The fact that it’s the year of the horse is not lost on Band of Horses’ lead singer Benjamin Bridwell; like an indie rocker sporting a scruffy beard or showing up hungover for an interview, it’s just too obvious. Two days ahead of Chinese New Year, Bridwell and his bandmates—drummer Creighton Barrett, bassist Bill Reynolds, and multi-instrumentalists Ryan Monroe and Tyler Ramsey—have come to Vancouver to play the Vogue Theatre in support of their first live album Acoustic at the Ryman.
The Horses’ regular rock offering was the original plan, and they’d recorded months worth of shows, but set to play back-to-back nights at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, in April of last year, they decided to give fans a different experience—a 45-minute opening set free of any reverb or distortion. “Listening back, we just gravitated right away to the acoustic stuff,” says Bridwell. “There was the element of danger, because we weren’t very comfortable doing it. We thought that was something cooler than what’s usual or less challenging for us.”
The Ryman and its country roots—the venue was home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974—also played a part in the quintet deciding to rest the electrics. “The room just lends itself so well to acoustic,“ says Bridwell, “Backstage, there’s the Hank Williams Room and the Johnny Cash Room—just some total heroes that have been sitting in this room, probably losing their mind right before a show too.”
Born in 2004 (which makes them a monkey not a horse, astrologically speaking), the band formed in Seattle but moved to Bridwell’s home state of South Carolina following their first record. That relocation—coupled with swapping in some new bandmates (who all hail from North Carolina)—seems to have slowly seeped more country in with the rock, so dampening the amps and ramping up the harmonies for this album and subsequent tour isn’t the most startling choice, but it’s a noticeable shift in feeling for them. “It’s just a more relaxed vibe. People are sitting, we’re sitting a lot of the time, kinda chilling, and not just ‘eyes down, meetcha at the end’ stuff,” says Bridwell. There’s also less sound flurry to drown out any vocal quaver, but he likes that. “It’s cool that it’s not perfect,” he adds. “Those moments sting people even more when they can really hear the vulnerability.”
Stripping down their sound doesn’t necessarily make a song less electrifying though. Of the 10 tracks on the album taken from the band’s four studio recordings—Everything All the Time (2006), Cease to Begin (2007), Infinite Arms (2010), and Mirage Rock (2012)—it’s “No One’s Gonna Love You” that Bridwell feels has a new charge. “Without all the banging around, I think we can really squeeze some emotion out of that song,” he says, “It really feels like all the boyfriends that reluctantly went along are like,” he drops to a whisper, “Alright, I see what’s going on.”
Their treatment of the once-recorded tunes, here sparser and sometimes slowed-down, isn’t novel, but new is just around the corner with the band recording another studio album right on the heels of their live release. That, too, Bridwell says, is rooted in feeling. “There’s a bit more sad sack shit,” he notes, “That’s what I like about songs as a music fan—I want to really feel some genuine emotion from somebody, whether it’s elation or devastation.”
Adding the live album and another new record to their list of discs isn’t the band’s only milestone this year: they hit the decade mark. But that doesn’t equate to any lyric-worthy life lessons from Bridwell. “God, I don’t know, it feels like I’m still learning,” he says, “I still don’t play guitar all that well. I still feel like I’m writing songs the same way I did when I was in Seattle—just kinda messing around with stuff and hoping to find a melody somewhere.” One moral comes to mind though, “be nice,” which he puts into practice at the end of the interview, apologizing for his lengthy replies in search of the right words: “I’m a bit hungover, pardon me.”