When a band gets big – selling out shows, touring the world, opening for Pearl Jam, and getting Grammy nominations – the handlers really limit their contact with journalists. Yet, the musicians in Band of Horses have always seemed like they’re just out there having a good time, blissfully unaware of their ever accelerating fame. “Wow, 15 minutes,” gasps Ryan Monroe, keyboardist and guitarist for Band of Horses. “That’s it?”
“I know,” I say. How far can two strangers get in a quarter of an hour? I’ve prepared for two conversational tracks: serious “future of rock” questions and totally irreverent queries from my friends (What’s their herd mentality? Do they really have a ghost in the house?). I figured I’d wing it based on the salutations. “Where are you?”
Boston, he tells me.
“No way! I’m from New Hampshire.”
He was just up there, a short trip across state lines for tax-free booze and smokes – which makes him sound like one seriously penny-pinching rock star – but he sounds proud to be learning the local tricks. “I’m a Masshole now.” He moved there about a year ago, to be with his girlfriend, Lydia See, while she attends art school. He loves the city, kicking back there between tours, but winter’s coming and he’s looking forward to skipping town for the Southern Hemisphere.
“New Zealand is a sight for sore eyes after being in some places around the world,” he replies.
We better get to the tunes, so I tell him when I got my copy of Mirage Rock, their newest album and fourth in their nine-year discography, the bonus EP Sonic Ranch Sessions was mistakenly on top and I ended up listening to that first – and again and again. Monroe enthuses about the five-song disc as much as I do.
“We liked that just as much as the record. We went into Sonic Ranch with the idea of doing demos and in the back of our heads thinking this could be the record if we knock it out of the park. After we recorded Mirage Rock we listened back to all of those songs from Sonic Ranch and loved them. We were stoked to get them out.”
Monroe says many more songs were recorded and may end up on album number five, which would be his third since joining the lineup in 2007 when lead singer and guitarist Ben Bridwell relocated the band from Seattle to South Carolina, where he and Monroe grew up.
Monroe’s was a musical family – Dad on guitar, brother on keys, both of which he absconded with. “I’m the classic kid beating on the Tupperware,” he says, telling me he recently watched some old home movies his mother converted to DVDs, in which he stars as an eight year old, strumming his first guitar “playing a horrible song.” It, too, may end up on the next record, he says, laughing.
“On the EP, Relly’s Dream was my little baby,” he mentions the track that caught my ear for sounding a little different from the rest. “I wrote the music and Ben put lyrics to it.” Monroe also put out a solo album last year and admits he’s always crafting new tunes, even when he’s relaxing in Boston. “My phone is filled up with me mumbling in the middle of the night. I love writing music.”
As for cutting Mirage Rock with Glyn Johns (The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc. and so on through the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame), Monroe sounds like any fan boy: “He was so cool, for lack of a better way to describe him. When he’s in the control room and he’s in his element he’s like a kid.”
Was he frozen with awe?
“It would come in waves, him telling stories about his friends Pete and Eric and you’d have to decode that he’s talking about Pete Seeger and Eric Clapton. It didn’t really seem real.”
The 70 year old producer pushed them to skip the technological tinkering and just play – Monroe says about 95 percent of the album was recorded live in the studio, without fixing the flubs and without effects – “What’s that crap on your guitar?” Monroe growls, imitating Johns scolding him for a little bit of reverb. The results are fresh, without seeming underdone or rough around the edges.
They sound like a kickass garage band having a blast.
“My favourite song on the record would have to be Slow Cruel Hands of Time. It’s gotta be the best song Ben’s ever written. That’s one we’ll enjoy for years to come,” says Monroe.
The handler cuts in and says there’s time for one more question. We’ve barely scratched the surface, but keeping in mind that their song titles and lyrics are often revealed as mockery, not metaphors, I tack, heading for a happy ending: was there really a ghost in Ben’s house?
Monroe laughs. “It was an ice maker!”
Originally published January 9, 2012 in Capital Times.