Having produced one of the albums of the year in Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste talks to us about hitting the US top ten, jazz camp (yes, really), working with orchestras, Nico Muhly, the recording process of their latest album and their lyrics.
How are the shows going on the tour?
They’re going great. It’s a lot of fun to play the new material. We’re heading back to places we haven’t played in a really long time and the crowds have been amazing. It’s been a complete pleasure.
How many interviews have you done for the album now?
Probably more than 100 at this stage! They’re slowing down right now.
Congrats on the album charting at #8 in the US. It’s a hugely impressive feat for you guys…
Thank you. We were totally surprised, really.
Did it even occur to you that it might chart?
We had no clue that was going to happen. It was the biggest, awesomest surprise. For an independent band in the United States, it’s a little crazy. I mean, it was only the first week because that’s when people buy it. It’s still really cool just for one week.
So now that the album is out there a while, are you happy with everything? Is there anything you would have done differently?
No, I’m really pleased with everything and how it panned out. I just felt like when it leaked, it was so long waiting for it to come out. Now that everything’s done and it’s in the stores, we’re just playing shows so it feels much more normal. The anticipation of the release is gone. The reviews have been great but it’s also nice for everything related to be over and to be just touring.
So take us back to the recording process for Veckatimest? Obviously Chris Bear and Daniel Rossen were working on Department of Eagles so how does it all fit in together?
DOE was a long time in the making. Daniel had been working on it a long time with Fred [Nicolaus] and the recording process was happening a year and a half ago in the Winter of 2008. During that time, it was mostly Dan and Fred with Chris [Bear] producing. Chris was doing some drums here and there but he wasn’t around all the time. In the beginning, Chris and I would take some weekend trips and write some music together, then bring it back to the band and show them our ideas – that’s where ‘Two Weeks’ came from.
Then Chris Bear, Chris Taylor and I went Upstate [New York] and kept writing and recording bits. Dan and I would go off and write then. It was just little ideas that kept coming. We were up for the idea of it being super-low pressure, trying not to put a deadline on ourselves and feel like it had it be done by a certain time. We just wanted it to be an organic, natural process.
Is there a characteristic of the recording process that felt different to what you had done before this time around?
Well the cool part was it was way more collaborative. We would really present the songs to one another at a much earlier stage. With Yellow House for example, a lot of the times we would have a song that was done before we showed it to everyone else. We would record it and there would be some changes but this time we sketched the idea and we would add an intro or something. It was a bit more of an anything goes situation.
I guess we started from a clean slate. With Yellow House we had songs but this time we had nothing so we approached it from a totally different perspective.
How did those three spaces leave their mark on the songs?
We recorded it ourselves and each space found its way into the recording. It influences the sound in the case that there was a natural reverb in the church for instance, which was really great for vocals or when we were at Cape Cod, there was a small little cottage with a fireplace. The sound of the fire made its way into the recordings. In Upstate New York, it was huge great hall were were in which was really great for drums and there was these old instruments we could use – like a mellotron and old vintage microphones so each spot made the album denser and thicker, providing more depth and natural ambiance of the spaces.
I don’t think there’s any way we could make the albums we make in a professional studio becuase they’re so sound-proofed and sterile so I’m not sure it would suit us.
You definitely have a lot of space in your records. I caught you live at SXSW in the Courtyard and I was struck by how clean the sound was, in the best possible way. You could hear everything so well and every instrument occupied its own space. The harmonies were just perfect and everything gelled so well together. It’s interesting that you really haven’t been playing live that long in terms of your career because you started Grizzly Bear yourself and it wasn’t a full band.
Yeh four or five years ago I was petrified of playing live. I’ve got really used to it now so it’s not scary or weird to me but we always have fun re-interpreting songs from the album. We really enjoy playing live, it’s kind of what I’ve been looking forward to after the album was released.
You played some of the new songs live long before they were recorded, did that ultimately affect the outcome of those songs – like ‘While You Wait For The Others’, ‘Two Weeks’?
I remember when we made the sketch of ‘Two Weeks’ and we had started to record it Upstate. We went on tour with Radiohead and we started to play it the whole time. It’s interesting because the song started to get a new energy when we performed it live all the time. When we went back and listened to the initial recording we decided it didn’t feel right so we completely re-recorded the song. So in many cases, playing the song live helps to inform the feeling or essence of the song would be.
How long did you record Veckatimest for in the end?
We started in July 2008 and finished in January 2009 but it was really on and off. It wasn’t the entire time at all. Three weeks in July, a couple of weeks in October, November, December and January was when we at the church in New York so we could go in whenever we wanted – probably four days a week.
You have the Brooklyn Youth chorus on three songs. Did that come about from working with the Philharmonic or vice versa? Nico Muhly helped out on that side so how did that all come about?
We decided we wanted to try some choir on the songs and we asked Nico to do some arrangements. He did a ton of them and we only ended up using like, 10% of them because Nico has a very distinctive aesthethic that sometimes his arrangements are so Nico that it sounded like him but not us. It was really fun though, we let him go wild and used bits and pieces, more like textural brushstrokes, little impressionistic flourishes here and there. In the meantime, he was also working on arrangements for our orchestra shows (with the Brooklyn Philharmonic). Those shows were great but I was really nervous, it was a new experience. You have to be careful how loud you play, you don’t want to overwhelm the orchestra or their sound. If you play too loudly, it will totally swallow up their special details which is the whole point of playing with them. Also, none of us in the band professionally read music in a sight-reading way so there was a little bit of a communication barrier. They’d say “Bar 68” and we’d be like “What are you talking about?” so Nico would tell us “Ooh, second verse.” So he would need to translate for us! It was great to have him there.
The music you make is not your traditional indie rock band style – it’s much more intricate and delicate. How did you guys meet and what did you bond over that helped make Grizzy Bear what it is now?
After college, I had a job working as a sound editor in a stock footage company. I was editing interviews. That’s when I was going through a weird post-college confusion period and that’s when I started writing Horn of Plenty. I met Chris Bear through a mutual friend and he helped me finish up that album. Then, this was back in 2004, when we tried to do up a live show, he introduced me to Chris Taylor and the three of us did five shows together in support of Horn of Plenty. We didn’t think it sounded very good! So they knew this other guy named Dan who’s amazing. We rehearsed with Dan and everything clicked. Dan had some new songs and that’s when we really came a band.
What’s your group’s musical background?
I’m the only one who doesn’t have any professional training cos the boys have been to Jazz camp or have studied music in college or a student orchestra. The only thing I ever did in high school was take some guitar lessons. I was studying to be a journalist actually so my musical background is quite limited but my family is really musical. My mom was a music teacher and my grandfather was a professor of music.
In terms of lyrics on Veckatimest, to be honest, I’ve found myself catch glimpses of lines but for the most part I’ve no idea what the songs are about. Some seem obtuse and ambiguous or built around a key line. How important are lyrics to you and what sort of things are you singing about?
Both Dan and I really enjoy having these open-ended, somewhat vague lyrics that leaves room for interpretation. I really appreciate lyrics which allow you to find your own meaning and form your own relationships with. Most of the songs are based on relationships; not only romantic just in general. We don’t like to write lyrics that are overtly-explicit because that can sometimes be alienating for the listener. They’re very personal though it’s not fabricated storytelling.
What analogy would you use to describe the difference between Yellow House and Veckatimest?
The songs are more diverse now and more sonically dynamic, certainly more mature. I love Yellow House, it feels like this steady dreamwave, this same sort of sonic area which just floats by and Veckatimest is really exciting to me because there are really loud peaks and quiet valleys. It goes more places I think. It’s more of an epic adventure and a bit lighter.
Grizzly Bear play Vicar St on the 1st of November.