Better Late Than Never

Former Tucsonan Ben Bridwell will never have to make pizzas again

A little more than a decade ago, I was managing a local record store. A couple of doors down in the same strip mall was a pizza joint. I quickly befriended three of its employees, a trio of tight-knit friends with musical tastes similar to mine. They'd come into my store; I'd buy slices from them. We'd take smoke breaks together. Their names were Ben Bridwell, Mat Brooke and Jenn Ghetto.

In 1997, the three decided to move to Olympia, Wash., together, though they would relocate to Seattle soon after. The week of their move, I had gotten an advance copy of the upcoming Modest Mouse CD, 1997's The Lonesome Crowded West, so as a parting gift, I gave them a cassette copy (remember cassettes?) to listen to on their drive.

Several months later, Brooke came back to visit, told me how he'd lucked into a gig running a coffee shop and regaled me with stories about musicians he'd become friends with. His apartment was across the hall from Kathleen Hanna's, and Hanna and her boyfriend, the Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz, would come over to share bong hits.

One day, he had his door cracked for circulation, and someone knocked on it. He looked up to find Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock asking if he could use Brooke's phone. The two ended up pals, with Brock bringing Brooke into the studio as a trusted set of ears while Modest Mouse recorded their next record. Meanwhile, Brooke and Ghetto had continued writing songs together, something they'd done since they were teenagers--and something that in all of our conversations together, they had never mentioned to me.

Brooke and Ghetto started a band, Carissa's Wierd (sic), whose fragile, melancholic, quiet pop songs engendered a rabid fan base in the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile, Bridwell started a label, Brown Records, and he would later join the group as a drummer/utility player. All three were also logging hours working together at a bar to pay the bills.

Sub Pop General Manager Megan Jasper provides a bit of background info: "Chris (Takino, who ran Up Records before he was stricken with fatal leukemia) got to know Mat when Mat moved up, and he really, really liked Mat. And he said to me, 'You would love the music that this kid makes.' And this was when Carissa's Wierd weren't playing many shows. ... So I just started to try to catch shows whenever I was able to--and Chris was always right about that stuff. He always knew what people would be into. And I loved what they were doing, and there were other people at Sub Pop who were also fans. And we wanted to try to work with those guys, but we didn't want to step on Ben Bridwell, because that would just be bogus.

"And at the same time ... Ben contacted us, because he had an artist that he really wanted to release a record for, but he didn't think his label could do it, because his label didn't have proper distribution. So he came to us to talk about helping with distribution, and it turned out that the record he was talking about was Sam Beam--Iron and Wine. ... It was so sweet, and it was through Ben that we ended up working with Sam."

Eventually, the combination of running a label, playing in a band and working a regular job took a toll on Bridwell, and he gave up Brown Records. Though the decision left Carissa's Wierd without a home, there was no lack of interest. Sub Pop released a 7-inch single as part of its Singles Club, but the band settled on releasing their next full-length album on a friend's label, Sad Robot. It would be their last; Carissa's Wierd broke up amicably in 2003.

Ghetto continued to release solo records under the moniker S, which she had done as a side project; Brooke took some time to decompress; and for the first time, Bridwell began learning how to play guitar and writing his own songs. He brought Brooke into the fold, and they adopted the name Band of Horses.

Although they had played very few hometown gigs, Bridwell's old friend Sam Beam liked what he heard enough to invite them to serve as the opening act on a tour with him. "They ended up doing an entire U.S. tour with Iron and Wine," says Jasper, "and that's where a lot of people first saw them."

After signing with Sub Pop, the label released Band of Horses' debut album, Everything All the Time, on March 21.

Despite his late start, Bridwell reveals himself on the album to be a natural frontman. His reedy, reverb-treated vocals recall Doug Martsch (Built to Spill), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Wayne Coyne (The Flaming Lips), and are placed firmly at the front of the mix--though it's often difficult to make out the lyrics. The music merges a modern indie-rock feel with an organic, country-informed vibe, and there are accoutrements such as banjo and pedal steel in the arrangements.

The finest song on the album, "The Funeral," is an instant classic. It starts with just a delicately picked guitar and Bridwell singing the cryptic opening lines, "I'm coming up only / to hold you under," but at the 1:20 mark, the song expands and explodes, the gorgeous melody remaining while notes become strummed chords; the drums start to pound, and the bass anchors it all. Then, the chorus: "At every occasion, I'll be ready for the funeral."

Everything All the Time is one of those albums that sounds comfortingly familiar the first time you hear it, and only gets better with repeated listens. There's a palpable sadness and sense of longing in the songs and in Bridwell's voice, but it all somehow manages to sound uplifting at the same time.

Jasper agrees, and says the band's live performances emphasize the positive element of that equation even more than the album does. Although Brooke isn't performing with the group on their current tour (he recently opened a bar in Seattle), she says that Bridwell's stage presence more than makes up for it.

"The thing about Band of Horses is that when they're having a good show, Ben is up front smiling; they're having a great time together, and they're so charming and so psyched to be doing what they're doing."