Why success is coming at a gallop for Band of Horses

Band of Horses count Bruce Springsteen among their fans. Hardeep Phull on the Sub Pop group fighting off the majors
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The Independent Culture

It has not even been two years since Band of Horses began to create a stir in the underground with their debut album Everything All the Time. Just about every music publication in the Western world has honed in on the band's lilting, indie-rock loveliness, but the reams of celebratory prose from Pitchfork, NME and even a recent Filter cover story could never compare to a few short words of praise from Bruce Springsteen. During an interview late last year, he singled out Band of Horses as one of his favourite new discoveries, hailing their "dark, romantic music".

The thrill of being referenced by one of his influences is something that has humbled the singer and guitarist Ben Bridwell: "I found out about that from my girlfriend," recalls the frontman, furrowing his brow with a clear sense of shock. "She pasted the article in an email that she sent while we were in Germany and... man, I couldn't believe that Springsteen had even heard of our band, let alone that he was actually a fan. That same week, we got to meet Ron Wood too when we played on Jools Holland's show and I'm pretty much obsessed with him. I never dreamed I'd be playing in music on this level anyway but it's things like that that make think I'm living in a fairy tale."

I meet the band as they play what is virtually a home-town show in Charleston, South Carolina (their actual base is a few minutes' drive away in neighbouring Mount Pleasant), and the effect that their set has on the barn-like venue is like witnessing an exercise in hypnosis. Although the group essentially comprises Bridwell, the guitarist Rob Hampton and the drummer Creighton Barrett, the live line-up is expanded to include keyboardist Ryan Monroe, bass player Bill Reynolds and guitarist Tyler Ramsey. Together, the six-piece give the aching melancholy of songs like new single "No One's Gonna Love You" an overpowering beauty, but more than anything, it's Bridwell's serene and deeply comforting voice that seems to transfix the crowd.

With his abundance of tattoos, scraggy baseball cap and impressively overgrown beard, the singer may look like an ill-tempered truckstop attendant but when he opens his mouth the audience swoons.

Band of Horses formed out of the ashes of Bridwell's old outfit, Carissa's Wierd (it's deliberately spelt wrongly). The group's folky efforts were always small feed on the indie circuit, yet Bridwell was more than willing to do a stint as their drummer. "We were just happy bumming around but we had the best times in that band and it pretty much made me the person I am today," he remembers fondly. "We never aimed to be big and I definitely didn't mind working behind a bar just so I could play music."

When Carissa's Wierd disbanded in 2003, he and guitarist Mat Brooke formed Horses almost immediately before adding the "Band of" prefix and landing a deal with Seattle's world-famous Sub Pop imprint.

The blanket praise and cult fanbase earned from the release of Everything All the Time in March 2006 was followed by a rapid commercial breakthrough primarily thanks to "The Funeral" – a slow-burner that won a surprising amount of American radio airplay, appeared in a number of TV shows and can still be heard on a Ford advertising campaign. It's a great tune but by no means their best and, on occasion, Bridwell has been known to introduce it as the "most overrated song ever".

Watch the video for Band of Horses' track 'Funeral'.

"I was just messing around when I said that," he says, laughing. "I think I read that Tony Bennett always used to get asked if he ever got tired of playing 'I Left My Heart In San Francisco', but he used to say 'no' because it gave him the keys to the world. That's sort of how I feel about 'The Funeral'.

"It was a surprise for me to see it take off. There have been fans who have sent me emails telling me about friends of theirs who died. They've even sent me pictures. That stuff is mind-blowing because it makes you realise you really are part of people's lives. It's scary. I have to almost shy away from it."

Brooke soon left the group, leaving Bridwell to head down to Dixieland with Barrett and Hampton. The relocation is reflected in their second album, Cease to Begin, which came out in October 2007. A clear progression from the strong but straightforward dynamic of their debut, the album saw Band of Horses making strides into a more countrified terrain, throwing up repeated comparisons to the reverb-soaked magnificence of My Morning Jacket or Neil Young's music of the early Seventies.

But while the album's melodic immediacy and dark, Southern soul has seduced the likes of Springsteen, Bridwell has come in for some unpleasant criticism from fans who have voiced their disapproval at the use of Band of Horses tracks for commercial purposes. In particular, the singer's choice to allow Wal-Mart to use a song last year met with heavy criticism, although Bridwell later rescinded the decision.

"Those people seemed to be writing that stuff out of boredom and loneliness," he offers in a blunt manner that threatens the tiniest crack in his good-natured exterior. "With my girlfriend being pregnant now, it seems even less important."

Bridwell's impending fatherhood might well prove to be an excellent coping mechanism because the attention thrust on him is only likely to intensify. Now that the two-album deal with Sub Pop is up for renewal, major-label interest is increasing.

Arguably the best song being played in their set at the moment is a brand new number called "Older", written and sung not by Bridwell but Monroe, himself a prolific songwriter. There is no doubt about the breadth of talent that Bridwell has installed. "We've been through so many musicians and members that didn't fit in but finally, I feel like I have the perfect band." It might sound like a lofty opinion but, on this form, with these songs and with such high-profile fans, "perfect" is as good an assessment for Band of Horses as any.

Band of Horses' new single 'No One's Gonna Love You' is out now on Sub Pop