While constant upheaval might seem like the antithesis of consistency, Band of Horses have successfully defied that logic with each new entry in their Southern-fried space-rock discography. The South Carolina outfit's third album and major label debut, Infinite Arms, reached a career-best No. 7 on the Billboard 200 chart this past May, despite the fact that only one member remains from the group's widely hailed debut just five years earlier.
"Well, Ben is obviously the common denominator there," says keyboardist Ryan Monroe, referring to Band of Horses' founder and frontman Ben Bridwell. "He writes the huge majority of the music. You know, he kind of sets himself off from the world, goes to a cabin and comes up with these ideas. But at the same time, he also welcomes all suggestions from the rest of us in the band, which makes for a really comfortable, relaxed atmosphere. We're all there to help out in the fog."
When Monroe accepted his longtime friend Bridwell's request to join Band of Horses in 2007, the group had already gone through some drastic changes, including the exits of several original members and a bold relocation from the indie-rock stronghold of Seattle to Bridwell's childhood stomping grounds in South Carolina. In the three years since, five more Horses have been put out to pasture, leaving some to wonder about Bridwell's ability to play nice with others. As Monroe sees it, though, the comings and goings of bandmates have only ever been positive.
"Absolutely, man. There's no turmoil at all. There's no hard feelings with anyone we've played with. Some people that we've brought in have been incredible musicians, but it just wasn't the right fit, you know? I'm actually really glad we did go through that, though, in order to realize that we did not actually need a sixth member. We tried a couple different people, and we eventually just figured out we could do it as a five-piece in the end. So, there you go."
History shows it may be a bit early to call Band of Horses' lineup "solidified," but for now, the group has certainly hit its stride with Bridwell, Monroe, guitarist Tyler Ramsey, drummer Creighton Barrett, and bassist Bill Reynolds. Together, they've taken the group to a new peak in 2010, buoyed by a leap from Sub Pop Records to Columbia, where they appear right above Barbra Streisand on the label's alphabetical roster list.
"Yeah, it is a bit surreal," Monroe says. "Just to be mentioned on the roster with some of these names is pretty amazing. And some of the stuff we've been able to do this year — opening up for Pearl Jam, flying in straight from Copenhagen to play a surprise show at Grand Central Station — I mean, a lot of it is kind of dreamlike."
Like any good Carolina boy, Monroe has no trouble being humble. Infinite Arms' success, however, was not simply the product of Bridwell's singular songwriting chops. As Band of Horses' most ambitious and pop-oriented recording to date, the album's character hinges on the contributions of Bridwell's supporting cast, with each member tackling a pile of different instruments and adding their voices to some exquisite harmonies on cuts like "Blue Beard" and "Evening Kitchen." Even more significantly, the record includes several tracks written or co-written by other band members, including the Gram Parsons-esque "Older," penned by Monroe.
"I actually wrote 'Older' in 2004 or 2005," Monroe says. "Later on, I was playing Ben some demos of stuff I'd done just messing around with an eight-track, and that one just stuck out to him as something he really liked. We actually attempted to record it on [2007's] Cease to Begin, but it didn't make the record. It had a different drumbeat and everything then — a lot slower. But then we played it live for a few years, and it just grew and seemed to fit really well with what we were doing, so we gave it another go."
By gradually living up to its name as a true "band," Band of Horses not only have earned their keep alongside their oft-cited indie rock brethren — My Morning Jacket, Flaming Lips, Fleet Foxes, Grandaddy, Built to Spill — they've also outpaced some of those acts to mainstream notoriety. In June, a new BoH song called "Life on Earth" even popped up on the teen-targeted soundtrack to the latest Twilight movie.
"Well, the audience is definitely growing," Monroe says. "You see people of all sorts; from Cambridge to Atlanta — it's all walks. But as far as a huge onslaught of teenage girls? I can tell you for sure that's not happening [laughs]."
Not yet, anyway.
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