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Grizzly Men

How four unassuming guys from NYU became everybody’s favorite New York band.

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Grizzly Bear, clockwise from top right: Ed Droste, Daniel Rossen, Chris Taylor, Chris Bear.  

It’s dusk on South First Street in Williamsburg, and the members of Grizzly Bear are sitting down to dinner at Rye, a new pre-Prohibition-themed restaurant. The place is not officially open to the public yet, but the hostess greets front man Ed Droste warmly (he was here for drinks the other night). Each band member—Droste, producer-bassist Chris Taylor, drummer Chris Bear, and guitarist-vocalist Daniel Rossen—listens attentively as the waitress describes the specials. When she’s gone, the conversation turns serious. “Normally, I would just dive right into that quail,” Droste says to the table, “but I had some tacos a couple of hours ago. You know, a late lunch.” Everyone agrees that the halibut entrée sounds enticing, but would it be too much food? The waitress comes back with a tray of cocktails and a glass of rosé for Taylor. He picks the glass up by its base, swirls the wine, sips it, makes a face like he’s just snorted a pixie stick, and nods vigorously. “Robust!” he exclaims. As long as the waitress is here, she might as well address Droste’s quail issue. “Did you say the quail is small?” the singer inquires. “Yeah. It’s quail-sized,” she deadpans. Everyone laughs. In the end, each Grizzly Bear orders the beet salad to start, followed by a light entrée. When the salads arrive, they discuss how this move will appear to New York Magazine readers. “We should do an online poll: ‘On a scale of one to ten, how lame is it that they all ordered the beet salad?’ ” Droste jokes, aware of the incongruity of being foodie rockers. “It’s really good, though,” Taylor says. “I don’t regret it.”

The members of Grizzly Bear have never worried about seeming lame, which may be why people think they’re cool. The band’s first album, 2004’s Horn of Plenty, came out at a moment when it was good to be weird and from Brooklyn. Fans hooked on the defiant inscrutability of Animal Collective or the dense soundscapes of TV on the Radio were quick to embrace a similarly adventurous but more intimate sound. By the time they released Yellow House, in 2006, Grizzly Bear’s first album with all four current members, it became clear they were not just the latest quirky collective. Their songs had the egghead production of art-school bands like Talking Heads and the complex vocal harmonies of a Baroque choir but were driven by irresistibly sweet pop melodies. Their third album, Veckatimest, out later this month, perfects this hybrid. In the same way that the band members themselves exude a beguiling purity of spirit—they’re cheerful yuppie nerds, not brooding hipsters—so does Veckatimest exude a basic human warmth that is deeply seductive.

All four members of Grizzly Bear went to New York University. Taylor, who has a passing resemblance to actor Michael Pitt, lived across the hall from Rossen during their freshman year. Sophomore year, Taylor met Bear—the good-natured, boyish jokester of the group—through “jazz stuff we were both playing,” says Taylor. He mentioned his new friend Chris Bear to the soft-spoken, observant Rossen, and that’s when they realized Rossen had gone to jazz camp with Bear when they were teenagers. The members of Grizzly Bear seem to have been gravitating toward each other all their lives.

Droste, who is gay, has dark Cary Grant hair, broad shoulders, and a geeky suaveness—he can wear knee-length cutoff shorts without looking like an idiot. The singer grew up in Boston and comes from a long line of the musically gifted. His maternal grandfather was head of the music department at Harvard, his aunt is a classically trained cellist, and his mother taught music at a Boston elementary school. In high school, he learned to play guitar and started writing his own songs. After college, he taught and volunteered in Zimbabwe and studied art in Italy and Greece. “It was a seeing-the-world thing,” he says. The wayward-student lifestyle wasn’t conducive to lugging a guitar around, so Droste quit playing. It was only when he returned to the States and was in his last year at NYU’s Gallatin School that he reconnected with songwriting.

Droste’s voice is a full-bodied, multi-octave-reaching instrument reminiscent of the more-earnest end-of-eighties New Wave (think Curt Smith from Tears for Fears or a less-campy Morrissey), but it took him a while to feel confident about it. “I was insecure about the songs, about my voice,” Droste remembers. “I was fearful of judgment and fearful of what people would think and just generally fearful.”

He persevered and wrote a collection of tortured and creepy but very beautiful songs. He was working in a documentary studio when he met Bear, who was studying music at NYU and understood the technical side of recording, through a mutual friend. Droste asked him to help him complete what would become Horn of Plenty (Bear co-wrote one song, helped clean up the recordings, and added some drums). “That album is this weird faded Polaroid of my past,” Droste says. “It was like releasing demos. The songs felt fully realized at the time because I didn’t really know what I was doing, but in retrospect, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, those songs are crazy! What the hell is going on?’ ”


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