"A ramshackle crew with something to prove." If ever a lyric summed up the spirit of a rock group it's that one from Band of Horses' new album Mirage Rock. Before their recent Olympia show, Harry Guerin caught up with frontman Ben Bridwell to discuss the follow-up to the Grammy-nominated Infinite Arms, working with legendary producer Glyn Johns and the lost art of being thankful for what life has given you.
Harry Guerin: As a fan, there's always a worry when a band puts out a really great album that the follow-up isn't going to be as good. Did you feel any pressure following up Infinite Arms?
Ben Bridwell: Yeah, just like any damn record, really! There's going to be pressure to make some sort of realisation of what you think you have in your mind. As far as like the critical pressure or anything like that, I don't think it was as much. I think it was mostly trying to make sure that you were doing justice to the song - that's what the pressure is. It's not really any of that outside s*** at all.
As the band has developed, do you find you're able to put that outside stuff at even more of a distance?
Yeah, we've just gotten more brave [sic] with it, I guess. It's like, [we're] not afraid to p*** people off about it and afraid to not let them down in a way. You have to challenge yourself and move forward. It'd be easier to work with the formula that's been successful, but I think in spite of all the success we challenge the listener and ourselves [by] doing some questionable genre exercises!
But that's the great thing about Mirage Rock: on a track like Dumpster World you've got this real noisy rock thing and then it goes all mellow again. It's great to hear bands playing around with expectations like that.
A lot of that stuff comes from just... The whole album of Mirage Rock, we're basically just paying tribute to the stuff that we love. And part of that is some random Pavement jazz and some JJ Cale and CSNY s***!
It's an amazing title for an album - who came up with it?
It was my thing. I was trying to think when journalists always ask us what genre are we. I thought it'd be funny to call us mirage rock instead of garage rock - 'Oh, there's no substance!'. It's a bit of p***take, making fun of us.
I think the term will actually take off and people will start using it.
That's great, man! I think I'm going to do a new one, which is Dungeon Rock. It's even more underground than garage rock. Physically underground.
You didn't produce the album yourselves this time around; you called on the services of Glyn Johns, the producer of The Who's classic Who's Next? and The Faces' A Nod Is As Good As a Wink… To a Blind Horse. He doesn't produce that many albums now, so how did he come into the picture?
We knew that we wanted to take a different approach by having a producer do it, just to switch things up after the last one. And so we started throwing names around - wishlist type stuff of producers that we admire. We got lucky that our management brought up Glyn's name because he had produced Ryan Adams last record, the Ashes & Fire record, and we work with the same management company. They brought us his name and we jumped at the opportunity. The fact that he would even consider it was enough to leave us pretty dumbstruck! He gave me a call, came out to a gig of ours and we hit it off. It just became surprisingly easy to imagine working with him, so we did.
Is he this kind of very reserved English gent?
Well, he's very gentlemanly; he can be very proper. But at the same time he can be p*** and vinegar of all his 70 years in the business! He's seen a lot and he's been put through a lot and he's not afraid to speak his mind when he needs to. He's very funny and very sweet.
What was the first day like?
Well, I think he got pretty confused, actually. The first day we started knocking out these rock and roll jams - in a way not trying to impress him but to show him that we can play music live for our record. In a way I was leaning on some kind of material that I thought would please him, even though they might not be my favourite songs out of the batch we were going to choose for the album. I think he was a bit confused what we were actually going for, as were we, because we were trying to kind of show off our chops - 'Oh, these songs aren't actually that important'. [He said] 'What the **** am I wasting my time on?! Don't play me s*** you don't want to put on the record dummies!'
When you played Tripod here in 2010 and RTÉ TEN talked to the other guys in the band - I think you were in bed with jetlag! - what was really noticeable was the warmth between you all. I can really feel it again on this album.
Oh man, it's been a celebration of the members, that Infinite Arms album obviously being the coming out party. 'Ok, this is our defined line-up finally'. And this album is absolutely a continuation of that with the collaborative aspect and just showing everyone's talents off, really.
You can even feel the warmth looking at the photos on the inlay sleeve.
It's funny; I'm reading Rod Stewart's autobiography and I'm right in his time with The Faces, talking about the given that there's always one person in the band that no-one ever likes! But the Faces didn't have that and I feel strongly that we have that same thing. I've designed it as such that luckily we're all brothers and everyone is super-cool.
You've developed a great rapport with Irish audiences.
The gigs that we've had here have just been fantastic for me. I think there's something about the warmth of the people here - I feel the same way actually in Scotland as well. There's a very workmanlike [approach]: 'We going to go out, we're going to have a great night on the town and not sit there and stroke our beards and judge these people'. Which is much like where we come from. That's half the work for us: if people are out to have a good time and throw their energy at you it just makes it so much easier to let loose and freak out, totally transcend albums or promo or any s*** at all. It's just the love of firing notes around a room for people who really enjoy it.
As evidenced by your recent appearance on Later with Jools Holland, where your keyboard player and guitarist Ryan Monroe went over to Jimmy Page in the audience to get a pat on the head.
What the ****?! Everybody else in the room is terrified in the room to be holding a guitar or being even near a guitar and Ryan... He's fearless man! He just runs over there and pays tribute to one of the greatest guitarist ever in rock 'n' roll. What a great move!
In terms of heroes who have you met in the last few years that you were blown away by?
Oh my God, this is like the luckiest part of our job. We've been able to meet some great people and huge heroes. I met Springsteen and Willie Nelson and Neil Young. I interviewed JJ Cale for Filter magazine. There have been so many of them - we met Ronnie Wood at the first Jools Holland appearance we did and Jack Bruce. To meet people like that, it's mind-blowing.
You don't take any of this for granted.
Oh hell no! I shouldn't be doing this, man. I should be washing dishes in some cafe with my middle school education and really not writing songs until my later twenties. It's just dumbfounding that this would happen at all. You get to travel the world at all and to do it with the people you love and support a family, man? I could not be more lucky.
It's great to hear a contented man in this life because there are so many complainers.
It's because the internet exists! I think the most negative people are the loudest. Positivity, you have to really put your ear to the ground to hear it. Hopefully that's also cyclical and we'll get back to some positive aspect of human life at some point again.
You're doing your bit on record.
Thanks man! I'm certainly trying my best.
Your best is very, very good.
Mirage Rock is out now on Columbia.