LETTING MISTAKES LIVE THROUGH THE MUSIC
Story by Kate Davies
I think there must be something in the water in Seattle. The Emerald City has a royalty-worthy musical pedigree which has seen the development of such jazz legends as Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, and Ernestine Anderson. It is also noteworthy as the birthplace of Jimi Hendrix and grunge. In recent times, Seattle has proved itself as the hub of the hipster and his love of all things indie, producing such artists as Fleet Foxes, Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, Built to Spill, The Shins, and many others.
With the mass amount of talent emerging out of Seattle, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish one group from another. One of Seattle’s most acclaimed artists in the past six years has been Band of Horses, a southern rock/alt-country group who have amassed a large following across North America and Europe. BOH, as they are known in text-speak, have successfully separated themselves from the pack by always remaining true to how they perform best: through gorgeous, clear-cut vocals and honest musicianship. On a beautifully sunny Thursday morning, I arrived at The Dakota Tavern to speak with Ryan Monroe (background vocals, piano), Creighton Barrett (drums), and Tyler Ramsey (lead guitar) about the band’s current tour, their musical aspirations and inspirations, and their plans for the future.
BOH began their current tour at one of the most beautiful venues in North America, Red Rocks, a unique transitional zone where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains. The landscape of this Colorado diamond-in-the-rough is a prime place for BOH to kick-start their journey, as its rough exterior encapsulates the raw and ready tone of their latest album. Barrett says his favourite way of describing their current sound is through the words of their lead singer, Ben Bridwell: “it sounds really good from a distance, but up close it sounds like shit…kind of like a mirage”. This sort of attitude plays a large part in the humbleness that the band evidently shares as a common personality trait. Barrett emphasizes that this doesn’t have to be detrimental to their music, however. While working with legendary producer Glyn Johns on their latest recordings, Barrett explains how Johns lets mistakes live through the music: “he let the blemishes show because he wanted a great performance out of it”. Monroe agrees with this mentality, stating that “when I notice those ‘screw ups’ in old songs it never makes me dislike the songs; it’s [actually] kind of endearing”. He cites the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” as a perfect example of imperfect perfection, where singer Merry Clayton screams the final stanza of “rape, murder!”. Although in terms of vocal technique the screaming was a ‘mistake’, it has remained an iconic contribution to the Rolling Stones’ track.
Having previously worked with the Rolling Stones himself, Glyn Johns is no stranger to the ups and downs of the recording process. Barrett laughingly explains that “there were certain parts of the day where you’re not allowed to look at [Glyn]…he would make us stand still and silent in a corner until we got the parts right”. Monroe insists that they were made to wear English dunce caps that looked like a cross between Devo and a crane lift as punishment for any follies, Barrett racking up the largest number of demerit points. Perhaps these shenanigans are a product of the band’s closeness which has developed in the last few years, lending truth to the comfort and friendship that they share. Having undergone a variety of line-up changes since their inception in 2004, BOH are finally solidified in their fivesome of Bridwell, Barrett, Monroe, Ramsey, and Reynolds. Spending more time together than they do apart, Barrett insists that in lieu of difficult egos there is a great respect within the band: “We’re really lucky now to enjoy each other, cuz I know there are lots of bands who don’t have that…we’ll get home [from a tour] and our wives will say ‘you’re saying more Ryan or more Tyler stuff!’”. Monroe agrees: “Yeah, when I’m on the road I’ll do something and be like, you know that’s totally influenced by Tyler, by me and Tyler talking. Or wearing some random weird shoes that Creighton always does. I wanna be like these guys because I respect them and they’re all my best buds. We influence each other a lot in a really good way.”
Not only do the members of BOH have a great influence on one another, but they have in turn inspired both budding and established musicians alike. All one has to do is google “Band of Horses cover” and hundreds of renditions of songs from their first three albums pop up instantaneously. Ramsey says that he’ll find clips on youtube of kids playing, which is “just always so cool to see that…it’s such an honour to have that”. Monroe cites BOH cover-band Infinite Arms (named after their 2010 album): “they did our song ‘Compliments’ from our last record, and the dude that was singing my harmony that we do live messed up the words in almost the exact same spot that I do every night, so I was like ‘wow, they’re really [dedicated]!’”. In terms of veteran musicians, everyone from the Shout Out Louds to Serena Ryder to Grizzly Bear to Cee-Lo Green have performed covers of BOH songs. Cee-Lo recorded his own version of “No One’s Gonna Love You” for his 2010 hit album The Lady Killer. “At first I actually thought it was Ryan [Monroe] and I was like ‘what is this?! This is amazing!’”, says Barrett of Cee-Lo’s cover. “Where he took it…I would never imagine it. Like a disco hit almost! I was like ‘holy shit that is so rad!’. Anyone covering your song is the biggest homage, it’s awesome”, gushes Barrett.
Including returning the compliment from Cee-Lo with a cover of his song “Georgia”, BOH have displayed their own homages to various musicians including George Harrison, Chicago, Hall & Oates, and The Replacements, among others. Perhaps one of the most oft-asked questions by an interviewer and most difficult to answer by the interviewee is who has inspired a group’s sound over the years. Surprisingly, Monroe cites some of his greatest personal influences amongst the synth-infused sounds of the 1980s: “going on trips to Mississippi my dad would listen to Billy Joel’s Glass Houses on repeat, Chicago, CCR, lots of classic stuff. But I have a Poison shirt in my bag – seriously I really love all that 80s stuff, man. They were super-human rock stars!”. Ramsey finds his childhood contained more of a classic musical upbringing, influenced by his older brother: “your brothers just give you everything to listen to, or your folks. For some reason my dad had a copy of the Rolling Stones record Some Girls on cassette, and we’d listen to that on trips. Some racy stuff in there for a little kid to be hearing!”. After a lengthy debate on the matter, the three guys eventually came to the conclusion that, as MTV kids, Corey Hart has had the most undeniable influence on them as artists. Ramsey jokingly states: “well, Ryan does sometimes wear his sunglasses at night”. Ryan admits, “I do, yeah! Now it’s all coming together. Corey Hart is the answer”.
In terms of the actual music they produce, one can clearly hear pieces of Neil Young, Wilco, and The Band. Monroe says if there was one song he could cover it would be “Terrapin Station” by The Grateful Dead, envisioning BOH jamming out to this 15 minute prog song because it would be out of the ordinary for them to do so. Monroe explains that he likes to see bands cover weird songs to showcase how tracks like “Careless Whisper” (by George Michael) are actually well-constructed, well-written tunes: “My Morning Jacket does ‘Careless Whisper’ and ‘Rocket Man’ [by Elton John]…and it takes a band like MMJ to [realise] that the structure of the song is awesome”. Barrett agrees with this idea, citing the time BOH covered Chicago: “I never got into Chicago [back in the day], but after we covered that song I was like ‘God, that band was hot heat, man!’”.
Speaking of hot heat, Band of Horses have a busy year ahead of them with the upcoming release of their latest album Mirage Rock on September 18th, as well as joining in on the Railroad Revival Tour which begins on October 20th. Last year’s Revival Tour featured Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, and Old Crow Medicine Show. The entire tour was made into a film, premiering at Hot Docs this year under the title “Big Easy Express”, and becoming this generation’s classic 1970s “Festival Express” (which featured Janis Joplin, The Band, and The Grateful Dead). This year there are eight stops through the American southwest over a period of eight days. Monroe calls it “a dream come true…[especially since] this sort-of known guy Willard Nelson is playing alongside John C. Reilly”, he says jokingly. Barrett insists that he is going to be referring to Reilly as his alter-ego ‘Steve Brule’ throughout the entire tour.
Although they have garnered a number of hits, including “No One’s Gonna Love You”, “The Funeral”, “The Great Salt Lake”, and “Dilly”, the guys in Band of Horses remain inexplicably down-to-earth and humble in their efforts. With their fourth album on the way, a tour with My Morning Jacket and Willie Nelson, and half-glass-full attitudes, maybe there’s simply just something in the water in Seattle.