Grizzly Bear Is Invincible
They defined the late 00s indie rock zeitgeist by accident. But with their fifth album, 'Painted Ruins,' they've made something so beautifully anachronistic that it can’t help be timeless.
Grizzly Bear, left to right: Chris Taylor, Ed Droste, Daniel Rossen, and Christopher Bear
This dystopian summer, the political lunacy and sustained psychic anvil drop, has left most of you reading this wondering: What's the fucking point? Can you listen to music when there are fucking Nazis with fucking Tiki torches? Is there any meaning to criticizing or even creating art when the schizophrenia of the modern moment sends you through a daily cycle of outrage, powerlessness, and the compulsion to tweet GIFs at Kim Jong Un captioned, "Fuck Me Up, Fam"?
This is a long way to ask the question: Can a Grizzly Bear album matter in 2017? In an era when artful polemics, Antonoffed pop, and self-medicated party rap hold sway, this week's Painted Ruins is a gorgeous requiem reminding us that art for the sake of aesthetic beauty and veiled self-confessional remains as meaningful as ever.
But the industry and conversation surrounding it could never seem more meaningless. With breaking news, tangential gossip, video pivots, and social media shares driving traffic metrics, serious music criticism has almost become an oxymoron. In last half of the 00s, Blogspot nurtured Grizzly Bear's ascent from lo-fi halo folk Brooklyn band to indie rock avatars scoring Ryan Gosling melodramas. Now, the popular solo music blog doesn't exist. MP3s are obsolete. Relevant guitar rock bands and quiet dignity are rare. Even "independent" music publications are owned by someone else. Grizzly Bear is on RCA. Streaming only magnifies the importance of the Spotify Playlisted single over the album.
"Everywhere I turn I'm like, 'You did that? You said that? You made this? You just put out that? What is going on?'"
"The best word to use is baffled," Ed Droste, one of the group's two vocalists says when we meet at Neuehouse, a flavorless members-only luxury freelancer cage in Hollywood. He's not a member, but somewhere along in the PR machinery the location was suggested, and it seemed less contrived than going for a group Runyon Canyon hike that screamed, "NYC BAND MOVES TO LA, GETS SUNTAN."
"I'm constantly confused and surprised by what's being released and praised in the music world, the same way that I'm constantly shocked at how insane Trump is," the lanky singer with the seraphic falsetto continues. "Everywhere I turn I'm like, 'You did that? You said that? You made this? You just put out that? What is going on?'"
It was Droste who originally formed Grizzly Bear as a solo project in 2004. He quickly expanded to a quartet alongside fellow NYU classmates, drummer Chris Bear, and multi-instrumentalists Daniel Rossen and Chris Taylor. Because it was the mid-00s and Arthur Magazine was a thing, Grizzly Bear got lumped in under the freak folk umbrella alongside Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart, and 17 beards to be named later. That always seemed reductive, but Grizzly Bear have always been a hard band to pin down. You heard chamber pop a lot, but honestly, what does that even mean?
They weren't as outwardly collegial as Vampire Weekend, thinking man's frat-boy like The National or The Hold Steady, or as cool party dad edgy as James Murphy. If you want to play the sound-alike game, there is no direct analogue. Maybe Jeff Buckley trying to sound like The Beach Boys of Smiley Smile, with minor genuflections to Elliott Smith, Steely Dan, Radiohead, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Morrissey, Brian Eno, and Bjork. Because they were original, none of these descriptions feel right.
The real debut is 2006's Yellow House, where they come off like a psychedelic barber shop quartet, chopped and scuffed, very white but sly soulful. The booming reverb made their voices feel high-beamed and almost Benedictine. There are cinematic found sounds, towering Sequoia falsettos, and macabre whistles. The spindly guitars sound like they could decompose at any second. It came out on Warp, and it was a beautiful, weird, cozy album that chanced to come out at time when that was exactly what people were looking for.
In 2009, everything changed with Veckatimist, named after an obscure Massachusetts island not far from Martha's Vineyard, which was very much a Grizzly Bear thing to do. It bridged the experimental volitations of the first album with a malt shop pop catchiness, and it sold over 300,000 copies worldwide. I once asked someone why they never liked Grizzly Bear and they replied, they're "too Cape Cod, too preppy." The mass appeal was evident, but for others, it still felt too buttoned-up and delicate. It's like pecan pie; if you like it, you love it. But people will hate it just because it doesn't have any fruit.
As the last decade expired, Grizzly Bear achieved a rare but ephemeral pinnacle; they became one of the most relevant bands in the most relevant genre. At a time when Brooklyn was peaking as a pop culture and unicycle capital, Grizzly Bear received the coronation. On a late August steam bath night on the Williamsburg Waterfront, summer of '09, Jay-Z and Beyonce attended their first indie rock show. More accurately, it was the first indie rock congregation that anyone ever captured shaky camera phone footage of them oscillating at. Grizzly Bear incited the celestial wobble.
The next day, quotes emerged from Brooklyn's finest about the experience:
"[Grizzly Bear is] an incredible band. 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."
It was a peak that very few bands ever reach and no band ever sustains. In all quarters, their credibility was unimpeachable. Radiohead tabbed Grizzly Bear to open for an amphitheater and arena tour, and Jonny Greenwood called them his favorite band. As Tyler, the Creator first emerged from his Tumblr bunker, he growled to the world, "Grizzly Bear swags their shit out." I know you heard "Two Weeks." If you don't think you did, you inevitably eavesdropped it in samples by Childish Gambino or G-Eazy, or on Gossip Girl or How I Met Your Mother. or in that Super Bowl Volkswagen commercial that rankled Apple's Chief Technology Goth, Trent Reznor. That was the hit, a certified soft rock banger, except for the fact that its piano riff was basically identical to "Still D-R-E-." No need for Scott Storch either. They had Michael McDonald, who returned to glory with his chef's kiss cover of "While You Wait for the Others."
If you're wondering why "Why Grizzly Bear" and "Why Then," there isn't an easy answer. Life is fucking arbitrary. Solange was fucking with them. Their harmonies were super clean. The music was quirky but not strange. They never wore stupid suits or posed with sunglasses on a 32 degree day in New York trying to look cool. Yeah, there's a few goofy photos of them in sweaters. So it goes. To use the Hipster Runoff parlance of the time, they seemed like the most chill of the pretty chill, bros. They were the archetypal Brooklyn band of the era, which was Brooklyn's era. They partially defined the late 00s, but they stood apart from the time, too.
"Yeah, we toured with TV on the Radio and you'd sometimes see Nick Zinner at the coffee shop or having a beer at Union Pool, but it felt like there a myth that was created around that scene," says Chris Bear, the drummer. Bear was the last to leave New York, first settling on Long Island before relocating to Eagle Rock, where's he's lived with his wife and one-year old daughter for the last year.
"But I never felt like we really fit or were fully a part of that scene," he adds. "Maybe in retrospect we were, but only by default of being around."
Ed Droste headed west first, shortly after the conclusion of the existentially grueling tour for their last album, 2012's Shields. Shortly after acquiring a Silver Lake home, he got divorced, a topic which he refuses to publicly discuss, lest it become grist for overambitious lyrical analysis. Droste first matriculated at NYU with the intent of becoming a writer and after a dozen years as a professional musician, he's well aware and wary of the need for journalistic narrative. One of the group's two lead singers, the acerbic and quick-witted Massachusetts native is the closest thing the group has to a frontman, though he'd inevitably roll his eyes at the assertion.
Most bands expound a one-for-all ethos that tends to be little more than posturing, a necessary safeguard against alienating the bassist. But in the case of Grizzly Bear, it seems more accurate than a mere desire for group amity. They're all erudite and fiercely opinionated artists with finely cultivated skillsets. Nonetheless, Droste's natural candor, political advocacy, and innate gifts at Instagram have made him the group's most visible member. He's used his platform to staunchly champion LGBTQ rights, poignantly denounce Trump, and repeatedly and publicly prod his most prominent Instagram follower, Ivanka Trump, to alter her father's policies. On one hand, it hasn't worked. On the other, she hasn't unfollowed him yet.
All band members currently live on the East Side of LA—save for Rossen—who splits time between upstate New York and Santa Fe. On this summer afternoon in the splitting LA heat, Droste happily looks the part of a relaxed 30-something West Coast transplant, rocking a gray T-shirt, black sweatpants, and open-toed sandals. I'd elaborate, but there's already enough New Yorkers fleeing here.
"I know that's partially a matter of age, but I just kept having visions of being old there. Then I was like, fuck that, I'm just not a New Yorker. My time here is up."
"It was like, 'why am I paying all this money to live here when it's too popular and crowded to do the things that I that want to do, the things that I used to love doing are no longer here, and lot of people I love are leaving?'" Droste says. "I know that's partially a matter of age, but I just kept having visions of being old there. Then I was like, fuck that, I'm just not a New Yorker. My time here is up."
But Droste and Grizzly Bear's coastal reversal reflects more than just the desire for more closet space and avocados in your 30s. Run down the bands lionized in the 00s New York City rock hagiography, Meet Me In the Bathroom, and you'll realize members of The Strokes, Animal Collective, The Yeah Yeahs, TV On The Radio and Vampire Weekend all reside much of the year in LA. If you lived in the city, you didn't need a glib-but-grave indie rock obituary to know that the era had clapped its last hands. You could've just found yourself downward facing dog in a Silver Lake yoga class next to Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman from The Dirty Projectors (it happened to me once, and I apologize for making you read that sentence).
And so it was with Grizzly Bear. As with Veckatimist, Shields was critically adored. It debuted at number seven on the US charts with 39,000 copies sold in its first week. Then everything everywhere slowly started to combust. Within the band, the stress of a marathon tour nearly destroyed them. Droste's marriage fell apart. New York became untenable. Twitter eggs began to hatch their first President.
"The tour was relentless and beat us down to the point of acting subhuman… like I have no ethics or morals or brain. I'm just operating on an animalistic level," Droste says. "Everyone was burnt, then to put on top of that, divorce. So I was short-circuiting and it was a huge relief not to be in New York because I would've probably jumped off a bridge. But I was here and I was like, 'oh my god, I can just chill out, go on a walk, feel the sun."
So for an extended sabbatical, Grizzly Bear retreated into their respective caves. Droste traveled extensively, contributed to Vogue, and did a few ad hoc musical collaborations. Chris Bear initially hibernated on the north fork of Long Island, reread Great Gatsby, scored High Maintenance, sporadically tinkered with music, and became a father. Daniel Rossen retreated into upstate New York anonymity, collected firewood, considered his place in the world, read a ton, and wrote a bunch of dark navel-gazing songs that he mostly hated.
If there's a hero to the Painted Ruins excavation, it's probably Chris Taylor, who salvaged the band from potentially fatal inertia. During their hiatus, the bassist and producer kept the largest public profile. The label he co-founded in 2009, Terrible Records, released albums from Solange, Empress Of, Le1F, and America's most underrated band, Regal Degal (which Taylor produced).
Not long after Terrible came under the aegis of Interscope, Taylor quietly left the imprint. He describes the parting as amicable: partially the result of how missions inevitably become altered when indie ventures merge with major conglomerates, partially because Grizzly Bear and music production would always take precedence over business pursuits. It's not like he's not busy enough. In the intervening years, the Seattle native also authored a cookbook, spent a year in Berlin, taught himself to surf, how to produce on Ableton, how to build motorcycles, and eventually convinced the rest of the band that it was time to regroup.
"I was trying to get the guys to work for a couple years, sending chill emails, like, 'hey, maybe sometime… what do you think...' Gestural things," Taylor says. "I was trying to be really patient although I wasn't. I was dying to get started. It was driving me pretty crazy."
Proximity to Droste partially spurred Taylor's move to LA. Ostensibly, it should've ignited the songwriting process, but little progress was made. So Taylor randomly decamped to a hilltop overlooking Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur. He gazed out at the ocean, glimpsed some whales, and penned 11 songs (the first time he'd written for Grizzly Bear). And look, both Chris Taylor and I understand the inherent Don Draper cliché of that last impulse, but I've spent plenty of time up there and I have zero musical talent; after a week in seclusion I become convinced I can write a symphony or at least a transcendent soda advertisement.
"I figured even if none of these ideas work, at least it would be a conversation starter," Taylor adds.
Only one Big Sur votive made the final album—albeit in totally different form—but the work inspired Droste enough to accompany Taylor on a writing sojourn to Crestline, a vacation resort high in the San Bernardino Mountains. The singles, "Mourning Sound" and "Three Rings" emerged from those sessions, some of the finest work in the band's catalogue.
If their earlier palette featured soft neo-impressionist rain washes, these songs are lusher and more elegantly dynamic. "Mourning Sound" operates at flee-the-scene shuffle with motorik drums and a bass line that could come from The Cure. Droste sounds as self-assured as he ever has, still in possession of a freeze-your-blood falsetto but only using it sparingly and for maximum emotional power.
On the East Coast, Rossen and Bear embarked on several other writing retreats. I can tell you about the songs that were written, but you probably already know that nothing is more boring than listening to a band talk about the making of an album. Unless you're the Rolling Stones mainlining heroin amid debauched French aristocracy , you might as well gloss over it.
It's more interesting to spend an afternoon with the quartet to see how their respective idiosyncrasies and personal history factor into the album's actual creation. Like most bands that don't disintegrate after two albums, the rhythm section operates as a vulcanized core.
There's Taylor, the bassist, producer, and classically trained jazz saxophonist with the meticulousness of an engineer and the curiosity of an inventor. He wears a blue denim work shirt, olive pants, and black combat boots. Nary a blonde hair is out of place, but there's a tattoo of a lyric from Joy Division's "Disorder" on his arm. His eyes are cornflower blue and unusually sturdy, like something you'd use for tarpaulin.
Taylor can tell you 32 singularly creative ways to cook eggs, and this gift for combinations is obvious in his contributions to the music. He could be a brilliant city planner or chess master. With involute orchestration and levitative harmonies weaving like gothic flying buttresses, Grizzly Bear can risk indulging in ornamental complexity that can snuff the emotion out. But on Painted Ruins, there's a divine clarity to the architecture; you can see how Taylor exists as a problem solver, untying Gordian knots, figuring out how to let the songs breathe without wandering.
In Christopher Bear, they wield arguably the most underrated indie rock drummer of that generation. On record, the jazz-schooled spiritual progeny of John Bonham, Tony Williams, and Jaki Leibezeit has tended to operate with almost monkish restraint. Percussion is inevitably the last thing mentioned in celebrations of the band's virtues. But live, Bear has always added muscular propulsion to songs that might otherwise translate as too fragile and gossamer.
In person, he's about 6'4", stalwartly built, looks like a J Crew ad, and boasts the ebullient confidence you invariably find in great drummers. It took the band five albums to figure it out, but this is the first one where his cavernous low-to-the-ground power lends perfect gravity to the aerial flights of Rossen and Droste.
As for Droste, he has the self-aware neuroses invariably found in cerebral perfectionists. Ask about lyrical themes and he'll immediately respond with, "we aren't a lyrical theme" band, which is a half-truth. There's always been an undercurrent of poetic melancholy and vague regret interlacing his lyrics. See lead single, "Mourning Sound" with its savage couplet: " I made a mistake/I never should have tried." The band's biggest single, "Two Weeks" commences with him in a "routine malaise."
They collectively paint the author as someone acutely aware of personal shortcomings but unable to abandon an intractable romanticism. Droste's opinions are secure like epiphanies, but he's swift to admit what he doesn't understand. His taste is exacting and refined, but Grizzly Bear exists because he invited everyone in and celebrates the value of the collaboration. In person and online, Droste is frequently hilarious; in every photo shoot, his eyes betray an elegiac sadness.
"I couldn't wait to rely on them, and that's what eventually happened."
If it feels like Daniel Rossen has been slightly absent, it's not out of a lack of importance but because he doesn't quite fit. By temperament, he's an outlier—a loner, who for long stretches lived in plaintive upstate nowhere. Out of the members of the group, Rossen is the only one not to relocate to Los Angeles, even though he's the only actual native.
A graduate of Hamilton High School's vaunted music academy, the classmate of Kamasi Washington played what he describes as "nerdy jazz guitar" before heading to NYU, where he chanced to live down the hall from Chris Taylor as a freshman. After Shields, he left the city because "it became so consumer-culture dominated to such a ridiculous degree that it felt very clownish to be a musician in Brooklyn. It wasn't an inspiring place to be, I guess."
This is the sort of quote that someone will scornfully extract from this piece to enumerate a bunch of reasons why New York remains artistically vital. And, yeah, sure, New York has sensational bagels. But you don't need a David Byrne thinkpiece to tell you that capitalism is human centipeding itself. Paying monthly rent in a major American city is cause for cardiac arrest. People are actively using acid not to decipher some profound meaning in a poison asp landscape, but to better monetize their app, which they describe to people at wine bars as "it's like Uber except for…"
Rossen was the one who wrote "While You Wait for the Others," a scathing dismissal of a lover, friend, or himself. His voice hang glides, allergic to gravity, scorning your "useless pretensions" and lack of substance. It's that ether that makes your soul burn slow. By nature, he's inclined to a philosopher's temperament, speaking with deliberate cold-blooded lucidity. Initially terse, he warms up as soon as books are mentioned. His hair slightly thinning, he's dressed plainly in a nondescript blue button-up shirt with a yellow T-shirt underneath. He has an old-time face that you'd expect to see in a black and white Fraternal Order of Eagles photo from 1917.
As always, Rossen sings roughly half the leads on Painted Ruins. His "Four Cypresses" weighs the obliterating crush of time. "Glass Hillside" is a runic abstraction about desire, rural drudgery, and "upcountry drifters in permanent repose." It sounds stupid on paper, but there's a jazzy slink that steals from Steely Dan better than Steely Dan has in the last 35 years.
"Aquarian" distills modern despair: "every moment brings a bitter choice/the knowledge that you can't win with what remains." The Weeknd it isn't, but Rossen adds a needed skepticism to the group. He's not only an exceptional songwriter and vocalist but a final arbiter. He comes off as someone who doesn't like much, but what he likes he loves.
"I definitely reached a point in the last few years where I found it hard to see the point. It became hard to finish things that I even really liked, which in a way, made doing a record with them really appealing," Rossen says. "I couldn't wait to rely on them, and that's what eventually happened. But I don't know, I'm not really a very careerist person."
A friend of mine once dismissed Grizzly Bear as sculpture, which always seemed lethally accurate. Skeptics saw the music as lifeless and cold. But to me, they've always been refining themselves towards the chiseled busts of Painted Ruins, an album that sounds the way the Doryphorus looks: a harmonic and idealized representation of beauty. Sleek and contoured without indulgence, powerful without losing the ability soar, melodically lithe without losing a center of gravity, pedal steel rustic without being inorganically rural.
There's a bizarre poetic irony to the indie rock bands of the late 00s returning this year: Arcade Fire, The National, Fleet Foxes, The Shins, Broken Social Scene, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, Wolf Parade, and St. Vincent. But I suspect that Grizzly Bear might have the best album of them all.
A nagging vector always trails veteran bands continuing to make music during a period they can no longer call their own. The options are few: You can re-invent yourself with some borrowed rhythm or BPM, a big-name producer, a broad timely ripped-from-the-Chyron MESSAGE. You can go disco. If you can afford it, you might go "Today's Top Hits" Pop. All you have to do is scan last year's "Best Producer" Grammy nominations and see who you can afford, who's available, and who's interested. Or you just make a slightly different variation of the album that you made a decade before and hope to get booked at 7:00 on the Main Stage at Coachella.
In the case of Painted Ruins, Grizzly Bear did none of these things. It is a breakup album with a city, a relationship, a vanished world and the pleasant delusions and physical sensations of youth. It has saxophone and flute, hearthfire Wurlitzer organ, the occasional subtle propulsion of dance music, and agnostic take-me-to-the river vocals. It bears the handmade sophistication of an art-deco craftsman; it's the vulnerable but vague pop album you figured they had in them, which you had to know was never really going to be pop. Those haunting heavenly voices are still there, too, ready to overwhelm when you're ready. If Grizzly Bear were once emblematically au courant, it was by accident. In their marrow, they've always been slightly sinistral, a trio of jazz obsessives and the bookish son of a music teacher. With Painted Ruins, they've made the best record you could've hoped for from them in 2017: something so beautifully anachronistic that it can't help be timeless. In a hemlock world, sometimes you need a nepenthe.
"I've had this conversation with the few peers that I hold near and dear—and there's not a lot of them—where we asked ourselves, 'does this matter?'" Droste says. "But then it's like, 'yes, yes it does matter.' It matters to me and it's inevitably going to matter to someone else. And that's what matters. That's all you can ask for. As long as you're making something you're excited about, then you're doing the right thing."
Emari Traffie is a photographer based in LA. Follow her on Instagram.
Jeff Weiss is a writer and editor of the blog Passion of the Weiss. Follow him on Twitter.