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Grizzly Bear on “Painted Ruins” - The Under the Radar Cover Story Bonus Q&A

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Oct 06, 2017 Photography by James Loveday (for Under the Radar) Grizzly Bear
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When Grizzly Bear released their debut, Horn of Plenty, in 2004, it would have been difficult to predict that they’d still be making records 13 years later. Essentially a solo album by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Ed Droste, with drummer Chris Bear adding percussion and backing vocals, there was little indication that their future work would be defined by collaboration and the contributions of four unique creative personas. With Painted Ruins, their first new full-length release in five years, the band has opened up their songwriting process even, elevating bassist and producer Chris Taylor joining Droste and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Rossen as a third voice in the mix, while also using Bear’s drum loops as the foundation for several tracks. The resulting releasearguably the most eclectic and accessible in their catalogproves that having too many cooks in the kitchen can still result in a glorious meal. Here, in our separate interviews with the four members (combined into one Q&A) they discuss the struggle to execute the collective vision of four artists, how the band has evolved from their humble origins, and their ongoing inability to define exactly what they do. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Grizzly Bear, quotes that didn’t make it into our main print article on the band.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Nearly five years have passed since the last new Grizzly Bear album. Was there a reason the band decided to take a hiatus?

Ed Droste: The break wasn’t necessarily a result of any internal band issues; it was more like the literal moment when people get married/divorced/have children/all that stuff. It’s just like a lot of things happened, so it was like, “Okay, we have to address this corner of our lives before we get back into the writing process.” But it was totally Chris Taylor who started this puppy, like “Let’s do this!” I credit him with getting me up and back into my band self. He was incredible that way. He was quite a motivating force for the whole process, but especially in the early stages when people were like, “I don’t know what we’re doing. What are you up to?”

Chris Bear: I think we were all tired after touring, and we toured a lot. Everyone had things going on in their lives, and I think we all needed a little space to be with ourselves and in our lives, and by the time we came back, we were ready to work on music and not be thinking about any of the parts of the whole experience of touring over and over again and how heavy that can feel. I think we genuinely were missing that collaboration with one another, which is a great thing, to not feel like, “Oh, yeah. These guys…I have to figure out how to make some music with them.”

Was the writing process different this time?

Chris Tayler: So I had this idea of making a DropBox cloud where we could put little inspiration tracks. I felt like in the years of touring on a bus, we didn’t tour in a van anymore, and we weren’t stuck around each other all the time, for better or worse. Also, we wouldn’t listen to music together. We had a really clear idea when we did Veckatimest of what everyone liked and didn’t like, and that made things go in interesting directions and made the process more fluid, like, “Okay, what kinds of things are you into? Here are the things I’m doing.” There was a rapport there, and that had completely fallen apart. Even by the time Shields was happening, we didn’t have much an idea of what anyone was into. So I was just thinking about ways for us to find that rapport once again, like, “What are we into? What do you like? What kinds of things are you interested in making?”

Chris Bear: I guess maybe there was more initial playfulness or something, where we were letting things exist, even if they weren’t totally working yet or we weren’t sure if they were going to work. But it was like, “Let’s let this simmer and see if something comes of it,” and trying not to force it if it wasn’t.

Daniel Rossen: I think we were all trying as much as we could not to shoot anything down before we tried it. That’s a big part of it. You can’t really know until you hear something and let it guide you a little bit. I used to have a tendency, and I still do sometimes, to write out and record a lot of harmony parts ahead of time, and I’ll have parts that I want to keep and use, and I used to be dogmatic and difficult about it. I’m definitely trying as much as I can not to be proscriptive with parts as much as possible. For myself, there was definitely that. To keep it open, it usually improves if you let the whole thing develop naturally instead of lording over people. It’s not as fun, and it doesn’t work out as well.

What was the result of Chris Taylor taking a larger role in the songwriting process?

Ed Droste: It’s hard to articulate perfectly, but you add a new voice, and you’re going to get a thicker richness to the songs. Obviously, you don’t want to have 20 people all try to battle it out within a song, but with the four of us, we’ve always been creative. That’s not to say that he hasn’t written before, because everyone has always been writing. But I think throughout the songs you can feel everyone’s presence here and there in a way that is more notable and warmer. The whole process was one of the most fun album-making experiences. It was a really fun, exciting, playful thing. We had a difficult time last album with that trip to Marfa [Texas] that basically resulted in some B-sides. But that’s just what happens. This time we didn’t want to rush it, because we don’t like to force things and make it feel like, “We have to finish this,” and then it sounds like crap.

Daniel Rossen: He was probably the most aggressive in terms of getting the whole train moving. He was the most eager to get started. For that reason, he was submitting more writing than he had in the past. We didn’t really discuss it, but it was one of those things where it was like, “This is new.” And working on his ideas and developing songs out of his ideas was a very different experience from things we’d done before. It was novel and enjoyable, and it doesn’t always work, but it developed just because he was pushing the hardest to make this happen. He brought the whole thing together initially.

Chris Taylor: They were into a handful of things that I put up, and that was really exciting to me. I was talking to Dan and Chris about this, and it was exciting to me that I and also the other guys can all write stuff, so we can constantly be writing and then not take so long until the next record. That’s my hope. Look, I’m already champing at the bit for next thing! This is just how it goes. I can’t really help it. It just comes from a place where I have other jobs producing or I keep myself busy by getting really into cooking and stuff. I work at restaurants and chef just for fun. I need to be doing stuff, but nothing is nearly as fun as making music with my band. Nothing holds a candle. So I guess that’s why I’m always really anxious to get back in there and do it again.

The rhythm section plays a much more prominent role on this record. Was that a goal from the start?

Chris Taylor: I’ve been learning the bass the whole time I’ve been in the band. I wasn’t a bass player so much before I joined Grizzly Bear. I just had one other band where I played some shitty, punky stuff, just fast and never very complicated. I guess each record I’m trying to improve and I always feel a little shy, like, “Oh, man, actual bass players must hear me and be like, ‘wow, that guy is such a hack.’” I made a real point to try and learn in the meantime a newer way of playing that was a little bit more rhythmically and melodically interactive, just playing as opposed to coming up with specific parts and executing them. I hate to use the word “jamming,” but in that sense of more interactive playing with Chris and what he’s doing. So it is a different way of playing this time in that regard.

Has the band developed ways of keeping the songwriting process from turning into a turf war?

Ed Droste: No one is super territorial, because everyone appreciates what everyone brings to the table. There’s just so many things they create that I could never come up with on my own, and we all have different perspectives and melodic sensibilities. I think you have to be open to letting a song die. That’s one way. It’s always good if you’re feeling passionate about a song and one other or two other people are like, “Uh, it’s not really speaking to me. I don’t know what to do with it.” You can keep pushing it and pushing it or try to revise it and revise, but we try not to do that, and we’ve gotten much better with age. It can be a huge waste of time, because you can’t force your bandmates to be into something you’re into. I’d say we all love every single song on the album, and in the past that has mostly been in the case. There might have been songs here and there that someone might have felt less stoked about, but this time we’re all like, “I am stoked about it all!”

Daniel Rossen: There was such a different vision as to what each of us was trying to do [on Shields], so it took us a really long time to find a common ground. And we did, eventually, but it took a while. That was another part of why we were coming at it so slowly this time, to avoid that kind of stalemate where it is like, ‘I have this kind of song, and you have this kind of song’ and not meeting in the middle at all. For this one, it was like, ‘Let’s see what it sounds like very slowly, and we’ll see what kind of material is suitable for us and what is not,’ instead of trying to force one thing or another.

Did you ever think of leaving the band and channeling all of your creative energy into a solo career?

Daniel Rossen: I tried that for a little bit and it didn’t really work. [Laughs] It was just too different. That was part of the process of figuring out how exactly this would work best at this point, and it ended up working best to do it a little bit closer to the way we used to do it, but with it being a little more open source and a little more collaborative. I don’t know what I would have done. I still love working with those guysdon’t get me wrong. It’s not like that. I didn’t really have a plan to do much of anything anymore. I didn’t really know. I just wasn’t totally sold on doing this, but we were very delicate about it, and everyone was very respectful about coming to it as slowly as possible. And by the time we got together and were recording for real, it was great. Our ability to work together was as good as it has ever been. By the time we really got there it was excellent. It just took me a little time to come around to it and feel comfortable with it.

Ed Droste: If we were all me, it would sound the same all the time, I think. Sometimes I’m like, “It would be great to be a pop star and pluck different songwriters from different genres and be like, ‘Write for me!’” And you can reinvent yourself basically by hiring new people to write songs for you or collaborate with you. Some people get really into the songwriting process and some don’t. We’ve always written everything we’ve done, other than a cover here and there. It’s a different thing. I feel like it’s a little bit easier to reinvent yourself if you’re in the position where you can do that, like, “I want to make a country album, so dial up Nashville’s biggest hitmakers and send me their songs.” And you come back and you’re like, “I’m going to go back to radio pop, so call up those Swedish writers and give it a go again.” Where with us, we’re like, “Who knows what we’re going to sound like?” It just sort of organically happens.

“Losing All Sense” is probably the most pop-oriented and playful song in the band’s catalog. How did it come together?

Daniel Rossen: Yeah, I guess that’s true. That one came together slowly, and it’s a very open source kind of song, almost pastiche in the way in happened. It came out of a playful dynamic, I guess, and not like a super intentionally written song at all. It makes sense that it would have that feeling about. I feel like there was a real effort put into keeping the mood playful and whatever was going on fun and engaging and not too heavy or serious, even if the content of the song was serious. Just keeping the mood light and playful.

What inspired the title, Painted Ruins?

Daniel Rossen: It was one of the first stabs, actually. I liked it because it felt like an evocative way of talking about dressing something up that’s falling apart, taking something that’s crumbling and making it function. There were a couple moments on the record that refer obliquely to some aspect of crumbling civilization or culture. There are little moments of that, little moments of…not political themes necessarily, but vague life-oriented cultural decay themes that happen here and there, and I felt like it worked into that in a nice way. It’s open enough, and it’s a little bit playful but referring just to the idea of taking something that’s broken and making it function.

Do you think the band is drawn to different sounds and themes than you were when you started? Have perspectives shifted?

Ed Droste: Tastes certainly change. I feel like we’re all growing as songwriters and lyricists, so I do feel like the songs in general are lyrically stronger and there’s more attention to that craft. I’m in no way throwing anything from the past catalog under the bus, but when I look at songs from Yellow House...I mean, I love “Colorado.” It’s one of my favorite songs, but there’s also, like, eight words in it. [Laughs] So there has been growth. It’s us having been doing this together for so long. I guess the most exciting thing about it to me is that I would always fear that with age we’d become exhausted and not want to be around each other and do it, and I haven’t been this excited about an album ever. So that’s kind of the most surreal thing about it, because sometimes I feel like, “Oh, well. When bands age they start to just turn out the same stuff.” I’m just really grateful we were able to make this album the way we made it and have the final product turn out the way it did.

The band played a Bernie Sanders rally during his presidential run and has been more politically outspoken. Do those themes turn up on the record?

Daniel Rossen: Certainly, we’re not interested in topical songwriting or addressing political situations head on. It doesn’t seem relevant to what we’re doing, but I definitely feel like expressing a shared kind of sense of humanity, and that experience of communicating with people through music and what that can mean to them, that certainly feels more valuable in this sort of climate. But for us specifically, I don’t think that’s really our M.O. to engage politics head-on ever. I think if anything there was a little bit of an attempt to take personal experience and allow it to represent a larger experience or relate to larger sociopolitical themes that are going. I don’t know that it would be a great move for our band to venture into provocative topical songwriting. It just doesn’t seem like what we do.

Where do you think Grizzly Bear fits in today’s music environment?

Ed Droste: The music world has changed so much since we last released an album, and I took a break from really paying attention to what was going on. When I started to dip my toes back in and read things more and educate myself on what was going on I was like “Whoa! It’s totally different.” I’m not even talking about streaming; I’m talking about tastes and trends. I hope we fit somewhere. I would hope at this point that we don’t have to be shoved into some shoebox category, but I don’t know. I still get some interviews where people will say “Brooklyn indie,” and I’ll be like, “Well…okay. If that’s how you feel about it. But we don’t live there and we’re not on an indie [label] anymore, so…” People are going to categorize us. There’s just no way around that. I don’t know when we’re going to get to the point where we’re category free. But I’d love to get more away from categories and just exist as ourselves as a band that our fans and a sliver of the population are acquainted with and leave it at that.

So many bands start to fade and become irrelevant about a decade into their careers. Do you ever worry that Grizzly Bear doesn’t fit with today’s short attention span music culture?

Ed Droste: There’s so much stuff. And with playlist and shuffleit’s only going to go more in that direction. It could easily happen to us. You’re living in your own bubble, and I don’t expect constant coverage, nor do I really want it. I don’t want to have a report on every tweet or every interview where you say somethingthat’s unneeded noise, in my opinion. But I’ve talked to some artists who are like, “It’s definitely weird out here.” It’s like, “We’ll just see how it goes.” It’s going to be different. It’s going to be different touring because of the political climate, not to mention that one of the biggest massacres happened in Paris in a musical venue. There are so many factors that have changed in the years that we’ve been gone. Hopefully people stick around for the ride and listen to it a bunch of times and come to the shows, but I have no idea and I never have. It’s always a question mark to me. All I know is that I’m particularly excited about this album, so I’m just going to ride on that enthusiasm, and hopefully that channels out into the rest of the world.

Chris Taylor: From the beginning, there is this wide world of music happening at a blinding pace, and you can hardly keep up with all the stuff that’s coming out and people innovating this and that. I just really feel these days when a record is most successful in its own right is when it just really owns its own lane. As much as I love James Blake or Bon Iver or Future or Kendrick Lamar, I can’t see folding in those influences. It’s better if we all make the most Grizzly Bear record that we can, because that’s what we know, and there’s so many millions things out that it’s like “Why don’t we keep developing this voice?”

Ten years ago, could you have ever seen the band getting to this point?

Ed Droste: No, no. You have to remember how the band started. We just wanted to do it, and we still do. But we were like, “We’re just going to book our own tour. We’re just going to do this.” But if someone had told me that basically anything post 2008 or ‘09that any of those things would happenI would have been like, “I don’t believe you.” We were hopeful for being able to play the Bowery Ballroom. Everything else is just icing and crazy, and right now I don’t think about that a lot, but I know the second I stand on stage somewhere I’m going to be like, “Oh, shit. I forgot how surreal and crazy this is.”

At this point, do you have a clear sense of what kind of music you make?

Chris Taylor: I’ve decided that I can’t really be concerned with that. When we first started doing this when we were 24, we got labeled as freak folk, which we were like, “Yuck! No way. We don’t want to be that!” We didn’t want to be called a rock band, either. We had all these opinions like, “Well, it’s not that”not like we had a better answer. But I don’t even know how to answer that question anymore. It’s bass, drums, and guitar and a bunch of singing, so I guess it’s got to be some sort of rock. I guess when it comes down to it, it doesn’t really give me a lot to know what it would be. It’s nothing that’s useful to me, and honestly I think it can be inhibiting to think about. Vampire Weekend is this band that does this weird thing in a really brilliant way where it’s rock, it’s pop, and I’m not really sure which. Sometimes it’s R&B-ish a little bit. What the heck are they? What would their genre be? I wouldn’t know how to describe it. One of the most brilliant things about that band is that they are genre-less in a very impressive way. That’s more of an ideal approach to it.

Ed Droste: I guess I would say 50 percent yes and 50 percent no. Our voices sound like us. Dan has a wonderful, unique way of creating chord changes, and Chris’ production style is amazing. Everyone has their unique thing that is identifiable. At the same time, if we make another albumand everyone is planning on itI could see it having even more new journeys and directions, because people want to explore. But our motto is, as long as we’re stoked about it, that’s the best we can do. Believe megetting four of us to be excited about an album is a feat in itself, because we’re so different. We’re four really different people.

Daniel Rossen: Not really, no. It’s just a crosspollination of our various interests, I guess. Three of us came from a real jazz perspective early on, and I think that still informs a lot of what we do. You’re a product of whatever you’re consuming and whatever musical culture you grow up around. I feel like that’s just as true as it was when we were younger. I don’t really feel like I need to know what it is that we make, and I feel like if we had made that decision when we were making Yellow House it would have really restricted us intensely. I’m really glad that we don’t make only acoustic-based music where we have a few options, like plucked guitars and harmonies and drum patterns and there’s no kit and no kick drum. If we had kept those rules that we had early on, we never would have been able to make this record now or any of the other ones, so it’s kind of nice not to have that rule.

So will Grizzly Bear jump back into the studio as soon as touring is over? The Beatles and The Kinks used to release two albums a year, you know…

Chris Taylor: Exactly! I know! That’s what I’m saying! It’s not like a came up with this idea on my own. That’s exactly where the inspiration to do this comes from. Look at The Beatles and The Kinks. To me, that sounds really cool. I would just love to be in that kind of setup. That just sounds really fun. But seldom can you be churning out brilliant stuff over and over and over again. The Beatles had been playing all these covers songs thousands of times, and they had such a repertoire between themselves and individually. By the time they sat down to write stuff, they had already gone through that process of trying out all kinds of things, so when they sat down to do stuff, they just did what was exciting to them and they knew what everyone was into. I’m just guessing here; I’m not Beatles scholar but I’m a big fan. I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to keep making records. Deerhunter definitely did that. Bradford [Cox], between Atlas Sound and Deerhunter, he is incredibly prolific, and I just think that’s so cool. But everyone has got their own thing. You’ve got to just let it be what it is.

[Note: This article originally appeared in the digital version (for tablets and smart phones) of Under the Radar’s Summer 2017 Issue (July/August/September 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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