Time flies when you’re having fun, and sometimes that means half a decade is over before you know it: Back after a lengthy five-year breather with fifth full-length “Painted Ruins,” LDWN favorites Grizzly Bear returned to Berlin in late May to discuss an album that – again – manages to burst with new sonic energies and yet comes with the kind of wholesome harmonies we can’t seem to get enough of since circa 2005. Having “gravitated towards the left coast,” the former Brooklyn phenomenon has become an L.A. band of sorts (with second vocalist Dan Rossen based in Santa Fe these days), and yet singer Ed Droste almost made us feel a little nostalgic when he kept mentioning the Berlin he used to live in some 15+ years ago, “back when Mitte still had house parties and stuff.”
“Do you guys remember when there were pink pipes everywhere?,” he asked at one point, and yeah: We certainly do, and yet we don’t need these pipes anymore, since we now have GB’s latest sonic painting: a colorful (and sometimes pink) landscape that’s easily as addictive as their earlier efforts. Here’s what Droste and drummer Chris Bear told us about it…
- Q: Five years, that’s a lengthy breather between albums. Was it just the right amount of time for this band at this point in time?
ED: Yeah, at this point in our lives it made perfect sense and created a good energy.
CB: I think we all needed a little… I mean two years of that was touring for “Shields,” and it was an exhausting tour.
ED: We were burnt.
CB: We were pretty burnt-out by the end. So I think everyone just needed this time.
ED: This question keeps coming up, “What did you do?”, and I’m like, “Life.”
CB: I have a baby now.
ED: I got divorced. Everything happened. We all moved.
CB: And there was music happening, still, you know? We were all making music in some way.
- Q: You worked on a score, right?
CB: I did, yeah. I scored this HBO show about pot dealers (“High Maintenance”). And it was fun to think about music in that way: making 30-second little moments rather than having to conceive a whole song. It was a fun exercise.
ED: Have you guys seen the show?
- Q: No.
ED: It’s really good.
CB: It’s an interesting look at New York.
ED: It’s like vignettes. Every episode is a different story about different people. And the only thing in common is the pot dealer.
- Q: That’s kinda how it is, right? He’s the hub.
ED: Yeah. As crazy as the US is right now, weed is as bountiful as ever in many states. There are stores everywhere selling every type of pot you can imagine. California, Massachusetts, Colorado, Washington. It’s growing, state by state… I have this license, and then you just go to the store and they’re like fancy boutiques. Have you been in them?
CB: No, I haven’t.
ED: And you can get everything. Edibles… I don’t like to smoke it, I prefer to eat it.
- Q: So Holland isn’t that interesting anymore.
ED: They are going to lose a lot of tourism, yeah.
Q: How important was the fact that you had all these digital channels available when it came to getting back together after the breather? Did it make it easier because it allowed you to slowly reach out and reconnect?
CB: Both easier and more difficult at the same time.
Q: How so?
CB: I mean it was convenient in the sense that I think we were trying to avoid the kind of situation we’d been in before. In the past we’ve always sort of collected in some location outside of wherever we were all living, and we’d kind of hole up and all live in one space and make the thing. On “Shields” we did that a little too early. We went to Marfa and it was not the best.
Q: You mean the outcome or how it felt at the time?
CB: We weren’t ready. And we didn’t actually walk away with very much.
ED: It’s basically the b-sides release.
CB: So I think we wanted to avoid that kind of situation. And also just because we were all living in different places, maybe it felt a bit like a daunting idea to all of a sudden collect ourselves and put all four of us in a room and say, like, “Let’s write a song!” We’ve never really done it like that anyway.
ED: In a weird way it’s actually always been that way. It’s just the story in the bio, and people are like “Oh, you’re all separate.” But actually even when we lived in New York we didn’t all just sit in a room and make a song. So in a weird way it’s kind of the same. It’s just a new narrative.
Q: Fake news!
CB: Fake news!
ED: It is a bit of fake news. It’s something to hold on to.
CB: And it was actually a bigger decision to say “Let’s throw all our gear into a van and go,” because we were on different coasts.
ED: Although even on past albums we didn’t bring all our gear. Sometimes it was just me and you, we’d grab what we needed, go for four days and write. And that kind of thing also happened this time around.
CB: Yeah, but we were also passing demos around, and I think those demos we sent around over a longer period of time. I think we gathered more demos, and kind of settled on the ideas that became the album before we actively started to really record them. In the past we’d have only a couple songs, but immediately we’d start recording. I think once we found the core of the songs we all felt good about, then it made it easier for us to commit to saying, “Alright, let’s record in this space.” At that point the process was very fun, because that initial creative stuff can be tricky.
Q: I’ve always felt that it’s very special with your band how all four of you guys add layers until it becomes this weirdly interwoven thing I could never even fully grasp. But how do you find that balance and that point where it’s just right? And doesn’t that mean that you have to be in the same space, in a way?
ED: It comes together in the final stages of recording. And people are adding ideas even if we’re next to each other or from afar.
CB: “Mourning Sound” is a good example; the whole first part of it, intro and verse, existed as a thing, and then Dan, on the other side of the country, came to the chorus part, and then it was about linking them. And that all happened when we weren’t actually together.
ED: But on the flipside even if we are together: maybe everyone’s asleep and Dan gets up early and writes something. So it doesn’t matter so much, this idea of being apart. It only made it a little slower. It’s all kind of the same: I could have been five blocks away, and he’d be like – over the weekend – “I figured it out! Come over and listen!” As opposed to sending it to me.
Q: And you recorded the whole thing without knowing how it would be released?
ED: Yeah, we didn’t know what label it was going to be on.
Q: Did that make a difference?
ED: We just wanted to make sure that we didn’t have any external force driving the boat… the ship, whatever the saying is. The truck.
CB: Though even with Warp it’s always been very hands-off.
ED: I just think we were a little nervous this time, like, if we were to sign to a major – or anything – four years ago and then they’d be like “We want this”.
CB: It felt like it would add an unnecessary pressure. And we’ve never relied on a label to help us make a record.
ED: They’ve never told us what to do. I guess the closest they’ve come was, “Can you make a radio edit?” And that’s fine. But no one ever hears it unless they listen to the radio. That’s about as much as a label gets involved.
CB: Yeah, and I think we just didn’t want to have this thing looming over…
ED: The deadline.
CB: Shopping it around later was a nice way of doing it. It made it all a little smoother.
Q: When I first put it on a couple days ago, I remember realizing that contrast between the titles, which read like this bleak, barren landscape, and the sonic range – because there is a soothing quality to it. And I mean right at the start.
ED: It sounds warm.
Q: Exactly. So was this juxtaposition something you wanted to create?
ED: You’re right, I think on paper it looks quite dark: “Painted Ruins”, “Wasted Acres”, “Mourning Sound” – but then when you listen it’s something else.
CB: I think there is a little bit of that interplay too, or I mean there are some darker songs as well. It felt like there was more room to just kind of be a little looser with things, and which gives it a little more of that joyous thing – even if the actual sentiment of a song is not necessarily joyous. And I think it also ties in with the album title.
ED: Yeah, Dan came up with the title, and I think it’s a nice one because everyone has their own interpretation in the band. You can find a positive spin to it or a negative spin. It could be fixing up a house, or it could be painting over a pile of shit.
Q: It sounds more like mending to me.
ED: Yeah, fixing things it is to me. In a nice way.
CB: Or adding color and life to something that might be crumbling. Trying to still find something in it.
Q: Is that linked to the political climate – or simply to getting older?
ED: I think it’s both. I mean who isn’t trying to mend their life every day? You know, make it better? The more you age and grow, you’re constantly evolving and looking at things through new lenses, and you can look at past experiences as a ruin, or you can paint over one experience with a new one, or… there’s just so many interpretations of this. Painting over is almost like hiding it, or it’s fixing it, and the different sides are also in the songs on the album.
Q: Is it possible to link those different tendencies to what each member of the group brought to the table?
ED: Oh, that would be tough to do.
CB: It changes all the time. Song to song, the things that we bring to the table are often different. It really depends on what state the song is in. I think we’re always trying to find that balance of making all the sections feel a certain way or capturing a mood or presenting the juxtaposition to that – whatever might be the strongest feeling that the song has. There’s no such thing as anyone in the band going, “I’m the light guy!”
Q: I found it weird to see the comments after “Mourning Sound” was released. There was so much anger!
ED: I’m like, “Wait for the album”. And I think it’s because it’s the most simple Chris Bear beat. People are so used to you having really complex beats – and this is a straightforward one.
CB: It’s pretty straightforward.
ED: If he had some crazy, jazzy beat on it, I don’t think people would’ve responded that way. But we just wanted to try something new and it was fun!
CB: And even a song like “Cheerleader” is very straight up.
ED: I think people are always looking for something where they can go “What happened?!”
CB: The one hard thing about putting music out in general – and it’s kind of been this way for many years – is having to put out one song or two songs before the whole record. Somehow it feels especially strange this time, because I feel that the album really makes sense more as a whole, and also since we’ve been gone for a while… maybe there’s a little more curiosity, like, “Oh, what are they gonna do?” Which is also why we decided to put “Three Rings” out first, because in terms of texture it’s more representative of the album.
ED: And we kind of knew that “Mourning Sound” might throw people off a little bit – at least the die-hard, like, prog-heads that listen to us.
Q: Speaking of those die-hard fans, do you think a lot of people follow you guys like we obviously do – or how do you see your fan base at this point?
CB: Keeping connected with people that have been around from the early stages, that’s totally important to us, and I also just feel like: We, overall, make records that we’re very excited about, and it’s the music that we want to listen to.
Q: So the audience doesn’t matter so much, actually.
CB: Well, no, but I think that was the intention also when we made “Yellow House”. I can only hope that that same mentality is going to translate through the years.
ED: I mean either you grow with us or you grow apart. It’s like everything.
Q: And speaking of growing apart: Why are you still based in the States, since you’re so outspoken about all things Trump… What about leaving Trumpland?
ED: I kind of feel like leaving would be like a coward move at this point. I love so many elements of the States and the people, I mean it’s my life, you know? All our lives. There’s so many amazing people there, you have to remember. A lot of great people and a lot of weird people… the diversity is really interesting to me. It’s difficult right now, but it’s kind of like, “Do you want to fight or do you want to flee?” Do you want to be there, be active and try to get back to where you want it to be, or do you want to be like, “See ya! I’m gonna go to Europe!”
Q: You’ve done that before.
ED: C’mon, I was in college at the time.
CB: And it might be nowhere near Trumpland, but there’s problems all over Europe right now too.
ED: I feel like Trump was a warning signal. And Brexit. France, Austria, they could’ve gone different ways. Holland. Thank God they didn’t. It’s like we fell on the sword for you guys.
Interview: A 40oz for Breakfast/Coco Juice Standleitung/YETZE co. Productions treat
Grizzly Bear / “Painted Ruins” / Sony/RCA Records