This story appears originally in the June 2009 issue of Exclaim! and at Exclaim.ca
Following up to a successful record is a delicate process, even for the most seasoned bands. The pressure — self-imposed, from labels or fans — can break a band in half. But how do blog-rock darlings keep it together after one of their favourite artists drops them the ultimate compliment?
It’s a dilemma Grizzly Bear faced last summer. On tour with Radiohead in Toronto, guitarist Johnny Greenwood took a moment to thank their openers, and drop a bomb on the band, proclaiming Grizzly Bear his favourite band. “That was pretty insane,” says the Brooklyn-based group’s drummer Chris Bear, just a hint of understatement in his voice. “He doesn’t really talk that much onstage, if ever.”
Their new album, Veckatimest (pronounced vek-a-tim-est), is the group’s attempt to break new musical ground after their 2006 album Yellow House received near unanimous praise. It’s the first time all four members — Bear, singer-guitarists Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen, and multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor — have worked as a group. “With Yellow House we were trying to figure out what we were doing, trying to explore a bunch of different territories,” he explains. “I think it ended up coming off more atmospheric. This is slightly more influenced by what we became as a live band.”
Grizzly Bear spent much of the two-and-a-half years following Yellow House‘s release on the road, from playing for five people at a poetry night above a pub to sold-out amphitheatres with Radiohead and pretty much everything in between. La Blogotheque even convinced the guys to perform an acoustic set in a Parisian washroom for the weblog’s Takeaway show. “That’s probably the weirdest place we’ve played,” says Bear. “We didn’t really have any versions worked out.”
Somewhere in between lavatory gigs and rocking arenas, the band found time to write Veckatimest‘s 12 songs. Recording began in upstate New York last July before breaking for the Radiohead tour, where they road-tested some of the new tunes. “They drastically changed from how the original demos were,” says Bear. The quartet reconvened at Droste’s grandmother’s house in Cape Cod before finishing up at a church in New York City. “We tried to not force any ideas to happen if it wasn’t feeling natural,” he says, noting that they gave neither themselves, nor their label any sort of deadline.
The intricate vocal melodies and interplay between instruments that make up the backbone of Grizzly Bear’s sound don’t come quickly or easily. A willingness to smash and rebuild their songs from the ground up was key to the band’s songwriting process. “That’s probably what we spend the most time on.”
A gap-bridging 2007 EP called Friend, featuring alternate arrangements of songs from their first two records, is a prime example of this method. The band has also proved eager to get others in on the act, recently commissioning French house music producer Fred Falke to remix “Two Weeks.” “I think its cool to hear,” says Bear. “Now we have a crazy Euro-’80s aerobicize remix!”
He says the process never really ends; even though Vekatimest in the can, the band is still trying to figure out how they’re going to play the record live. And though he’s anxious for fans to hear the new album, Bear doesn’t posit any opinions as to what Greenwood might think of the album. “I just hope we can continue to live up to his expectations.”