Bread and Circuses: Grizzly Bear return from the wilderness

© Grace Pickering

WORDS

Some bands grab your attention, others quietly consume you. Grizzly Bear firmly fall in the latter category. Over the course of their decade-plus career, they have imbued guitar music with a weirdness and a worldliness few of their contemporaries could boast. As they return with their first album in five years, their dark wisdom has never felt so relevant.

Grizzly Bear were a band borne from natural circumstance. The name started life as a label for vocalist Ed Droste’s solo music in 2004. He was then joined by Chris Bear (drums) and Chris Taylor (bass and production), who offered their assistance reworking his recordings, after they were introduced through a mutual friend. Their first album, Horn of Plenty, was released, and not long after, Bear’s friend Daniel Rossen joined the set-up to provide guitars and vocals. From here the band proper was conceived. Yellow House, their first record as a quartet, came out in 2007. In 2009 they followed with their masterpiece, Veckatimest – securing their reputations as the giants of America’s then all powerful chamber-pop movement.

But by the time production and touring of their fourth album had come to an end, the Grizzly Bear project was exhausted. Shields (2012) was the result of a lengthy process, including an entirely abandoned near-album’s worth of material recorded in Marfa, Texas. “There was no clear future, that was definitely true,” Rossen makes clear to me, during one of four phone calls with the band’s respective members. “We were obviously very lost,” Taylor adds during another. An implied hiatus began. “I think we all sort of knew we needed a bit of space to address other elements of our lives,” Droste recalls.

Once the space had been found, and lives been rebalanced – marriages, births, moves to coastal LA – the next question was how, if ever, Grizzly Bear would exist again. Chief ‘getting the band back together’ duties fell to Chris Taylor. “I was sending gentle, prodding emails for a couple of years,” he laughs. Demos and ideas were exchanged tentatively. In pairs, they embarked on remote songwriting sessions; Bear joined Rossen for a long weekend at his home in rural, upstate New York, while Taylor and Droste spent time “stuck under a fog cloud” in Crestline, CA. The eventual recording process, in New York, June 2016, they all agree, was the most fun they’ve ever had making music. “I feel like it shows,” Droste smiles down the telephone. “It’s my favourite thing we’ve made.”

Painted Ruins, their first album in five years, is a Grizzly Bear record. As such, it’s never likely to be stuffed full of laugh-out-loud skits, but as spectral guitar music goes, there is a previously untapped lightness on display. From the drunken march of Losing All Sense, to the mocking solipsism of closer Sky Took Hold, the band’s songwriting has grown into something more playful. “We definitely talked about keeping this record fun,” Rossen explains. “We’ve done so much channelling of the darker parts of our personalities as a band. It gets to the point where that doesn’t do anything for you anymore, you’re just reinforcing negative experiences. You’re not adding anything.”

Album opener Wasted Acres feels like a summation of this newfound swagger. Beginning with a sunrise of burnt synths, horns and bending flutes, Rossen opens with the words, “Howling at the field”. It’s a typically Grizzly Bear starting point: existential, pastoral, the blush of woodwind, paired with the drama of the American plain. From here, however, the tone shifts; a strutting bass joins the party, Rossen’s voices drops in register and repeats a sardonic mantra: “were you even listening? Were you riding with me?” Awe cedes ground to cynicism.

© Grace Pickering

That’s not to say the strains of adulthood endured during their five-year absence aren’t present. In 2014, Droste’s marriage to his partner Chad McPhail ended, an event he has declined to talk about in interviews, but implies informed the album in places. “There are certain things I don’t feel it’s necessary to talk about,” he tells me, confidently. “I’m compelled to talk about social issues. Other artists are completely quiet on that but will happily speak about some traumatic personal thing. If something happens to me I don’t feel the need to lay it out. There are enough tea leaves in the lyrics for people to read.”

The leaves are definitely there to be read – it’s impossible not to hear the hurt in lines like “conversation stalls, and after so long, there’s nothing really there,” on Neighbours – but rather than the bottom of a cup, they are lost in the mess of the forest floor. “I love that,” Droste enthuses, “music I can read and work myself into.” This restraint provides the album with a disquiet that naked honesty would struggle to achieve. Droste has long had the perfect voice for the disconnect that comes with heartbreak, and on Painted Ruins he continues his run as one of the most under-celebrated pop singers of the past decade. He sings with a weathered flatness; a quality that could touch on cold if he didn’t, regularly, sound genuinely hurt.

Beyond their personal perspectives, Grizzly Bear have always been a band to deal in vistas, and Painted Ruins deals with the contested terrain of the American frontier with even more colour than its predecessors. “This is a bicoastal album,” Droste remarks at one point during our conversation. Rossen’s writing in particular draws on the rural routines of his new home in upstate New York. Alongside the “mundane rituals of country life,” he has experienced America’s political divisions firsthand. “You can see the two tribes up here,” he tells me, “the city and the rural community.”

During the lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections the band were public in their support for Bernie Sanders, even playing at one of his rallies in Brooklyn. When I ask each of them about the current situation, they all express a unique sense of bewilderment and horror. “It felt like going back 50, 60 years!” Taylor howls. “I don’t even know what it means to be around people who are so outspoken with beliefs like this. Everything [Trump] stands for, it’s not political, it’s inhuman, it’s sick.” When I ask if they consider themselves patriotic – if they have an easy relationship with “being American” – they respectively pause and groan. “The 20th century idea of a country of immigrants, that’s the America I feel patriotism towards. But that’s notwhat that word means anymore,” Rossen sighs.

That said, each member also shares with me the ways in which they hope to change things; small, local projects that signal the future of America’s left in practical ways. Bear tells me there will be voter registration resources at their upcoming North American shows; Droste enthuses about how politically informed his 12-year-old neighbour is; Rossen details a benefit he’s organising in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he hopes soon to relocate permanently with his wife.

"The 20th century idea of a country of immigrants, that's the America I feel patriotism towards. But that's not what that word means anymore"

This is not an album about a crumbling empire. The band are keen to stress that recording was finished before Trump was elected, and that these are not topical songs. Yet it’s impossible to ignore the incidental allegory. Painted Ruins – the thick, proud mask pasted over decay. “I actually had an idea to call this album Bread and Circuses,” Chris Taylor tells me, referencing the Roman satirist Juvenal’s descriptions of the simple gratifications required to distract the populace in ancient Rome. “Something crazy happens every day with this fucking Cheeto as president,” he later comments, leaning on a less classical, but equally effective reference.

In my separate conversations with them, Grizzly Bear speak about their band with fondness and self-awareness. They are professional adults who have learnt through trial and error how to make an album considerately, and democratically. Yet there’s no escaping the wilderness they’ve returned from. The torn trees of Rossen’s upstate retreats, the cool loneliness of Droste’s refrains, the ancient punch of Bear’s drums or the lysergic majesty of Taylor’s production. Grizzly Bear have always sung from strange frontiers. Perhaps it’s taken until now for America to catch up.

Photography: Grace Pickering

Painted Ruins is released 18 August via RCA
Grizzly Bear appear at: Albert Hall, Manchester / O2 Academy Brixton 6 / 9 October

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