Grizzly Bear: Behind Sad Eyes

Larson Sutton on October 17, 2017

Chris Taylor crosses the brick patio behind his rented Los Angeles bungalow. Raised beds of expectant vegetables border the fenced-in backyard; a motorcycle and a pair of sand-crusted boogie boards rest against the parched white clapboard of a windowless shed. The Grizzly Bear bassist opens the door, letting the midday sunlight leak into his Terrible Studios.

The rest of Grizzly Bear follow Taylor inside. Guitarist/ singer Daniel Rossen chooses an armchair without any arms, cornered near another motorcycle. Drummer Christopher Bear, legs crisscrossed, sits on the rug. Its thick, fibrous woven cables, though, look more aesthetically pleasing than comfortable. Singer/guitarist Ed Droste— who originally founded Grizzly Bear as a solo project—is delayed on a coffee run and arrives last. He does a quick round of greetings, and takes an end of the couch.

Five years ago, Grizzly Bear were surging on an upward trajectory dotted with national TV appearances and concerts filled to capacity. They had released another acclaimed Top-10 album, Shields, which followed 2009’s breakthrough, Veckatimest. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood called the Brooklyn-bred outfit his favorite band.

Though Grizzly Bear had recently garnered buzz on the festival circuit and were already critical darlings, the indierock upstarts didn’t expect to find themselves playing as world-tour headliners. While at this point, most bands would press down on the accelerator, Grizzly Bear put on the brakes.

“I feel like we’d been in this washing machine of touring and recording records,” says Taylor, who also functions as the band’s producer. “Everyone needed to come back to normal life.”

There wasn’t any formal declaration of a hiatus, much less a breakup, yet, there was also little enthusiasm to soldier on as they had been. The day following the final Shields performance at a sold-out Opera House in Sydney, Taylor had an idea to deter the band’s tendency to go their separate ways.

“What if we reconvene in three months?” he proposed. “Everyone was like, ‘Yeah…no.’”

“I was already on a plane,” says Rossen. “I had skipped out.”

Rossen booked a solo tour. Bear returned to Upstate New York. As the time apart stretched on, Droste wondered—not for the first time—if Grizzly Bear was done.

“Even when we went to Marfa [Texas, for the recording of Shields], I was thinking, ‘I’m not sure this is happening,’” he says. “For the last six or seven years, it’s been TBD until it happens.”

“Because we are very democratic, finding that collective product that has a reason for being is harder,” says Rossen. “We had no reason. We had no contract.”

Taylor left Brooklyn for Berlin, then went to Washington State. He and his wife drove the length of the Pacific Coast— starting in Seattle and moving south—searching for the right fit. They ultimately settled on a hill overlooking downtown Los Angeles.

With a shock of blonde hair and cheeks ripened red, Taylor could just as soon answer a casting call for a Malibu surfer. Of the four, the inactivity hit him hardest.

He leans forward in his chair, almost eager to tell the tale of that restless waiting time.

“Oh, my god, I definitely was really itchy,” says Taylor. “I actually thought, ‘Maybe I’m never going to be in a band again. What’s my future? Should I consider other career options?’”

Taylor wrote, then edited and rewrote emails to his three bandmates. He was wary of appearing freakishly anxious or insistent.

“I don’t know that any of us were fully not ready,” says Bear. “The question of how we start making a record is always a little different.”

For one thing, they now were split geographically. Droste, too, had traded the Big Apple for the City of Angels. Rossen was on his way out west. Bear remained back East.

On previous recording sessions, they would simply “pile into a place and start doing it,” says Bear. “This time, if there weren’t enough beginnings of ideas or material, we decided to wait and chip away at it in our own corners.”

The interim period came with a few pleasant interruptions, too. Bear and Rossen were among a host of indie rockers invited to perform on Day of the Dead, a benefit compilation album of Grateful Dead covers assembled by The National twin guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Rossen, who has covered the Dead with his Department of Eagles project and joked for years about starting a Dead cover band with members of The National, suggested the plaintive Workingman’s Dead ballad “High Time.” The Dessners agreed to record that track, but also asked Bear and Rossen to help them with a far more expansive recording.

“They really wanted to tackle ‘Terrapin Station,’” says Bear.

Initially, Bear wasn’t sure they could recreate, with sincerity, the fanciful spirit of the expansive track. Far from tie-dyed Deadheads themselves, he and Rossen decided to approach the opportunity more as an empty canvas rather than a paint-by-numbers piece. After recording the song live in the studio, the pair took the rough version away for alterations.

“We focused on trying to reimagine the middle section,” Bear says. “To find a way to make it a little darker and a little scarier.”

The “Terrapin” session paralleled work on demos and skeletal tracks for Grizzly Bear. By 2015, new songs were emerging. Yet, no one was quite ready to say they were making an album.

“We didn’t commit early on to calling it a record because we didn’t want it to be forcing something,” Rossen says. And, he admits, “We are slow. There’s no doubt we are slower than most bands.”

“We wanted to make sure we had enough songs we liked,” adds Taylor.

Collectively, they began to chip away. They hunkered down at Taylor’s newly renovated Southern California studio space and also laid down tracks at Vox in Hollywood and back in New York. They were accumulating material strong enough for a new release, but they were also still cautious.

“It wasn’t like, ‘What are we? Are we a band? Is this a record?’ It was more like, ‘Let’s just figure out what’s good for us,’” Taylor says. “We’re reformatting our creative process as a band and it was really refreshing.”

Last year, Bear, a proud new father and the group’s lone New York holdout, moved to Los Angeles. Grizzly Bear’s manifest destiny was complete; though, ironically, Los Angeles-native Rossen landed in New Mexico. While they’re reluctant to conflate the dividends of writing and recording their new repertoire and their westward migration, all agree that their time living in the Empire State had come to an end.

Many of their friends and musical neighbors had already moved away and, more and more, Rossen says, Brooklyn had become a place to spend money. While, they concede, the lure of the city still exists, it was no longer the inspiring fountainhead of their 20s.

“I was just exhausted by it,” says Droste. “I had gotten to a point where I was like, ‘I’m not really having fun here anymore.’ I thought, ‘Do I want to grow old here?’”

At a time when music is often treated more disposable as ever, five years can be a long time to be away. Yet, the band worried little about the group’s contemporary currency. What really mattered to them, Rossen says, was “a step somewhere.”

“I don’t even know what the trend would be, even if I could call it that,” says Taylor.

The bassist worked with a variety of bands during his group’s pause and, after producing younger musicians so fixated on the sound of the moment, Taylor helped Grizzly Bear focus on developing their unique voice as a band. Their underlying goal was to reign in four distinct musical personalities and funnel that into one unified sound.

“It’s the most interesting thing for us to do,” says Bear. “It’s multifaceted enough for that to be the idea to pursue.”

They culled through what they had recorded. Parts from both demo and formal sessions at the various locations generated encouraging degrees of excitement and usefulness. At least a dozen songs were worthy of consideration.

After two years and a cross-continental relocation, the foursome had its fifth album, Painted Ruins but lacked a label to distribute it. The choice to shop for prospective suitors was deliberate.

“Not that we would let a label control us, but we wanted to make sure that whomever was going to take us on believed in what we had,” explains Droste.

“I don’t actually see how it would work if there were any more hands on deck, any outside opinions,” says Bear with a laugh.

The band, while retaining all creative control, signed a record deal with major label RCA. In May, they unveiled a pair of singles from the set: “Three Rings” and “Mourning Sound.”

The band’s hallmarks are immediate and resonant throughout the album. Droste and Rossen’s spectral, psych-angelic voices float over propulsive, often intricate percussion and probing basslines. Baroque counterpoint moves to a plethora of sonic embellishments—customary, inventive and somewhere in between.

That’s especially true on “Mourning Song,” where an aural border at once divides and joins a static programmed pattern and subjective human impulses.

“Coming from a jazz, improvisation background, I value very much the push and pull a live performance can bring to a record,” says Bear. “But, I’ve always liked to incorporate altered sounds, as well.”

They also did a fair amount of combining sounds. Experimenting with older synths conjured fresh, distinct textures. The range occupied by a traditional instrument like a trombone was filled with tones created instead by electronics. And, whether it was Taylor on saxophone or with synths as stand-ins, “it was always a performance,” says Bear.

When Droste started Grizzly Bear in 2002, he was essentially working on a home-recording project under a nom de plume, but, slowly, it blossomed into a true band. Bear had lent a hand on his 2004 debut, Horn of Plenty, and Droste decided to form a proper group with the drummer and Taylor. Rossen, an old friend of Bear’s from jazz camp, joined soon after and, as far back as Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear has increasingly become more egalitarian, more collaborative. The prioritization of personal lives, notwithstanding, the sound of Painted Ruins appears as unified as ever. There is an obvious and expected satisfaction that comes with any project’s completion, but for Droste, Painted Ruins is particularly special.

“It’s my favorite thing we’ve done,” says the singer. “This one I sat with for so long; I feel there is no filler and I really love every song thoroughly.”

Taylor points to the change in the creative process. He cites a maturity in the relationships and the resulting performance. Rossen believes the time off was crucial.

“I think it was healthy for us to have the freedom of coming back to this without any idea of what it has to be or when it has to happen,” he says. “We switched up the roles a bit.”

The band will hit the road heavily in support of the album, both nationally and abroad. The four-month trek will wrap in December back in Los Angeles with two nights at the Wiltern Theatre. Working out live arrangements for some of the new entries has been tricky.

“There’s that little translation that has to happen,” says Taylor. “And, there are always some songs that are not going to happen.”

There is debate over how much a sense of place actually influences the work. They tracked past albums in such contrasting locales as the highborn shores of Cape Cod and the desert borderlands of Southwest Texas. Ruins carries little, if anything, that would distinguish it as a particularly Southern California effort.

Taylor says the effect of place is a popular question. “Hard to really say. I love living here. I’m happy. Maybe that influenced things.”

Where the quartet bristles somewhat is in the characterization of their music as overtly melancholic and deep.

“Even if you are a sad person, making your music sad doesn’t really do anything,” argues Rossen. “Comedians can be some of the most depressed people in the world.” 

There are artists that prefer fighting the bad days with good-time feelings. Rossen confesses that sometimes Grizzly Bear prefers enlisting misery to wage the battle. Music, for them, is more interesting where there is friction.

“We’re not a party band,” says Droste.

“Relative to Skrillex, maybe we’re a little bit downcast,” says Rossen, smiling.

Their most recent records aimed to balance the emotional scales. It’s the suggestion, though, of being considered a ‘sad band’ that elicits the strongest response.

“It bothers me that if it’s not easy and instant, then it’s sad and deep and moody,” says Droste, who divorced his husband, interior designer Chad McPhail, during the five-year gap between albums. “Is sad a translation for having to think because this sounds different? Maybe you’re going to get it on the fifth listen, as opposed to the first.”

“It’s depressing to think that people would say, ‘This is confusing to me so now I’m sad,’” says Rossen. “I don’t relate to characterizing any music as being purely happy or sad.”

“Except for the song, ‘Happy,’” counters Droste, shortly before the four members of Grizzly Bear step out of Terrible Studios, laughing together in the LA sun. “There’s no debate.”