To celebrate our return to publishing the print version of MAGNET three years ago, we will be posting classic cover stories from that time all week. Enjoy. And order a copy of the issue here.
MAGNET plays 20 questions with Grizzly Bear in the hip wilds of Williamsburg where there are no wrong answers. By Jonathan Valania
It’s another blazingly hot and hip summer day in Brooklyn. Boomboxes, guinea tees, gold chains, water ice, open fire hydrants. It’s kind of like Do The Right Thing without the race riot. The girls walk by in their summer clothes. The boys walk by in their skinny jeans. The subway is redolent of stale urine and diesel. It’s high noon, and the sun is punishing and relentless. There are many things in abundance in Brooklyn—coffee shops, craft beers, beards—but shade isn’t one of them. ¶ Ordinarily, I wouldn’t venture outside the igloo on a day like this, but today is special. The Bear has awoken from its three-year hibernation, grabbed the horn of plenty and started making beautiful music again. I always say there are only two things that get me out of bed:
A teenage riot. (Obligatory Sonic Youth reference. Look it up, son.)
A new Grizzly Bear album. (Actually, I never say that, but it just seems like the kind of thing that should go here.)
Said new album is called Shields (Warp), a fact Grizzly Bear kept a secret and teased well into late summer. That’s the kind of thing you do in the internet era: tease basic facts about your release. Basic facts that would have been given away for free in the pre-internet era will now cost you. Ironically, music is free (if you know where to look), but knowledge (which is not to be confused with information, a much baser coin) you will have to pay for with the most precious commodity in the Internet Age: your attention. And so the fan is strung along for weeks with cryptic hints on Brooklyn Vegan and Stereogum about the when and what and why of once quotidian details like cover art and album title and release date. And, hey kids, be the first on your block to Tweet/Facebook/Reddit to the world and be King Of The Goddamn Internet for all of 10 seconds! Whoopee!
Determined not to have the new album leak in advance of the release date the way 2009’s Veckatimest did, the band’s handlers have taken to sending out watermarked streams of the new LP to journalists with a fake band name (the Toddies), fake album title (False Salmon) and, just to make matters even more confusing for the likes of me, fake song titles like “Mango Lassi” and “Toad To Nowhere.” What japes!
Upon accepting the Grizzly Bear cover-story mission—which was relayed to me via mail drop on a cassette tape that played once and then self-destructed Mission: Impossible-style, totally fucking up my tape deck—I followed my marching orders: Go to Brooklyn, don’t call us, we’ll call you. When the call came through, the instructions were as follows: Go to the underground parking deck at 110 Livingston St., stand next to the pillar by space number 57, and a chain-smoking man in a raincoat who looks like Hal Holbrook will tell you what to do. Turns out the first chain-smoking guy in a raincoat to approach me was not an agent of Grizzly Bear, but just the sort of garden-variety sick-fuck perv often found lurking in the shadows of these underground parking garages, which explains why he wanted me to get into the back of a nearby Chevy Impala and give him a Cleveland Steamer. Which I did, because I’m a nice guy. Plus, he reminded me of my grandfather.
OK, none of that actually happened, except for the part about the Cleveland Steamer and him reminding me of my grandfather. Even that’s not true. It was a Rusty Trombone. OK, OK … I will make a deal with you, dear reader: From here on, I will stop making up fantastical semi-obscene plot twists and tell you the unadorned boring-as-shit truth if you promise to stop being so fucking gullible. Deal? OK, good. Now, where was I? Ah yes, Grizzly Bear. The call came in from their handlers saying I should meet the band in 10 minutes at Calexico—the restaurant, not the band, which, by the way, has paid me good money to tell you it has been voted best Mexican restaurant in New York by Zagat’s readers.
Given the Saigon-like weather, it is no surprise that the men of Grizzly Bear show up at our agreed-upon rendezvous point untucked, tongues out and panting. Just back from a European press junket, the band is currently running the stateside media gauntlet to promote the new album. (Which is fucking great, by the way, but more on that later.) A lot has changed since Veckatimest was released: Singer/songwriter/guitarist Ed Droste married his longtime partner, interior designer Chad McPhail, last winter; bassist Chris Taylor went solo with his side project CANT, releasing the well-received Dreams Come True last September; guitarist Daniel Rossen went solo this past spring with the Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP. Everyone in the band has hit 30 or surpassed it. (Droste is 33, which is how old Jesus was when he got done.)
After taking a few minutes to order cold drinks and let the AC lower our core temperatures, we head to the outdoor seating area in the back to escape the din of loud indie rock and a room full of diners trying to talk over it. With tape rolling, we begin by dismissing certain rumors, lies and half-truths that now cling to the band like barnacles, such as:
01Grizzly Bear is a prog-rock band.
Not true. Yes, the group is ambitious in its playing, self-consciously artsy in its presentation and occasionally pretentious in its lyrics—in a good, English-majors-of-the-world-unite kind of way. The band made the world safe for swoon-y indie-rock chorales about dories. But that’s where the prog-ness ends. Yes, Grizzly Bear covered a Yes song but … well, we’ll let Droste explain: “It was ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart,’ like, their least prog-rock song. It’s a pop song, really.”
“I don’t listen to prog,” says Rossen.
“I don’t think any of us do,” says drummer Chris Bear. “I think because there’s a jazz influence, and there’s different … there’s core things about our music that are outside rock ‘n’ roll music, so some journalist gave us the tag ‘prog’ and it stuck, and people keep repeating it, but it’s not really true.”
02 Grizzly Bear is made up of a bunch of nerdy jazzbos.
This is partly true. Rossen and Bear first met each other when they both attended a summer jazz camp at Northwestern University back in their high-school days. Both Rossen and Bear would later enroll at NYU’s jazz-studies program.
“In high school, all I wanted to do was move to New York and play jazz,” says Bear. “As you might be able to imagine, I didn’t have a huge community of people in my school that were as excited about it as I was, so I just wanted to dive straight into it. But then, as soon as it was sort of all that I was doing, it made me think, ‘Wow, it’s kind of crazy to spend all this tuition money paying for a course where you’re literally just getting together with friends and playing music. I could do that for free.’”
Or even better, get paid.
03 Grizzly Bear will save hip hop.
Seemingly ridiculous on the face of it, but the jury is still out. After all, it wasn’t the band or even critics that made such an over-the-top pronouncement. No, that statement was made by the man many believe to be the greatest rapper to ever rock the mic. None other than H to the OVA himself, Shawn Corey Carter (a.k.a. Jay-Z, a.k.a. the man who mates with Beyoncé).
Back in 2009, after being spotted at a Grizzly Bear concert, he told MTV: “They’re an incredible band. The thing I want to say to everyone—I hope this happens because it will push rap, it will push hip hop to go even further—what the indie-rock movement is doing right now is very inspiring. It felt like us in the beginning. These concerts, they’re not on the radio, no one hears about them, and there’s 12,000 people in attendance. And the music that they’re making and the connection they’re making to people is really inspiring. So, I hope that they have a run where they push hip hop back a little bit, so it will force hip hop to fight to make better music, because it can happen, because that’s what rap did to rock. When rock was the dominant force in music, rap came and said, ‘Y’all got to sit down for a second—this is our time.’ And we’ve had a stranglehold on music since then. So, I hope indie rock pushes rap back a bit, because it will force people to make great music for the sake of making great music.”
04 Grizzly Bear is Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s “favorite band in the world.”
This is actually true. Or at least it was in the summer of 2008 when, at Radiohead’s behest, Grizzly Bear opened for the group on the North American leg of the In Rainbows tour and Greenwood said as much from the stage when the tour got to Toronto. The respect was mutual, and a bond was fairly instant.
“We had this ritual where we would barbecue out in the parking lot after our set, and they would come and join us when they were done,” says Rossen. “We always timed it so the coals were hottest when they got done.”
“They thought it was a really funny American thing for us to do,” says Taylor.
“Like the opening credits of King Of The Hill or something,” says Bear.
05 The new album was recorded in Texas.
This is somewhat true in that parts of Shields were recorded in a vast airplane hangar on a decommissioned military base in Marfa, Texas. Located in the far reaches of Big Sky country, Marfa is, improbably enough, a thriving artist colony started by acclaimed New York minimalist Donald Judd back in the early ’70s. The band had played a concert there years ago, liked the vibe and, looking to get outside of its Northeast comfort zone, rented the hangar for three weeks in June of last year. They shipped all their instruments and recording gear down to Marfa. Such were the best laid plans of mice and men. Texas had other plans.
“It was very, very hot—105 degrees every day,” says Droste. “There were wildfires everywhere. The place we were staying was an old barracks. It was so big. It was too big for the four of us; we would lose each other all the time. It took 10 minutes to walk from one end to other.”
“It was a former place for gentlemen’s entertainment for the military, which I assume means something like a bar and brothel,” says Taylor.
“It turned out to be a strange call,” says Rossen. “It didn’t look like it did on the brochure. When we got there, we were all like, ‘Hmmm, this is going to be different.’ It was just like a weird space. It was hot, and there was no air conditioning; it kind of felt like a juvenile detention center. It was bleak.”
Of the 12 songs the band recorded in Marfa, only the basic tracks (drums and bass, mostly) for “Sleeping Ute” and “Yet Again” made it onto Shields.
06 The sacred burial grounds of the Ute Indians in southwestern Colorado were a major source of inspiration for the new album.
“Major” would be stretching it, but said sacred Indian burial grounds did serve as inspiration for “Sleeping Ute,” Shields’ leadoff single. Sleeping Ute Mountain, part of Mesa Verde National Park, was thusly named by the Anasazi people because, from a distance of up to 50 miles away, it looks like a sleeping warrior lying on his back with his arms folded. In the summer he is wearing a green coat (trees), and in the winter he switches to a white coat (snow).
“I’ve actually never been there, but I’d spent a lot of time in the Southwest over the last couple of years, going to New Mexico a lot,” says Rossen. “I went through a phase of reading on about the Anasazi, the natives there, and their old road systems. I was looking at a map of the northern extension of one of the Anasazi roads, which was called Sleeping Ute. And I was like, ‘This is an interesting name.’ I liked the image, so I just incorporated it into a personal song.”
07 New song “Adelma” is about Adelma Simmons, First Lady Of Herbs.
Or so you would think if you Googled “Adelma.” As per Wikipedia: “Adelma Grenier Simmons (December 16, 1903 – December 3, 1997) was one of the leading herbal figures in America in the 20th century. A legend for her knowledge of herbal lore and history, she was also a prolific author, and sparked an interest in herb gardening across the country. Known as ‘The First Lady Of Herbs,’ she owned and operated Caprilands Herb Farm in Coventry, Connecticut for over 55 years.”
Only problem is, the song is not about her. The Adelma the song refers to is a mythical city in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, one of Taylor’s favorite books.
“It’s basically this guy travelling through different cities that don’t exist, just describing what he sees,” he says. “One city that he visits is called Adelma, and everyone there is actually someone that you’d known in life that’s now dead. So, it’s sort of like a personal heaven, but the difference is that you can actually leave. Heaven is always a one-way trip; this was sort of like, ‘You can buy a return ticket if you want to.’”
Droste tells me that Taylor had a really good story about the song, but when asked, Taylor pauses for many moments, seemingly at a loss for words. “I’m trying to think how it starts … it’s just, it’s really personal,” he says begging off.
08 Grizzly Bear plans to release a live album of a Halloween performance of Veckatimest from beginning to end at London’s Barbican Theater back in 2009, backed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Not bloody likely. There are recordings of the performance, and by all accounts they are pretty magical, but the practical matters of union wages and performance royalties make releasing it a financial boondoggle waiting to happen.
“There’s huge union-related issues; it’s very expensive get the rights from the London Symphony Orchestra,” says Bear. “They charge so much money that it would actually be hard for us to even recoup.”
What if you gave it away for free?
“The LSO won’t allow it,” says Bear.
09 Grizzly Bear’s version of the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)” is the only known cover of a Phil Spector-produced single that’s actually better than the original.
Admittedly, I started this rumor, but it’s no less true. See for yourself.
10 Grizzly Bear’s trademark choir-of-angels harmonies—some wag once called them “the Beach Boys on cough syrup”—were fully formed the first time the band played together. They just opened their mouths and out came these rays of pure light.
Negatory. Actually, the harmonies are a work in progress, and every album they get a little more mind-blowing for no other reason than the band works very, very hard on its elaborate vocal arrangements.
“I really had a hard time with that for a while,” says Rossen, who makes a yuck face when I tell him his voice reminds me of Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen.
“It took us a long time to find our voices,” says Droste. “I was so scared of people hearing me. I mean, that’s why (2004 debut) Horn Of Plenty is so lo-fi—it’s really like me trying to get comfortable with my own voice. I feel like I’m getting more and more comfortable with my voice with each album. It all started because when I did Horn Of Plenty, I just kept layering vocals and harmonizing with myself. And then as we were figuring out how to recreate it live, it became obvious that other people needed to sing the part, not to mention there were instruments we just didn’t know how to replicate, so we’d sing a part that was an instrument. We just kept using our voices as instruments, and that’s sort of how the harmonizing evolved. There were these moments—someone didn’t know what to do, so they’d just join in with the harmony, and that would often work.”
11 Grizzly Bear once played the food court at UCLA.
“That was our first tour, and we’d play just about anywhere that would have us—a diner, somebody’s living room, a barn,” says Rossen. “That show was like our big cash-grab deal. We got, like, 300 bucks that night. We were like, ‘Yeah, this is gonna set us up for days, man.’ Because we didn’t stay at one hotel the entire time.”
Instead they relied on the kindness of strangers. When they were passing through Oklahoma, a guy named Benji, who lived in a barn in the middle of nowhere, contacted them on MySpace and said he would let them crash on his floor if they played a concert for him. It would be the smallest crowd they ever played for: an audience of one.
“I will always remember that show fondly,” says Bear.
12 Grizzly Bear was a pet name Droste had for an old boyfriend.
“It was nickname for an ex, and I thought it was funny at the time and didn’t think I’d ever perform,” says Droste. “Suddenly, there was this influx of animal/nature-themed band names—Panda Bear, Mountain Goats, Wolf Eyes, Wolfmother—and I was like, ‘Oops, I guess I’m part of that now.’”
13 Rossen’s grandfather, Robert Rossen, was a legendary film director whose career was nearly destroyed by his membership in the American Communist Party.
True. Rossen had a thriving career in Hollywood, writing or directing nearly 30 films, including All The King’s Men, Island In The Sun and, perhaps most notably, The Hustler, the 1961 pool-shark classic starring Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott. Rossen, like many socially conscious members of Hollywood’s creative class, was a member of the American Communist Party from 1937 to 1947. He was unofficially blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. After two years of being unable to work and having his passport suspended, Rossen struck a deal with HUAC and named 57 past or present members of the American Communist Party when he appeared before the committee again.
His son, Stephen (Daniel’s father), explained the circumstances behind Rossen’s decision to name names to Turner Classic Movies: “It killed him not to work. He was torn between his desire to work and his desire not to talk, and he didn’t know what to do. What I think he wanted to know was what would I think of him if he talked. He didn’t say it in that way, though. Then he explained to me the politics of it—how the studios were in on it, and there was never any chance of his working. He was under pressure, he was sick, his diabetes was bad, and he was drinking. By this time I understood that he had refused to talk before and had done his time, from my point of view. What could any kid say at that point? You say, ‘I love you and I’m behind you.’”
14 Taylor used to work in a coffee shop with Kyp Malone and David Sitek from TV On The Radio
True. There is a fairly lengthy history of personal and artistic entanglements between the two bands. TV On The Radio took Grizzly Bear on the road back in 2006. Taylor played clarinet on Return To Cookie Mountain and mixed early Grizzly Bear albums at Sitek’s Stay Gold studio. Really, Williamsburg is just a big small town.
15 It’s impossible not to get chills down your spine at the 1:03 mark of the new “A Simple Answer.”
True. I’ve tried, like, 22 or 23 times. Also I get goosebumps at the 1:52 mark of “All We Ask” from Veckatimest. Not that I’m complaining. Also, and this might qualify as TMI, so I’m just warning you, but I get an erection at the 4:22 mark of “Yet Again” from Shields. In all seriousness—and not that erections aren’t serious—but that kick drum is like butter. And that organ-freakout outro sounds like the inside of Syd Barrett’s drug-fried cranium on a good day in 1967.
16 Shields is the first Grizzly Bear album with a title that’s not somehow directly related to where it was recorded.
True. Veckatimest was named after one of the Moonrise Kingdom-esque Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts that Droste grew up in outside of Boston. Yellow House was named after the mustard-hued Victorian house where he was raised and the band recorded the album. It could easily have served as the house the Tenenbaums lived in. Sadly, it’s since been sold.
“We didn’t want to name the record after a place,” says Rossen. “That was already done. That was a really good way of summing up our feelings for our past records: ‘It was this collective experience for everyone making this record. We’ll just name it after where we were when we made it. That feels right.’ But this one, we really didn’t want to make it about where we were. It was also the most collaborative thing we’ve ever done. It’s hard to hone in on a single title for it that’s really representative. We ended up throwing out tons of free associations, like any set of words. That was just a word that kind of stuck. It’s open-ended; everyone in the band has a different feeling about it. I like to leave it up to the listener to decide how they feel like it relates to the record.”
Think of it this way: If you don’t name it about where you were, it will always be about where you are. Ponder that, Grasshopper.
17 “Two Weeks” started out as a parody of someone else’s song, someone famous, but the band refuses to reveal who.
It’s true. I asked them who, like, six different times, hoping to catch them off guard. No such luck; these guys are pretty fast on the draw. However, the fact that it is their hip-hop crossover hit—there are videos on YouTube of people freestyle-breakdancing to it, and there’s a mash-up of it with Dead Prez’s “Hip Hop”—might provide a clue. In the comments section of the Dead Prez mash-up on YouTube is the following:
so this is what happens when white people and black people get along
1 year ago
I took my underwear off after hearing this
9 months ago
18 Grizzly Bear locked itself in a cabin on Cape Cod for six weeks to write songs for the new album, and after that much intensive, rose-wine-fueled woodshedding, the band members went a little nuts.
“We were like, ‘Let’s try to do things we haven’t done before,’” says Droste. “‘First of all, Dan and I should try writing songs together from the ground up,’ because usually we don’t do that. And so, a first for the group, Dan and Bear and I got together on Cape Cod, and Dan and I started writing songs together. And then a week later, Chris Taylor joined, and then it was just like everyone was writing and contributing, and we were tracking and in nearly pure isolation for six weeks. And I’m not going to lie—by the end of the six weeks, we were pretty batshit stir-crazy from the isolation. But we had collected enough awesome new material that we were feeling pretty excited about the momentum and the energy behind everything, and the songwriting and everything, so we felt comfortable enough to go back to New York.
“It’s not that we can’t work in New York; it’s just that there’s a sense that getting the songwriting started in New York is hard, because we really need to isolate ourselves to clear your mind and get that organic natural feeling of clearing your mind so much you don’t even know where the song is coming from—it just suddenly bubbles up from under, and suddenly you have a song. I think that’s much harder to do in the city. But when you have a song and the blueprint is sort of laid out, being in the city is fine, because what you’re doing then is just tracking and layering.”
19 In the end, the band returned to Allaire Studios in Shokan, N.Y. (where it recorded and mixed Veckatimest) to record Shields.
“Unfortunately, it’s no longer a functioning studio, just a beautiful estate owned by the wonderful and generous Randall Wallace,” says Droste. “We’re back up there for a few weeks to rehearse before the tour.” Judging by photos on the studio’s website, the estate could serve as location for a Wes Anderson movie.
20 During an absurd interview with Stephen Colbert in a rowboat, somewhere in the bowels of the USS Intrepid, rocking back and forth as if adrift on storm-tossed seas, Droste invited Colbert to “baste” him.
Strange but true. It went down like this:
Colbert: (In the event we are lost at sea), who should we eat? I’m stringy and eat a lot of shellfish, so I’ll be gamy. [Looking at Rossen] Give me one good reason we should eat you.
Rossen: I’m pretty low weight, unfortunately. I don’t have much on me.
Droste: I think you should eat me.
Colbert: That is really selfless. Or emotionally disturbed.
Droste: I’m the meatiest.
Colbert: Really? Mind if I squeeze? [Appraising Droste’s bicep for girth and deliciousness] Oh, beefy! I could see wrapping you up in tinfoil and throwing in a lemon and some olive oil. That’d be delicious.
Droste: Baste me.
Colbert: That’d fall right off the bone.