Greylag: The Best of What's Next

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Members: Andrew Stonestreet, Daniel Dixon, Brady Swan
Hometown: Portland, OR
Albums: Greylag, The Only Way To Kill You EP
For Fans Of: Fleet Foxes, Band Of Horses, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

The past few years have seen a massive void in folk rock. Acts like Mumford & Sons and Sarah Jarosz have been bringing the genre into the mainstream, but an unfortunate amount of independent bands have been swallowed in the folds, either due to the thick skin of the industry or their own lackluster efforts. Portland trio Greylag, on the other hand, have dodged both bullets. They’re stepping onto the scene with a distinct sound that avoids clichés, and, best of all, a determination to celebrate what makes them unique.

Greylag take cues from their feathered moniker. Named after a type of goose that flies behind others in order to better observe them, they have spent the past four years watching one another, learning their stylistic differences and taking notes to perfect their stride. Their music falls somewhere between the early ‘70s folk rock of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the harmonic comforts of Fleet Foxes. Although their songs are far from timid, their approach to their self-titled debut LP was certainly carefully measured.

The cultural and geographical differences between members—lead vocalist and guitarist Andrew Stonestreet of West Virginia, lead guitarist Daniel Dixon of Northern California, and drummer Brady Swan of Texas—brings out a slew of contrary influences in Greylag. It’s an album bursting with pastoral alt-folk (“Another”) and intense layered riffs (“Yours to Shake”), all reined in by meticulous planning.

It began in Kentucky. Stuck in the recesses of his own mind while crashing with Stonestreet’s family, Dixon used his ample hours to explore how far the two could develop the complexity of their musical collaboration. “It was at that point that we decided to make this work,” says Dixon. “It was clearly pretty special.” And yet, it didn’t happen right away. Dixon returned to California shortly after and continued to shoot recordings back and forth with Stonestreet. Once they both moved to Portland nearly two years later, the real carving began to take place. “We’re a performance-based band. It’s not about writing a song and the other one filling it out. It’s about when we’re together, making it come alive.” Portland’s folk scene just happened to be the magnet that pulled them all together.

After releasing their 2012 EP The Only Way To Kill You, the three were determined to find their own sound. And the only way to get that was by opening the floodgates and clearing out the muck later. In this case, that meant scrapping almost 100 songs. “The creative process is about getting as much out there as you can. You can only make decisions on something that exists, not what’s in your head,” says Dixon. “The way to communicate it is to make a song. Then you look at what you like, take it, and scrap the rest. We could acknowledge ‘Okay, this is good, but is this what we want?’”

Eventually those songs would fall back to the earth under their own weight, but coming to terms with that is easier said than done. “You’re either going to quit the band, kill one of your best friends or figure out how to deal with it,” laughs Dixon. “That’s why you’re in a band; you realize you’re stronger together. At some point, you have to realize how to defer to other people to get the best possible effort collectively.” Together, they’ve embraced the collective job of a musician, working towards a goal bigger than themselves.

Get two songs into the debut album and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that producer Phil Ek (Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, The Shins) is behind the board. His hands helped shape both Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses’ grandiose sounds, and Greylag’s recording shares more than a little of the same DNA.

Ek was handed their music by a mutual friend. Next thing they knew, he invited them to dinner. “Collectively speaking, we were most excited about working with Phil. So when he reached out, it was like, ‘Okay. This might actually be really exciting,’” Dixon laughs. And within six months of that dinner, Greylag had a fully produced record in their hands.

Dynamically, Ek is a hands-off producer. He didn’t try to dominate Greylag’s soundscape or come in and remake the band. Instead, Dixon described Ek’s influence as finding something he liked and capturing the best version. “He’s the producer that says, ‘Well, it’s not working. Go home and figure it out.’ He empowers you,” says Dixon. “He’s excellent in making you the best version of yourself and helping you get to that place.”

Although Greylag have never been retro in their attitude, they are in their instrumentation. Dixon and Stonestreet rock ‘50s and ‘70s guitars, respectively, but brought even older equipment into the studio for the album. The crown jewel was an extra-large acoustic guitar that was unearthed in Seattle with a a “VIBES FOR DAYS” sign draped around its neck. “It was totally true!” laughs Stonestreet. That very guitar helped the album breathe like a band.

For a short while, “Burn On” was the album’s centerpiece. It marked the first song where each member felt mutually invested in the writing process. For a band finding their sound, that was a magical moment. “There was a time where I considered myself a singer-songwriter, but this was a transition to us becoming a band and having a sense of ownership over a song,” says Dixon. “It takes time. It can be complicated. Once we began digging into that and voicing the songs together, it started to take root.”

Greylag’s familiarity may lay in production, but their ingenuity springs from original songwriting. That’s what makes the self-titled LP such a remarkable debut. It thrives on the trio’s collective voicing. Beneath lively guitars is an undergirding instrumentation where mandolin and keyboards skirt about, but it’s their sturdy footing, the result of years of patience, that truly shines. “We became a band,” Dixon says proudly. “We were duking it out, and it took a long time to get where we wanted to be, but we’re here. Now we just have to keep growing as one.”

Before they move forward, though, we suggest they kick their heels up and sit back; it’s time to watch the world stop in its tracks and listen to one of the best folk rock records of the year.