“O, wildly coherent in a watery deep,” whispers Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen amid a disembodied-sounding choir on “Dory,” the sparkling ballad at the center of Grizzly bear’s third full-length album, Veckatimest. That line doubles as a perfect descriptor of this Brooklyn band’s sonic blueprint: meticulous and even-keeled even as the band charts a course through unfathomable space.
Again recording in out-of-the-way spaces in Greenpoint, upstate New York and near Cape Cod, the quartet of Edward Droste, Christopher Bear, Rossen and Chris Taylor (along with the aforementioned choirs, string quartets, neo-classical composer/ arranger Nico Muhly, and Beach House’s Victoria Legrand) have captured their sound in breathtaking amber.
eMusic’s Andy Beta caught up with percussionist Christopher Bear as the group was preparing for a theater tour of the US.
There was a great deal of incubation time between Yellow House and the new record. Around the time you guys were winding down your touring cycle, offers came to open for Feist and Radiohead. How did going back out on the road again and touring help — or hurt?
Not sure it necessarily hurt. In some ways, I feel like all the touring really drove home the urge to get new material together. By the time we started the writing process for Veckatimest I was pretty hungry for fresh ideas. Also, the continual touring ended up tightening our ‘band ‘vibe, and really helped us understand how we interact with each other both musically and personally.
“Two Weeks” and “While You Wait for the Others” both had their debuts on late-night television before being recorded. What was it like to play new material on that platform? And did you guys find yourselves tinkering with the two songs less as a result of such instant exposure?
It was definitely really exciting to debut those tunes on television, if not a bit scary. But I think there was something very appealing about trying to make that happen, as it seems debuting material or doing something very ‘different ‘doesn’t happen all that much on television anymore. Both songs we rehearsed together quite a bit before playing them on those shows, so they felt a little more concrete than most of the other songs we were working on for the record. But even after the Letterman performance of “Two Weeks,” we continued to play it a bunch live and it evolved. In the end, we fell into more of a groove. It’s actually one of the songs that we had basically finished and then ended up completely re-recording.
Can you talk a bit about the recording process with Chris Taylor? Do you think there will ever come a day where you guys just hole up in a normal recording studio to make a record? Or do unorthodox spaces and recording habits help inform the final sound?
I don’t know that we’ll ever hole up in a regular recording studio and make a record. I definitely have respect for that, but it just hasn’t been how we work. I really like the freedom we have in being able to work in different spaces and, essentially, on our own clock. It helps in keeping the energy creative, and never feeling like you’re being forced to perform a part or lay something down if it’s not ready. We also have never gone into a recording phase with a complete set of songs written and rehearsed as a band. So many elements of songs are coming as a result of the recording process. It makes the whole process feel less rigid and more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
How important is the physical space to the recording?
It’s pretty important. Physically speaking, Chris Taylor likes to use natural reverberation as much as possible. He captured lots of different elements of all the places we recorded. The drums sounded great in the church and in the live room at the upstate studio. Some vocals needed the choral touch of the church reverb, whereas others needed the warm closeness of the Cape Cod house. Each place had very different acoustics, and we tried to utilize all of that.
Your first record was called Horn of Plenty and the new record is named after an island that has no inhabitants; yet the band has actually expanded over time. I was wondering if you had noticed that inverse relationship.
I actually never thought of thatâ¦nice observation. I can’t really speak about the meaning behind Horn of Plenty, as that was really Edward’s thing, but I think Veckatimest just seemed to resonate with everyone. It reminded us of an area where we’ve grown a lot as a band. Also, just as a word it seemed to fit the tone of the album and the artwork.
Generally, Grizzly Bear gets unpacked along the lines of being either Ed or Daniel’s songs, but Ed told me that it really is a group effort. What did you bring to the songwriting process?
Every song has a different story really and to break down each part each person contributed gets blurry and hairy, so I’d rather not go there. It really isn’t how we think of the songs but, yes, this one felt a lot more like we were all involved in the early stages of an idea.
Both in LA and recently in Brooklyn, you performed with a philharmonic orchestra. What is the hardest aspect of that kind of performance? When you performed at the BAM Opera House earlier this year, you guys also played a few Yellow House songs that had never been played before. What was it like to revisit those songs outside of recording them?
Playing with the philharmonic was really amazing and, at times, very scary, even though a couple of us have studied music and have a background with orchestral music. We don’t really think of our songs in terms of bars or meters most of the time, so getting back into that mindset was a challenge. Luckily, we had Nico (Muhly) to help translate. Revisiting the Yellow House material felt a lot like making that recording, only I had a better idea of how the songs went. It was still a pretty fresh feeling because we hadn’t played those songs live before.
I knew for ages that Ed was obsessed with teen pop star Jojo, to where Daniel finally recorded her “Too Little Too Late” as a gift for him. Were there such “secret” influences when you were recording Veckatimest?
A-ha, you want some more of our guilty pleasures? Truth be told, most of the time when music would come on it was more of palette cleanser, like when we’d be cooking dinner or cleaning up. I probably played a lot of spacey disco mixes or fusion-y soul stuff. But I remember Ed playing a lot of G-Unit’s “Wanna Get to Know You,” Beyoncés “Single Ladies,” and some David Archuleta song.
Being out in the middle of nowhere for recording, does it really feel like work? Or is it like vacation, a retreat? A life sentence perhaps?
I suppose out of vacation, retreat, and life sentence it feels most like a retreat. Upon arrival, the grocery shopping is always really intense because we’d try to make it so we wouldn’t really have to leave. So we’d try to think of all provisions necessary and get it all covered, but it never felt like we were trapped. At the same time, it wasn’t like a free reign vacation either. We’d try to keep vague schedules and always make a day productive in some way. So yeah, like a retreat or maybe summer camp.