With the release of “Mirage Rock”, we spoke to Tyler Ramsay from Band Of Horses about looking for purity and direction in their music, meeting your idols and travelling the United States the way they did fifty years ago.
Many things have changed since “The Funeral”. When we first heard Ben Bridwell on the verge of breaking, Band Of Horses seemed destined to end up in the major league of independent rock. Their first album, “Everything all the Time” (2006), was halfway between the epic that was so fashionable at the time ( “Funeral” by Arcade Fire was still fresh in our minds) and classic American rock. Six years later, Bridwell is the only remaining member from that time, and the three LPs have changed, at least partly, our perception of the band. Yes, “Cease to Begin” (2007) still kept the link with the dramatic intensity of their debut, but from “ Infinite Arms” (2010) on, it was quite clear that they're closer to Neil Young than to any indie fad. That feeling gets stronger when you listen to “Mirage Rock”, their fourth and recently released full-length, a definitive step towards a classic sound, with a vintage producer like Glyn Johns at the helm, whose name is in the credits of albums by the likes of Led Zeppelin and The Who.
Tyler Ramsay, the keyboardist and Bridwell's childhood friend, picks up the phone in London, where the band are promoting the album. He claims he's not nervous about the reviews, “No, there's no point getting all worked up about it now”, he says. “It's going to be out there now, so there's no turning back. I just want to play the songs live now.”
Listening to “Mirage Rock”, I get the feeling you wanted to make a much simpler and more direct album than “Infinite Arms”. Did you?
We wanted to make a more naked record, make the listener feel like a fly on the wall in the studio, listening while we're recording it. We also wanted to better reflect our live show, so that's why it sounds more like a concert, as if we're playing all together in one room. We didn't want to use too many effects, we just wanted to play the songs. Our producer, Glyn Johns, is in great part responsible for the sound. His working method is this: get us in one room and capture the energy and emotion of the moment.
"This is a happy moment in our lives, although there still is a certain sadness in our music"
On “Infinite Arms” you didn't work with an external producer, even though Phil Ek got involved afterwards. Did you feel that you needed someone from outside to help you make decisions?
Yes, we had so many songs for this record that we needed someone to help us organise them and give us a perspective from the outside, and, well, who better than one of the most legendary producers of all times? We had the opportunity to work with him, and we didn't hesitate for a second, we didn't want the moment to pass. And his way of working was exactly what we were looking for, for this album. He came to see us live and he said he wanted to record us just like that. It's been a very important part of the process. He helped us improve as a band, to get the best out of each of us.
Were you ever intimidated by working with someone of his status?
Yes, at first, we were. If you think about what he's done in the past, the bands he's worked with, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, the Stones… they are all our idols. But he made us feel really comfortable from the get-go, it was great. Now he's our friend.
Have you got any favourite album he's worked on?
Yes, the first Led Zeppelin album, and “Who’s Next” by The Who. He also worked on “Leon Russell and The Shelter People”, another favourite album of mine. But if you stop to think about all of them, woah. “Let It Bleed”!... Tremendous.
Apart from the directness when recording, in what other ways has working with him helped you?
Most of all, what we did was asking him all kinds of questions about the recording techniques he used on some of the records he worked on. To me the best thing was when he showed us a couple of things I can use when recording at home, ways to record the vocals, for example, things you heard on other records. And he also told us a few really good stories about when he was recording with The Who, about Keith Moon drawing symbols all over the studio... Really good stories.
There are several writers in Band Of Horses, mainly Ben, Tyler, and you. How do you work on the songs? Can you bring something to the others' compositions?
Yes, we're always showing each other what we've got. Of course, Ben writes most of the songs, but we all chip in and in the end, one way or another, they become every member's songs. We all want the rest to be proud of what we're doing and we help each other out with our compositions.
I think this is your most classic sounding record, the most country-rock-like. Do you agree?
Yes, I think it's a very rock & roll record. Glyn likes classic rock, and he was a big help when choosing the tracks we were going to put on the album. He also likes the vocals, he said some songs reminded him of The Beach Boys and The Eagles. And that was also what we were listening to last year, when we were writing the songs.
On the first Band Of Horses albums, especially the first two, you could sense a certain anger, which disappeared over the following two records. Have your lives changed much since then?
Yes, I suppose we're in a different place now, and that this is a happy moment in our lives, although there still is a certain sadness in our music. But yes, we're doing great right now, we feel good. I suppose we could say we're happy with our lives.
"Rather than trying to figure out what kind of band we are, indie-rock, or classic rock, we found that we’re both"
Without ever having visited the South of the United States, when I listen to Band Of Horses I associate your music with a certain idealisation of that part of the country. Do you feel there's a Southern spirit in your music?
Definitely. We all grew up in the South, and you can definitely hear that feeling, that warmth, in our music. That laid-back Southern way.
Do you think the place where you live can affect your music, that depending on where you are, your songs are going to be influenced by it?
Yes, especially during the writing process. For example, I'm in London right now, and when I look out the window I see grey skies all the time. If I were writing a song right now it would certainly be affected by that. And when you're recording, locked inside a studio for hours on end, I suppose you try to recreate that mental state you were in when you wrote the song.
It seems that over the years, in the perception of many people you've gone from being an indie band to a classic American rock band. Do you feel closer to the latter?
I think there's a bit of both worlds. I think that while we were doing this album, rather than trying to figure out what kind of band we are, indie-rock, or classic rock, we found that we’re both. We can make a Texan sounding song and a dirtier sounding track for the same album. We like to think we can do both, that's what Band Of Horses is.
But, for example, on this record there are a lot of tracks reminiscent of Neil Young, even Ben's voice sounds like his on “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” and “Long Vowels”.
That was simply the natural way he sang those songs. Ben is heavily influenced by Neil Young, and I'm sure that he thinks that if he can sound a bit like him, it's always a good thing [laughs].
You met Neil Young once, right? What was that like?
Yeah, we met at one of the yearly charity concerts at Bridge School, in San Francisco. He was kind enough to invite us over there to play. We had dinner with him and later we did a song with him on stage. It was amazing. I've had the chance to meet several of my personal heroes over the years... Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Eddie Vedder…
Willie Nelson is also one of the artists you're going to be playing with this autumn on the Railroad Revival Tour, travelling the US by train [note: this tour has been cancelled].
It's like a dream come true... a tour by train with Willie Nelson, Jamey Johnson and John C. Reilly. It's like.... I don't know if I deserve all that! And to travel by train, that's going to give us the opportunity to see parts of America you never see when you're travelling by plane or even in a van, it's like the way people used to travel fifty years ago.
You're also releasing your first solo album this year, “Painting Of A Painting On Fire”. Was it hard to work on that and Band Of Horses at the same time?
Not at all, everyone in the band supported me and encouraged me to record my own record. There are a lot of songs in the air, and there will be many Band Of Horses albums in the future. We're a family, we're like brothers.