Awe, Nostalgia

Band of Horses’ frontman talks growth, dealing drugs and puking waffles in Tucson

Born and brought up in Irmo, South Carolina, Ben Bridwell, singer and guitarist with Southern-ish rock 'n' rollers Band of Horses, left home at age of 16 to live with his mother in Tucson. He would spend three formative years in the Moldy Pueblo—learning, living, and getting into worlds of trouble.

"My sister was moving house last week and I found pictures from the first trip that I took to Tucson, in her garbage," Bridwell says. "I didn't realize what I looked like at that moment, being 16 years old. How little and innocent I was. But I look back on it very fondly because if I hadn't have made that move, I probably never would have stumbled into this thing and never would have had four kids. Never would have had the joy of learning that I like to sing. That entire process of getting out there was maybe the most defining moment of my life."

Ask Bridwell what memories leap out first when he thinks of Tucson, and his answers reveal a teen who wasn't exactly working a successful paper route.

"Selling heroin, and eating too much Waffle House," he says. "Throwing up fucking pancake batter from being too high. Fucking outrunning trains with my car while delivering pizzas on mushrooms. I got the cops called on me and they drew their shotguns when I shut down the frat-bar's power every night. Too many fucking memories—it's kind of hard to hang my hat on one."

In '97, Bridwell moved on to Olympia, Washington, and then Seattle soon afterwards, and it is in the rainy city that he formed Band of Horses, which, on the exterior, has changed a lot, from album to album.

"We've evolved in many different ways as human beings too," Bridwell says. "It's hard to list all the ways that we've grown up. We seem to be steadily more surrounded, at least in my house, by female children. Everything has to adapt—not having the luxury of time like I used to have. It's nice I guess. You're always bending your will, or it's being bent, to a deeper reality of your time and your priorities and things like that. I think as we've gone on, we've hopefully become more empathetic to others' needs. And not just me, me, me all the time to get some stupid song right."

The band went through numerous early lineup changes, as well as relocation to Charleston, back in Bridwell's South Carolina. But while the group has naturally evolved, the band hasn't remained the same. In fact, a few weeks ago longtime guitarist Tyler Ramsay and bassist Bill Reynolds suddenly quit the band. Ramsay said he'll "miss the beautifully dysfunctional family we became."

This tour, which kicked off this week in Florida, is still going ahead, but there has been no word from the band about who will be playing guitar and bass as we go to press, despite a multitude of requests for the information from fans on social media.

What we do know is that Band of Horses released its fifth studio album, Why Are You OK, in June of last year, a winning record that they continue to promote as we head towards the middle of 2017. While, in Bridwell's words, the album "didn't light the world on fire," he was happy that nobody seemed to hate it. Meanwhile, thoughts have turned to the next record.

"You're finally done with some fucking thing that's occupied you for so long and you're ready to go on to the next thing," Bridwell says. "But for me, at least with this one, I went straight on to the next thing and it's been fun. I guess there's been some good creative steam behind that one being successful in its own way, and no one really hating it has propelled me to go into the next one with even more fervor."

While the last album has been out for nearly a year now, the songs off of it still feel fresh to Bridwell and, when the band hits Tucson on May 23, they'll still be itching to get on stage and play a bunch of them. There are, in fact, songs from that record they've not played live, something that Bridwell wants to rectify. The frontman says the band will be playing, "Loud, melancholy songs with some fucking complaining involved," in the city that he loves returning to.

"It's always a pleasure to get back there, not only for the nostalgia of having lived there, but Tucson is just weird and cool," Bridwell says. "It's nice to be able to be in that part of our cycle where we can actually go to the places that are fun and cool, and not just populated. We've played the Rialto a few years ago and really enjoyed being back."

This is, after all, where Bridwell cut his musical teeth, hanging out at Bentley's House of Coffee & Tea, and discovering a whole new world of punks, goths, and other assorted outcasts and reprobates.

"That was the epicenter of some of the coolest bands that existed at that time," Bridwell says. "The Weird Lovemakers, and a couple of others. This was the early to mid-1990s. That was what I remember most, hanging out with these pseudo neo-goths. A lot of punk kids, with Tucson having the crust-punk element. I remember some great fucking bands and some really exciting culture. Some great hardcore shows, and always a ton of great punk shows going on. Coming from South Carolina, I had never seen anything like it. A bunch of homeless kids and goths on amphetamines. We did not have that in South Carolina."

That said, in his new home of Charleston, Bridwell says that there finally some cool noises happening, with local kids taking the bull by the horns and getting creative with what they have around them. That is, after all, how great scenes are born.

"There are some kids here who I've found are doing something really nice: recording great fucking albums in a storage shed with just a ProTools rig and a computer," Bridwell says. "No fancy equipment. Just a garbage-ass storage shed that people are making great records out of. I find that to be very inspiring. Charleston has never been too influential with bands coming out of there, but I feel like we're actually turning the corner on that."

When the Band of Horses leaves Tucson, and then the rest of this run of shows is done, Bridwell isn't sure what the rest of this year will have in store for him. He says the band might break up, that they might kill themselves, or that he might run for office. Then he gets slightly more serious. But only slightly.

"We'll probably make another record before too long," he says. "Probably in one of those garbage storage sheds down here in Charleston."