It was the first day by the lake when Band of Horses' singer Ben Bridwell saw the curtain twitch. He was staying at the isolated, once thriving and now desolate, freezing resort town of Moclips, Washington, USA to let his mind wander in the loneliness so new songs would come. But that movement in the window of the mobile home next door haunted him. "I thought 'ah, somebody's in there'," he remembers, safe now in the bar of a hotel in Bristol, England . "And they never left. I never saw it move again. I never saw anybody, there was nobody on the beach walking around. Of course the imagination starts working. So I'm sitting there trying to record something, and I keep hearing this 'ding, ding, ding' and... what is that noise?
"Now I'm convinced that someone is trapped in an underground basement. Because they haven't heard a car go by on this dirt road for so long, they're trying desperately to get my attention. The sun's going down, I'm going to explore this weird-ass mile of dirt road. And when I come back, it's this flagpole, right outside my place, going 'ding, ding' in the wind. It's those little things, those tinges of paranoia where your mind starts telling yourself... terrible things! There's no one around that you can have comfort in. It's up to me to save this Silence of the Lambs situation."
Years later, in "NW Apt", a song on the third Band of Horses album, Infinite Arms, that's mostly about a tight-knit American rock group very like themselves, there's an unexplained mention of "somebody trapped in an underground basement just down the road". It sounds like the perfect metaphor for a garage band, but grew from that fragment of real fear in Bridwell's past. These little mysteries may be one reason Infinite Arms has been nominated for the Alternative Album of the Year Grammy.
The band's line-up has also changed radically since their debut Everything All the Time (2006). Only Bridwell survives in a five-piece now including drummer Creighton Barrett, keyboardist Ryan Monroe, guitarist Tyler Ramsey and bassist Bill Reynolds. All are from North and South Carolina, sharp, humble Southern boys who suit each others company. Infinite Arms was made with their own money on their own terms. They'd go back on the road when cash ran thin, finally selling their two years' labour to Columbia. It's like building a house with your bare hands, I suggest – a working-class approach.
"Yeah. If working class also means making money from licensing songs to TV and spending $300,000 on the record," Bridwell says. He's whippet-lean and bearded, electrically eager, a natural leader with an easy laugh and a faint undercurrent of sadness.
"I think it was over-publicised, how much financial ruin it was causing us. That was more people at the label writing that for people to latch onto. I paid my rent. It just seemed time to do something different. Why not, it's your third record, you've been successful, it's time to alienate the audience a little bit! Tyler joining in 2007 was a catalyst for making this record with a collaborative approach [Monroe and Ramsey also contribute songs]. It's like, finally, I've reached the top of the mountain. We have a family, and every member is as important as I am. If one head gets cut off, if it's mine that goes first, the band can continue forever. And hopefully they'd still play some of my songs too."
This band of friends has seen most of what America has to offer as they've toured, starting with the supernally beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where most of their music is made. "We record a lot round Asheville, amongst all those mountains," says Bridwell. "We're very lucky to live where we do. You still can't buy a beer without going through a million months of red tape. But you can buy guns. Rocket launchers, whatever you want. I've lived in most of the corners of America now. And the only place I've refused to live is the north-east, because those people are assholes." The Southern boys all take a moment to chortle at the Yankees.
Their most unnatural stop, though, was Los Angeles, where Infinite Arms was finished. "The artificial vibe that hangs out in that place is not exactly like us," Bridwell considers. "Our experience of LA was, we left the studio maybe once. We didn't want to leave at all. We were in this total porn palace from the Seventies – it was probably built in the Forties – where this famous photographer who shot Sinatra lived. It felt like the way bands recorded albums in the late Eighties, like the end of hair-metal. Okay so we got a pool, we've got the house that we live in with the big-screen TV, we've got the bar, and the studio's right next door. I'd still be up there dicking around with something all day now if I could. You want to be like Keith Richards and stay up for 48 hours, with an engineer for hire that loves crystal meth and refuses to sleep..."
Infinite Arms's songs often have an air of resignation, acceptance and regret, as if all three songwriters have been knocked around by life. "Oh my god yeah," says Bridwell. "Walking into a hotel room, everybody's all fancy, and coming from a dishwashing and homeless-person background in my teens, I always feel out of place, even in a nice hotel like this, like someone's going to ask, 'can you leave please?'"
Bridwell's bleaker emotions come to the fore in those weeks he spends in places like that blasted lakeside town, which could come straight from a Stephen King story. There, he lets himself go mad. "A lot of the songs are sprung from paranoia," he says. "Once you get the cabin fever, after a few days you start to lose it. You can really start to pull out some weird stuff that you don't even know about yourself. Like how scared you can be, and how happy you are by yourself. Sometimes I do literally get terrified. That's when you're in the hot zone. That's usually when the coolest lyrics happen.
"It's a little bit harder now. I have kids, so I can't just get so blasted on weed and beer that I'm not available mentally. I used to be able to really lose my mind. It's funny, you'd think that rationale would kick in, even though you've been through this a million times, that it's not someone with a knife who's going to kill you. But it even happens at my house..."
Barrett cuts in: "You know, you can go to his [Bridwell's] house after he's told you this story the night before and you'll think, 'that's crazy', and you'll walk through the house and there's a knife in each room, just in case the killer goes in there..."
"I really do feel like it's going to happen, and I wish I didn't have that feeling," says Bridwell. "But I've actually written songs more recently to the person that is going to kill me, that I can hear either underneath the house or in another room. I just start to sing out to them. I'm really not making it up. At that moment I do actually believe it's time to get killed or kill. I'm ready, man. Usually the knife is on me at all times. One night I fell asleep with the shotgun in the bed with me. It was unloaded but still it's like: 'Alright, man. Maybe not so much weed. Maybe keep the shotgun out of the bed.' Because I sleepwalk also. I don't want to sleep and kill myself. If I think something's actually happening I go out and stare, even though I can't see anything in the darkness. I'm hoping this drunk-ass stare is going to intimidate this murderer who's going to rape me to death. Enough of that." The troubled look clouding his face seems to show how real the fear is even as he talks of it, and why he thinks of his band carrying on without him.
But the conviction that he's going to die appears far from Ben Bridwell as he stands still talking to me, hours after the show, that night. He's a man happy to be alive and making exactly the music he wants, for as long as he can. Perhaps the nightmares only make it sweeter.
Band of Horses play De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, tonight; London Wembley Arena on 25 February. Single "Dilly" is out on 14 February (www.bandofhorses.com)