As incomplete as the material on the band’s debut now sounds, it defines Grizzly Bear’s ethos: intricately arranged music made accessible by the simple structure underneath. For a debut album on a tiny label by an unknown artist, Horn of Plenty got tons of critical notice, gushed over by influential music sites like Pitchfork. But more significant was the reaction of fellow musicians. A year or so after Horn of Plenty came out, the label Kanine reissued the record as a double album featuring a second disk composed entirely of remixes by arty and well-known musicians (Final Fantasy, Dntel) and arty but not-so-well-known musicians (Simon Bookish, Phiiliip’s Overflowing Trophy Case). Just as fans form a fiercely personal attachment to this music, other bands find putting their own mark on a Grizzly Bear tune to be really satisfying. Owen Pallett, a.k.a. Final Fantasy, tried to explain how he was instantly won over by the band: “I ducked into Piano’s and was surprised to see them playing. I’m not exactly sure what caused the magic. I think, like for most people, it’s pretty stunning to hear something that you’ve always wanted but never knew existed.”
The remix album’s success put Droste in the center of the emerging Brooklyn scene, though he does not like to talk about it. “We really hate commenting about, like, our stature,” Droste explains. “Because if you’re talking about being in the scene and being a leader and self-referencing in this weird ranking system of how big you are or how small you are or who likes you, it inherently sounds douchey.”
Grizzly Bear were hailed as representing a movement before they even had a clear idea of the music they wanted to make. “Our first label put freak-folk in our bio,” Droste says, “and the next thing you know, it was like, ‘Do you know Devendra?’ And it’s like, ‘Uh, I think he moved to L.A.’”
In order to perform live, Droste needed a band; Taylor came on board first in 2005, then Rossen. But they weren’t merely hired hands—Droste wanted musicians who could help him expand his horizons and overcome his insecurities. “I’m not an instrumentalist,” he says. “I never wanted to perform solo. I wanted to be in a band.”
The foursome descended on Droste’s childhood home in Watertown, Massachusetts, where they painstakingly wrote, shaped, reshaped, recorded, mixed, and remixed the songs that would become Yellow House. The album balances morose piano and pretty guitar, eerie strings and sublime harmonies, organic sounds cribbed from nature and studio-made blips and bleeps—equal parts weird and straight. The indie-rock world fell for it even more than they had for Horn of Plenty, and Grizzly Bear went on tour with TV on the Radio, a great live band. Grizzly Bear had, by comparison, barely ever played in front of an audience. “I remember looking at the ground and singing and playing guitar and not even acknowledging the crowd was there. I was just thinking, Oh God, I can’t take it, it’s too much,” Droste recalls. “Eventually you start, like, speaking between songs, and then maybe you crack a joke and make eye contact with someone.”
Performance anxiety wasn’t the band’s only problem. GB’s fragile emotive balance is achieved through meticulous arrangements that can’t really be replicated live. Instead of even trying to do that, Grizzly Bear approach their shows as an exercise in reinterpretation, as if they are covering their own songs. “We constantly change it on the road to keep it fresh,” Droste explains. “We want to try new versions with an orchestra or weird rock-out versions in a stand-up club or do a stripped-down acoustic version for a radio session.” They’ve since become an astonishing live act in their own right, playing on bills with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Paul Simon, as well as Radiohead—a hard act to precede if ever there was one. But like Radiohead, GB doesn’t resort to gimmicks onstage; they’re just four guys in regular clothes saying regular things in between freakishly beautiful songs.
To make Veckatimest (named for a small island off Cape Cod), Grizzly Bear isolated themselves for three weeks at the former Allaire Studios, an estate in the Catskills where there was nothing to do but cook and make music. (Chris Bear brought a pasta-maker.) The lack of distraction and remote, Shining-esque vibe resulted in maximum collaboration. “The songs were presented as open for change, as opposed to being like, ‘This song is done, let’s record it,’ ” Droste says. The result is a record that’s just as delicate, as sensual, and as off-kilter as Yellow House but more direct and easily comprehensible. In the past, GB’s philosophy was More is more—an extra layer of harmony or weird sample would compensate for any moment of creative uncertainty. On Veckatimest, their confidence has clearly grown to the point where they don’t need to bother with that kind of neurotic detail.
When in the city, Grizzly Bear work out of a private rehearsal space. They call it “the church” because that’s what it is—a church, somewhere in Brooklyn, where services are still held every Sunday—but they otherwise don’t like to talk about it or invite people to stop by. At first, I assumed this was part of the Grizzly Bear mystique—a secret band-only hangout. But when I suggested this theory, Chris Taylor quashed it. “Just being cautious,” he said. “Pretty much everything I own recording-wise or instrument-wise is there, and I’m not looking to get that stolen. It would be irreplaceable.” Their music may be gloriously eccentric, but these guys couldn’t be less so.