Siobhán Kane talks to Grizzly Bear‘s Christopher Bear about their latest album Veckatimest, Radiohead and the possibility of collaborating with Jay-Z…
Grizzly Bear‘s newest song, the low-lit slowly burning poem ‘Slow Life’ with Victoria Legrand (Beach House) readily captures so much of their strange beauty; the misty and necessary mixture of strength and delicacy that permeates so much of their work. Their records Horn of Plenty (2004), Yellow House (2006) and last year’s Veckatimest are all vital and exciting for their musicality, but more than that, because they are moving meditations on humanity, connecting us all, somehow. The opening of ‘Slow Life’ could be from something Leonard Cohen dreamt up, and words such as ‘I think I know what’s on your mind/A couple of words, a great divide/ Waiting in the wings a small respite/ Crawling out the foreground from behind‘ evokes so much pain and depth of feeling – in a similar vein to Cohen’s. In fact, Cohen’s ‘True Love Leaves no Traces’ almost describes Grizzly Bear’s sound – like ‘stars against the sun’, and their work contains the kind of sublime grace that looks toward heaven, whilst acknowledging the frailty of those (us) below.
Having evolved out of Ed Droste’s solo project around 2000 to something more rich and complex, the quartet, comprising Droste, Christopher Bear, Daniel Rossen and Chris Taylor have let a kind of light lead the way, with serendipitous meetings, old friendships and a sincere regard for interesting, meaningful collaboration and inspiration leading them to experiences such as performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, collaborating with Nico Muhly and Owen Pallet at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and more recently in a more intense collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra (which was widely hailed as a celebratory, ambitious triumph). Yet it is not necessarily that their light gets brighter, more that the soft, insistent flame keeps burning, like those stars against the sun, as Christopher Bear tells Siobhán Kane.
Ed has said that since performing some songs such as ‘Reprise’ and ‘Campfire’ in an orchestral context, he could never perform them as a four piece again, do you feel that also?
I think that a lot of the songs from Horn of Plenty and Yellow House were never really done as a four piece, and they never made sense that way and only made sense in a more orchestral context. It is awesome to reinterpret some of these songs, actually, it kind of opens up the gate for so much more.
Is there always a general nervousness about taking songs out live, in particular something like ‘Southern Point’ or ‘Little Brother’?
Definitely, with ‘Southern Point’, all of us were a bit nervous when we recorded it, we were like ‘man how are we going to pull this off live?’ but it somehow came together. I think it’s part of our process now, it’s very gradual, it never seems to end! It doesn’t always stem from a live context, but songs change, and there is always something to go back to, we are always learning. A concrete example would be something like ‘Little Brother’, or the version of ‘Colorado’ that we do now is a lot different to the version on ‘Yellow House’, they are permanently open-ended like that, it makes it fun, because you feel you are constantly connecting with a song. I like that idea about music, and work you do, that it is constantly changing.
There is an emotionally instinctive approach to how you make music, even in terms of the spaces you record in – Ed’s mother’s house for Yellow House, for example, and the openness about letting house sounds stay on the record as evidence of that.
Absolutely, that has always been there, at the core. We were not intentionally trying to capture those sounds, but we weren’t afraid of it letting them into the recording. Like the fire crackling that you can hear, there is this sense of space and personality of the place that makes it through into our music. It is the energy of the space which is so important to us. With Veckatimest we were, for the first part of recording, on a large estate with massive rooms, and it wouldn’t have bothered me if Dan woke up early doing a loud guitar part, and I would be sleeping, which was usually what happened [laughs], or when I would be recording drum tracks, but then we would all come together, whereas the experience was very much opposite in the small house, as all of us were in very tight quarters, and made lots of fires, and we would be cooking, and it would be cosy, as you would expect from a smaller space, but it affected the record, and focused things in a certain way.
Veckatimest is full of clarity, in so many ways – was there a slightly different sense of intention between the four of you with it?
I think so. We didn’t step in with preconceived ideas of how we should make it, but we did want to make the recording clearer, we have always been interested in capturing our sound as a live band and were thinking about that a lot, because that is where it kind of somehow comes together. We were all deeply involved in the early stages of the songwriting process for the record, and the whole experience this time around really did have an organic feel to it.
There is often a serendipity to a lot of your collaborations or experiences, like with Nico Muhly, who you have known for years.
I often think that actually. Working with Nico was so easy because he is a good friend, and easy to get along with. He came into it at the time we were collaborating for the Brooklyn Academy gig and knew our sound, and he knew we were in the final stages of the recording process, so it all happened at the right time.
He is so prolific that I can imagine he produced much more work than was used on the record.
Absolutely. We threw out a few ideas and he whipped up a ton of material, because of course he was already in that frame of mind with the arrangements for the other gig, and we didn’t end up recording a lot of stuff. It just didn’t end up in the final mix as the songs by then were so dense that we realised they didn’t need it. It goes back to that thing of being more conscious of keeping things clearer on this record. Whereas our previous experiences hadn’t been so. With Yellow House, it was actually the first time we properly recorded together [Horn of Plenty was written by Droste before the band came together properly], and we were so excited to throw down tracks and were putting down anything that came to mind, so you hear all different kind of instruments. I remember how excited we were, and listening to the record, you can hear that excitement at hearing the old creaks in the piano, and just doing it, whereas I think we tried to hold back on some of those inclinations this time around, we mostly let it settle in itself, and it had a huge impact on the sound.
Trusting in your instincts more than ever before must have led you to embrace certain projects that a few years ago might have seemed overwhelming.
Yes, and it was the same process with Nico – because it was a new challenge, we wanted to embrace it, and I think that we have gotten better at it. When we had to figure out how to bring Yellow House out live it taught us a lot about challenges, and that there are core parts of a song, and that you can then arrange them differently, and that we could do it in an interesting way – it’s all knowledge that we keep getting, keep learning.
Do you think that some of Nico’s work that didn’t make it onto the record may be distributed in another way in the future?
We haven’t really had time to digest it all, so I don’t know, but it would be so awesome to capture more of that stuff, I would love to.
Your approach to covers and remixes is also very open, for example the entire remix album of Horn of Plenty, as well as your own covers of other people’s work like The Crystals ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)’, it must go back to that idea that music is constantly changing and can be approached in various ways, that ultimately there is no real standard of any song.
In a way it stemmed from Ed’s pet project that you mention – Horn of Plenty as he is a remix junkie, but at the same time I don’t think he expected to make such a project after the release of Horn of Plenty, it just kind of happened. These strange things keep happening to us, yet we never thought we were a remixable band! I suppose we are though because so much of what we do is open-ended, as are the people’s work we cover.
That open-endedness also seeps into the often ethereal nature of your lyrics.
There are definitely some songs that are about specific things and places, but then with Ed and Dan, very rarely is a story fully conveyed, it’s that open-ended thing again. Our lyrics are very impressionistic I suppose, open to different interpretations. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s what I love about other people’s music too, and my way of listening is by often hearing the melody first and not at all the lyrics until much later, I am more interested in the melody, the spirit, the vocals, and layers. I have never stopped listening to music that way, and it must impact on the way we record as well, instinctively, weirdly our music ends up coming together that way, it actually lends itself to the sound. The four of us record together in one space over a certain time period, and first it is hard to step into it, because we know there is going to be a kind of grand ark to the record, but then we kind of have this sense of what it is all going to be like order-wise, even when we recorded this record, before tracking, we knew that ‘Southern Point’ would be a really good opening track.
That approach to composition also lends itself to your kinship with classical music and the orchestra.
Absolutely, there is always that sense to it, and I have always loved that atmosphere that the orchestra can create, more than anything.
William J. O’ Brien’s artwork for Veckatimest is particularly beautiful, and manages to visually render the atmosphere you create over the course of the record, was this a kind of serendipity also?
[Laughs] In a way, because he is an old friend of Ed’s that went to the Art Institute in Chicago, and over the course of touring and recording we would pass through and walk through his studio and admire his work. Over the past number of years his profile as an artist has developed, though he is better known for his sculpture and installation work, but Ed saw some of his pencil drawings and fell in love with them. Then he asked him if he would be interested in doing the artwork for Veckatimest. William is a really generous guy, he has folders of stuff he’s been working on, and these doodles on notebook paper and he will be like ‘hey, do you want a drawing?’ and just give them away. There are some in particular that I really, really love and would be interested in buying, and so for the record, it all made sense, his generosity, the particular tone in the drawings. Again, it all just kind of came together in a really organic way.
Did it also feel like that when you opened for Radiohead on their tour? It must have felt so surreal but satisfying when Jonny Greenwood said that you were his ‘favourite band in the world’, particularly because he also has such a kinship with orchestral music – through his own work, and as resident with the BBC Concert Orchestra.
I know, it was amazing, and it was a huge honour. And honestly, just to see that show every night and to see how they do what they do over two and a half hours on that scale, and keep the set-list constantly changing, and how they pull off such a big production, visually, musically, and none of it forced, it felt really beautiful.
Aside from Jonny Greenwood, Jay-Z has expressed his admiration for you, imagine that collaboration.
Oh you have no idea. Maybe it could happen, I’ll be waiting anxiously for that phonecall from Shawn Carter.
What plans do you have after touring at the end of the year?
We are touring up to December, then get back home for a couple of weeks of holidays, then onto Australia, we are really thrilled to be going there. In March we are in London at the Roundhouse, and doing a few festivals and other bits, but not as much extended touring, because we are looking forward to working on the next record.
Veckatimest is out now on Warp & is available from Road Records.