HAVING tried to isolate themselves in the desert to write their new album, Grizzly Bear found that the familiar environment of grandma’s house worked far better. By Chitra Ramaswamy
What do you do? You’re four quietly brilliant indie-folk musicians from Brooklyn with psychedelic leanings and a thing for shimmery harmonies. You’ve been plugging away at it for years in your grandmother’s house on Cape Cod, shifting just enough records to keep at it.
Then, all of a sudden, things start happening. Radiohead invite you on tour. You end up supporting Paul Simon in New York. You do a concert with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Jay-Z and Beyoncé pitch up at one of your gigs. Your third record, Veckatimest, named after a tiny, uninhabited island off Cape Cod, makes it on to best album of the year lists all over the world. You find yourself headlining festivals, sidling up to Lady Gaga on the US top ten.
If you’re Grizzly Bear, you do as grizzlies do. You retreat to the wilderness. You go into hibernation. And then, three years later, you emerge with Shields, which according to Ed Droste, who founded the band as a solo project in 2002, is their best album yet.
“The pressure is kind of why we isolate ourselves,” he says. “It’s part of our songwriting process. We leave the city. We go places where there is no internet. We try not to use our phones. We don’t bring our significant others. We get into the zone. And it’s the same when we’re dealing with the pressure of success. If you write songs thinking about the success of your last album you’re not going to write with the best intentions. It won’t come naturally. And that’s super-important to us.”
Not that the quartet spent the three years huddled in a hole together, sleeping it off. “We took six months out, pretended we weren’t in a band, and had a normal life,” Droste continues. “We really needed to not be on the road and not be thinking about music every second of the day.” Did he miss his fellow bears? He laughs. “It felt good to be alone to be honest.”
We speak the morning after Shields has been leaked. Not that Droste, a polite, serious, and very earnest Brooklyn hipster, seems remotely concerned about it. In fact, he seems pleased.
“It’s cool. Every album leaks these days. With Veckatimest it happened two days after we finished recording. So it’s kind of a miracle that it has taken so long this time. We’re pretty much like, ‘Oh, cool, now people will know the songs.’”
Veckatimest’s phenomenal success came in the midst of a mini-wave of 1960s-inspired, lumberjack-shirt-wearing, harmony-loving, campfire-making American boy bands. Think Animal Collective and Fleet Foxes (what is it with this lot and four-legged creatures?), who dubbed Grizzly Bear their favourite band.
“We don’t make campfires,” Droste corrects me. “It’s just that if you take yourself away you have to do a lot of cooking because there are no restaurants. I don’t think any of us have ever made a campfire.” So the Grizzly Bear barbecues are a vicious urban myth?
“Look, we did barbecue on the Radiohead tour,” he says with a sigh. “We decided to grill every night in the stadium parking lot and the guys from Radiohead would join us. They thought it was very American of us.”
In the three years between Veckatimest and Shields, they all did their own thing. Chris Taylor, multi-instrumentalist and producer, launched a label and solo project and started writing a cookery book. Guitarist Daniel Rossen brought out a solo EP. Chris Bear, the drummer with the most appropriate name in indie, headed to a writing retreat in Mexico. And Droste married his boyfriend of eight years, interior designer Chad McPhail.
Then last summer they came back together in a small town called Marfa in the middle of the Texan desert. Isolated enough? “We had passed through before and there is a great arts collective and vibe,” Droste says. “We decided to rent a place and make our next album there.” But they didn’t really do their research. “June in Marfa,” he says. “It was 105 degrees every day and we had no air conditioning. We had a lot to deal with, you know, like wildfires.” He laughs. “Also we hadn’t seen each other as a foursome in a long time. We were a bit naïve thinking we could hit the ground running. We recorded like 12 songs but only two, Yet Again and Sleeping Ute, made it on to the album.”
Like homing pigeons, they ended up back at Yellow House in Cape Cod, a spot so sacred it was the name given to their second album.
“It’s so funny that we went back there in the end,” Droste laughs. “It’s my grandmother’s house, we know it, and we can use it for free. And as soon as we got there, things started happening. Dan and I had never written a song together from the ground up and all of a sudden we were just doing it, really writing together for the first time. We were all getting involved in each other’s songs in completely new ways. There was a new level of trust. We just sat by the fire, Dan strumming, me singing, and it happened. Some of the best songs on the record, like Speak in Rounds and Half Gate, came out of that. We stayed there in isolation for two months straight.”
The result is Grizzly Bear’s most collaborative and coherent album yet. It doesn’t have the beauty and dense dreaminess of Veckatimest, which Droste describes as “a more polite” album in comparison. Instead it has a rougher, more alive, less produced sound. “I think it’s our strongest album yet. And our most mature one. When I look back at Veckatimest I think there are a couple of songs that could have been cut. This time there was more restraint. It’s a much more verbose and intimate album.”
Droste grew up in Massachussets, where his mother, who plays the flute, was a music teacher. His aunt, a concert cellist, lives on Skye. Sounds like the perfect location for the next Grizzly Bear album? “We would if it wasn’t so cold and dark there all the time. But I’ve dug deep on Skye. I know how to gather round a fire and sip on a Talisker.”
He resisted music for a long time, studying journalism and briefly working in radio. “My job was to edit out the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ on documentaries,” he says drolly. “But the music stuff came out in the end. I guess I did play the clarinet for a couple of years and I took guitar lessons, but it was more of a ‘dear diary’ thing.” In a way, so was Horn of Plenty, Grizzly Bear’s first album, when it was still a solo project and Droste did most of the recordings on a handheld tape machine. He named the band after an ex-boyfriend’s nickname and most of the songs were inspired by their relationship. But as soon as he could, he was sniffing out band members.
“I was quite happy to relinquish the idea of being a solo artist. I hate the thought of being under a spotlight with my guitar, mumbling into a microphone. It’s horribly scary to me.”
Every three years, then, Grizzly Bear emerge from the desert, the island, and the forest into the horrible scary world. But they never stay long. They release an album, tour the world, and then return to the wilderness. Or at least the parking lot with some steaks and a barbecue. “Every once in a while we do enter the world of celebrity,” Droste notes, sounding embarrassed. “Usually, we’re like ‘wooooaaaaah’. Weird. I mean Jay Z and Beyoncé are cool. But then we go away again. That’s sort of how it goes with us.”
• Shields is released on 17 September on Warp.