The notion of fatherhood as destructive to a man’s creativity is bullshit. It’s an old mentality for sure, the idea that when you have kids your life is over. Sure, your priorities change, the stakes get a little higher, but with some tactful maneuvering, being a dad doesn’t have to mean putting your guitar down for good. That dad who went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back was and always will be an asshole, and the new fathers have gottta know that if they feed off the loving energy and the challenges that parenting throws out at you, the challenges of making it as a successful artist suddenly seem manageable.
That was Ben Bridwell’s big epiphany over the last few years. The Band of Horses frontman became a father in 2008, and has since gotten married, moved back home to South Carolina, had three more kids and somehow managed to pull Band of Horses back from the annals of “corporate rock” (his words) to make Why Are You OK, their strongest record in ages. They bring that record through Central Park this Thursday when they play SummerStage.
Bridwell was free of major-label control this time around, a previously unfortunate fate that slowly corrupted the widescreen Americana of those early albums and left Bridwell feeling that maybe two releases on Columbia was enough. It also helped that Jason Lytle, frontman of the band Grandaddy, was on the decks as producer, a group that merged slacker rock with spacey sounds and released the greatest ode to Y2K culture ever recorded (The Sophtware Slump) in 2000, years before The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots co-opted its sound.
“I don’t mind over-dramatizing, but over-romanticizing I would try to steer away from.”
Grandaddy’s reuniting this year, and Lytle’s production gives us more than enough reason to be excited about what they’ve got cooking. But it also breathes new life into Bridwell’s songs, with arrangements that take time to unfold as progressive, stargazing Americana and even a sampled audio interview where Robert Altman defends the critical backlash of his live-action Popeye film.
Never has lying on grandpa’s bearskin rug or staying in a guesthouse sounded so groovy or high-vibe. But that’s Bridwell’s reality right now, and listening to Why Are You OK gives you the sense that he finds just as much wonder, adventure and wisdom in the challenges of adulthood as he did when he was a youthful roustabout. Quiet moments bring self-awareness, a far cry from the cockiness of arena rock Band of Horses seemed destined for, and we’re all better for it.
The Observer chatted with Bridwell ahead of BOH’s Central Park about finding happiness in killing rats, making time to work on music while parenting, and the wisdom that time affords his creative process.
So what’s goin’ on with you? You just released this new record, and you’re a full-time dad, what are you doing right now? Still in the midst of a tour?
We keep coming home for maybe nine days at a time, something like that? That’s our thing right now.
You need that pace? It seems like that time’s a good breather for you.
It is, it’s fantastic. Just enough time to feel normal again.
Before they pull the bearskin rug out from under ya.
You got it, you know! So, I dunno, man, right now I was actually getting ready to clean the garage. I had a fuckin’ rat infestation.
Woa. Sounds like you’re in Brooklyn.
Oh, dude. Well this is the wharf rat, you know, we live out on the marshes. We get these fuckin’ monsters and they set up shop while I was gone. I had this fryer that I left out and I guess some oil was in it, they started livin’ in there and dyin’ everywhere. So it’s terrible.
How big are we talkin’? Are they sentient? Are they playing cards?
Two days ago I realized, “shit, something’s dead in the garage,” and I got the biggest one I’ve seen so far, so I’m guessing that might mighta been the mama? Which is sad, but it’s like, “fuck, y’all gotta leave, I got kids everywhere tryin’a come in here.” We can’t be walking in rat shit, it’s just not O.K. for our lives.
Survival of the fittest.
Exactly. We gotta live, man! So yeah, that’s the beauty of what I’m doin’ right now.
Where are you again?
I’m in South Carolina, actually. I moved back here in 2007 I think? I’m from Irma, which is the middle of the state, but now we live on the coast in a satellite town outside of Charleston.
Well I ask because I’m kind of tripping out to the fact that Neil Young’s Time Fades Away just got reissued, and it feels like since you’ve left there’s really been this whole fetishization maybe of the Pacific Northwest, maybe over the last 10 years. I guess I’m just trying to understand if Seattle has any mystique or wonder left in it for you. Or was it just a matter of South Carolina being a better place to raise a family?
Yeah, well both, actually. That town has a lot of mystique left for me. I’m not sure if it’s purely nostalgia, because I’d spent my formidable, coming-of-age-type shit out there. There’s nostalgia attached to places, but also, that place can be spooky. You can watch Twin Peaks and feel the vibe. There’s some mystique in the air, the darkness and the deep green. How lush it is, but yet how desolate.
“There’s some mystique in the air, the darkness and the deep green. How lush it is, but yet how desolate.”
Did you internalize some of that darkness? Because you’re talking about the scenery, but that kind of happens on points in this record. You’re at that party, and reconciling dad Ben with this unspecified darkness. Does that stuff still get conjured up there for you?
It’s funny, when I’m in the Northwest now I have this sense of resolve to it all, honestly, because I did move back home where I’m most comfortable and I do have a great life living here. So I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m not this angsty teenager that I was back when I lived there, but that darkness, I believe was the perfect…I like to tell as many sides of the story as possible, and I happen to be slightly malcontent at times, so it just agreed with me being up there.
Speaking of Twin Peaks, there’s this little David Lynch animated interview up on The Atlantic and he’s talking about creativity, saying there’s this romanticized notion that suffering and pain and darkness are helpful to the creative process. But Lynch says no, that’s bullshit. It’s a block and it gets in your way and it prevents clarity. So I kept thinking about when these themes came up on your record. Even in real life, killing rats, I dunno, being a dude while having kids and understanding that you don’t have to make “dad rock.” It’s all really interesting.
And it’s an evolving process I think, also. Trying not to be pessimistic and also looking towards the negative side of things. There’s something to tell on both sides, the plus and the negative, and I don’t think it’s over-romanticizing the negative for some sort of gain. When it came to “Casual Party” or something it was just about telling an honest account of that feeling or whatever. Even my discomfort in adapting to middle age, to being in the suburbs and shit, having kids, you have to have play dates and birthday parties and things. I don’t mind over-dramatizing, but over-romanticizing I would try to steer away from.
Yeah, there is a difference. What’s that lyric of yours on here…“I administered badly, dreaming mysteries up.” Rock musicians are not supposed to be this self-aware, dude, I dunno if anyone told you. You’re supposed to sing cock rock and all this stuff.
I actually tried that stuff before, brother, and it didn’t pan out so well!
How do you put yourself in that position? It comes in these quieter moments on the record, maybe, looking up at the moon. But how do you allow that kind of clarity into your life? How do you make room for that?
I think with the wisdom that time affords, honestly. I had the benefit of time to cull the best material and to kind of weed out the more in-passing kind of viewpoints that come up in my songs as well. I got to cull the best of the bunch, and hone in on making those lyrical themes as sincere as I could make them. That was the point in setting out.
Sure, well even the Robert Altman clip where he’s talking about Popeye [at the beginning of “Casual Party”], that’s you maybe looking back and replying to some of the critical response to your last record, right? Who does this dude think he is?
There could be a parallel there, but I’ll let you draw it.
Ha, O.K.! Well, let’s talk about Jason Lytle, maybe one of the unsung heroes of the Pacific Northwest. I’m excited for Grandaddy to come back, and he’s just one of those deities. Sophtware Slump is a stone-cold classic. You’ve said the collaboration with Lytle might’ve not have come about if you were still tethered to a major label. What changed when working with him, and how did it affect the way you approached writing these songs?
Man, I don’t recall that conversation in regards to the label situation. But in one way, we were a free agent because we didn’t have a label at the time. You get to call the shots since you’re gonna fund it yourself. It’s my money so everyone can kiss my butt! If there’s questions about whether or not this person’s the right fit for you, sorry, that’s what I think we should do, without being a total dickhead about it. There was also a good recovering of a sense of self. We’ve weathered the storm through some medium corporate-rock or whatever, we’ve dabbled with Columbia for two records, and there are some good lessons learned that were a return to center in a way.
Maybe the vibe that you guys organically had with each other got purchased by other people. Not just for you, but the whole scene, the whole community, the whole culture became monetized to some degree and you guys were casualties of that. You couldn’t foresee it, you were younger kids and you wanted that but I think it’s cool that you can kinda pull back now and have that hindsight. And being a dad, too! I get the sense that it’s not pushing you further away from connecting you with people but bringing you closer, in the sense that you’re going through a universal motion.
No doubt, right?
How do you make that time? For the unforeseen or the inspiration to set in, how do you balance?
I think the big change there is that it seems exciting to be working on music again, because it could end at any second. The fact that the phone could just ring at any second and I could hear, “I need you to come upstairs, everyone’s going absolutely bonkers and I need help.” There was a bit of suspense to the writing process that I hadn’t felt in a while. There’s always been paranoia and stuff because usually I’m setting out in a place where I can be isolated. There’s that thing where I can’t wait to be by myself, and then I’m like, “oh fuck, I’m really sick of being near myself” that’ll drum up noise and end the project.
This was different because it could end at any second, kind of kept me on my toes and wanting to work with more present in the moment. It enthused me in a way that I didn’t think would happen; I thought I’d be more distracted and bummed out to have to leave a song, but it actually kept me with fresh ears and stuff when previously I’d have beaten something into the ground and smothered it to death.
That’s the writing process, I guess. You think something’s total shit and then come back to it a few hours later and catch things you didn’t catch before.
Thank God you had to walk away or somethin’, you know?
It winds up being part of the process yourself.
Your kids are part of this, too, right? How old?
One’s 8, one’s about to turn 6, and there’s a year-and-a-half-year-old and a half-year-old.
That’s amazing, man! All those years are so developmentally compact, there’s so much that happens each year. What perspective has that given you, maybe not creatively but just as a father and a human dude?
A deeper sense of empathy invades; your heart opens like that when you have a child. I’m sure that’s affected me greatly, and hopefully made me a better person? But it also keeps me from going too far up my own ass, because most of the day I’m only living for whatever their hearts desire, there are just so many things to do throughout the day! I don’t really have the chance to worry about myself too much these days, which may be a benefit.
Having your head up your own ass is the rockstar trope, but it doesn’t always work when you’re trying to give back to the people around you.
No, man, and you’re not even allowed to be in a bad mood over here. You’ve gotta deal with adversity all day long, and roll with the punches.
Band of Horses play Central Park SummerStage on Thursday, Sept. 22