After a false start in West Texas, Grizzly Bear returned to the yellow home of frontman Ed Droste’s mother in Cape Cod, Mass.—the makeshift studio for the Brooklyn band’s first album as a four-piece and inspiration for that album’s name Yellow House.
As long as Droste, Daniel Rossen, Chris Taylor and Chris Bear have made music together, the idea of location has informed their creative process. It’s why they named their second and third albums after places that they strongly identified with (2009’s Veckatimest was named after a small uninhabited island near their Northeast American home away from home).
But after a difficult and unproductive trip to Marfa, Texas, they decided to name the latest album Shields, instead. “In the past, we always named the record after the location that we worked in,” Rossen says, “and we didn’t want to do that. We didn’t think that the location really represented the spirit of the record.”
Grizzly Bear originally became aware of the tiny 2,000-person town after stumbling upon it during one of their previous tours. It’s really the only semblance of an oasis along I-10’s nine-hour desert drive from El Paso to San Antonio. The bandmates were hoping it would break the rhythm of their everyday lives.
“Ed was thinking it would be cool to take us somewhere really different,” Rossen says, “somewhere where we don’t normally work. Marfa is just about as far from our normal lifestyle as possible.”
“We had gone past there on tour a few of times,” Rossen adds. “It’s a very unique place in the middle of the desert, [a] very cool town to begin with and we decided we pretty much always recorded up in the northeast.”
Located roughly halfway between the major U.S. interstate and the Mexican border, the town has actually had its fair share of pop culture significance. Both There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men tapped into Marfa’s desert surroundings and small-town character during the summer of 2006. Fifty years earlier, George Stevens filmed the Academy Award-winning drama Giant in Marfa.
By heading off the beaten path, the group hoped to tap into Marfa’s local flavor and isolated serenity, continuing the creative momentum developed over the course of their three previous full-length efforts. What the group didn’t realize, however, was that heading to Marfa and simply diving into the recording process wasn’t going to be that easy. The band struggled to shake off the rust during their session, which followed an extended break in early in 2011.
“We spent most of the time trying to find sort of a common creative ground and sort of a headspace where we could all relate to each other because we had been away from each other for quite a while at that point,” Droste says. “So it was sort of jarring.”
“We went into it with a positive outlook, but it also was like, ‘Wait, what are we doing?’” Bear recalls. “Are we really thinking that we’re immediately going to start recording the record without all four of us hanging out and playing together?’”
Not only were they adjusting to working with one another again upon arriving in the tiny, sheltered Texas city, but they also had to deal with the scorching weather conditions impacting the entire town in the summer of 2011.
“At that point, we unfortunately we went to Marfa during a record drought and a wildfire,” Rossen says, “It was almost impossible to do anything during the day to jolt us out of our everyday thoughts.”
Rossen attributes some of Marfa’s setbacks as bad timing combined with a romanticized image of what the city’s locale could do for the band’s idealized recording needs. For Droste, the initial session served as an “eye-opening” experience, one that would later pay dividends down the road.
“It reminded us that we can’t just jump in and make an album on the drop of a dime together without having spent time together,” he says. “It was something we had forgotten since this was the first true break we’d taken.”
Droste started recording under the name Grizzly Bear in 2002. He wrote most of the songs for 2004’s Horn of Plenty by himself in the depths of his bedroom while “burying [his] voice and recording on a handheld tape recorder.”
Bear and Taylor aided with some early pointers on Horn of Plenty—particularly with post-production and remixing—and later joined Droste on the band’s first tours. Rossen joined the fold at the behest of Bear, who knew the fellow songwriter/vocalist/guitarist from jazz camp. Rossen began to chip in as a guitarist during some of these earlier shows, before working his way into the full-fledged rotation.
The Grizzly Bear lineup solidified as the band began performing both Droste’s and Rossen’s songs live. Some of those songs eventually became a part of Yellow House, exhibiting the group’s knack for experimental dynamic and unusual melody. It also garnered them wider attention for the first time.
Grizzly Bear toured heavily over the next couple of years—including a stop in Marfa. In 2008, the quartet worked with composer Nico Muhly on its third full-length effort, Veckatimest—an album that turned even more heads than its predecessor, including the likes of Jay-Z and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.
Their band’s popularity meant more touring—and in bigger venues—than ever before, keeping Droste, Rossen, Taylor and Bear on the road throughout much of 2010. By the time they returned home after Veckatimest‘s extensive tour, they were thoroughly drained, cueing some much-needed time off.
“By the time we finished touring,” Droste admits, “we were just so fatigued, essentially. Just a physical fatigue, more than a mental fatigue. We needed sleep.”
Following their extended international Veckatimest tour, the four members took time off to relax and pursue individual projects.
“We all kind of disappeared and did our own thing,” Droste says.
“I was kind of up to not a lot,” Bear recalls. “It was sort of what I needed, you know just sort of to have a very mellow existence. And so, just kind of being at home and just kind of taking a break from traveling a ton.”
Rossen and Taylor continued to work on music outside of the band. For the vocalist/guitarist, he wrote music at his own leisurely pace—some of which made its way onto his stunning 2012 debut EP, Silent Hour/Golden Mile. Having primarily composed for either Grizzly Bear or as one half of the heralded project, Department of Eagles, it marked the first time he worked completely alone. It offered him a chance to explore entirely different musical ideas without the expectations of others.
“I was experimenting with recording more depth on my own like drums, bass and other instruments,” Rossen mentions. “Certain songs got to the point that they were punched in such a way that it didn’t really make sense to take them apart again and start over—so that was kind how the EP happened.”
Rossen’s Silent Hour/Golden Mile unsurprisingly resembles what Grizzly Bear might sound like if he was solely at the helm. The five-song effort captures his somber, pensive side, tapping into typically unheard elements in the band’s work, such as a radiant slide guitar a la George Harrison.
Taylor used his time away to pursue even more work. He released an album under the moniker CANT and worked as a producer—both on Twin Shadow’s anxious-yet-soulful debut, Forget, and The Morning Benders’ cavernous breakout record, Big Echo. In addition, he also co-founded Terrible Records in 2009, which helped release his record, Dreams Come True, as well as a series of seven- and 10-inch records by other acts.
“It’s been non-stop,” he admits. “I sort of kept working on music. I came home and started writing a record, then recorded it and did other stuff for my record label, production—some stuff for that—then went on tour [with his solo project CANT], then came back from tour at like the end of January. And then four days later I went up to Cape Cod to start recording this record—like literally no downtime whatsoever. It was really insane.
“I think I probably should’ve taken some time off,” he half-jokingly adds. “I don’t know how to stop working on things, it’s just too compelling to be a part of something that I think would be cool to be a part of.”
When the four members reconvened after their several-month break, they slowly dialed into focus, sluggishly devising their initial blueprint for their new record. But it took some serious struggles before all four finally clicked together on the same page.
“I’ve used this analogy before,” Bear explains, “but it’s like when you’re in seventh grade and school ends for the year and you leave for the summer and maybe you don’t see all of your buddies. And then you come back the next year, and it’s a little bit different and slightly awkward. Within a couple weeks, you’re back with your friends and you’re, ‘Oh yeah, what were you up to last summer?’ You kind of jump back into knowing one another really well.”
“Coming back to work on a record,” Rossen adds, “it did seem a little bit like it was going to take some time to get to know each other again get to each others taste and understand what music we wanted to make, and what would make sense for this whole thing together.”
The first two singles promoted off of Shields, “Sleeping Ute” and “Yet Again,” were the only songs off the record from Marfa. Most of the material from that three-week session didn’t fully come to fruition.
“We did use some elements from that recording session because there were some really cool takes,” Droste says. “So it wasn’t like a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, but looking at it on a larger scale, the wrong energy was there.”
“I think we recorded like 10 or 11 things and like two of them made it to the record,” Taylor notes. “I don’t really think that it was anything more than the fact that we just had to reacquaint ourselves with each other creatively and personally because it had been a while since we communicated on either level and so I feel like it was a very human sort of thing that happened there.”
Much of their initial frustrations in Marfa arose from internalized conflicts about the band’s individual songwriting patterns. Grizzly Bear has increasingly become more collaborative since their early beginnings. After spending time apart, all four members fell into their own creative rhythms, which made it difficult to jump back into the thick of things together when they returned.
“The last thing any of us want is for anything to feel forced or for anyone to feel like they were bamboozled into something or pushed into a song,” Droste says. “I look back at Marfa sort of as more of an exercise and learning experience than as creating any sort of final product.”
“I don’t consider [Marfa] a failure, I consider it just like a part of the process, it was a necessary thing,” Taylor says. “[It informed] how we carried on into the sessions in Cape Cod when we started in February.”
After three disappointing weeks in Marfa, the band took some more time off before returning to their safe haven in Cape Cod, where they attempted to recreate the creative cohesion inside that yellow house, which Rossen describes as feeling “like a second home.”
“In New York City people are constantly trying to make plans or do something,” Taylor says. “You’re always getting hit up by one person or another, and you kind [of] need to get away from that, to really allow yourself to daydream. It’s a lovely place that we’ve been lucky to be able to go to and that’s why we keep going back. It’s really conducive to [that mindset].”
With their past setbacks and daily distractions aside, Grizzly Bear refocused on making the songs comprising Shields, learning from their lessons in the far reaches of the Lone Star state.
“I think it [was] really important for us to all sit with the material together and kind of pound through it and see how people are feeling about different things, different directions, different ideas,” Droste says. “Ultimately, that’s sort of what happened in the Cape this winter.”
“We essentially started from scratch,” he continues. “Not entirely, but there was a lot of creating from the ground up.”
Starting almost from scratch, the four members crafted song after song in a seemingly prolific manner. In doing so, Grizzly Bear worked more intimately than at any other point in their career, all while in the comforts of their favorite yellow house.
“This time everyone got involved right down to the lyrics and also we found a really exciting energy and momentum,” Droste says. “That’s how we ended up producing so much extra stuff all of a sudden. And I think we had to have that Marfa experience in order to get to that.”
As Droste points out, Cape Cod’s sessions resulted in the group “having a surplus of material.” In the past, Grizzly Bear would release everything they recorded, but for Shields, the outfit had “so, so, so many songs that we recorded all the way up to mixing and mastering that we didn’t even use.” They didn’t expect this sort of creative outburst, but it’s something they say was inspired by their struggles.
“After having gone through the Marfa experience, I think what ultimately happened was we ended up becoming more confident with each other and more secure,” Droste says. “We were able to take each other’s compliments and criticism and sort of just role with and strive toward making the best thing possible.”
Because of their willingness to take each other’s compliments and criticisms in stride, the band was able to explore notions of collaborative songwriting that haven’t always come easy.
“Generally speaking,” Droste says, “in the past, if you heard a melody or if you heard someone singing lead, you could just assume that they were the ones that wrote it. But this time it’s just not the case at all.”
“It felt kind of like a freeing experience to just let little musical pieces like that just sit around,” Rossen says. “Sometimes you might have an inclination to throw a bunch of harmonies on something. We just kind of decided to stay away from that a little more and try to build the arrangement in a different way.”
On Shields’ second track, “Speak in Rounds,” Droste remembers as he and Rossen sat “in front of the fire and [the track] started off as an acoustic thing.” As the two hashed out different ideas for the song, they managed to turn it into an eerie, pulsating force, one that he refers to as “electrified and charged.”
With the introspective pop gem, “Gun-Shy,” Droste—along with Taylor and Bear—helped build upon an initial part that Rossen wrote.
“The melody that was created for the verse was something that Dan had written and then he was like, ‘I don’t know what to do with this melody,’” Droste recalls. “I was like, ‘I am obsessed with it. Can I please roll with it and kind of try to shape the song?’ I worked on it with Chris and Chris, and it kind of took shape more and once we had a stronger vision, [Dan] jumped back in.”
All 10 songs on Shields contain a story along these lines, and it’s in this fashion that Grizzly Bear has fortified their latest album. Shields’ energy ebbs and flows throughout its nearly 50-minute running time, showcasing the band’s increasing confidence—which was found after initially stumbling out of the gate. They were forced to find new ways to compose, parting with some of their musical polish and convention, replacing it with a more personal approach.
“There’s this new sense of intimacy with this album where you can just hear the crackle on a voice or a lightly achieved moment or the different sort of rhythm in the second take of a chorus,” Droste reflects. “You can hear [imperfections] that bring the audience closer in a way because it’s allowing yourself to be more exposed.”
In many ways, Grizzly Bear’s all-too-human struggle is what makes their latest album such personable one. By letting their shields down, these four musicians have found comfort in their own skins because of—not in spite of—the trials and errors within their ever-evolving songwriting process.
“I think because of the collaboration there is a cohesiveness, “Droste says. “It has a different energy to it, he says I feel like it’s a more intimate album and, in the long run, more relatable, too.”