As the indie rock heroes continue touring behind their acclaimed fourth album—Shields, which is re-released this week as an expanded 2CD deluxe edition bolstered by demos, remixes and B-sides— they can’t help but look back to the past. A hellish-yet-career-defining half-decade has been marked by a tireless pursuit to get to where they are today.
BY MAX BLAU
“We did really have this whole long phase of our career where we were just working constantly. We either were working on the record or touring, or we were working on new material—we really had a constant flow.”
Grizzly Bear guitarist/vocalist Daniel Rossen, reflecting on his band’s trajectory to date, is echoed by his bandmate and lead singer Ed Droste, who succinctly notes, “For all intents and purposes, we didn’t really ever stop.”
The Brooklyn group’s first two releases, 2004’s Horn of Plenty and 2006’w Yellow House, garnered plenty of acclaim in indie-rock circles. Following those releases, they toured early and often, and soon enough their efforts paid off. It didn’t take long for the pinch-worthy moments to come knocking at the band’s door—Radiohead asked Droste, Rossen, bassist Chris Taylor and drummer Christopher Bear to open for a string of dates during one of their 2008 tours, an opportunity that helped the indie breakouts find a wider audience for the first time.
“Getting to tour with Radiohead was just the most surreal experience ever,” Droste recalls. “It was just a total, total shock. It came out of nowhere and we were all looking at each other thinking, how?”
Following 2009’s Veckatimest, even more success ensued: larger shows at better venues; a consistent spot on the festival circuit: and higher-profile placements, including a Volkswagen commercial during Super Bowl XLIV and contributions to both the Blue Valentine and Twilight: New Moon soundtracks.
The opportunities kept pouring in, which also meant that Grizzly Bear would get next-to-no time off to recharge their batteries. They accepted every single chance to advance their career in full stride. That being said, by the time Veckatimest’s cycle was winding down, there wasn’t any doubt that a much-needed break was overdue.
The four members slammed on the career brakes, bringing five years of forward momentum to a halt. It was exactly what they wanted—to take an extended professional hibernation before even thinking about the record to come.
When Grizzly Bear finally returned to start working on their fourth album, however, they had to start from scratch for the first time since their inception. They truly had a clean slate—something that proved to be both a blessing and curse.In a certain sense, the making of the new Shields (Warp Records) represented the band’s first true challenge as a band.
When the band reconvened to start the sessions that would eventually become Shields, they wanted to make music in a place different than their usual recording haven, at the Cape Cod abode belong to Droste’s mother. That location had informed their past two records—it’s where Yellow House got its name from—but they wanted to experience creative inspiration in a new environment. They settled on Marfa, Texas, a secluded, but vibrant town in Far West Texas.
“I think we had this idea that taking ourselves outside of our Cape Cod/New England comfort zone would be inspiring and intriguing,” Droste says. “We’d been to the town before and loved its feeling and energy and thought, why not?”
Marfa is tiny. To say the least. The population (1,981 people, according to the 2010 census) is less than the distance to Cape Cod, which is 2,314 miles. The band had toured through the town before and was therefore open to the idea of recording. When they decamped there, however, they soon learned that their time off meant that they had rust to shake off, something they weren’t ready for, given their non-stop schedule year after year leading up to their post-Veckatimest break.
“Awhile before we got there, I think we were all expecting ‘oh yeah, we’ll go there, we’ll start recording, it’ll be great’,” percussionist Bear recalls. “I think as it got closer, as our time was approaching to go there, it sort of set in.”
“I think we were being naïve, “Droste admits, “to think we could just jump into it and get started again without some sort of growing pains, so to speak.”
During their time off, each member had gone his own separate way. Multi-instrumentalist Taylor ardently pursued a wide variety of projects, informed by R&B and soul influences not typically associated with Grizzly Bear’s dynamic, elegiac and intricate arrangements. Rossen, meanwhile, wasn’t immersed in Brooklyn’s depths during these months, instead choosing to live in upstate New York as he composed in his own isolated world.
“I kind of knew that I was making music that was different than what Ed and Bear were doing and what Chris Taylor was doing too,” Rossen explains.
Droste and Bear partook in a month-long writing retreat in Todos Santos, a small Mexican town just off the Pacific Coast in the Baja Peninsula. The two casually made music together, creating about 10 to 12 compositional sketches that they would later bring to Marfa’s initial sessions. “I wasn’t quite sure if it was Grizzly Bear stuff,” Bear recalls. “Some of it seemed like it wasn’t necessarily going to fit into the context of the band. And then there was some stuff in it that I did feel like might work with bringing everyone into the fold.”
After taking their longest break ever as a band, they learned how quickly seven years of momentum could be lost. That became amplified, moreover, after spending time following separate and different pursuits—musical and otherwise.
As Rossen explains, “It was [trying to find] the record that we were going to make collaboratively that we all agreed on. I knew it was going to kind of take us [time to get] back, to hone in on our tastes so that they all aligned.”
Adds Bear, “A lot of it was about getting to a place where we all were just getting familiar again with where we all were at creatively and what we wanted to do. Just getting back onto the same page and understanding how we work with one another.”
In addition, Marfa’s brutal summer was in full force, undoubtedly hampering their efforts. While the Texan desert town first appeared to be an idyllic and inspiring setting, it transformed into an obstacle that made the creative process an arduous one.
“The timing was a bit off as we went in the deepest heat wave ever with tons of wildfires which essentially relegated all work to evenings when the temperature would drop from 105 to a more temperate 80 degrees,” says Droste. “A very interesting experience it was. [It] almost seems like a heat stroke dream being there. It’s all a bit hazy.”
After spending three frustrating weeks in the aforementioned Far West Texas, the band took another extended break that lasted through the end of 2012. Droste married his longtime boyfriend and traveled, Taylor released his first solo album under the name CANT, and Rossen put the finishing touches on Silent Hour/Golden Mile—his stunning solo debut EP. The band reconvened in January, taking another stab at making Shields while putting their struggles behind them.
Unsurprisingly, the band returned to Cape Cod in hopes of rekindling their creative impetus at favorite recording locale.
“I think we all knew in our gut that it’s a place that would feel good. We’ve spent so much time there over the years—rehearsing, writing and recording—that at this point it’s almost like a home we all share,” Droste says. “When we got there it was a very comforting feeling. We immediately were making fires, cooking and getting to work.”
There’s a certain level of tranquility in Cape Cod. In a certain sense, it’s the antithesis of their everyday lives at home or on the road.
“It’s beautiful up there,” Taylor says, “distinguishing it from everyday life in New York City. “[It’s] away from the distractions of cell phones and people texting you to go get lunch.”
“The house is by the water with a wonderful pictures window to the ocean,” Droste adds. “No Internet. Lots of forests around to wander around and get lost and clear your head. It’s just honestly a place like no other for us in that it somehow allows us all to forget a sense of self and to totally let go like no other location has. This has always been so crucial to our music making process.”
In crafting Shields, Grizzly Bear’s members attempted to step outside their comfort zones by literally leaving their home away from home. However, they discovered that creative growth would come through pushing themselves to become more collaborative songwriters than ever before.
“There were songs that Dan and I wrote together from the very first note until the end,” Droste explains. “That was the first time for us. We had never done that before.”
Before this album, the band’s individual songwriters stuck to their guns when it came to their own work. This division of creative labor stood to the point where one could pick out which members wrote particular tracks—Droste almost always sang vocals on his numbers, while Rossen handled lead responsibilities on his compositions.
“There was definitely a respect for people’s creative vision and if people brought something to the table it was like, ‘Ok, that’s your idea, and it’s not necessarily mine to mess with,’” Droste adds.
Marfa’s recording session proved to be a blessing in disguise in this sense. Rather than continuing the disjointed songwriting partnership that informed the band’s first three records, those failed experiments forced Grizzly Bear to rethink everything, all the way down to how they wrote songs together.
As a result, Droste, Rossen, Taylor and Bear adopted a collaborative directive in Cape Cod, rethinking every aspect of their band’s existence. In essence, the four musicians—already the closest of friends—learned to put their “shields” down and disarmed themselves of preexisting visions about the band.
“[The album] can be interpreted in a bunch of different ways, not just with a romantic relationship, but with a band, a family or whatever,” Droste says, about Shields’ lyrics. “How much autonomy does one need and desire and crave in order to survive, and how much isolation can sort of drive you crazy.”
“It’s sort of coming from that new sense of security where you’re like, ‘Okay, I don’t have to be so guarded about this.’ It’s sort of [about] growing, becoming more comfortable with yourself… I feel like on each album, on a more personal level, I’m becoming more comfortable with my own voice.”
Not only is Shields urgent, it’s also honest, a combination that, for the first time ever, truly allowed the band to reveal themselves through song. That comes not only through collaborative songwriting and lyrics, but also through their recording process—one that features less polish and perfection.
“There’s this new sense of intimacy with this album where you can just hear the crackle on a voice or a lightly achieved moment or the different sort of rhythm in the second take of a chorus,” Droste muses. “As a result I feel like even though it’s sort of charged, and maybe a colder album in a sort of way. It has a different energy to it, I feel like it’s a more intimate album and, in the long run, more relatable, too.”
Up until Shields Grizzly Bear never vetted their recording process. They were so meticulous in shaping songs that the foursome never edited; they simply released all of their songs. As they deemphasized making every moment perfect, their output flourished. The band estimates the final count, between Marfa and Cape Cod, to be somewhere north of 40 completed songs. “The process was very different then anything we had done before,” Rossen says. “It was just a very different.”
Even with all those songs, Grizzly Bear didn’t entertain the idea of a larger release. Instead, the band insisted keeping their fourth album as streamlined as their predecessors. Explains Droste, “We were like, ‘Let’s not have a bloated album.’ We really, really cut it down to what is the best and what actually works best together. It’s more of an album experience.”
While Yellow House and Veckatimest possess more elegant, sweeping and climactic moments, Shields arguably signifies their most cohesive effort to date. The 10 tracks that made the final cut ebb and flow in near-perfect doses—slowly engraining themselves into one’s memory subtly yet potently with each passing listen.
Each track has its own backstory: “The Hunt” is the only song that Droste has ever “written in 24 hours,” while Rossen’s bandmates helped bring “Gun-Shy” to fruition after the guitarist couldn’t find a clear direction for his initial melody. “Speak in Rounds” started during an acoustic fireside improvisation between the band’s primary songwriting pair. In total, eight of Shields’ songs arose out of this truly collective effort during their Cape Cod excursion.
The album’s final track, “Sun in Your Eyes,” emerges as a grandiose, seven-minute work that all four members—in separate interviews—point to as the album’s defining moment. It’s no coincidence, however, as it’s the epitome of their overarching collaborative aesthetic.
“Every night I was sort of playing around on the piano and people were listening to various ideas and seeing if they heard anything they liked,” says Droste. “I was singing a melody and Dan was like, ‘I really like that.’”
“He just sort of comes up with these materials moments that are interesting,” adds Rossen. “I would just kind of record him just doodling around and one night he just started the basic the rift of the very beginning of the song, which is very simple.”
Starting with this basic foundation, Bear experimented with a “hip-hop kind of production approach” and a “big bombastic beat” with this “kind of incessant clapping over it.” Droste, initially planning on handling the track’s lead vocals, yielded to Rossen after a “very back and forth” process. Taylor added his production expertise throughout the conversations, insisting that they record take after take in order to flesh out the song.
“I remember fighting for ‘Sun in Your Eyes’ for pretty much, like, months. I was just, I wouldn’t let it go,” Taylor recalls. “It didn’t look like it was going to happen… so I kept messing with it and making different versions of it. [I] kept messing with it, showing everyone that I wasn’t really going to let it go.
“On every record I do, there’s always one song that’s waiting in the wings, and then at the last minute there’s some kind of cool and inspired push. At that very end stage… there’s no tomorrow, you know, it just has to be done. And so you have this awesome look at your ‘last meal’ kind of a thing. You’re like, ‘make it amazing, enjoy it and like make it something beautiful.’”
As Grizzly Bear embarks on another lengthy tour cycle—sharing the fruits of their labor with fans worldwide—they’re approaching each show with an increasingly defined perspective. As excited as the band should be after forcing Shields to see the light of day, there isn’t necessarily an unbridled optimism and newfound clarity on the road ahead.
“I never know what is going to happen with the band,” Droste admits. “I never know whether we’ll have another album’s worth of songs in us. Whether we’ll all want to tour forever. Whether there will be a sustained interest in us as a band. Whether we’ll be able to make music that feels fresh and exciting to all four of us.”
It’s not that Grizzly Bear remains entirely unenthused; rather, they’re now carrying a matured restraint. More importantly, they’ve learned to embrace to the unforeseen path ahead—wherever that may lead.
“We keep riding the creative rollercoaster together,” concludes Droste, “finding new ways to navigate all these questions. But you have to be realistic with yourselves and know you just never know what will happen.”
GRIZZLY BEAR: TOGETHER, SEPARATE—AND ALWAYS INTRIGUING
During the three years between Veckatimest and Shields, the members of Grizzly Bear pursued numerous projects. Here are 10 songs from those undertakings that define this chapter in the band’s career.
Grizzly Bear – “Two Weeks” (2009)
“Two Weeks” remains one of the band’s most iconic tracks off of Veckatimest, exemplifying their penchant for pop songwriting and multi-layered harmonies.
Daniel Rossen – “Waterfall” (2009)
One of Rossen’s first tracks released under his own name was a lush, heartrending rendition of “Waterfall” for the 14-track Judee Sill tribute compilation, Crayon Angel. While it was only a cover, it hinted at what the songwriter could truly do on his own—something unseen until his 2012 debut EP.
Grizzly Bear (featuring Victoria Legrand) – “Slow Life” (2009)
Heralded music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas tapped Grizzly Bear for the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack. The band recruited Beach House vocalist Victoria Legrand to collaborate on this stunning one-off song used in the hit romantic vampire sequel.
Grizzly Bear – “I Live With You” (2010)
The band was supposed to compose an original score for the steamy Michelle Williams-Ryan Gosling film Blue Valentine, but they couldn’t make the deadline upon the movie’s release date getting unexpectedly bumped up. As a result, the band offered previously released music to the film—both in original and instrumental versions plus alternate takes of certain tracks.
The Morning Benders – “Promises” (2010)
For the San Francisco group’s sophomore record, Big Echo, Taylor helped flesh out their cavernous, retro-pop aesthetic.
Twin Shadow – “Slow” (2010)
Taylor also helped George Lewis Jr. crafted his cathartic, looming record, Forget — allowing the crooner to bring out the most in Twin Shadow’s synthetic, soul-laced paranoia.
Robin Pecknold (featuring Ed Droste) – “I’m Losing Myself” (2011)
Droste hasn’t done much work outside of the band, primarily opting to focus just on Grizzly Bear. He did, however, lend some backing vocals to this song by the Fleet Foxes’ frontman, ultimately surfacing online as part of a free three-song download.
CANT – “Believe” (2011)
After working on the production side and running his own label (Terrible Records) for a few years, Taylor made his own R&B-laced indie-rock album, Dreams Come True, under the moniker CANT. The record, largely informed by his seasoned production methods, soulfully ebbs and flows with a certain sense of cautious optimism.
Daniel Rossen – “Up on High” (2012)
While he’s obviously worked with Grizzly Bear as well as part of his other duo, Department of Eagles, Rossen’s foray into a purely solo endeavor had been a first. That being said, Silent Hour/Golden Mile is remarkably stunning—rewarding upon multiple listens and keeping fans guessing as to when he’ll actually put out his debut LP.
Grizzly Bear – “Sun in Your Eyes” (2012)
Droste, Rossen, Taylor and Bear fully hit their stride on Shields’ final track, collaborating more than ever before to complete seven-minute arrangement. If anything, the band’s latest album closer suggests that maybe they should team up together more often.
Photos by Tom Hines. These stories originally comprised the cover feature for issue #13.