It’s been nearly four years since indie-rock group Band of Horses released their fourth album, Mirage Rock, but frontman and creative nucleus Ben Bridwell is quick to emphasize that he’s kept busy in the interim. “I had more babies,” the 37-year-old father of four says when EW connects with him in Austin during South by Southwest. “I finally built a house for all those babies to live in. Some of that stuff just takes a long time. I was really settling into middle age.”
But now, the band is set to release their fifth album Why Are You OK in June.
The prolific singer-songwriter continued making music in between studio albums: In 2014, Band of Horses released the live Acoustic at the Ryman and last year Bridwell collaborated with Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam for a covers album. But while Bridwell doesn’t “remember even stopping” writing for Band of Horses since Mirage Rock’s September 2012 release, it was family that defined Why Are You OK.
Bridwell cites musical nervousness — “I’ve never really had the confidence of jamming with people” — when explaining why, for previous albums, he’s absconded to remote locales to write songs. “I didn’t have the opportunity, like I used to, to kind of squirrel away in some cabin or a beach house,” Bridwell says of Why Are You OK. So, he took advantage of his new house and built a studio to remain near his family. “I just put up some soundproofing — tried to keep the moisture out and the sound waves in. It’s nothing special by any means, but it was a nice place to be able to complain loudly with minimal influence of ears listening to me.”
Not that those ears would’ve been trying to eavesdrop. Bridwell says he wrote demos for Why Are You OK in the middle of the night so that he could be an attentive father by day. “I work all night and then take them to school in the morning,” he says. “I’m the f–king scariest dad in the school, I’m sure.” And even if Bridwell’s four daughters, who range in age from 3 months to 8 years old, had been awake during his sessions, he doubts they would have cared. “If the new Adele comes out, they’re gonna know every damn word,” he jokes. “They know that I’m in the music situation, but we just don’t talk about it. They’re always talking, there’s no room for me to talk.”
The disinterest is one-sided. Why Are You OK takes its name from a wayward email his second-oldest — who was three at the time and couldn’t read — send to his eldest daughter’s teacher. “I just thought it was the most hilarious thing to ask or say,” says Bridwell, adding that he and his wife’s relationship with the teacher had been “dicey” to begin with. “It was perplexing enough that I just kind of put that under my cap.”
The songs on the album are OK — and then some. After concocting demos on the homestead, Bridwell recruited Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle and struck out for more impressive locales, logging sessions in Stinson Beach, California and Woodstock, New York. Bridwell, who tapped the iconic classic rock producer Glynn Johns for Mirage Rock, says Lytle refreshed his creative process. “Not like there was a bad taste in my mouth by any means, I stand behind those records,” Bridwell assures. But “I really felt like [Lytle] could help get y songs to where their potential seemed to be blooming.”
The product will please longtime fans of the band. “I didn’t want to just pander to our previous records or maybe even our most fruitful period, but at the same time I definitely attempted to tap into a lot of that stuff throughout,” says Bridwell. Take the epic, seven-minute opener “Dull Times: The Moon.” It’s one of the lengthiest Band of Horses songs yet, and Bridwell says it combines themes from the opening tracks off the group’s first two records. But that synthesis, by nature, makes it something new.
Diverse influences also shaped Why Are You OK. Bridwell cites the Peter La Farge tune “Coyote, My Little Brother,” popularized by Pete Seeger in the ’60s, as a departure point that fit his aesthetic during the sessions. But he also says the 2014 OutKast reunion revitalized his love of hip-hop and that he “f–king lost it” the first time he heard Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle.”
And a titanic musical figure helped with the album in a more direct way. As Bridwell tells it, Rick Rubin — who helped the band get signed to Columbia Records years ago — heard Band of Horses on the radio and decided to check in. “It was a pivotal moment,” Bridwell says. “Like an angel he appears: ‘Do you want to come by and play me some stuff and just talk?’” Bridwell says he knew his songs would get “to a sonically delicious place” eventually, but that Rubin gave him a shot of confidence. “He helped steer the path for me, for sure,” he concludes.
Broadly defined, experimentation — from Bridwell’s new studio to his new collaborators — guided Why Are You OK. “I wanted to stay away from writing songs of traditional means,” he says. “I think this whole record really stems from that.”