Interview: Painting in vivid colour: Grizzly Bear

Painting in vivid colour: Grizzly Bear

Five years after the release of last album ‘Shields’, Grizzly Bear have come together again not to rewrite the musical history books, but to cement their place in them.

In case you hadn’t got the memo throughout the Brooklyn quartet’s first four albums - all luscious, intricate compositions designed for ultimate goosebump-age - Grizzly Bear aren’t the types for wild U-turns and harebrained japes. Sitting in a quiet corner of a West London hotel, discussing the forthcoming fifth addition to their canon ‘Painted Ruins’, multi-instrumentalists Daniel Rossen and Chris Taylor are a measured proposition, more likely to describe their band dynamic as one of “patience and respect” than reel off a list of Gallagher-esque escapades. “Throwing chairs isn’t really our style,” notes Daniel with a smile.

In a world of internet hyperbole, where every statement has to be either the greatest or the worst thing to happen to humanity, their understatedness is refreshing. Along with fellow band members Ed Droste and Chris Bear, Grizzly Bear have cemented themselves as both a class and classy act, relying on the strength of their inimitable songwriting rather than a host of zany pull quotes to elevate them to the status of a genuinely Big Band (on 2012 LP ‘Shields’, the group headlined End of the Road festival and London’s Alexandra Palace). Ironic then, that the group have been making some of the most quietly complex, beautifully odd music out there this whole time - and ‘Painted Ruins’ is no different. “I listen to our music and I still hear it as very strange compared to the rest of the stuff we hear out there,” shrugs Chris. “I think we were a little surprised when things really took off. We worked hard for a long time but there was no expectation that we were gonna get this far, especially when you consider how weird our music is,” agrees Daniel. “I know it’s out of the ordinary for [music like ours] to do well.”

After the touring cycle for ‘Shields’ and the peak of this recent success (not least in part down to superlative 2009 breakthrough LP ‘Veckatimest’), the four members of Grizzly Bear decided to take a break from the band, to “embrace the freedom of seeing where your life goes for a couple of years”. For Daniel it took him on a brief “daunting” solo tour before moving out of New York to a secluded new house in the sticks. Chris Taylor, meanwhile, busied himself with various production projects as well as making a record under the solo moniker CANT. Ed and Chris Bear also put their name to various other musical ventures. When it came to getting the band back together, Taylor was the first to crack. “[However] I had to come to the realisation that no matter how soon I wanted do this, it wasn’t gonna be a good record if I was forcing people into it. I had to adopt a zen patience as best I could,” he notes. Were the other parties as enthused? “Probably in our own ways that we didn’t understand,” chuckles Daniel. “But I’m always having some fucking life crisis about what I should be doing. I need someone else to say ‘Just do it’ or it’s not gonna happen. I’ll just hang around in the country, stare out the window, split wood and mumble about the news…”

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“I listen to our music and I still hear it as very strange compared to stuff we hear out there.”

Chris Taylor

After the touring cycle for ‘Shields’ and the peak of this recent success (not least in part down to superlative 2009 breakthrough LP ‘Veckatimest’), the four members of Grizzly Bear decided to take a break from the band, to “embrace the freedom of seeing where your life goes for a couple of years”. For Daniel it took him on a brief “daunting” solo tour before moving out of New York to a secluded new house in the sticks. Chris Taylor, meanwhile, busied himself with various production projects as well as making a record under the solo moniker CANT. Ed and Chris Bear also put their name to various other musical ventures. When it came to getting the band back together, Taylor was the first to crack. “[However] I had to come to the realisation that no matter how soon I wanted do this, it wasn’t gonna be a good record if I was forcing people into it. I had to adopt a zen patience as best I could,” he notes. Were the other parties as enthused? “Probably in our own ways that we didn’t understand,” chuckles Daniel. “But I’m always having some fucking life crisis about what I should be doing. I need someone else to say ‘Just do it’ or it’s not gonna happen. I’ll just hang around in the country, stare out the window, split wood and mumble about the news…”

Eventually, however, the band reached a mutual mindset and slowly began trading emails and snippets of songs. Un-rock’n’roll as they admit it sounds, they realised that this record would have to be birthed from a more considered place than the “clusterfuck” of writing and recording they indulged in as twenty-somethings. “When we were younger we’d record at all hours of the night and it was really fun and inspiring and sometimes a complete mess, but we’d get through it and have a record,” explains Daniel. “But now we’re in our mid-30s and we’ve been through it enough to know we needed not to do that again. As you get older, music functions in a different way. Serotonin doesn’t hit you in the same way as it did at 19 when you’re 35; you have to find new ways to make it exciting and it takes a bit more energy.”

If that all sounds surprisingly like hard work, then the pair are quick to establish the increasing rewards as well as the initial obstacles around making ‘Painted Ruins’. With the bones of the album in place, the quartet went off in pairs on various writing trips to Big Sur and the mountainous Californian town of Crestline where they literally lived in a cloud (“It was wrapped around the house the whole time, all grey and rainy and cosy”). “In Big Sur, I remember playing some music and staring out the window and seeing whales jumping, just thinking ‘This is a pretty good place to be’,” recalls Chris. “It can be really good when you’re looking at nothing instead of being in your life, with your things you have to do. All you’ve got to do is write music and look out the window. It’s nice.” They found that the integral components of the group – easy chemistry and a lack of preciousness over their individual contributions - were still effortlessly there, and by the time they took the fully-formed demos into the studio, the quartet were invigorated with an even more excitable, fresh energy than they’d found together in years. “I remember being excited about hearing us play as a band. ‘Shields’ was more about the arrangements, more like painting. Whereas this felt more band-like, more propulsive,” Chris enthuses. “I think we got a good amount of self-serious, intense music under our belt in our twenties and it felt fun to not do that,” deadpans Daniel.

“I think we got a good amount of self-serious, intense music under our belt in our twenties…”

Daniel Rossen

The resulting record is one full of Grizzly Bear’s inimitable, impossibly gorgeous harmonies, layered over sparkling, ever-contorting arrangements of the ridiculous wealth of instruments they all collectively turn a hand to. It is, however, notably more energetic and – as they attest – band-centric than ‘Shields’. It’s Grizzly Bear, but shining that bit brighter. Whether in Rossen-led highlight ‘Four Cypresses’, hooked around a central refrain of “It’s chaos but it works”, or the deep, resonant tones of Ed Droste on the following ‘Three Rings’; the strange, scattershot time signatures of Chris Bear’s drumming on ‘Aquarian’ or the intoxicating, electronic spaciousness of ‘Systole’ (Chris Taylor’s first lead vocal for the group), ‘Painted Ruins’ is an album that thrives on having four equally matched minds inputting to it. Like all Grizzly Bear records, it’s essentially an advert for next-level musical proficiency.

Lyrically, meanwhile, the band are still keeping it oblique but letting just a glimmer more light through. “Lyrics are a funny thing in our band,” Daniel says. “In the past, they’ve always just worked into the fabric of the tune, but there’s more of an attempt to make some bits less haiku-like and obtuse [this time].” “There’s no ‘You gotta love me, baby’ chorus though. Nothing like that,” Chris interjects. “Maybe next time…” Daniel laughs. We won’t hold him to that.

So yeah, Grizzly Bear might never throw a telly out the window. They might be heading into the next phase of their careers and lives with a sense of decorum. But they’ve also just made their most vital, vibrant new music in years. Who said that growing old gracefully was a bad thing?

Grizzly Bear’s new album ‘Painted Ruins’ is out on 18th August via RCA.

Taken from the July 2017 issue of DIY, out now.