Band of Horses' fourth album, Mirage Rock, is the quietest collection of songs this Seattle/South Carolina quintet has ever recorded, beaming with starry-eyed folk ballads and hazy soft-rock ruminations, harkening back to '70s legends like Crosby, Stills, and Nash and America. But the group has have a way of sounding massive, even when the playing is hushed—Mirage Rock's raw intimacy gives each song a newfound emotional rush.
Drummer Creighton Barrett credits most of this striking focus to Glyn Johns, the veteran engineer and producer for bands like Led Zeppelin, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, who helped the band whip their latest batch of material into shape. Coming after the self-produced Infinite Arms, the band's highly layered and reverb-heavy 2010 album, the members of Band of Horses—Barrett, vocalist/guitarist Ben Bridwell, keyboardist Ryan Monroe, guitarist Tyler Ramsey, and bassist Bill Reynolds—were aiming to get back to basics, to gut their songs of unnecessary sonic frills and tedious overdubs. Simply put, they wanted to sound like a band again. As Bridwell puts it on Mirage Rock's joyous opener, "Knock Knock," they were "a ramshackle crew with something to prove."
"Infinite Arms we produced by ourselves, and we were like kids in a candy store," Barrett says. "It was a big mess, and we just added to it. We had free rein because it was just us. But Glyn Johns was like, ‘None of that shit!' Once we locked down Glyn, we knew that we were going to get into different territory, where we needed to be a strong band of players. The way that Glyn works—and always has—is us playing our instruments in a room and recording it."
Johns had an old-school approach in the studio: making the band play live to tape, going for the recordings with the most purity—even if they were littered with flubs. You can feel that raw, first-take energy throughout Mirage Rock—Bridwell's strained harmonies on "Everything's Gonna Be Undone," the fuzzy pulse of "Feud"—but the album's imperfections give a sense of vulnerability that was missing on Infinite Arms and 2007's Cease to Begin. Even the band's break-out debut, 2006's Everything All the Time, reached for its own kind of perfection through a more lo-fi approach.
All of these albums are full of exceptional songwriting, regardless of fidelity; Mirage Rock just offers a grittier, more haphazard take on their trademark sound. Even the album title, with its pun on "garage rock," is a nod to this new approach.
"From a distance, it sounds really good, but if you get up close, it sounds like shit," Barrett says. "But it's really refreshing. Some of the stuff is still pretty raw. You can hear mistakes and f--k-ups. It's a band playing, not a f--king computer. Glyn made Ben sing and play guitar live with the band, which was a totally different set-up. No computers, and not even pedals, for the most part. Straight to tape, live set-up, just as it is on stage. Raw as can be, really."
Johns' presence was a revelation. He didn't just loosen up the recordings; he also helped the band tighten up their songwriting, making the most out of every harmony and riff and beat. He even forced Barrett to employ Charlie Watts' rule of not playing the snare and hi-hat simultaneously.
But that's not to say the process didn't have its awkward moments.
"It was unnerving at times," Barrett says. "Glyn would be like, ‘No one cares about your f--king guitar track!' Every morning, we went in the studio, had a cup of coffee, usually with Ben, Tyler, and Ryan sitting in front of him with acoustic guitars, playing the song in front of him at 9 o'clock in the f--kin' morning!
"It was very hands-on. [His feedback] would be simple stuff, like, ‘You need a bridge here,' or ‘You need different harmonies here.' He would say things like, ‘Don't think these songs are set in stone—you need to chisel away at them.' It took us out of the comfort zone into a more natural state somehow—a reverse that ended up being better for the whole picture of things. It was relaxed through being unrelaxed: coming back to the natural state of the song through you being uncomfortable."
But even if the process was uncomfortable at times, it also brought Band of Horses closer together.
"You want to keep it fresh," Barrett says. "Glyn would ask us every day, ‘What kind of band are you guys?' And we talked a lot about that. We are the band, and we want to be the band that can play any of this stuff and make it our own."
"You have to check expectations at the door," Barrett notes. "Some people are going to like it, and some people aren't. With previous records, we were so self-involved with it. Mirage Rock is a personal diary entry of what we can do and what we should be doing, which is doing whatever the f--k we want!"