Grizzly Bear are about to take a step into the unknown. Again.
“This is probably the biggest thing we’ve been asked to do here in the UK, that’s for sure,” says Chris Taylor, bassist and producer of their two ‘full-band’ records – the latest, ‘Veckatimest’, is out now on Warp (REVIEW). “We’ve played a lot of shows here, and they’ve been pretty chill, but this is… This is an event.”
He’s talking about Later With Jools Holland – in half an hour, he and Daniel Rossen (guitar, vocals), who sits with us in the lobby of the K West hotel, west London, will travel to the BBC with fellow members Christopher Bear (drums) and Ed Droste (guitar, vocals) to record a handful of numbers in the presence of the diminutive presenter of the last music show left on terrestrial television. It is, officially, A Big Deal.
But it’s not the first time that Grizzly Bear have become caught up in an event of late. Much has happened between the release of the Brooklyn-based foursome’s second LP, 2006’s sublime ‘Yellow House’, and this year’s third, recorded in relative isolation in Cape Cod, Massachusetts (“We could make as much noise as we liked,” says Taylor). In 2008 the band opened for Radiohead on a series of US dates. Again, it was A Big Deal. Jonny Greenwood, guitarist with the Oxford-formed indie legends, went so far as to name Grizzly Bear as his favourite band.
“It pretty much knocked our heads off,” recalls Taylor, thinking back to the moment one of his heroes professed his love for Grizzly Bear. “It was shocking, and kind of unbelievable. It still is unbelievable. Opening for Radiohead was a huge honour for us, as a band and as individuals. We’ve all had long-term relationships with Radiohead’s music, so we didn’t want to take that opportunity for granted, and do anything less than the best we could. So we were pretty thoughtful as to how we were gonna work things out, and I think it went well. So far as us opening for such a popular band, it couldn’t have gone any better.”
Notions of popularity are, primarily, subjective of course – unless you’re counting units, and both ways Radiohead are, indeed, a popular band. But so are Grizzly Bear, now – ‘Veckatimest’ has earned an array of positive plaudits in the past few weeks, with a pair of influential websites awarding the album a 9/10 score. It’s a gently affecting masterpiece, a meticulously arranged affair that operates on a cerebral level of interaction, coaxing the mind to drift away on tangents far removed from everyday bustle, the mundane drag of the familiar. It is otherworldly without ever seeming overly fantastical, rich of textural depth yet assuredly structured; never does indulgence disrupt accessibility, although it’s nothing like a typically ‘immediate’ album. Take your time, make your sense, and feel superbly rewarded.
“We never really have a set formula for songwriting,” says Rossen, who between Grizzly Bear LPs released an album, ‘In Ear Park’, as one half of Department Of Eagles; Taylor produced the album during the winter months of ‘07/‘08. “‘In Ear Park’ allowed us to purge all this old material,” the singer continues, “which has allowed ‘Veckatimest’ to be more collaborative, and feel a lot fresher. That was the nice thing about this record – it was very spontaneous, and a lot of fun. It was the most fun record we’ve recorded.”
He smiles with a weariness that translates his on-paper promotional schedule into Real Life – “There’s definitely more interviews this time around,” comments Taylor, adding that the band has been conducting telephone interviews all morning – but there’s a sincerity in Rossen’s statement that the band had fun with ‘Veckatimest’ that only the truly ignorant could miss. And it comes through in the end product, a relaxed approach to the realisation of ambition that many bands would never reach, pressured as they can be into delivering albums by a set date, regardless of the state of the material. “There was no external pressure, really,” says Rossen, “although I’m sure our label would’ve been bummed if we took too much longer.”
And just why was this experience so different, so more enjoyable, than the recording of ‘Yellow House’? “The last record, that was at such a different time,” says Rossen, taking a trip down recent-memory lane. “We were much younger, and that was the first time the four of us had ever tried to make something together. It was so exciting just seeing it work in any form. This is a very different process – it’s still exciting, but in a different way.”
Taylor, as producer, is well positioned to mark the changes and developments between albums two and three – the first Grizzly Bear album, 2004’s ‘Horn Of Plenty’, was primarily the work of Droste alone.
“With ‘Veckatimest’ we had a greater understanding of how we work together, and what works well, so we could sit down in a room and play through stuff, and have fun with it,” says Taylor. “We could get a bottle of rosé, drink it all down and then go get another one, and we could do that until three in the morning. We just sort of mumbled stuff out – there’d be an idea, or a feeling, and then we’d play things through. With ‘Yellow House’ it was a lot more structured. This time it was a totally different process. There was more fumbling in the dark than on ‘Yellow House’, but at the same time we had a more specific direction, so there was always a strange balance – we weren’t sure what to do, but that was exactly what we should do, for better or worse. We worked it all out… We were never sure what was going to happen…”
I offer a simple metaphorical take on this progression: ‘Yellow House’ is the Lego kit, with easy-to-read instructions, and ‘Veckatimest’ is a big ball of clay, full of potential to be anything it wants. Taylor nods enthusiastically: “Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly it.” He continues: “Some of us come in with ideas, or in different permutations of the band – some songs on this album were brought to the table at a very early stage, and we’ve taken them apart and added to them, figuring out how a song could emerge from an idea. I’m really invested in the music we make, and think about it a tonne – about how a song should sound, and the direction it should go in. I really like doing it, too.”
There’s no doubt that Grizzly Bear would be a very different band if Taylor wasn’t operating in a dual-role capacity – musician and producer. With an ‘outsider’ manning the desk, what was in the band’s heads during the recording process could well have become corrupted on its way to completion. With Taylor aboard, no such problem was encountered. Also, it’s unlikely they’d have been able to operate in such a relaxed manner – Rossen notes that anyone brought in to work with the band would have been clocking on and off, unable to be there when the magic happened late at night, or in the early morning hours.
“We work through tiredness a lot, which can be pretty interesting,” says Taylor. “There will be times when we’ll make mistakes, but they’ll be good mistakes and they’ll stay in. That’s my favourite part of recording.” It’s strange to think that what might be an individual’s favourite aspect of ‘Veckatimest’ might, to its makers, be a mistake that made the final cut, but given the band’s unorthodox approach to gestation there’s certainly sense in the accidental, a purpose to the unexpected. There’s a plan, it seems, however unknown it is to those bound by it. It’s something that’s served Grizzly Bear mightily well to date, and with the likes of Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes finding an audience in the UK, it seems that these four will discover a new level of appreciation for their wares this year.
“It’s fine to be associated with those bands by the public,” comments Rossen. “They’re doing really well here, and that’s exciting for them, and if they help people to understand what we’re doing, perhaps, then that’s great. We do want to be able to keep doing this, making records for a living, as we’re all really happy doing it.”
And doesn’t it show. Safe journey, gentlemen…
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Photo: Tom Hines