Grizzly Bear: ‘I can’t imagine starting our band in this climate’

Photo: Tom Hines

Originally published in Broadsheet, January 2018 

A decade ago, Grizzly Bear’s blend of jazz-camp precision and ’60s pop harmonies made an unlikely candidate for crossover success. Back on the road with fifth album Painted Ruins, it seems no one’s more surprised by the band’s staying power than their founder Ed Droste.

“Honestly, what I sometimes think when I’m walking around onstage is, ‘I cannot believe I’m still doing this’,” he says, laughing. “And it’s a mixture of complete gratitude and ‘Oh my God, I’m here again for the 12th time’.”

But before Painted Ruins could be built, the band first needed to escape the endless string of studios and green rooms they had inhabited since Droste launched the project from his Brooklyn bedroom with 2005’s lo-fi debut Horn of Plenty. The band needed a circuit breaker: they had to let real life back in.

“We’ve been touring, recording, touring, recording, touring, recording pretty relentlessly ever since we started,” he explains. “People were moving, three of us now live in LA, a bunch of us got married, people got divorced, there were babies born. Regular life became a priority over music for a few years, and I think it was good. [We] were just too afraid and tired, and just kind of done. So when we started working together again, we came back really refreshed in a more mature way.”

Only a few years had passed since the band rode a wave of music-blog buzz to the charts with 2009’s seminal Veckatimest and 2012’s Shields, but Droste found himself returning to a very different industry. Streaming services and newsfeed algorithms have largely consigned the taste-making influence of music sites to the bin.

“It changed a lot,” he says. “The sites that used to primarily cover explicitly music, and more ‘underground’ music, have now pivoted towards TV shows and pop stars that don’t really need coverage … and that was sort of an interesting shift. To see all these places that used to be looking for the new, small band from Pittsburgh, or whatever, kind of just talking about Stranger Things season two and Taylor Swift’s upcoming tour. So that was weird! [And] kind of a bummer, because I can’t imagine starting our band in this climate, especially with streaming services, too.

“I meet a lot of people who listen to random playlists and they don’t even know what they’re listening to! There’s this sense that it’s just background noise. There’s this sort of disconnect, which is strange.”

“This isn’t to say people don’t have attention spans, they do, it’s just when you have everything at your fingertips for free, and there’s so much stuff being released, it’s like every week a playlist is thrown at you like ‘New Friday Music’. I meet a lot of people who listen to random playlists and they don’t even know what they’re listening to! There’s this sense that it’s just background noise. There’s this sort of disconnect, which is strange.”

One thing that remained reassuringly intact was the chemistry between Droste and bandmates Chris Taylor, Daniel Rossen and Christopher Bear. “We had a lot more fun making this record, definitely the most fun record to make, even though it may deal with some dark lyrics, in a dark time in this country,” he says, currently midway through a tour of America’s red states. “But we had a good time as a group making it.”

“We’re four people all creatively involved in the writing process, and have all had our own individual life experiences … matured and all been listening to different kinds of things. Of course we’re going to come into it with new ideas. That attitude in the past could sometimes be met with some resistance, whereas everyone this time was like, Yeah, sure, let’s give it a go’.”

Painted Ruins captures some of the band’s most playful and experimental moments in years, and Droste is relishing the opportunity to be back on the road, and the familiar embrace of those same routines he escaped for a while.

“Sometimes it feels like Groundhog Day, even though there’s been years in between,” he says of revisiting the same cities. “When you’re either playing the same venue or eating at the same pho shop down the street and you’re like ‘Woah!’ But then there’s always the performance and the audience, which is always the best part of the whole thing. Then you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m so lucky to be doing this again’.”