Grizzly Bear on “Painted Ruins” - The Under the Radar Cover Story

Own Your Scars

Oct 05, 2017 Photography by James Loved (for Under the Radar) Issue #61 - Grizzly Bear
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On January 5, 2014, Grizzly Bear performed at the iconic Sydney Opera House, bringing to a close a two-year cycle of writing, recording, and touring that had brought them to new creative and commercial heights while exposing fault lines within the band itself. The recording sessions for 2012's Shields had been fraught with false starts and misfires, resulting in strained relationships and a general weariness that carried over into touring. But by the time they left the stage that night, Grizzly Bear was a different bandcloser, tighter, healed. Somehow, perhaps by sheer tyranny of will, they had adapted. Exhausted but triumphant, they were back in each other's good graces and had never sounded better as a unit, recalls bassist and producer Chris Taylor. The time was right to channel that momentum directly into their next album.

"I remember being like, 'I know as soon as we go home, we won't be talking to one another, and we'll go into our lives and just do our own things,'" he says, his words tumbling out in rapid succession. "'Okay, cool. We should all have some time like that. But what if in three months we just got back in touch, so that it just doesn't totally die in the meantime?' And I remember the guys were like, 'Yeah... maybe.' And I was like, 'Okay, this is not happening.'"

And for nearly a year-and-a-half nothing much happened. The band did exactly what Taylor feared and retreated to their corners, scattering from their previous homebase of Brooklyn to Los Angeles (vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Ed Droste), upstate New York (vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Rossen), Berlin (Taylor), and Long Island (drummer Chris Bear), respectively. They had plenty of reasonable excuses, of course. There were marriages and divorces, babies born, and Bear and Taylor would soon relocate to Los Angeles, as well, with Rossen landing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But there weren't any new songs. What Taylor didn't know was just how close the band was to not getting back together at all.

That much would have seemed unthinkable to most anyone who has witnessed the quartet's steady rise from precocious 20-somethings to one of the most acclaimed American bands of the last decade. With four now canonized full-length releases in their catalog, they have built their career album-by-album and tour-by-tour, counting everyone from Jay-Z and Beyoncé to Radiohead as fans. All of this they have accomplished without the aid of gimmicks or the built-in momentum of genre movements, remaining four smart, nice guys who don't seem drawn to drama. The performance at the Sydney Opera House should have been a moment of victory, the culmination of a decade of work. It was not a moment whose memory lingered long.

"I wasn't sure if I wanted to go through the whole process of what it means to make a record with the band," admits Rossen during a cross-country drive from Santa Fe to his old house in upstate New York. "It's just complicated, and I don't love everything about working in the music industry. I had some time where I was like, 'Maybe I just want to make music for myself and not take it as seriously.' I wasn't really sure how I wanted to function in the band, to be honest. I wasn't even sure that I wanted to write songs for the band or sing in the band anymore."

Not nearly so reticent, Droste admits that he had more or less disengaged from his life as a musician, if not from music altogether, withdrawing to his life in Los Angeles and unplugging as a creative and consumer of new music. Throwing himself on the gears of the Grizzly Bear machine wasn't an appealing prospect. "I think there's always a fear that you're going to repeat yourself or that what you're doing is relying on some tired technique that you've used in the past," Droste says from his home in Los Angeles. "I feel like anyone who is in a band, there's always the question of 'Are we going to do this again?' I can't imagine someone being like, 'We're doing this! No matter what.' I've seen so many bands break up," he says with a mischievous pause. "And then they come back."

Bear, too, was temporarily unavailable, busy settling into married life on Long Island. Living in Berlin, Taylor convinced himself that he also needed to take a break, but couldn't quite disconnect as easily as his bandmates, still traveling back and forth to New York City to do production work. He would send "pokey emails" to his bandmates, asking if they'd like to get together, but no one was interested. Every day that went by, he saw the band's window of opportunity sliding shut.

"I spent a lot of time thinking about how to build a process for everyone that would feel welcome to them, that wouldn't scare them or put anyone in a position to make them feel shitty and want to walk away," Taylor explains. "It wasn't guaranteed that we were actually going to do a record, ever. A couple of guys were like, 'If this doesn't go better or at least kind of well, then probably it shouldn't happen.' So it was like, 'Okay, the pressure is on for me to devise a plan to find a long-game that would work for everyone.'"

Taylor's solution was simple: in the spring of 2015, he opened a communal Dropbox for the band to store any new ideas they might have. No one would have to feel any pressure; no one would even have to see each other, if they didn't want. Because he no longer had much of a sense of what kinds of sounds anyone was particularly drawn to at this point, he also hoped they'd post playlists of music that was inspiring them. (This never happened.) The Dropbox was just a forum to collect ideas, and the more they could collect the less likely it would be that they'd end up sinking into the frayed nerves and creative gear-grinding of Shields. And to jumpstart the process, Taylor did something he had never done during his life in the band: he got a guitar and started writing songs.

"I felt like I wasn't really qualified," he admits. "A guy like Dan Rossen is such a brilliant songwriter and does it on a level that I can't really fathom. I've known him for 17 years quite well and have worked on lots of music with himfive records at this pointand I still couldn't write a song that did what Dan's songs do. That alone was intimidating. Beyond that, I don't have a lot of experience writing songs. It's not really a set I've sat in a lot or a position I've tried to operate from. I didn't even expect for the songs to work. I just thought that if I did stuff it might make them do stuff, even if the things I came up with weren't good. Maybe it would make them think, 'Well, we need to make better stuff,'" he laughs. "It was reverse psychology."

It worked. Soon, Rossen had uploaded a chordal figure that would eventually become the foundation of "Losing All Sense," a deliriously bouncy pop song with roller rink keyboards and a playful Droste vocal. At this stage, though, it was still a sketch, sped up and twisted by Taylor and Bear as it went through multiple iterations. It didn't sound much like Grizzly Bear, but it was playful and upbeat, an unintimidating entry point that had everyone's fingerprints all over it. But it would still be many months until it started to sound like a finished song.

Next up was "Three Rings," a harmonically-rich mid-tempo ballad built around a tumbling and sputtering drum loop Bear added to the cloud, with Droste creating the somber vocal melody and Taylor laying out a darkly snaking bass figure. Once Rossen added a swirl of vocal and string countermelodies, they were in business. Here it wasthe classic sound of Grizzly Bear in a nutshell, but it would still be a year before the band got together to properly record it. Taylor's attempt at turning Grizzly Bear into a virtual construction project was working, but it entailed building songs one brick at a time.

"We were all at least six hours of travel from one another, so that slowed things down to a friggin' crawl," Taylor says. "It was so slow. One thing might happen to that cloud per month, maybe. And it would be hardly anything. We had one song that seemed to potentially be a song, but we wouldn't even say that it was going to be an album yet. We weren't even going to say that we were going to make an album until there were enough songs to merit an album. So there was a good year of just, 'Okay, here's an idea for what could be a song on a hypothetical record,'" he says, temporarily reliving his frustration. "But we wouldn't even say 'hypothetical record.'"

"I was trying for a long time to not even send full song ideas at all," Rossen concurs, acknowledging his status as the band's resident idea hoarder. "It had been so long that we weren't sure what our roles were meant to be if we did this again. We didn't really have a conversation like, 'What is this going to sound like?' It was more like, 'Just let people submit what they're going to submit, and see what takes shape until we figure out the best way to submit and the best type of material to submit,'" he says with a sigh. "It was a long, slow process."

So, free of their roles, Grizzly Bear adapted. If only due to geography, the band soon split into two songwriting teams, with Taylor and Droste working together in and around Los Angeles and Rossen and Bear collaborating in upstate New York. Lessons were learned: Droste accepted that sometimes the best thing for a song was for it to die. Rossen came to the conclusion that he needed to hold back his tendency to fill his contributions up with harmony parts that didn't allow his bandmates much room to contribute. Taylor and Bear learned that even their smallest ideas held the potential of being developed into tracks that would serve as the centerpieces of the album. Week-by-week, month-by-month, track-by-track the old feelings faded and they passed back and forth a set of songs that was finally ready to take into the studio. By the summer of 2016, they had Painted Ruins, a refinement and an extension of everything they've done to this point. Grizzly Bear had avoided extinction.

PLAYING OFF THE FIGHTS

Though none of the members of Grizzly Bear seem particularly eager to talk about just how the three-week Marfa, Texas, recording sessions for Shields created a context where each of the non-Chris Taylor members of the band were hesitant to even work together again, a few facts are agreed upon by all involved. One, the band was poorly prepared for the session. Rossen arrived with a handful of songs, and Droste and Bear had collaborated on a number of demos, but none of the songs really seemed to fit together stylistically or point in the direction of a coherent album. (Twelve songs were recorded and only two made it onto the album.) Two, the settinga swelteringly hot rented housewasn't helping, only serving to fray nerves and amplify tension. Three, partly as a result of their success, the band who had lived in each other's pockets for years now had the luxury of losing touch. It was a perfect storm for conflict.

"We arrived in Marfa, and we were looking at what we had, and it was like, 'I don't know how much I'm really feeling that one,'" Taylor remembers. "And that begat, 'Well, I don't know how much I'm feeling your song, either.' It was just ridiculous," he laughs. "Usually, it's quite agreeable. We all democratically weigh in to varying degrees, but usually it's a little more fluid. That time, we didn't know which way was up or down, so we were floundering, spinning our wheels and overheating, literally and figuratively. I think because I always work with other bands in between these [Grizzly Bear] records, I've seen other bands' processes, and sometimes, because the guys don't work a lot with other people, they're like, 'Oh my gosh, maybe this isn't going well.' And I'm like, 'No, no, this is totally fine. It's all normal. It's all part of the process. I've seen so much worse.'"

When speaking with each band member, the Grizzly Bear dynamic isn't difficult to imagine in the roles assumed by each member. Droste is the funny, ever-talkative, heart-on-sleeve extrovert. Rossen is his opposite, a quiet, careful introvert who seems to hide even within his own songs. Bear is the band's glue, the thoughtful, easy-going rock upon which the foundation of every song rests. Taylor, then, is the band's fast-talking cheerleader, a perpetual motion machine of ideas that is always running on a full tank. "Totally," "cool," and "awesome" are the most frequently used words in his vocabulary, and he exudes an enthusiasm that colors everything he talks about, whether his music or his side career as a chef. They are, in fact, four very different personality types.

Those Marfa sessions were a distant memory by the time the band decamped to Allaire Studios in the Catskills Mountains of New York in the summer of 2016, the converted mansion where David Bowie recorded his early-2000s material and where Grizzly Bear themselves had made 2008's Veckatimest. Remaining recording was completed in the studio Taylor built in his garage in Los Angeles. Though all agree that there was never any overarching design for the album and that there were no conversations regarding a unified vision for the songs they were writing, Taylor did want to approach the recording sessions with the goal of reconnecting the band with itself. On a long drive for a songwriting session in Big Sur, for the first time in years he listened to the Grizzly Bear catalog from start to finish.

"I was like, 'What was it that we sounded like?'" he recalls. "It's hard to exactly remember, because beyond the shows the records sound quite different. I just wanted to hear where I felt like our strengths were, and I guess one of the things that I came away with was it was exciting to me was when it sounded like a band was really playing. I love getting into the arrangements of stuff and making little vignettes and sidetrack compositional moments. Dan and I always get deep on that stuff together, and I knew that we can always go there, but I thought that when we sound best-at least right nowwas to do stuff that sounds like four guys playingthe sound of a band."

That isn't to say that Taylor wanted to make a "live-in-the-studio" type of album, and Painted Ruins certainly isn't that. The arrangements and orchestrations are every bit as elaborate as before, and few, if any, of these songs could actually be played by four people in a room. The word "feels" turns up over and over when Taylor is talking about the album, and it soon becomes clear that he wanted the album to be driven by the energy of the band's instrumental interplaythe feel of the song more than the sound. The album should sound like a band playing together instead of layers of texture. It might be a subtle distinction, even one that Taylor struggles to articulate, but it is most apparent in the thick, bloody rhythmic pulse that runs throughout the album.

"I think we were all definitely excited to have it feel punchy and a little bit more of the feeling of what the band sounds like live," says Bear, the first member of the band to become a father. "From what I hear, the house engineer mixes the rhythm section pretty loud. I think sometimes it comes off as us having some sort of mellowness or softness to us, but I think there is also a lot of stuff that is definitely not that. So I think it's important for that rhythm section thing to feel like it's really pumping, and I think it gives these songs an energy that we haven't quite captured yet on record."

Both "Four Cypresses" and "Aquarian" were created from drum tracks that Bear created, a first for the band, both songs layering darkly swirling atmospherics upon Bear's dexterously jazzy patterns and Taylor's nimble, probing bass parts. Where previous Grizzly Bear songs could be a bit brittle in their pristine arrangements, nearly every song here sweats and breathes with a human heartbeat. But just as the rhythm section is more anchored, the textures are more ambient and alien. More than before, synthesizers dominate many of the mixes, mostly because Rossen found himself drawn to the instrument's dynamic range over the guitar. The result is an album of marvelously balanced contrasts, with the familiar slashing guitar lines cutting across layers of ornately arranged synth textures.

"There's more synths, but I hesitate to highlight that, because then people think it's going to be some sort of weird dance thing, which it's not obviously," Droste says. "I guess there's different styles being played with here that we've never tried before. The opening track ['Wasted Acres'] is very different from anything that we've ever done before. Even 'Mourning Sound' sounds different, because it's one of the more straightforward beats that we've done. Even the last song ['Sky Took Hold'], with that eerie flute, and 'Glass Hillside' sounds like nothing we've done. Then there are things that are more familiar. I'd say things like 'Aquarian' and 'Neighbors' are more familiar Grizzly Bear. There's stuff that to me isn't crazy, wild stuff, like, 'Oh, The band went out to make an EDM record.' There's no attempt at some sort of new genre or anything; it's definitely still us."

The 11-song set is both more accessible and more experimental than anything in their catalog. There are driving synth-pop anthems ("Mourning Sound"), slinky, shapeshifting psych-pop ballads ("Wasted Acres"), and the harmony-drenched piece of 8-bit prog-pop ("Glass Hillside"). Taylor even takes his first lead vocal on "Systole," a piece of ethereal pop that stands as the album's most meditative track. In short, it is their most dynamic, varied-sounding release, a remarkable feat considering just how reticent its creators were to even commit to making it.

"I don't think I've met a single band where there hasn't been tension," Droste concludes. "If there's one lead person and no one else has any say, that's how bands break up super-fast. They're like, 'Screw you! You get to call all of the shots?' So, in a way, even though it can be quite difficult and slows things down, I think because everyone has got equal share in literally everything and everyone is an equal partner, no one ever feels left out or underserved. So, yeah, it can make things slower, but in the long run it has kept us together. So thank God we don't have just one person. That wouldn't work so well."

MOVE AROUND THE BEND

In September of 2012, two weeks after the release of Shields, Droste caused a minor stir when he was quoted in a New York Magazine piece explaining how the band's success hadn't managed to put them in a position so privileged that they didn't still have to worry about making the rent every month and paying for health insurance. For fans and would-be indie bands, it was sobering. How could a band that stood at, or very near, the top of the indie rock dogpile not even make enough to afford regular dentist visits? Grizzly Bear currently hovers somewhere in commercial purgatorymore popular than the vast majority of indie bands but still largely unknown outside of the NPR/Pitchfork/New York Times corridor. Unlikelier acts have broken through to the mainstream, but Grizzly Bear still seems like an improbable candidate for that sort of success.

"I have a hard time imagining us as a really mainstream band," Droste says. "I would be shocked if alternative radio started to play us, like K-Rock or something. I don't see us playing stadiums. Hopefully we'll grow a little bit. I'm always down for a little bump up, but none of us have any grand desires to be a giant, huge band that can do Radio City..." he says, pausing when he realizes that the band actually has played Radio City Music Hall. "Well, Madison Square Gardenthat kind of thing. Even if we could, I don't think we'd do that. I think we'd choose multiple smaller shows. No one is doing jump kicks in the air. It's an ethereal experience. I wouldn't poo-poo it if it reached more people, but I just don't think we'll ever be considered mainstream."

In a strange way, Grizzly Bear probably had their biggest brush with mainstream visibility when Droste, apparently put off by Taylor Swift's habit of trotting out veteran indie rock stars as guests during her concerts, went on a mini-Twitter rant against the chart-topping pop star. Calling her a "monster" and explaining that he had been bullied and mocked by her on several occasions, he was soon set upon by an army of Swifties who attacked his appearance, his sexuality, his ethnicity, etc. Droste got in a few good shots, but having won the battle probably lost the war. He quit Twitter soon after. 

"It's just annoying," he says when the incident is brought up. "It's just noise, so much noise. And you can choose to partake in it or choose not to, and at this point I'm done with Twitter. I don't really regret many things I've done in my life, so I'm fine with where I'm at. I've got to the point where I know that for sure people are going to say horrible things about me or something that I'm really attached to, and there's nothing I can do about it. You can either read it and decide to respond or you can...," he says trailing off. "I mean, what's healthier? You have to move on."

Moving on has been a theme for Droste, whose marriage ended in April of 2014. Having withdrawn from the world of celebrity, he poured himself into political causes more than ever before, visiting college campuses to speak about LGBT rights and performing with the band at a Bernie Sanders rally. "I would say that I'm more politically aware than I ever have been in my life, and then there's a piece of me that is like, 'Wasn't it chill when you were 23 and you didn't pay that much attention?'" he says. "Now it's a daily barrage of horrors everywhere, and, again, you have to pick and choose when you let it effect you, because you can't live your life in a constant state of mourning for the tragedies that are happening everywhere, but you can choose what you speak up about. I try to be as vocal as possible for things I believe in," he continues, acknowledging that even though the album was mostly written and recorded before the 2016 election, it was still influenced by those events. "I do think that there's political undertones to certain songs, but they are not overt. You might want to go reread the lyrics on some of those songs."

Despite becoming more outspoken politically, the event with Swift and her fans has left its mark. When Droste is asked about what he thinks about modern pop music, he says that he likes a lot of it but that there are certain trends that he finds off-putting but about which he'd rather not elaborate. ("That's about all the information you're going to get, because you won't be getting any shit talking from me," he laughs.) When pushed, Droste will admit that the current musical climate is far different from the one he grew up, with streaming fundamentally changing the way listeners experience music. Now on a major label for the first time, having signed with RCA after releasing their previous albums on legendary experimental British label Warp, Droste expresses some frustration over the strategies that pushed back Painted Ruins' release date and forced the band to release drips and drops of new materialoften isolated instrumental tracks from individual songsover their Instagram. Fans noticed and some didn't approve, suggesting the band should borrow a page from the pop world and just drop the album as a surprise release.

"This is just a particularly crowded year," Droste admits. "Do you want to drop your album on the week The National does? But it has always been strategic. The odd thing is that people's attention spans and patience for things has gone down, because now they're used to people just coming and dropping albums out of the blue. If you look at our rollouts for every album that we've ever done, there always were a couple singles before. I know it might seem antiquated, but we're not quite at the level where we can do more of a pop move like, 'Bam, here it is! Watch the air explode!'"

Once the poster band for "Brooklyn indie," Grizzly Bear now faces a future as a major label band on the West Coast. Just where they fit today is even less clear than before, and as they head into the latter half of their 30s, they are creeping up on the point where many bands start to fray around the edges and sink into cycles of repetition and diminishing returns. ("We think this is cool, but maybe we sound old and we don't know!" Taylor jokes.) As much as certain parts of the creative process become easier simply because there are proven methods of collaboration, feelings of insecurity replace the audacity of youth.

"I just question everything now, way more than I used to," Rossen says. "Even if I really like something, I'll find myself ripping it apart much more easily than I ever would have when I was younger. You're just wild and will try anything when you're 25, and you have an intrinsic confidence in what you're doing, because it's just what you do. That's how I felt when I was younger, and I don't always feel like that anymore. It takes a little bit more intention, especially when I'm writing by myself. At least with the other guys, you can bounce ideas off each other and if someone else is interested in what you're doing, it helps fuel what you're making. When I'm writing alone, it's impossible. Every single idea, I'm ripping it to shreds, which I definitely didn't used to do."

When Rossen explains this tendency, he doesn't seem particularly troubled by it. After all of the years of cramped vans and sleeping on people's floors, when playing the Bowery Ballroom seemed like an unreachable dream, the members of Grizzly Bear remain four musicians chasing the next song. They're a long way from Brooklyn, both literally and philosophically, but the spirit and energy of those early days remains largely the same. Painted Ruinsa title that conjures images of partying at the end of the worldis fitting for a band that can take the crumbling debris of the past and turn it into a creative celebration.

"If we hadn't met at that age with that energy, and if we were all starting a band now, I don't think we'd start a band," Droste admits. "That's no rudeness to anyone and there's no beef or anything, but we're all very different and lead our lives differently. But we all love each other and respect each other and hang out and have a good time together. It happened because we were at the point in our lives where we could do that and look past the totally different vibes. We've fought-who hasn't? But we're pretty zen with each other now. We're pretty good to each other. Through the younger years we'd totally freak out, but there's that energy. We just channel the energy differently now. I have to trust my bandmates," he says. "And I do."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Summer 2017 Issue (July/August/September 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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