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Grizzly Bear's Golden State of Mind

How breaking up with Brooklyn—and each other—lured the band out of hibernation for Painted Ruins

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Grizzly Bear's Golden State of Mind

Note: This following article is the cover story in Paste Quarterly #2, which you can purchase here, along with its accompanying vinyl Paste sampler.

A funny thing happens just 47 seconds into Grizzly Bear’s new album, Painted Ruins. Synth fuzz and orchestral hum rise, then give way to a looped groove that lurches all noir-ish like 1990s trip-hop fused to the sort of 1970s soul RZA would sample for one of those Wu-Tang songs where Ghostface sounds like he’s crying. But that’s not the strange part. The strange part comes when a familiar voice coos, “Were you riding with me? TRX-250.”

Daniel Rossen, the band’s guitarist and resident introvert, chuckles sheepishly as he admits, “I might have name-checked an ATV.”

Indeed, Google “TRX-250” and you’ll find YouTube clips of country boys doing wheelies on their four-wheelers, or vintage magazine ads showing hearty helmeted men driving hay bales around a farm. It’s decidedly not the stuff of arty Brooklyn bands with jazz pedigrees and chamber-rock inclinations—of the self-admittedly cryptic and at-times cerebral indie music giant known as Grizzly Bear, a quartet so mythologized it’s been both blamed for the gentrification of an entire borough and bandied about as an answer to what constitutes an “American Radiohead.”

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But this isn’t irony, or even poetic license at work. As Rossen explains, “I left the city and moved way, way upstate where most New Yorkers never go, to the northern foothills of the Catskills. The nearest town, if you want to call it that, is like 450 people. I used a 1987 ATV to haul wood.”

A lot has changed, even since then. Barring Rossen, who kept his New York homestead but moved to Santa Fe, N.M., last fall, Grizzly Bear is now based in Los Angeles. They’re also a major-label band, having signed with Sony-owned RCA. They’re a group of husbands, fathers and divorcees; of film and TV scorers, travel columnists, published chefs and political activists; of bee-keeping recluses and Taylor Swift nemeses (to be explained). None of these things was true when they released their last album, the dark and knotty Shields. But that was way back in 2012 and everything—the music business, the geopolitical climate, Williamsburg—is different now.

When Ed Droste, Grizzly Bear’s outspoken co-frontman, thinks about the band’s music entering this new space, “I’m literally like tee-bee-dee,” he says, elongating each letter between sips of iced coffee at an upscale cafe in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood. He walked here from the home he shares with his boyfriend, a Swiss-born sculptor and graphic designer. “I’m like, wait, so Spotify playlists are the new radio? Do blogs even exist anymore? What’s it like when everyone has a trillion things at their fingertips? Will people consume an album? It’s very ‘dad’ of me, I know.”

Rossen and I talk by phone, but I meet with the other two members, bassist Chris Taylor and drummer Christopher Bear, separately, in a similar third-wave coffee house a mile and a half away. They and Droste are a collective blur of logoless tees, dark jeans or chinos, unassuming sneakers, shortish hair, and longish stubble—hip modern dudes in a sea of hip modern dudes at hip modern coffee shops whose speakers give equal airtime to Ed Sheeran and James Blake. All express some concern or confusion over how Grizzly Bear, an intensely LP-oriented band, either fits in or stands out in 2017. “I’m sort of blindly hoping it all goes well,” says Bear, and that seems to be the consensus.

But their track record is strong: 2005’s Droste-only debut Horn of Plenty attracted a who’s-who of awesome oddball remixers, from Ariel Pink to DNTEL; 2006’s full-band Yellow House begat a tour opening for, yep, Radiohead (Jonny Greenwood called them his favorite band); 2009’s Veckatimest scored a No. 8 spot on Billboard’s LP chart and spawned the car commercial/film trailer favorite “Two Weeks” (sampled by several rappers seeking to increase crossover appeal); and Shields was both their most successful release (No. 7) and their most acclaimed (they toured it for a year and a half). They have legacy on their side as godfathers of a scene that’s still at least a decade away from the nostalgia heap, and something else too: their sheer might as a band.

“I’m like, wait, so Spotify playlists are the new radio? Do blogs even exist anymore? What’s it like when everyone has a trillion things at their fingertips? Will people consume an album? It’s very ‘dad’ of me, I know.”

Painted Ruins posits a less restrained, less perfect Grizzly Bear. Sunburst guitar blurts, warm amp buzz, live skittering drums, proudly astral synths, curious looped bits, and brightly chiming whatevers swirl into a loose, loud sound blob that’s always finding new shapes: cool TV on the Radio new wave on “Mourning Sound,” fiery Tame Impala psych rock on “Aquarian,” mercurial Steely Dan funk on “Glass Hillside.” It’s exactly how a leaderless pack of able-handed, lithe-minded men should sound. As Taylor puts it, “four personalities happening all the time.” He imagines fireworks, which is right—it’s the messy aural analog of a high-functioning democracy.

Which is itself a blessing if you’re in Grizzly Bear. Their best reason for not sweating the small stuff when they drop the album on Friday? They’re still a band. That wasn’t always a given.

“After our last show on the Shields tour in Sydney,” says Taylor, “I was like, ‘Guys, it sounds like you may not want to hang out right away, and I know we’ll all retreat to our zones, but maybe this time we do that for three months, then get in contact. It was a full year without conversing at all.”

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The story of this new record isn’t quite the story of the band, which started with three budding jazz musicians seeking a jazz-friendly city, who left their distant hometowns and all ended up at NYU where Droste had begun a lo-fi bedroom psych-folk experiment called Grizzly Bear. It’s almost easier to imagine a new band comprising four unusually accomplished strangers convening to make these 11 songs.

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There’s Taylor, 35, who despite his advice to the others retired upstate to Germantown, N.Y., to fulfill a dream of making a cookbook. He worked as a stagiaire (an interning chef) at local high-end eatery Crimson Sparrow but he’d wind up finishing Twenty Dinners, which came out in 2015 via Random House, while living in Berlin for a year to be closer to the woman he’s since married. He flew back intermittently to help produce albums by Tanlines, Regal Degal and Francis and the Lights, but in Germany he mostly avoided music and considered quitting. He even talked his way into a three-week stage in Copenhagen at the world’s most acclaimed restaurant, Noma.

“It was one of the most intense things I’ve ever done,” says Taylor, drinking water. He doesn’t need the coffee—he’s naturally high-energy and it’d be easy to mistake the “I’ve Got the Spirit” tattoo on his bicep as literal instead of a Joy Division reference. “It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. You’re peeling seven kilos of shrimp in 25 minutes. I loved it. You can’t cook there if you can’t hang, and I fucking hung, for the record.”

He ultimately decided to give the L.A. record-producer thing a go, relocating to the scrappy, arts-oriented Echo Park district and setting up a studio in the garage of his rented Craftsman home, not far from Droste.

Droste, 38, had moved west between Shields gigs and also immediately unplugged from music. He was going through a divorce he’d rather not talk about, “out of respect for him, and my privacy,” though he says a few details made their way into the new songs. (When I ask him about “Mourning Sound,” which includes the line “I made a mistake… I moved away, still paying off the fines,” he gives a conspiratorial wink.)

But he speaks openly about other matters. “I had to take care of some mental-health issues,” he says. “The level of anxiety I’d taken upon myself in music was too intense. I’d have these crazy endorphins after a show, and the show ends at, like, 12:30, so I started taking sleeping pills. I had to chill out.”

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He self-medicated via travel, visiting Japan, Myanmar, India, Greece, Italy, and Brazil to name a few, documenting several trips in a column for Vogue called Mile Runner (he obsessively counts his airline points and was in Mexico the day before our interview). He also disconnected from Twitter after drawing the ire of Taylor Swift fans by tweeting about a run-in with her in which she “exceeded all… expectations of rudeness and arrogance.” All he’ll say now about his brush with tabloid infamy is, “I stand by everything I said and I have no more to add. I regret nothing.”

With newfound time and vigor, Droste became a passionate Bernie Sanders surrogate, speaking at colleges and LGBTQ centers (“Some were makeshift,” he says, “like 30 people at a gay bar in Indianapolis.”). It was thrilling even if now, he says, “it all feels like it was a surreal dream.”

Rossen, 34, settled on his “useless, worthless, beautiful, post-agrarian” land with his wife, a sculptor and photographer. He split timber, grew vegetables, maintained paths and kept bees. “That ended in tragedy,” says Rossen, soberly. “They were destroyed by a family of bears.”

He did a solo tour and built a studio, but the isolation wasn’t what he expected. “I thought it’d be easier to work, but motivating myself to get anything done in a void became really difficult,” he says. “There was a fair amount of questioning whether I wanted to make music publicly, which I have always done, but it was acutely real up there.”

Plus, the winters were brutal. Hence: Santa Fe. Rossen’s wife is from there. They have mountains and trails, but also grocery stores and people. Or, in peak Rossen-speak, “There’s a degree of human culture that’s comforting.”

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Bear, 34, is the most unflappable of the group, but even he retreated to a “very old barn” at the end of Long Island. He married his girlfriend (a chef and photographer), became Beach House’s drummer for a tour and an album, started a “jazz-ish” improv trio with Grizzly Bear’s touring keyboardist Aaron Arntz, recorded the score to HBO pot comedy High Maintenance, and had a baby girl in 2016. In the time off, Bear also discovered that he’s a homebody. He’s been baking lately. “I guess I got a loaf I like doing,” he says modestly. “It’s a blend of a few different flours.” In September, he moved to Eagle Rock, a semi-suburban neighborhood of L.A., and he can already rattle off the names of the city’s choked highways and byways like one of SNL’s “Californians.”

In other words, although the members of Grizzly Bear were off doing their own things, they were all pretty much on the same trip even with their identities untethered from the band: separately wending their way westward in the midst of something like a mid-30s Bildungsroman, or the Esteemed Indie Rockers’ equivalent of Justin Bieber’s bad-boy phase.

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A short list of the things that Grizzly Bear was running from: 1) New York City. 2) Each other.

The first isn’t hard to understand. It’s worth mentioning they all agree that they had a “fucking awesome time” (Droste’s words) in what Bear calls the “golden era of Ye Olde Brooklyn.” With that out of the way, they kvetch like only New Yorkers can about the borough to which they once seemed inextricably tied. For Droste, the list is long. “Honestly,” he says, “what did it is that every time I tried to do something fun, there’d be a line.” But also: the weather, friends’ busyness, cost of living, and seeing his future reflected in the sad eyes of the elderly wrestling with groceries on the subway.

Taylor’s critique is cutting: “Williamsburg became like a theme park—a silly shopping-party-restaurant theme park, specifically.”

Rossen’s is personal: “I was always kind of antisocial, but being a musician surrounded by [all of that], I just felt like an idiot, honestly.”

Bear is polite: “The things that draw people to New York, that drew me, I wasn’t needing anymore.”

The second is tougher to parse. If Shields sounded aggressive, it might have had to do with how it was made. In the summer of 2011, the guys flew themselves and all their gear to the desert hippie outpost of Marfa, Texas. “It’s a crazy place to go in June,” says Bear. “It’s so hot and we were staying in an old army barracks with no AC. There were dark moments.” They arrived with a set of songs they couldn’t agree on, tried to force it, and scrapped most of what they made. When I tell Droste, whom I interview last, that everyone seems to have a little Marfa trauma, he says, “Oh, that trauma existed throughout the campaign. You could extract it down to that month, put some soda water in it and call it the Marfa Fizz. But no, it was everywhere, and it shaped the band.”

No one seems eager to rehash it further, but Rossen cites “interpersonal chaos” and adds that by the end of the Shields tour, “I felt beat down. I was a bit uncomfortable with my position in the band. I didn’t like being the auxiliary songwriter guy; it felt a little demeaning and I wasn’t sure I had the stomach. It took me a long time to ease back into the idea of doing a record with those guys.”

A short list of things that brought Grizzly Bear back together: 1) Chris Taylor. 2) Cloud sharing.

In January of 2015, Taylor broke the ice with an idea. He’d start a Dropbox where they could share ideas, sounds, textures, chords, tracks, anything. The only rule: no rules. Take what you want, edit how you choose, or ignore entirely. If something sticks, great. If not, “it’s all mood board,” he says. Taylor, ever restless, was fine with that until six months passed and only two potential songs materialized. So he bought a guitar—”I don’t know how to play guitar,” he points out—then drove up to a friend’s house in Big Sur, taught himself, and wrote 14 songs for his band. He’d never been the one bringing in demos, but he uploaded them “like bwao!”, and the hibernation was over. Writing sessions began. Back east, Rossen and Bear closed the seven-hour drive time between them. Droste and Taylor went on retreats to the mountains above L.A.

By June 2016, they were ready. Grizzly Bear reunited at Allaire, a disused studio on a 35-acre estate high above New York’s Hudson Valley and, says Rossen, “We slid right into the best part of working together.” He credits Taylor for bringing in a “completely different sonic format” (four of Taylor’s Big Sur demos made it on), and his time alone on the road for reminding him that he actually likes fading into a band. They ate dinners together, usually cooked by Bear or, in a final September stint, Bear’s wife. They raided the mansion’s cache of rare, sometimes broken instruments (a vintage Buchla synth makes a few cameos). And with all the Dropbox fiddling and writing they’d done in advance, they were free to try new things, be loose. “It was fun and playful,” says Taylor. “That’s a cool energy to bring to our band, which can be pretty cerebral.”

Any extramusical conversation, though, drifted to the tumult in the world—the Orlando nightclub shooting happened while they were there, stories of police brutality kept pouring in and the Trump campaign was fomenting fear and hate. Grizzly Bear has never been a topical band, nor one to explain lyrics, but Rossen goes as far as sharing that some lines on “Glass Hillside” and the lush, dystopian “Four Cypresses” were inspired by refugee displacement and homelessness in general. Droste says the news “infiltrated the songs in very covert ways,” but he mostly keeps the commentary to personal platforms—the last time the band made headlines, just after the election, it was for Droste’s Instagram screed blasting this “fucked up racist country.”

“Someone was like, ‘You really let me down having this opinion.’ Fuck that,” Droste says. “Since the dawn of time art has been tied to politics. If you don’t want to hear it, grab a Pepsi and go.”

“Someone was like, ‘You really let me down having this opinion.’ Fuck that,” Droste says. “Since the dawn of time art has been tied to politics. If you don’t want to hear it, grab a Pepsi and go.”

But Taylor echoes his bandmates’ concerns about releasing music in a changing world when he asks, “I mean, if there’s a war, is our album even important? There was important music during Vietnam, but being a musician among all this horrible shit feels like such a silly, silly job.”

Ultimately, though, the dissonance outside pushed them closer together, as hard times often do for old, out-of-touch friends. Acutely feeling their mortality, and finding a youthful spirit in the music that they hadn’t known for years, Grizzly Bear made an album for the times: something wild and alive, bucking assumptions and beaming color, their best yet.

“It’s weird that this was such a great bonding experience,” says Droste. “The world was sort of crumbling around us.”

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The extroverted Droste, for all his time exploring the globe with friends and lovers, wrote his most unflinchingly personal material to date. His clanging, circuitous closer “Sky Took Hold” is nothing less than a harrowing journey to the center of a man’s soul. And Rossen, who secluded himself more thoroughly than anyone, began “trying to write my way out of my life,” he says, by responding to the others’ lyrics, painting broader impressionistic images of his surroundings and, you know, singing about ATVs.

If Taylor is, at least for this album, Grizzly Bear’s engine, and Bear, the cool-headed drummer, is the literal and figurative rhythm-keeper, it’s that middle ground between frontmen that may function as the sinew and synapses keeping the band together or pulling it apart. They all agree that the five-year gap between releases has been a function of reaching a certain age, what Taylor calls “an early midlife assessment.” And each expresses hope that it won’t be so damned long before the next one—a sentiment that wasn’t necessarily true the last time around.

But whether you picture these four as godfathers of a hallowed scene or some new musical phoenix risen from the ashes of a former collective life, it’s just as easy to envision an alternate reality where they’re simply individuals. Taylor lights up when asked if he ever thinks about opening a restaurant. Droste seems titillated by the idea of one day running for office, as some of his peers have suggested. Bear talks about how nice it was to improvise in his trio. And Rossen, well, you get the feeling he’d enjoy a good porch looking out over the red dirt of New Mexico, strumming his guitar to the scrub brush and the lizards and the pinking horizon. For now, though, the isolation is over, and the republic is intact.

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