We’re coming to the end of our interview with Grizzly Bear, and the band have broken into a debate. They’re known for their political activism, and I’ve just asked the dreaded question about artists and politics. Singer and guitarist Ed Droste campaigned for Bernie Sanders during the 2016 election (the band played at one of the Vermont senator’s rallies), has spoken out frequently against Donald Trump, and is now talking about the responsibility of artists to speak out: “With the general election too, I felt that if people have a platform and you feel this way then you should say something. I feel that’s really important. And it’s disappointing when people don’t, and you have to wonder why [they don’t]: it’s usually due to the fear of alienating fans […] I think even if it doesn’t affect you directly, it’s really important to stand with people, and stand with Planned Parenthood and all the different organisations that you believe in […]. If you don’t say something, I feel it’s cowardly”.
Multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor is equally vehement: “The idea of not talking about what Donald Trump is doing, it makes me almost nauseous”, whereas guitarist and singer Daniel Rossen prefers to clarify a little: “I think you have to be careful. I don’t think you should call people cowards, just because they don’t speak out in the same way you do. Some people are better at expressing their activism than others. I think with musicians as a whole, your opinion can be applied in ways that are valuable depending on your orientation in the world too. I agree with you that people should speak out about what’s happening. But I think cowardly goes too far”. After some more discussion, the band seem satisfied with Droste’s summary: “If someone’s working behind the scenes or creating an organisation that helps people, that’s an amazing thing to do. The majority of people don’t do that, generally for reasons of self-preservation or career-based reasons. And that’s what I’m referring to, not the people doing grassroots stuff or just not talking about it on social media”.
Grizzly Bear, as you can guess from the above discussion, are a band that put a lot of thought into everything they do. The Brooklyn-born four-piece (the above trio plus drummer Chris Bear) are back with their fifth album, Painted Ruins. After their last album, 2012’s Shields, was recorded with a more manic intensity, the band gave themselves a little more room to breathe with this one. Rossen says: “We still booked a place in upstate New York for this one. But we split it up, so last time there was a period of two and a half months or something, where we were all living in a house and said ‘We’re going to do this!’. So that was a bit crazy. Here, the writing was a little more fractured at first, but in general it was a slower, less pressurised version of things we’ve done. The organisation around it this time was a little more sane”.
Droste: I can still feel that stressed energy [from Shields], that is a stressed record. This one feels warmer and much more enjoyable.
So listening to [early singles] Mourning Sound and Three Rings, it kinda struck me that the sound on these songs is slower, thicker and heavier than the stuff on Shields. Three Rings is kind of this dreamy, foggy sound and Mourning Sound is more driving electronic rock, it’s even been compared to LCD Soundsystem. On this album, would you generally say it’s a heavier sound, kind of fuller and thicker compared to the more delicate structures on Shields?
Daniel: I think that’s a fair assessment. It’s a more dense record, and there aren’t a lot of delicate, quiet moments on this record.
Bear: I think that applies to some of the rest of it, but there’s still a lot of intricate elements there. But maybe there’s more propulsion behind a lot of it. It’s maybe a little more driving.
Droste: I think it feels warmer. Shields feels cold to me, and this album feels warm. That’s just my hot take, speaking in temperature terms over here.
You’ve talked about it being a more diverse and adventurous album. You’re coming to this record off the back of Veckatimest and Shields, both really popular and well-received albums. Does that give you a platform, where you can say ‘Okay, the last two went really well, so now we can have the confidence to try something new and to push in a more adventurous direction’?
Taylor: I remember thinking that it would be fun for us to try and make a record that wasn’t really trying to have the express purpose of trying something new or pushing into something we didn’t know how to do, but just honing what we do well. And just work on the sound that is this band. And I think at this age, where we are as a band and also as just men, I feel like the band has a voice and we can just develop that. So instead of saying ‘let’s move into electronic pop’ or whatever, we can work on that [the voice] and see where that can take us.
Droste: I think there was maybe less pressure, and that allowed us to try new ideas that maybe we hadn’t done before.
Taylor: We also had the songs finished, or at least demo’d to a pretty full level, before we went in to record. So when we actually went in to record, we were able to just have fun exploring sounds, y’know, which instrument does this and how it should sound and act and so on.
Droste: It’s probably the same for every album. Generally speaking, we want to make something that sounds exciting and fresh to us, so that we’re not re-treading old territory all the time. So probably the next thing we create will sound adventurous to us too. Because I hope we always continue to grow and evolve, so that we’re not just chugging out the same thing. Which keeps it exciting for us, and forward moving.
The band have always traditionally focused on albums as a whole experience, rather than individual singles, and Painted Ruins is no exception. According to every member, it’s a record that has to be listened to in full to fully appreciate: ”It is a diverse album in terms of tone and genre style”, says Droste, “it goes in a lot of different places. And when you hear them all together it works sonically as a palette. I think people will understand it more”.
Rossen: We sort of go after working on a song because we like what it is and where it’s going, and we don’t think about where it fits into some sort of larger context. So each song is driven until its done. It feels related to the others, but only in a vague, loose kind of way, in the sense of that’s what we’re into at the moment.
Bear: I think the record makes a lot of sense as a full album. It’s nice to have the context of these different songs balancing each other out.
We’re back on to politics again, and the entire band agrees that events in recent years are proof that everyone needs to do whatever possible to try and reverse the world out of the death-hole it’s cannoning into. “I’ve always voted”, says Droste, “but I can’t say that I’ve always spent so much time devoted to it. Like working on it. And ten to fifteen years ago, I can’t say I was as aware of local politics as much as I am now. So I would say it’s been a huge wake-up call. But it has been over the last few years, it wasn’t just Trump”.
Taylor: The Bush presidency was also a disgraceful thing. But this is a uniquely terrifying situation with this guy [Trump] in power. It’s really shaken things up, so it feels uniquely important to engage now.
Droste: It’s all people talk about all the time.
Taylor: Yeah, he’s literally the most famous person on earth. It’s insane.
Droste: It’s useful and helpful when you have an extra voice being an ally for causes. There are a lot of underserved people that don’t have voices, and if you’re lucky enough to have one and you can help them, that’s basically the crux of what we’re getting at here. Underserved women, undeserved communities in cities that are being repressed by the police. There’s a million different topics and a million different things you could speak up about and say ‘I stand with you’.
Painted Ruins is out on August 18 on Sony/ RCA.
Words: Austin Maloney