Call Of The Wild: An Interview With Grizzly Bear

Starting out as a moniker for Ed Droste’s solo endeavours, Grizzly Bear first played shows as a three-piece when Chris Bear and Chris Taylor came on board. The quartet was completed by Chris Bear’s jazz camp buddy Daniel Rossen shortly before the release of their debut album Horn of Plenty in 2005. Trading the lo-fi and anti-folk aesthetics of their beginnings for a more electrified version of indie pop experimentalism confounded with Beach Boys harmonies, they have since produced some of American indie music’s most acclaimed recent psych-folk anthems. On the occasion of the release of their new album Shields, Arno Raffeiner speaks with Rossen and Taylor about growing pains, their approach to songcraft and some of their favourite achievments together.

The first songs were written by Ed Droste. How did you experience that? What was your reaction when you heard the songs for the first time?


I was living with Chris at the time. He began working on Horn Of Plenty with Ed – the first title under the Grizzly Bear name. I’d overhear it in Chris’s bedroom, and I’d be like, “What is this? This sounds cool.” He’s like, “This is this guy Ed’s music, I guess I’m just sort of working on it. Kind of helping him mix it or whatever,” and I was, “It sounds cool, I really like it, it’s interesting.” I remember thinking it sounded kind of emo [laughs] but it was still kind of nice. And then they finished the record, and the record was going to be released by a record label, which Ed didn’t ever intend on, but yeah it was going to be a real record, and they were like, “You have to play shows,” and they were like, “OK.” Chris Bear was like, “Well, I live with this guy Chris Taylor who plays a lot of stuff and can fill in a lot of holes, and we can try and play shows.” So, we played about three shows, the three of us, and Dan came to the fourth one to watch. And after the show, I remember talking to him about trying to see if he wanted to play with us because I can’t play guitar very well at all, and I was actually having to play that, which was unfortunate.

It was a crazy decision, in retrospect, that we actually thought we could go on tour.

Basically, the next week, I think we had a practice, it was kind of weird. We left town and went to Cape Cod and practiced for a week, and then went on tour for six weeks, and then that was it. The band was sort of a bedroom project; when it turned live band, we became kind of a band and went on tour almost immediately. Which is a crazy decision, in retrospect, that we actually thought we could go on tour. But I remember Ed and I doing tons of emailing and contacting people through MySpace. I was given a list of phone numbers of venues to call from my friend Gerard [Smith] in TV On The Radio, the former bass player who has since passed, gave me a telephone list of a bunch of people to call at venues to try and be like, ‘hey, we want to come play a show, and how do we send a demo?’ and so booked six weeks of shows like that, by making phone calls and sending emails. It was a lot of work and then the first tour was pretty crazy. We slept on floors every night, it was very interesting. It was kind of a multi-dimensional experience. [laughs]


I’d just been writing a lot of music at home, and doing songs by myself and didn’t really know what to do with them. I wasn’t very good at promoting myself and I didn’t really play shows at all, and Chris inviting me to be a part of Grizzly Bear, I was like, “Well, this is a way to learn how to play in front of people and it’s an opportunity to play with Chris and Chris – who I’ve known forever, and I’ve always wanted to be in a band with them.” We’ve always wanted to make that work, we could never quite make it happen. And it was finally a way to do it. As soon as I saw that show, the three of them playing, I remember thinking after the show, “You know, I could really help you guys out. [laughs] This is great, but I know I could help you with this.” And I didn’t even actually say that to Chris. I remember walking back from that show with a friend of mine, and being like, “That was great, but I know I could do something.” And a couple days later, Chris came over to my house and was like, “So, what’d you think? You want to do this?”

Grizzly Bear - Deep Sea Diver


We sort of prepared… I knew that we had to get our act together before. If we’d played sounding really bad and crazy Dan would be like ‘no way’. But since the first rehearsal, I remember it was just the three of us – me, Ed and Chris – and we were trying to play these songs, and I was like, “You know, I know this is a little soon, this being our first rehearsal and all, but there’s this guy Dan I know and he’d really be perfect. He writes these really interesting, beautiful songs and has got all these vocal arrangements. They’re really weird and pretty, and he’s an amazing guitar player.” Like Dan was saying of Chris and Dan and I, we’d tried to play music together, and it was weird. It just wasn’t really complete for some reason, it didn’t ever really come off. So yeah, like Dan was saying, I always wanted to try and find a way to work with Dan, because I thought his music was so weird and wonderful. So, we had to play a couple of shows before I was going to invite him or tell him about it. And I knew, “Okay, we’re sounding pretty good as the three of us. It’s time to invite Dan out.” It was like a courting process, basically. But yeah, pretty funny to talk about in hindsight.


I came into the band with a host of songs that I had done by myself that I didn’t really know how to execute in any real way. And I was kind of terrified of playing in front of people. And I was very uncomfortable as a singer. So, I think for myself, especially, over the course of the band, I feel like I’m always learning about that aspect of things. It’s always kind of a project to get better at that.

Grizzly Bear - La Duchesse Anne

As soon as we had one rehearsal, the very first rehearsal together, I had no idea, I wasn’t even exactly sure what I was going to do, but I came to the rehearsal and we started playing these Horn Of Plenty songs together. It was really interesting. Immediately, I found a way of interacting with them that felt really new, like nothing I’d ever played before. What I was playing myself felt like nothing I’d really done before. And that was really exciting. There’s some quality about the way we all play together that’s really unique and really exciting. I just remember being so excited by it. It felt like such a big thing in my life, like I’d never had that before, I’d never been in a band before. I even remember after that first rehearsal, being like, “So, guys, what are we doing? Do you want me to be in this band? Should I stay?” I really wanted to.

There was an early chemistry in the band; at least musically speaking, it was heavily improvised, and we were kind of just finding our parts, finding our place sonically, as musicians, for a couple of years. Getting more comfortable with our voices, getting more comfortable with our instruments. I don’t know, over time, the improvisation in the live show started leaving and the songs themselves started getting more complex. I feel like whatever that creative energy that was really invested in making the live show morph and be ever-changing, that creative energy really shifted into the recordings a lot more, into shaping these bigger pieces.

Grizzly Bear - Knife

How do you approach a song, or work on it?


With Yellow House, certain songs were presented with way too many parts already. “Here’s all the things that I want to do,” and it would work out okay. I think for the time it was really great. Back then, especially, everything was exciting. I felt like every step of the way was a new discovery and it was really cool. But as we grew as a band, started to figure out that the best things seem to come about when we leave a lot of variables open in the song, so that everybody can get in on the process of essentially writing it from the ground up. And we’ve been going further and further in that direction with every record, I feel like.

Shields, especially, was mostly done in that way. There’s a couple of songs that were written beforehand, with some clear ideas about certain things, but for the most part the variables were just all left open and we let the songs develop very slowly, with everyone involved. The song forms were changing and the lyrics changed, and everything was open to interpretation and open to development and evolution over the course of finishing the record. I think that’s how we want to make our music from now on, it just makes sense. Everybody in the band is a strong creative voice. Everybody has a lot to say, and it’s sort of silly to come to the band with, ‘here’s a song with all these parts and here’s what I want the vocal parts to be, and here’s what I want the bass part to sound like,’ you know? You make it too strict and it’s just really boring. There are no interesting questions to answer, there’s nothing for anybody else to do, it’s kind of like, what’s the point of that? Why would you have a band of four people that are all really strongly opinionated and have great creative minds? Why would you bring that to these people? It’s pointless. I feel like that’s kind of what happened, especially with this latest record. Like, let’s just leave everything open so everyone can work on it.

You make it too strict and it’s just really boring. There are no interesting questions to answer, there’s nothing for anybody else to do, what’s the point of that?

Your reception in the US, it seems like you have quite a young audience, even though you make quite ‘adult’ music.


Well, there’s younger and older. I really like the fact that there’s some older people who get into our records. I actually think that’s really cool. I feel like it’s hard to reach teenagers, maybe. It’s hard to reach young kids when you’re making weird music, but I feel like as a rock band, it’s really hard to reach people my parents’ age, to make them pay attention. I feel like a lot of people that I know, or older listeners that I’ve met that are in their later 50s, if you’re still a music enthusiast, I think a lot of people get to that age and you’re very set in what your tastes are and what you know, what you care about – I’m just speaking from what I’ve witnessed – and it’s very hard to open yourself up to something newer. And I kind of thought, that’s great, that’s amazing to reach an older audience. I really liked that.

When you guys got signed to Warp, how did that come about, how did that feel?


Yeah, it is surprising, but there’s bands on Warp, like Broadcast. We totally love Broadcast. We thought it could be an interesting move, I guess, that it would be interesting to be one of the ‘different’ bands on Warp. I don’t know if that was basis to do it, but yeah. Everyone at Warp’s been really great. But we still remain a strange act on that label. We were told, actually, originally, the guy that was running Warp, Simon Halliday – who now runs 4AD – that he was going to move the label more in that direction, but he left right after our first record, so we just remained this weirdo band on the label. That vision of Warp changing its look never happened and he moved on to run 4AD, which is now completely a different thing than it used to be in the days of The Breeders.

Grizzly Bear - Two Weeks

And now with Shields, you go from songs so intimate to very big art pop.


We tend to talk about “Sun In Your Eyes” a lot because it was kind of an underdog on the record for a really long time. There are a couple of songs on the record that sat around for a really long time, we would start it and not really know what to do and put it down, and then it would sit around for a while and someone else would pick it up and mess with it and put it down, and it’d sit around. And that one was this long winding mess of a song that nobody really thought we were going to finish, it just seemed too crazy. I had an idea for a melody and a lyric, but I could never really quite do it, I couldn’t quite bring myself to try it. Chris kept working on it on his own, kind of fleshing it out, making it sound bigger and more amazing. And I’d come back, “Wow, this is cool. Still not ready, still can’t do this.” [laughs]. And eventually, in the last couple of weeks, it was like, “OK, it’s time,” and just started putting it down. We just worked through it and all of the sudden, we got to the end of this song, and we’re like, “Wow, this is actually amazing. It sounds like nothing we’ve ever done and it sounds like a new kind of direction for us, and it sounds like nothing we’ve ever sung or nothing we’ve ever played, exactly.”

It was really surprising. It really won over the whole band in a way that nobody really expected it was going to, all of the sudden it was everyone’s favourite for a minute. It’s one of those times where all of the sudden we finished this song and it felt like I was listening to somebody else playing music and I was just enjoying it, rather than worrying about what we’re making, being in it and really trying to pull something off. It was like just listening to something you’d really want to hear. That’s a really good feeling when that happens, when you’re making a record, if you can have that kind of distance from it and be like, ‘this is great.’ It felt like a real victory, I remember.

Just this one chord, it just was so empty and it just gave so much.

Chris Taylor


To be able to surprise ourselves at the end of seven years of working together, and at the very end of the recording process – literally, we were finishing up the arrangement, a couple days into mixing the record. We’d mix and then go home and finish this song. And then it was finished. To be able to surprise ourselves at this stage and be so pleased with the result, with a result that was completely unexpected and almost had everything stacked against it, the fact that it could still work was like a really reassuring and elating feeling. It just made me feel really happy about us.


I have a really fond memory of standing in front of the monitors in our practice space in New York, and Chris and I staying up really late, after we did a whole bunch of work on that song one night, we put the speakers on really loud and listened to the thing all the way through, [laughs] and I feel like somewhere around there’s that middle of the song where there’s just these really strange open chords, classical kind of chords just happen with horns over them and it’s really sparse, like nothing. I feel like I remember us hi-fiving at that moment in the song, [laughs] totally serene. It felt bold in a way, where it’s like, that’s great. That’s really going for something that’s scary, that could easily suck, and we felt like we did it.


It felt like it was sounding beautiful, and it was giving so much. Just this one chord, it just was so empty and it just gave so much, and it was just one chord. Not to sound like a really self-congratulatory, intellectualising musician, but that’s kind of the essence what... something simple that’s so beautiful. To be able to make something like that, there’s an elegance to things being that simple and that rewarding. And to be able to find a moment in our own music, where we’re able to do something that felt really good for it to be just naked. Our tendency is to dress everything up and this was so antithetical to anything we had done before, and it felt really nice to see that.  

By Arno Raffeiner on September 19, 2012

On a different note