It’s been five years since Grizzly Bear released their last album, Shields. After touring the record for two years, the four-piece Brooklyn band needed to take some time out. Chris Taylor (bass) and Daniel Rossen (guitars/vocals) recorded and toured solo material, while Ed Droste (guitars/vocals), Chris Bear (drums) and Taylor all left the East Coast to settle in Los Angeles.
Following a lengthy sabbatical, the band reconvened to write for a new album, returning to the studio in 2016 to begin recording what would become Painted Ruins. A confluence of diverse musical styles inspires the band’s new material, resulting in what is undoubtedly their best record to date.
STACK’s Paul Jones spoke with Chris Taylor about Grizzly Bear’s writing and recording process and whether we can expect to see the band in Australia on their forthcoming tour.
PJ: Congratulations on the new record. I think this is your most ambitious album yet. Would you agree?
CT: Thanks, man. I think it is in a lot of ways. We were always very ambitious but this has a different kind of way of doing that.
There are so many different musical styles on the album. I’m quite familiar with your work but had to listen hard to detect the Grizzy Bear DNA. Were there any particular influences at play here?
I thought about this, and I don’t mean this to be any sort of semantic cop out, but I thought a lot about where our influences should’ve kind of come from. I was driving up to Big Sur (a coastal stretch of road between Los Angeles and San Francisco) alone to go and write some music for the record. I had a six-hour drive ahead of me and I thought, okay, we haven’t made a record in a long time, I guess I should familiarise myself with our catalogue. After finishing each record I’ve just never listened to them again, really.
It was kind of interesting and then also at times I just skipped ahead [laughs]. I just gleaned my favourite parts out of it. There’s a million records coming out all the time and I felt that we should just continue to develop our own voice and really not try and copy other influences. I feel that we have our own thing going and it’s still unfinished, so let’s just keep going, working that out. And there’s still more to do there.
I would give that advice even to some younger bands that I see are confused at the moment; they’ve kind of grown up in the age of downloadable, streamable content, so they’ve had access to a million things at a time. I see this as a producer working with other bands. These younger bands are just really confused as to where to even begin. Aesthetically, they don’t really know where they should place their feet.
I think it’s important to rip-off your heroes, and that’s really part of the process of developing your own voice. But when it comes down to it and it’s time to record, you should just explore what’s just ‘there’. Practice all this other stuff and then when it’s time to actually just make your own music, just flow with it and see what happens.
We get pretty insular and I just really don’t listen to other music when recording our records. Our music is quite enough for me – I’d rather listen to a podcast or read a book or something [laughs].
I like the attitude you adopt – from the outside looking in, anyway – that you won’t be rushed into making a record and you’ll only release it when it’s ready. It appears to be quite an organic process.
Yeah, it is. It definitely happens on its own damn time, for better or for worse [laughs]. I’m always really ready to get straight back in there. My band knows this about me. In fact, I’m already talking about trying to write for the next record. My band’s like, “Oh my God, dude.” I just get excited to keep trying new stuff, I guess.
[Painted Ruins] had to happen when it could happen. I think a handful of bands that are of our kind of age, in the sense that they’ve been a band for about a decade, had to take a second. You do this for 10 years and you just start to feel kind of not human. We had to take a healthy perspective; in order for me to sustain this, I have to check in with myself. I’ve seen a lot of bands do it and we had to do that. We had to freshen up our whole relationship, the whole part of being in a band; when it was time to make a record was really when it felt good to make a record.
Also, we had finished our recording contract with Warp, so it was really up to us as to how it was going to roll out. We actually recorded the entire record before even shopping it to other labels, which definitely added some time to the timeline between releases. We had the record done in February and then here we are, it’s coming out in August.
I remember reading that on the recording of Shields (2012) you would pair off and go on songwriting trips. Did you do something similar for Painted Ruins?
Yeah, it was definitely the same thing. I went off and wrote some stuff for myself and then Ed and I went up and wrote some stuff, and Dan was writing with Chris; Dan also wrote on his own. Although not very often, there are sections of tunes that we’d all write together. It just basically happened in all kinds of permutations.
I’ve had your vocal line in Systole in my head for weeks. It’s a beautiful song.
Man, that’s what I was just practicing as you called me! I still have to rehearse that one tomorrow, so I’m getting ready. I’ve sang lead in my own solo project [Cant] which was really fun, but it’s a different size stage with the Grizzly Bear’s show, so I think I’m understandably a little nervous but it will be cool.
How are the rehearsals going?
It’s going well actually. It’s funny, but I forgot about that whole period when you start rehearsing songs for the first time and they sound really horrible and then you’re like, “I forgot how to play that,” and then “Man, right, this part…” The first time you play new songs, it sounds pretty wild. But we’re actually getting through it and stuff’s starting to sound good. It’s a real mental gymnastic, problem-solving equation thing.
How do balance your role as a band member and the band’s producer?
It’s quite natural at this point in the sense that I have studio equipment that is mobile and we move it around. On this record actually, I had my friend, Jake, help out with a lot of stuff. Typically, I sit there and guide them through the performance, talking to them to get the best out of them. But also, being the guy at the computer, I listen to stuff when everyone’s gone and consider what needs to happen on each section to make it, hopefully, come off. It’s almost like being a coach for an athlete. You have to find their strength and what their physical capabilities are and work out how to train them to get there. It’s about helping them perform and unlock their best potential.
I inescapably think about the production, and the overall picture constantly. It’s funny, but sometimes it takes a while before my bass parts show up on the song. That’s because I’m recording everyone else and by the time it’s ready to record it’s really late I’m just too tired, and I just don’t get to it. I’m more focused on keeping everyone else engaged. But then it’s also interesting because I feel the bass part just reveals itself. I think that actually works too. Other times Chris and I will jam bass parts and it comes about in a more normal organic way. But it’s a natural position for me.
Finally, any plans to play these shores again anytime soon?
There is talk about it. Hopefully, early next year some stuff, but I don’t know if it’s actually confirmed; I really hope so. It’s one of our favourite places in the world to play. I always end up staying extra afterwards. I just love being there.
Painted Ruins is out August 18 via Sony.