Grizzly Bear Are Still Here

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One night last month, Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste reached into the crowd at Public Arts, the shoebox-sized music venue tucked into the basement of Studio 54 co-founder Ian Schrager’s new downtown luxury hotel, and accepted a large, colorful bouquet from a fan. “Oh, flowers!” the singer said. “Thank you very much!”

There was genuine gratitude in his voice, and a touch of surprise. He and his bandmates were there to celebrate Painted Ruins, Grizzly Bear’s first album in five years. It had been nearly as long since their last full performance in the band’s former hometown, and almost certainly far longer since their last time in a room that small — the kind where you can easily hand-deliver a token of your affection to the performers mid-set. “It’s nice,” Droste told the crowd. “I feel like we’re all onstage together.”

Joining Droste at the front of the 12-by-20-foot stage were singer-guitarist Daniel Rossen, multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor, and drummer Chris Bear, the fellow NYU alumni he recruited in the mid-2000s to make Grizzly Bear, initially a little-heard solo project, into a real band. They quickly won over critics and adventurous listeners, followed by a broader fan base that included Jay-Z and the team behind How I Met Your Mother. Indie rock was ascendant, and they were among the groups leading the charge. On their 2006 breakthrough, Yellow House, and 2009’s even bigger Veckatimest, they seemed to invent and then perfect a fresh varietal of guitar-based music, as only a few acts manage to do each decade. Their name became synonymous with oddly beautiful songs, passionately sung and richly arranged in ever-shifting shades of rock, folk, jazz, and psychedelia.

Their next album, 2012’s Shields, was a compelling endpoint for that sound, and after a lengthy world tour, they took a break from being Grizzly Bear. “We needed some time to live a normal life outside of music,” Droste told me at lunch with the band before the show. “You can come back after touring and it’s like a little time warp: ‘I’m sort of the same, just played a concert 150 times.’ And everyone else is like, ‘I got two new jobs, had a baby, moved …’”

Once they’d done their fair share of living — including multiple moves away from New York and, in Droste’s case, the amicable end of a three-year marriage — the recharged quartet began writing and recording Painted Ruins, with some major changes to their approach. “We did shy away from ballads and overtly sad songwriting,” Rossen said. “We were trying to do something else this time.”

The punchy, rhythmic results sound at times like a totally new band, albeit one that must have listened to a ton of Grizzly Bear in college. Painted Ruins boasts several of this year’s stickiest and most surprising hooks, and you can tell by the way Droste, Taylor, Rossen, and Bear carry themselves onstage that they’re excited about this development. Seeing highlights like “Mourning Sound,” “Losing All Sense,” “Glass Hillside,” and “Sky Took Hold” performed live felt like watching a wild gamble succeed in real time.

Over soup and salad that afternoon, we discussed the making of the album, the lost New York of the early millennium, the confusing new realities of the streaming-music era, and the challenges of creating meaningful art under Trump.

How does it feel to be back in New York, now that none of you live here anymore? Are there old haunts that you miss?
Droste: Every time I go back to Williamsburg, it’s surreal, because it’s changed so much in the four and a half years since I left. A lot of places that I used to frequent are gone; there are a lot of huge buildings now, and a ton of hotels. I don’t even know where to eat anymore.

Taylor: I miss Tonic [the tiny Norfolk Street venue, beloved of left-field musicians and their fans, which closed in 2007 due to rising rents]. I saw some of the most influential, special shows I’ve ever seen there. It was a great-sized venue — something like 300 people. I’d go to shows there with Dan or Chris Bear when we were in college.

Droste: We played there! I remember our friend Gigi made a poster for us, and I went around taping it up in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I was my own street team.

I remember seeing an early Grizzly Bear show around that time, in February of 2005. You were all sitting down on the floor of the stage as you performed, and you seemed pretty shy. There wasn’t a lot of eye contact happening.
Taylor: I’m still nervous about making a lot of eye contact onstage. It happens once or twice a show, and I immediately revert back. I do stand on two feet at this point, though.

Droste: It took us a year to get to the standing level. I remember the first show where we stood: We were opening for the Mountain Goats at the Knitting Factory in Tribeca. It was Halloween 2005. I was a skeleton or something. I know I had face paint on — I remember it because John Darnielle applied the paint.

Rossen: I think I actually wore a sheet.

Droste: Yes! You were a ghost for a moment, but you couldn’t perform that way.

Rossen: It was impossible. I also had a really creepy mustache at that point. It was a very weird phase.

Did you think then that you’d still be a band in 2017?
Droste: [Bursts out laughing] No.

Taylor: I was pretty positive that we wouldn’t be. It’s just the reality of bands. We’re not a solo artist that can hire a [new] band when we get sick of someone — we’ve got to deal with each other. And here we are. That’s something that I’m proud of. It’s like a long-term relationship. You’ve got to work on it to keep it functional.

What’s been the hardest part of that work over the last decade-plus?
Bear: It’s an ongoing process. Partially it’s just growing up. Conflicts over recording ideas were definitely more heated when we were younger. It’s not that we’re not passionate about what we do, but we have more patience now.

Rossen: You have to learn how to not take your own ideas so seriously. Everything doesn’t have to be so loaded.

Is it mostly a matter of putting ego aside, then?
Rossen: I’m not even talking about ego. I just mean that you can decide some idea or song is so important, and it has to be exactly what you think it’s supposed to be. Then you realize, “No it doesn’t. It could be anything.” We made a deliberate choice to take some of the intensity out of the experience this time.

Taylor: You can have the ego and work from a place of encouragement, not criticism. It comes back to trust. I think we just don’t want to fight. We don’t want to be like that to each other. It doesn’t feel good.

Droste: Some bands feed off of that. We got off pretty easy, actually, in comparison to some of the stories I’ve heard.

Did it take time for the three of you who ended up living in Los Angeles after Shields to feel like L.A. people?
Droste: I’m from Boston, so I had been on the East Coast my whole life. For the first year and a half, I was like, “Whoa, there’s an aloe plant by a fire hydrant!” But the transition wasn’t hard. I got there and didn’t look back.

Taylor: I’m really very happy there. I do all the outdoors stuff. I feel more productive, too — I’ve made more music out there than I did in New York.

Bear: I had been in New York for 16 years. That’s long enough.

Those might be difficult statements for New Yorkers to hear.
Droste: I mean, it’s not for everyone. I have a friend that lived in New York, moved to L.A., and then moved back to New York.

Taylor: You can’t beat the cultural things you can do in New York — the museums, all the funny little cinemas. It’s unparalleled. And the restaurants are really great here. But you just sort of shift. I’m not 24 anymore. I have different desires at this stage.

Daniel, you moved to upstate New York around the time the others started heading west. Why was that?
Rossen: I was in the northern foothills of the Catskills, near Cooperstown. Way the hell up there. It’s very beautiful. There’s a cool community of expats; people don’t really do weekends there, so it’s not New Yorkers. And now I’m living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My family has been toggling between Los Angeles and New York since they moved to this country from Russia, so it’s more interesting to me to live somewhere else, just to experience another reality than the L.A.-New York corridor forever and ever.

Did you find that living upstate stimulated your creativity?
Rossen: Honestly, it was mostly harder. Having absolutely no structure, nothing to push against, is a weird way to live. I don’t think I’m cut out for it in the long run. I’m glad I tried it, but it was too much.

Photo: Ruvan Wijesooriya/Vulture

On “Wasted Acres,” the first song on the new album, you repeat the phrase “TRX-250,” which is an all-terrain vehicle model manufactured by Honda. What’s that about?
Rossen: It was kind of a joke. I have an old ATV that I use to haul wood. That’s what that is — going out in the woods with the dog, collecting firewood, and bringing it back. People from the city have this glorified idea of rural life, and it’s actually pretty mundane a lot of the time. We considered removing that line. It’s ridiculous; it’s pointing at such a specific thing, and it could seem like you’re condescending to rural folk from some elitist perspective. But it stuck. It’s catchy, weirdly.

On that song it’s catchy, but on others — I’m thinking of “Mourning Sound” and “Four Cypresses” especially — you use similar rural imagery to create an undercurrent of apocalyptic dread. Was that a response to the political situation in America?
Rossen: It wasn’t super deliberate. No one in the band was like, “I want to do something that feels apocalyptic.” But it was a very tense time last year. Maybe it’s just that we’re generally anxious people.

Taylor: When the shit really hit the fan after the election, everyone was pretty traumatized. Chris Bear would come over to my studio, and we’d have to sit and talk to one another, just to make sure we were emotionally okay enough to work on music. Once we were working, we weren’t thinking about politics. But it’s in there somewhere. It’s unavoidable.

What has the last month been like for you, as artists who have been vocally horrified by the rise of Trump and the alt-right?Taylor: As we spiral further into total disaster … it only gets worse, doesn’t it? It’s hard to see it any other way. I wish I could be optimistic, but I have none of that in me right now.

It’s a hard time for optimism.
Bear: It is. Even just on the level of what we’re about to do — touring seems insane.

Droste: Concert venues are now terrorism spots. Not that I’m specifically worried about touring, it’s just …

Bear: It’s the fact that you even have to consider it. But the answer is not, “Let’s stay home.”

What role do you think your music can play a time as fraught as this?
Droste: Hopefully it’s a positive experience for people. Maybe it’s a break — even though there are tones of apocalypse that you’re picking up, it can be a vacation from the headlines.

Taylor: Or just a process. We’re trying to work through things, too, and that’s what the record is. We’re not just throwing our hands up.

Rossen: If anything, the value of this kind of music is that life goes on. There are still parts of being alive that aren’t just being bombarded by the news cycle or fears about the future. I think giving people a sense of shared experience is the best we can hope for.

Have you wrestled with the idea that there might be Grizzly Bear fans who support Trump?
Droste: I know they exist. We’re playing in places that are politically hostile to the things that we believe in. There will be voter-registration booths [at our shows], without an agenda, just saying, “Register.” And we’re vocal on social media about what we believe in, but we’re not going to stop the show and do a political rant. For me personally — and no disrespect if someone does choose this — the stage is not the place to be like, “Anyway, while we’re tuning guitars, I just want to say how much we hate Trump.”

But isn’t there some cognitive dissonance in people enjoying the thoughtful art you make about human connection, and also supporting a hateful movement? How do you come to terms with that?
Droste: I don’t know what it’s like to be conservative, but if I really were and I enjoyed the arts, I imagine I’d just get used to the idea that I don’t agree with any of it. That’s been going on for a long time. They had a hard time finding musicians to play the inauguration! It’s not just us.

Rossen: There are a lot of cosmopolitan elites out there. We will replace you. We have replaced you.

When Grizzly Bear first broke through, critics and fans grouped you with a wave of successful indie bands from Brooklyn. Did that feel right at the time?
Taylor: I don’t know if we felt that way, but it was clear to us that other people felt like we were part of a wave. Every interview was, “So, the Brooklyn scene, tell us about that.”

Rossen: The pre-chillwave wave.

Droste: I’m really glad that we came about when we did, because I can’t imagine trying to release something like Yellow House in today’s climate and have people listen to it the way they did then. I think it would be extremely difficult.

How come?
Droste: Tastemakers don’t have as much influence anymore. There’s so much music, because of streaming services, that people’s attention spans are shorter. I know people in bands doing magical, wonderful things, and it is seemingly so much harder to get your music out there.

Taylor: People were more active about looking for stuff back then. You also had record stores. Other Music — that’s something I miss about New York. [The venerable independent shop, located on East 4th Street, closed last year for economic reasons after helping expand the tastes of countless NYU students and downtown folk over two decades.] They’d be like, “I think you’d like this and this,” and I’d walk out with a little stack of CDs. You could trust them. Now people listen to the playlists on Spotify or Apple Music, I guess. The internet is made for you not to have to think or look or want. It’s just, “Here it is.” That has a huge effect on things. It’s a very strange landscape, and we have yet to see how it functions with us.

Rossen: You just hope for the best. We talked about this in the rollout phase — we obviously want people to hear the record as a record, and it was confusing to have songs come out that don’t represent the whole picture. We have to accept the fact that most people don’t [listen that way] anymore. Fuck it. It’s fine.

It sounds grim when you put it that way.
Rossen: I don’t know what else to do. We’re still going to make records how we make them.

Droste: I’m so excited for the people who know us to listen to it, but I don’t know how to reach new people. I’ve been told it’s through playlists, but I haven’t received any notes like, “I discovered you through the playlist!”

It’s worth noting that as dark as this album’s mood sometimes is, the sound is considerably poppier and more immediate than previous Grizzly Bear albums. How intentional was that?
Droste: Personally speaking, I do find this album more accessible. But my idea of pop is so completely off from what the world thinks of as pop. So many people have said to me, “This is one of your denser, more difficult albums.” And I’m like, “Really?”

Is there any contemporary pop that you do like?
Droste: I like Ariana Grande. I love Beyoncé. Kendrick Lamar — is that pop? It’s popular. So there are big heavy-hitters that I have huge respect and love for. And then there’s a lot that I’m just like, “What the hell is going on?” I used to be more of a Top 40 person, but I tuned out on the music world for a couple years and came back to a landscape that I’m mildly mystified by.

How is the future of Grizzly Bear looking? Do you think you’ll take another five years before the next record?
Droste: I hope not!

Rossen: Let’s shoot for ten.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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