Grizzly Bear have always been best characterised as a musical anomaly.
From the ferocity of their name that belies their delicate musical trappings, to being one of the first traditional bands signed to Warp, a label better known for the chin-stroking, experimental electronica it was built on.
Through three albums they have become one of the exemplars of indie rock, or at the very least, of Brookyln’s richly fermenting music scene. Yet building a sound and sonic style that few – themselves included – attempted to follow with any logic, let alone bother mimicking.
A group who managed to reduce even the almighty Radiohead to hyperventilating fanboys, tripping over themselves in interviews to name check their support act during their 2008 tour for In Rainbows.
Rising to fame at the same time the iPod generation coveted the contrasting virtues of accessibility and immediacy, here was a band who championed patience and attention to detail.
So with such widespread critical claim and indie rock royalty status already bestowed upon them, Grizzly Bear found themselves stretching the gap between their career-making 2009 album, Veckatimest, and its highly anticipated sequel – this year’s equally celebrated Shields.
Jump back to late August however, and Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor – multi-instrumentalist, back-up vocalist, arranger, producer, all-around artisan – is speaking from his home in upstate New York, gripped with anticipation.
The release of the band’s highly anticipated fourth studio album is merely weeks away, the beginning of their global tour to support it – only two days.
Yet Taylor is simply astonished that the album’s contents hasn’t already been made public property ahead of schedule.
“I’m just surprised it hasn’t leaked yet,” he exclaims, “because everything seems to leak. So I assume it will be soon…”“Listening on a YouTube video or Soundcloud or something… It’s like, ‘let’s check out the new album, slash look at my Facebook the whole time’…”
Taylor also remarks that he and his equally talented bandmates – the demure Daniel Rossen, the choirboy-voiced Ed Droste, and lucid drummer Christopher Bear – have “learned how to play the whole new album,” in preparation for their first live dates in nearly eighteen months.
“It’s especially exciting because… no one has heard the record yet. It’s kind of old school, having a secret you know?” Taylor ponders excitedly. “It’s like a surprise, I like surprises.”
Keeping anything a secret is a feat that’s harder to achieve in today’s musical climate, where the combined forces of social media and the wider blogosphere, and all manner of enterprising fans letting their immediacy get the better of them, are likely to find some way to hear albums before they’ve been properly birthed to the music industry.
A fact that still comes as a small shock to Taylor, “yeah totally! It’s really tough, I’m surprised it’s even been pulled off at this point!”
Particularly given the fate that befell Veckatimest, its entire contents made available to the pirated music community only days after it was mastered at New York’s Sterling Sound studios.
Taylor insists he isn’t sitting around with his fingers crossed however, noting the leak of another revered indie band’s release (The XX’s Coexist), he instead concedes the band’s thinking is “like ‘anytime now’, it’s probably going to happen.”
“You kind of just have to hope for the best. I think it’d be cool if it hasn’t leaked though, like I said, it’s akin to that old school format of anticipation, instead of immediate gratification,” Taylor explains, “which I think is cool to have these days.”
It in fact speaks to a bizarre form of flattery, that Grizzly Bear demand so much attention. First pricking ears in 2004 when Ed Droste released Horn Of Plenty, essentially a solo album put together with contributions from future drummer Bear, while 2006’s Yellow House well and truly began turning heads.
As the first official release from the lineup, glowing reviews from influential critical circles quickly saw them elevated to the kind of rarified air reserved for the most important and celebrated of bands.
Come the release of Veckatimest and their status was certified, to the tune of promise fulfilled and a global following that seemed to far outstrip the inherent mystique of their mercurial music.
Visionary in scope, orchestral in execution, and as anyone still trawling the creaky halls of Yellow House’s chamber pop corners will tell you, anything but immediate.
“Our records are never really accessible by any means,” admits Taylor; but their studious approach, resulting in music that commands the listener’s full attention, has always been their preferred method.
Not passive listening “on a YouTube video or Soundcloud or something” adds Taylor. “It’s like, ‘let’s check out the new album, slash look at my Facebook the whole time, and walk away from my computer for a while.’ It’s really crappy.”
Grizzly Bear’s music instead requires patience and close attention to detail, but is equally rich in aural rewards once it has been ‘decoded’, unlocking a vault of sonic treasures that never seems to run dry.
It seems ironic then, that after the exhaustive touring schedule that cultivated Veckatimest, and the band’s extended eight month break – that they should have to come together and pull the puzzle of their music apart, examine each piece, and put it back together again.
For the recording of Shields, the band decamped for various writing retreats, with different members at different times, to develop the album and explore every “creative permutation” of the band’s lineup, “to reacquaint ourselves with each other,” as Taylor puts it.
“It’s intense to sit down with the four of us, and go, ‘let’s make a song now’,” he reveals, describing the process as using each other as a soundboard, “that gets the ideas really going.”
Besides, mapping out an album that satisfies all four members’ eclectic tastes, unified by a driving desire for innovation, is a difficult process in and of itself without worrying about any of the external pressures that no doubt come with being near the top of indie rock’s A-list.
The complexity of the finished product reflects the finer details of its crafting, and yet Shields, at ten tracks, may be their most focussed and economical work yet. Doing a lot more with the framework of a lot less.
Lead single, and opening track, ‘Sleeping Ute’ manages to cover more sonic terrain in four or five minutes than Veckatimest did in three or four tracks. While the twinkle and trample of ‘A Simple Answer’, or the closing odyssey that is ‘Sun In Your Eyes’ stretch their pastoral soundscapes over an ever more dynamic palette.
The breadth of ideas also coming from each member bringing the experience of their various creative pursuits, chased during their break; and none more so than Taylor.
Following his role as a producer ever deeper, working on the debut albums for Twin Shadow and The Morning Benders (2010’s Forget and Big Echo respectively); Taylor also formed indie label Terrible Records to publish and produce his own solo project, CANT.
Spurning his own world tour (including Australia earlier this year) off the back of the resulting CANT album, Dreams Come True.“The most exciting thing is just to see where everything goes. I hope the songs change further from the way they sound now…
Speaking of returning to the fold for the preparation of Shields, Taylor found he was bringing back a wealth of roles with him, describing it as “having multiple tools at your disposal.”
“A lot of when I go out and work with other bands as a producer is to learn how other minds work, how to think about music in the way they do. And I’ve been fortunate to work with people that I really, really admire and respect.”
For “the CANT thing,” as he puts it, Taylor was conceiving full songs for the first time. “I’ve written a lot of stuff, but I’ve never really finished it on my own. I’ve written stuff for Grizzly Bear that the band has helped me finish, which is great. But this was a crazy challenge.”
Humbly pointing out, “it was a hard process and I learned a lot from it, but I’m still sort of seeing the benefits gained from going through that process. It’s pretty tough.”
Being able to craft a song from conception to completion did enrich his scope however, and that contributed to the democratic direction of what would become Grizzly Bear’s latest.
“I found myself thinking more like a songwriter at times, and helping Ed [Droste] out with lyrics,” says Taylor. “It was fun. I don’t know if I would of ever felt okay saying anything like that to Ed before, because I’d never written lyrics.”
Taylor not only brought his own experience, but a fellow CANT bandmate too, with keyboardist Aaron Antz joining the Grizzly Bear lineup for their current world tour.
“He’s an amazing musician and it’s really great to have him,” gushes Taylor, saying that now the “arrangements and different parts going on in all the records” can be fleshed out for the live setting.
Although “there’s merit to re-inventing the songs to work in a different format” says Taylor, for the band and fans alike to “hear the whole song happening.”
“The most exciting thing is just to see where everything goes. Having one more person on deck, there’s so many more possibilities, and I hope the songs change further from the way they sound now… they continue to evolve over the touring process,” says Taylor.
Shields is out now through Warp Records, read Tone Deaf’s record review here. Grizzly Bear play Harvest Festival this November, full dates and details here, and two special sideshow in Melbourne and Sydney on the 12th & 16th respectively. Full dates and details here.