Sunday, 28 October 2012

Through wildfires and scorpions: the making of Grizzly Bear's 'Shields'

First published in Loud And Quiet

Grizzly Bear have been plodding round Europe for days now, from hotel room to airport to private members' club, the latter being the type of venue they find themselves in today, answering questions and posing for photos for an unending procession of scribblers and snappers. Despite the band's indie credentials, it looks like we've got an A-list press junket on our hands. A trip with no sightseeing. A bandwagon with no groupies. A tour with no gigs. Yep, the bears are in the big league now.

They're here to talk about their fourth album Shields, due for release on Warp in September. Since they finished touring the hugely acclaimed 'Veckatimest', two of the band have spent time on solo projects – Daniel Rossen with his gorgeously understated, Grizzly Bear-ish Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP, and Chris Taylor with the less Grizzly Bear-ish Dreams Come True, a set of starker electronic songs recorded under the name CANT. Meanwhile, de facto frontman Ed Droste got married and drummer Christopher Bear – well, who knows what drummers do with their time off?

The band heralded their reunion as a four-piece and the completion of the new album by posting the first single online at the start of June. Named after a mountain said to be shaped like a slumbering warrior, 'Sleeping Ute' wrestles with a natural mystery, with the ghosts of the American wilderness, the magic of a waking dream. Rossen wrote the song, but the sleeping slopes of Ute are just a dream to him, too.

“Actually, I've never been there,” he admits. “It's in Colorado. I was reading a lot about old road systems in the Southwest area, I was looking on a map at the northern end of one of the roads from a canyon in Mexico and I was just interested in the creation myth around it. I used it as a jumping-off point for writing a more personal song, for something like a restless wandering dream, almost like a nightmare. Trying to wake yourself out of something crazy.”

'Colorado' is also a song from the band's second album, Yellow House, a mantra of few words floating in a whirpool of crashing pianos and cymbals. “It's actually totally unrelated,” laughs Droste. “I lived in Colorado at the age of 12 and that's why I name that song 'Colorado'. Totally unrelated to 'Sleeping Ute', but I'd like to check it out now.”

Looking back at the band's output so far, the wilder side of America's history seems to be a recurring fascination, from songs like 'Campfire' and 'Colorado' to their own ursine name and the very shirts on their back – plaid lumberjack wear, built for outdoor work. Their music is richly acoustic, warm, enveloping and organic, and they've always chosen to record in remote towns or old churches.

But in actual fact, Grizzly Bear are four city boys – Rossen from Los Angeles, Bear from Brooklyn, Droste from Cambridge, Massachusetts – and though Taylor protests that he “doesn't really come from a city,” he does indeed hail from the suburbs of a pretty major one: Seattle. Even the moniker Grizzly Bear is misleading – it's actually a nickname for one of Droste's old boyfriends. So why the interest in the great outdoors?

“We've spent a lot of time as a foursome either rehearsing or writing and going on various isolated retreats,” says Droste, “which I think has been very fun and useful in the past for getting the creative juices flowing and clearing your mind from the city. Personally speaking, I find New York a bit distracting. I know some people have a much easier time working in it, but for me I've got too many people distracting me that are unrelated to music, it's hard for me to get into the right zone.”

Rossen adds: “I think to one degree or another – I don't think it's collectively the band or anything – but I kind of feel like growing up in a city there's also a romance to getting away from it, which I feel has made its way into some of our music.”

“It's a big part of our process though, for sure, especially getting into a quiet, idyllic setting,” adds Taylor. “It's part of the way we've always worked.”

The band's first album, Horn of Plenty, was home-recorded by Droste with unsurprisingly lo-fi results. Rossen joined just in time for the band's first big tour and then lent his songwriting skills to the follow-up Yellow House, recorded at Droste's mother's house in Cape Cod. Returning there to write the third album, they ended up naming it Veckatimest after an uninhabited Native American island nearby. This time, keen to repeat the trick, the band decamped to remote Marfa, Texas (population: 1,981).

“We'd been through there on tour a couple of times on days off 'cos it's a really unique place in the U.S.,” says Rossen. “It's really strange, there's nothing like it anywhere in Texas, for sure. It's a really tiny little town but it's an arts community founded by Dan Flavin and various artists in the 70s.”

“I think it was just kinda like, let's go somewhere sunny,” adds Droste. “'Cos in the past it was always–”

“It was always shrouded somewhere in the Northeast and it was like cold and autumnal, and that was always part of the previous records,” adds Rossen. “So we were like, let's just go somewhere really bright, sunny and hot, it'll be really different from what we normally do. But of course we went there in the middle of June during record droughts and wildfires.”

“Yeah, like crazy wildfires, like, we don't know if the town's going to burn down!” says Droste. “It was 105 degrees every day and we could barely muster the energy to play a note during the sunny hours.”

On top of the intense heat and fire scares, the local fauna also dropped in on the sessions.

“I stepped on a scorpion setting up a microphone, that was interesting,” deadpans Taylor. “Dan was the only one in the room with me. I felt this sting and it kept hurting and kept hurting, and I looked down and saw this little scorpion sauntering away and I flipped, like, oh my god, this is when I start to die. And I immediately got on the internet and was looking up scorpions.” That's the first thing to do in an emergency, obviously.

“And I was doing a headstand to try and get the poison out of my feet, which was probably a retarded idea.”

“Yeah, you're actually bringing it closer to your head,” laughs Droste.

“Or, like, other major organs, but it was fine.”

In the end, the sessions proved unfruitful. “That was a year ago and we had a bit of a premature start to it, we were getting reacquainted with one another,” says Ed. “So we did that and then we went to Cape Cod and recorded it there, and then finished it in [New York]. So we did actually do some stuff in the city.”

They've described the album as their most verbose yet. “It wasn't really a conscious decision, but a lot of the writing happened in an emotionally charged period, personally speaking, and I guess there was a slight feeling that I didn't really want to get too comfortable in my past styles, really long tones, repeating one line over and over like a mantra. I thought it might be really challenging and cool to work on the craft of lyrics, and then ask people to come in and cut it up and work on it.”

They're also proud of the artwork they've chosen for Shields, a spade and a club painted in sober shades of grey and teal.

“It's by this mid-century artist called Richard Diebenkorn, he has this series of images based on spades and clubs,” says Droste. “The image just jumped out to all four of us and the series was really compelling and showed a sort of strength – an iconic image. And we were looking into meanings behind the imagery.” He hesitates briefly. “Tarot stuff.” There are a few awkward laughs.

“We had a few days of extreme hippy talks about the suit of swords and tarot,” offers Rossen. So, should we expect some occult themes on the record? “No! That's why we're trying to play it down,” laughs Droste. “But the image is really great, we just felt like it suited the album and the feeling and energy.”

A few UK dates are lined up for August but the real slog starts in September with a relentless 38-date world tour. “It's super intense this time,” says Taylor. “At the end of the European tour there's three days off in Amsterdam and then we fly to Australia and do that, it's pretty nuts. But I like playing shows a lot, I like travelling around.”

“You start to miss it after a while,” says Ed. “It's not the soundchecking and waiting around in venues, but the performing and connecting with the audience is always a really gratifying experience.” Rossen agrees: “I think it's been long enough now that we've blacked out most of the negative aspects of touring.”

A few years ago, the band found themselves in at the deep end supporting Radiohead on tour, taking what was once an intimate bedroom project to 20,000-capacity stadiums. Has it been a comfortable transition? Bear, the quietest of the four, offers his thoughts.

“I think you just enjoy the moment you're in, and luckily everything has just felt like a gradual growth for us, so we're able to appreciate it in an honest way. It's not this sudden shift in things. So I think we take it as it comes, and I don't know that were ever going to get to the level where we're doing [stadiums], but I think we enjoy the moment.”

There's a gruesome documentary of Radiohead's 1997 tour called Meeting People is Easy, a portrait of a band imploding from neurosis, anxiety and cabin fever, locked away in hotel suites for days on end answering inane questions from reporters. Maybe they should take it as a warning?

“[Thom Yorke] was really upset in that. He was super pissed,” says Taylor. “No one in the band is that pissed off.” He's right. Though it's late in the afternoon and the photographer is waiting, the band gamely push on, and only one of them has started drinking. “We just kinda bob and weave and try and do what we have to do as much as we can,” he adds. “But we can keep a good attitude about it.”

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