all over the damn place. Rick took a liking to it, and really helped steer a lot of tepid, mixed emotions on a lot of things. That really reined it in for me, even a couple of songs I wasn’t sure about; he’d say, ‘That’s good, keep going that way’—that helped a lot. It was nice to have somebody pat you on the back and tell you you’re on the right track. He’s saved us twice now.”
For Bridwell, a self-described amateur songwriter and musician, that vote of confidence can be all that is needed to carry a song into the world. Throughout the journey of Why Are You OK, Bridwell learned to trust his process and to extend and share the comfort and joy he finds at home in his little garage. Soul-baring is difficult for many artists, but after a decade fronting one of America’s best-loved rock bands, it might just be getting easier for Bridwell.
“Most times I forget all about clichés when telling a story,” he says. “It rarely crosses my mind. But as a song progresses and I’m reminded that others will hear it, I tend to get cold feet. I definitely wanted to be more alert for those clichés after the last two records were chock full of them. I wanted the album to sound like my junk-ass room at home, where there’s shit everywhere and I can be as weird as I want and paint with my brushes at the pace I require. Because I’m not coming from a place of knowing what chords should go on what, incorporating that into this record was definitely part of the whole thing of wanting to go more inward and inside myself. Because I didn’t go away, physically, I got to use all my gear for once instead of an isolated location where you’re limited by what you can bring with you. I got these demos of textures that I thought we could all apply together as a band, and having Jason there, and the Horses members being great as hell, was a cool and interesting collaboration in itself.”
As a result, Why Are You OK is the sound of a band evolved, of trust and guidance and the inner self realized, and shared. Perhaps the lesson of the album, and of Band of Horses itself, is a story of trust: When you surround yourself with the people you love most, everything will be OK.
“There’s something about this record and us taking more control of how we went about it,” Bridwell says. “I really wanted to know the stories a bit better, I wasn’t under pressure to hurry up. I didn’t want to start getting too clever for fear of exposing myself. I expose myself all over this album. Sometimes you can try to get too clever or write a whole song about absolute drivel because you were afraid to make it into a more real thing. I guess I made an effort to be less of a coward.
“Jason Lytle helped me every step of the way. The band supported me in my quest for different sounding feelings even when it didn’t include them. I’m still so childlike with it, without any real experience to go behind any instruments besides some guitar, so it’s always a real childlike experience. I can’t get too methodical with any of it. I’m so fucking proud and pleased that I’ve been able to have a life in music at all, I don’t discredit any of it.”
Looking after his family, looking after his band, and laying tracks for others to follow, Ben Bridwell has become a true leader and collaborator, carving out a nice, warm place from which to make his mark on all of us.
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