Following the acclaim for their last album Veckatimest, Brooklyn‘s Grizzly Bear find themselves in the unusual but not undeserved position of facing high expectations for their next release. Stepping into that limelight is new LP Sheilds, which is due out on 17 September. The band’s Daniel Rossen invited us into his cave…
How the devil are you?
What have you been doing since you finished touring Veckatimest?
“We had been working very steadily since we got together as a band. If we weren’t doing a record, we were touring and working on music together, so we needed to go our separate ways for a while. A few of the guys in the band went travelling but I did the opposite – I went to spend a lot of time in the country in upstate New York. I wanted to get away from the city and the music industry but I wanted to keep recording and keep writing so I retreated into that headspace. I even learned a bit about agriculture, spending a lot of time in the garden and the woods. I became that guy for a little bit.”
How far did you take it? Lumberjack shirts and a deerstalker hat?
“No, I don’t want you to get that idea. I just needed to get out of the city for a bit.”
You released your own EP Silent Hour/Golden Mile in March too. Were those songs ever being considered for Grizzly Bear?
“Not really. Half of that EP was done while everyone was travelling around. It was compulsive – I felt like I needed to do it. It was coming from a more personal headspace and it was a nice exercise to get it done, because it’s the kind of songwriting and recording I wouldn’t be able to do with the band. I don’t think I would have gotten to the songs on the album if I hadn’t done the EP, even though they’re very different beasts.”
When did you regroup with Grizzly Bear?
“We started recording in Texas about a year ago. We rented a place called Fort Russell in Marfa, Texas. It used to be an old army base, now it’s a space that’s sometimes rented out for various artists and things.”
How were those initial sessions?
“Well, because we’d taken a fair chunk of time away from each other it was a little like we broke our own momentum. Finding that space again and finding what it was going to mean was a little scarier this time. The preliminary process started in Texas and we kept a couple of things from it but a lot of that time, that three weeks, was spent trying to find common ground. There were a lot of fits and starts but it wasn’t really until this last January that we really got moving.”
Why was it so hard to get going?
“When you’re in a band and you’re travelling all the time you’re always exposing each other to different music and ideas, and when you take some time away you have to re-establish that dialogue again, and that dialogue is a big part of making a record.”
So what were the new reference points?
“Our tastes run all over the place. For me, I’d been listening to Talk Talk a lot, and that kept coming up. I got really into David Axelrod records for a while, that very producerly, 1970s aesthetic, then there was a lot of hip-hop, [bassist, among other things] Chris Taylor has his wholly different realm of taste. Everybody brought a palette of references and because it was so scattered it took a while to get to the point where you’re just playing and you don’t have to explain anything any more. “
Was the success of Veckatimest hanging heavily over you?
“That did add a little pressure, wanting it to be as good as what we’d done before and wanting it to fulfil people in the same way that Veckatimest did. We tried not to think about that – you try and find something you like and find the same headspace again where you’re just happy making music. The album actually a totally different feeling to Veckatimest – they almost don’t relate at all.”
What was it like working on an army base? Any tank rides?
“No, it doesn’t look like an army base at all any more. There’s an old beautiful ballroom that we recorded in, but we didn’t really even use much of that material. There were murals on the wall painted by German POWs in World War II – very amateurish but beautiful desert scenes. It could be a bit creepy too. It was a really strange environment.”
Did that atmosphere rub off on the album?
“In the past we’ve done records that are very much about the feeling of the place that we’re in but this time it’s not really like that. The army base was an interesting place to get started and some of its character got on the record, but we didn’t keep much of the material we wrote there. We still record in non-typical spaces – we didn’t do any of this record in the studio. We recorded most of it in the same place we did Veckatimest in Cape Cod then finished it in New York.”
What’s the attraction of Cape Cod?
“It’s a quintessential American landscape. It feels like the pilgrims. We worked there for about two months, staying at a relative’s house in a very remote area, making fires and such.”
What would you say the sound of Shields is like?
“It’s very dynamic. I feel like almost every song is its own space and style, and it’s pretty schizophrenic its own way, which I like. It has a similar dynamic presence to Yellow House in a way, but the palette isn’t so strictly defined by woodwind and acoustic guitars. There’s a lot more volume. I think we wanted to balance the listening experience that you get out of the record – there are songs that are full-on pop songs (or at least as far as we take that kind of thing) and then there are moments that are really spacious and open where the bottom drops out. Sometimes you want to listen to something spacious, pensive and meditative, sometimes you want to listen to something that’s a big pop record. Because we have such diverse tastes, I think we tried to fit all of that into one record. Which I think is cool. There’s even songs that go from one extreme to the other – from pop choruses to just space.”
Where did the inspiration for that come from?
“Sun In Your Eyes is basically like a seven-minute ayahuasca trip. What’s ayahuasca? It’s a psychedelic drug. It’s one of the most journey-like songs we’ve ever done. And the song that opens the record, Sleeping Ute, it’s a full-on raging rock song, almost a metal song, then it ends with this very pensive acoustic moment. It goes all the way to the height of volume then to almost nothing.:
What’s Sleeping Ute about?
“It’s a mountain in Utah. I’ve never visited but it’s along the road from a load of monuments in New Mexico that I’ve been to. I was reading about the area and the native culture there, the lost civilisations in that part of the country, and it has a really interesting creation myth. The mountain looks like a sleeping warrior and with each season his coat changes – it’s a very peaceful story. That part of the country really interests me.”
Is there any theme to the lyrics of the album then?
“Not exactly, but I feel like this album feels very charged. It’s pretty inward looking. Each of us came at it from our own perspective and it’s very collaborative. There’s no one person controlling the vision. I get a sense from it of a lot of things coming to a head, really trying to push through some kind of breakthrough. Without going into everybody’s lives, I think everyone on their own level is looking for resolve in an area of their life and not quite finding it, and there’s a lot of that feeling on the record. It’s almost stressful at times, but it’s interesting. I’m still making sense of it.”
Is that normal for a Grizzly Bear album?
“Oh yeah. When we did Yellow House we felt like nothing connected and none of the songs had anything to do with each other. Then when it was done we realised that it all made sense. There’s an overarching feeling here, but I can’t quite articulate what it is.”
How did you relax during the recording sessions?
“We haven’t relaxed in a while. I think Chris Taylor just keeps working – he doesn’t ever seem to stop. I’m kind of worried about him. We’re having a moment to decompress a little bit right now.”
Then you hit the road?
“We’re back on the road at the end of August and we’re doing some shows in the UK. Beyond that, I don’t fully know the schedule. I don’t think we’ve worked it out. Shows. Touring. You know, the things a band do!”
For more from the band, head to Grizzly-bear.net.