On the high horse

Asheville hasn’t sent any stadium-packing bands out into the world (yet), but there have been some close calls: Malcolm Holcombe was glowingly reviewed by Rolling Stone. Members of the loveable, danceable Scrappy Hamilton moved to L.A., became Truth & Salvage Co., were discovered by Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes and were recently signed to Silver Arrow Records, the Crowes record label. That’s not an Asheville group’s first impressive label coup: In the ‘90s, the Blue Rags signed to Seattle-based label Sub Pop.

Homeward bound: Band of Horses, photographed at Asheville’s Echo Mountain studios, has family “everywhere we go.” The Asheville connection: Tyler Ramsey, far left, and Bill Reynolds, second from right.

Bass player Bill Reynolds was in the Blue Rags when the group split. Here’s the silver-lining story he never told anyone: Sub Pop label chief Jonathan Poneman (with whom Reynolds kept in touch) suggested the bassist join Charleston, S.C.-based Band of Horses. Reynolds (who toured for years with Donna the Buffalo) was working at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studios on Tyler Ramsey’s Long Dream About Swimming Across the Sea when Band of Horses’ frontman Ben Bridwell and drummer Ceighton Barrett showed up. They were recording 2007’s Cease to Begin.

“These guys came in and we hit it off,” Reynolds says.

Barrett recalls: “We walked by him completely shredding on a bass and we were like, ‘Okay that’s it.’ And then we stole Tyler as well.”

“Stole my heart,” quips Ramsey, who joined Band of Horses as a guitarist.

That’s how two of Asheville’s musicians stepped into the international spotlight. Band of Horses evolved from “chamber rock” project Carissa’s Wierd. In 2004, Bridwell formed the band with guitarist Mat Brooke and the new group opened for Iron & Wine, garnering moderate attention and the notice of Sub Pop. Band of Horses’ 2006 Phil Ek (The Shins, Fleet Foxes)-produced debut, Everything All the Time, was favorably reviewed, but it was sophomore-release Cease — named one of the best albums of 2007 by Paste — that propelled the band from indie darling to major player.

For Reynolds (who currently calls Atlanta home), it was the right opportunity at the right time. “The Blue Rags had just had our run. It was time to put it down and do other things,” he says. “It’s really good with these guys: I feel like my sound really comes through.”

According to Bridwell, Reynolds and Ramsey put their stamp on Band of Horses’ upcoming album. “It’s so much more dynamic,” Bridwell insists. On Cease, “We were just four dudes doing a minimalistic approach to that album, just trying to get it out. This record feels so much more dynamic because of Tyler and Bill actually knowing how to play their instruments and knowing how to be really diverse with their playing to suit the song.”

He continues, “My right-hand man was Mat [who has since left the band]. He had a really cool guitar playing style with a lot of texture and a lot of taste that was really missing from that second record. I feel now with Tyler’s playing it brings a lot of that back into it, but even better than the first record, to be frank.”

Does the new record risk alienating fans familiar with the pared-back sound of Cease? “I sure hope so,” Bridwell jokes. Seriously: “I think if anything this record blends a bit of the first record and the second record together. I don’t think this album will be disturbing, I think it will be welcome.”

Here’s one major departure — the group started recording in Muscle Shoals, Ala., hoping to tap that city’s musical bedrock. Bridwell is vague about the outcome of those early sessions (“It expanded some ideas of other stuff. Like, how to almost get thrown in jail. It was kind of a weird experience, but ended up being really good.”) but the result was, Band of Horses decided to return to Echo Mountain.

At interview time, the band was on their third Echo Mountain stint. That session, according to Bridwell, was for “working on a lot of texture stuff, stuff like acoustic guitars and keyboards.” He adds, “Some of the songs have come pretty far and others we need to reevaluate. It looks like we’re going to be taking our time with it, just making sure we can get the best performances we can get.”

The songwriter admits that kind of studio time is a luxury; one that Band of Horses has finally come to afford. The group is also currently “free agent,” though a return to Sub Pop could in the cards for the future. Another change brought by experience is the ability to be discerning about licensing deals with corporations. While placement of “The Funeral” in a 2008 Ford Edge commercial brought the band to a wider audience, a 2007 deal with Wal-Mart was not as well received. The same song, aired on an Internet-only ad by the retailer, “was greeted with bile and anger from fans,” reported Rolling Stone. Ultimately, Band of Horses nixed a Wal-Mart TV commercial.

“At the time I remember feeling pretty much like ‘This is my one shot to cash in real quick,’” Bridwell says. “I had a baby on the way. I was like, ‘Crap, maybe I’ll be flipping eggs at this time next year.’ If a company like Wal-Mart, that I’ve gone and stolen batteries from and sold back … If I can do that for 15 bucks a pop, why not hit ‘em for $150,000? I thought it was the most punk rock thing to take their money.”

Lesson learned. “It was me being a bit still green. I think just when it comes to the big corporate stuff, you have to weigh the pros and cons more than I did at that time.”

Recent success means a life spent under the radar is unlikely — though to hear Bridwell tell it, many of his shows have home-court advantage. Special as the Orange Peel show may be, (it’s the first Asheville appearance by Ramsey and Reynolds as part of the band), “We have family everywhere we go. It’s Seattle, it’s Charleston, it’s Asheville, it’s Atlanta.”

who: Band of Horses with Arbouretum
what: Indie-rock
where: The Orange Peel
when: Tuesday, June 16 (9 p.m., tickets sold out at press time. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851.)

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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