Interview: US band talk new album and possible Jay-Z collaboration
David Renshaw
15:14 17th September 2012

Grizzly Bear have steadily grown in stature since the band’s humble beginnings as a solo venture for founder Ed Droste in 2004. Adding friends Daniel Rossen, Chris Taylor and Chris Bear to the line-up, they’ve gone on to win famous fans in the shape of Beyonce and Radiohead, the latter of which they supported on tour in 2008.

The band’s previous album, 2009’s ‘Veckatimest’ took their experimental indie pop to the edge of mainstream success, reaching as high as number 8 on the US charts on its release and leading to TV performances on Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Later… With Jools Holland.

Now set to release their fourth album ‘Shields’ on Monday (17 September), Droste spoke to Gigwise about their “strongest” album yet, increasingly collaborative songwriting and how Jay-Z almost rapped on a performance of ‘Two Weeks’…

It’s been two years between your last gig and your show in Cambridge the other day – how is it getting back into the swing of things?
Yeah, pretty much two years to the month actually. It’s a lot of fun – a little scary because we’re on the old horse again, but it’s really fun to play our new material. We’ve never played Cambridge before, and last time we played Nottingham it was to, like, 10 people so they’ve all been really awesome warm-up shows. It’s definitely a very positive, cool experience. I mean, we’re very early on at this stage – call me in a month and see how I feel!

Has your live show changed over the last two years?
It’s always evolving to a certain extent, and I feel like it’s definitely changed to the extent that we’ve hired a fifth member for this tour to do full-on keys and piano for arrangements on this tour. But show to show, I think that if you saw us at the Cambridge show and you saw us in three months you’d probably notice differences, because as we go along we tweak things. One thing leads on to another and we discover new things about, like, an outro that me might want to augment, etc etc. We like to play around with things to keep it fresh for us.

You're coming back to UK for more shows in October, do you have anything special planned?
Lighting. Our lighting guy has really upped his game. We don’t have him on these few dates, but we get him back a few dates before finishing our US tour and we’re quite excited about that.

‘Shields’ is out this month in the UK - between this and your last record Daniel Rossen has released a solo EP (2012’s 'Silent Hour/Golden Mile') and Chris Taylor has produced various records. Have you been ploughing all your energy into Grizzly Bear?
The time I took off I went travelling, clearing my mind from being in the band and not thinking about music, which helps me get into a space where I can put my best foot forward to the band. For me personally, that was the best way I could contribute to the band. Which isn’t to say that other people couldn’t do two things at the same time. Them doing side projects is totally a great thing for them to do and a necessary thing – I’m glad they did it.

Have the others’ non-Grizzly Bear work influenced the new record at all?
I think Dan (Rossen) had a lot of material that he might have originally thought was for the band, but then as we were going along writing we were becoming more and more collaborative. Then it became clear that it was more solo stuff for him and that he was really enjoying this new kind of collaboration that me and him were having. Also, I was gone during that time and Chris Taylor was touring, so I think he just had these songs that he wanted to record and release them, and make all personal and done. I think he just wanted to finish them alone, and that was that. His sound is clearly heard on the album, but I wouldn’t say that the EP and the album are companions at all.

Is ‘Shields’ much more of a collaborative effort than in the past?
Definitely. There’s songs that Dan and I wrote from the ground up. There’s songs that I would start, and then Dan would take my melody and suddenly it would turn into something he would sing, and vice-versa – there’s this one that he would start singing, and I was like ‘I really love that’. And he was like ‘well I don’t know what to do with the chorus, so you’re welcome to figure out a chorus.’ So I would figure out a chorus and start singing the whole thing. So there was far more openness to, basically, people just being more hands-on with each other rather than being protective.

Has the process brought you closer together as a band and as friends?
Yeah, I think it just opened up a new chapter of creativity for us. Like, ultimately the biggest challenge is always that we have to feel that we’re challenging ourselves and not repeating ourselves – that we’re doing something that excites all four of us. We’re all so different, but we have overlap, obviously. The overlap is what the album is. But we have very different tastes in music and styles and all sorts of things, so to find that overlap can take some time and that’s usually what the album is. To get to that point where everybody’s excited can be a challenge, and now with this new style of working together, it’s exciting.

‘Veckatimest’ leaked online quite a while before it was released and your new album has just leaked – is that something you get used to the idea of, or is it still very frustrating?
No, it’s not frustrating. Every album leaks, it’s pretty unheard of for an album not to leak. Frankly, the fact that it leaked only two weeks and a couple of days before it comes out is pretty impressive. We kept being like ‘oh wow, hasn’t it leaked yet? I can’t believe it!’.

What can be done about leaking albums? How can musicians make money in future do you think?
Touring is confusing, because you want to put on a really great show, but it’s actually quite expensive to put on a really great show. So people may think that it’s quite lucrative, but it’s not necessarily, unless you’re just a two-piece and you just don’t really do any lighting or anything. We put quite a lot of effort and bring our own console for mixing. We have our own lighting rig and try to make the show sound as good as possible and look as beautiful as possible, and it doesn’t cost so much. I’m very fortunate to be where I am, and it’s very much that I’ve got to keep doing it and making a living doing it. I can’t just retire – I don’t think we’re at the retiring point, let’s put it that way…

What inspired the name of the new album?
It does come from a specific place, but I have to be honest with you, I’m not a huge fan of dissecting lyrics. I feel like there’s a lot to be said for someone to get the album and create their own personal relationship with the lyrics, as opposed to me explicitly explaining what we were thinking. Then it suddenly becomes something concrete, whereas it could mean so many different things. So I sort of hesitate when I’m asked that, as I think it’s more special when people find their own personal meanings in songs as it can mean so much more.

What were you listening to during the process of making this album?
A lot of stuff. It’s an eternal question that comes up. Sometimes I kind of brush it off and sometimes I name, like, five albums. Do you want the truthful answer or do you want the easy answer?

Well, is the truthful answer just a really long list?
The truthful answer is that there is no answer I can give you. The easy answer is that I can just give you five albums.

Ok, well try the five albums answer anyway.
So you’re going for the easy answer?

Why not!
I would say we were listening to a lot of Nina Simone, Fleetwood Mac, Gerry Rafferty, Beach House, Missy Elliot, Beyonce... But it’s not like we listen to an album and we’re just like ‘let’s make an album like this’ – it’s not like that. We listen to so many albums and different styles, and I’m totally brushing over our entire jazz collection because I don’t remember the names of all the jazz albums we were listening to. There are dozens and dozens of albums over dozens and dozens of years that we listen to, and they are sometimes influencing you very overtly and sometimes very subconsciously. Sometimes it takes your ear and you’re like ‘woah, I didn’t realise how much that album was in the back of our minds while we were doing this song.’ Other times you’re like ‘you know that album? Sing a bit more like that when we’re taping this song.’

Were there many non-musical things that inspired you?
I think there’s a cinematic feel to the music, but again, it’s more sub-conscious. As cheesy as it may sound, we isolate ourselves and we go to these bucolic areas. We take a lot of time off during the day when we’re not recording just walking and listening to demos. I think if anything, that’s our inspiration – just, sort of, literally the environment. Not like I’m thinking about the trees that I’m around, but that sort of environment and isolation to clear your head.

Do you think the musical landscape has changed a great deal since your last album came out?
I don’t know – more X-Factor? I don’t think it’s really important, though. It seems like people are still listening to us. If you’re talking at an indie level, many of the same bands that came out last time we released an album are bringing out albums this year. There’s a collection of the same bands.

Are there any new bands that you’re excited about at the moment?
We’re going on tour in the US with two artists that we’re really excited about. One’s called Unknown Mortal Orchestra and the other’s called Lower Dens – both of those we’re really stoked about.

You toured with Radiohead a few years ago, are you still in contact with them?
No, I haven’t seen them since to be honest. They’re very busy doing their Radiohead thing. We had a really awesome tour and they were super fun, gracious people. I think Chris Taylor was emailing Johnny (Greenwood) a little bit, but it’s also like, you don’t want to bother them too much. They’re Radiohead, let them be. But you know, hopefully we’ll cross paths with them again someday. It was a really special tour for us and a lot of fun.

What about working together musically with Radiohead rather than just touring together, do you think that could happen?
Making a record together? Like, a full-on collaborative record together? First of all, the likelihood of that happening has got to be like one in a trillion. I don’t think they’ve every done a collaborative record with anyone. But would I like to duet with Thom Yorke? Yeah! I love his voice, it would be amazing. Why not? And I would love to duet with Bjork, you know – that would be all of our dreams. But we’ll see if it ever happens.

What about Jay-Z and Beyonce who came to watch you perform in 2009 - did they ever get in contact with you?
I actually have seen them a bunch, because I’m friends with Beyonce’s younger sister (Solange), so I’ve seen them at least a dozen times since we first met them. There was a moment at Coachella when he was maybe going to guest on ‘Two Weeks’, but the timing didn’t work out or whatever. He was going to maybe do, like, a verse of lyrics, but it was a very last-minute idea. It would have been fun, but I fully understand why it didn’t happen because it was like three hours before the show that we had the idea. So we haven’t done any collaborations yet, but I have a feeling there is a possibility and I’m a huge fan of both of their work, so you never know what will happen.

What are your hopes for the new album?
I just hope that people enjoy listening to it five years down the road as much as they hopefully enjoy listening to it today as it leaks or when they buy it. Personally I think it’s our strongest album to date, for a variety of reasons, but my biggest hope is to make music that people enjoy later on in their lives that they don’t tire of.

'Shields' is out now.