This month marks the first year anniversary of Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest album, an album full of baroque pop lushness and heavenly harmonies, but one that divided opinion at Webcuts. Our review awarded it the very rare perfect Webcuts score (which surmised: “Let’s be honest, forgetting the usual buzz that record companies generate in order to pass on their wares it’s not often that a record of such majesty comes along.” Full review) although other editorial staff were decidedly nonplussed by the release. The (non) bearded ones will revisiting Australia in July for Splendour in the Grass and their own sideshows but earlier this year they traipsed down under for their first ever visit, at which point Chris Berkley hunted down Ed Droste for a chat.
It’s been a revelation to see Grizzly Bear play live. Is the live show something you’ve really grown into over time?
Yeah, I think it took us a while to come into our own with it. When we first started I remember we were really shy, sitting down and didn’t look at the audience, I think we were just unsure of ourselves, this was five or six years ago. It’s been something that with years of touring we’ve really come into, grown to love and it’s also been a great way to discover songs when we’re writing them — we get to play them out. Sometimes we get to play a song before we’ve recorded it and it really gives us a feel of what the song’s going to be. And then we go back to the recording process and re-address it after playing it live… it really takes its own shape.
It seems the catalyst was a bit of a trial and error, because you were even doing the songs on Letterman before they existed in their recorded forms.
I know we were definitely debuting things early. Which was a funny thing to do, but at the same time it was a lot of fun. That was crazy when we did “Two Weeks” on Letterman. We’d never, ever performed the song live in front of anyone. So there were a lot of nerves but it was also a fun, surprising thing to do.
Did you ever have Grizzly Bear pegged as live band? Because the first album Horn of Plenty was in essence just yourself before the other members came on board.
No I didn’t. I really thought originally it was going to be a one-off album and I never imagined playing any of those songs live and most of those songs don’t get performed live because they’re very difficult to re-create. There was no intention in turning it to a live band, then when the label that put out the album wanted to put together a couple of shows, that’s when the band formed. We found our sound and we became the band we are today.
But the original intention? No, I thought I was going to sell twenty copies to my Mom and never play a live show and keep on with my day job (laughs).
It also seems that Grizzly Bear nowadays is designed as a real democracy – there are shared vocals between all of you and the stage set up is the four of you in the line across the stage. Have you been conscious of keeping that egalitarian look and sound about the band?
Well yeah, it is a big democracy down to decision making and songwriting and singing. Daniel and I do most of the lyrics and melodies and we do share lead vocals but everyone’s really involved in the recording process and I think everyone on stage performing is equally as interesting and fun to watch. So that’s why we do it in a line. Chris Taylor will be jumping around from a bass to a clarinet and Bear’s drumming is really amazing to watch. We’re not the kind of band to put the drummer in the back and just have the singer at the front, especially as all four of us share singing duties.
It also means Chris Bear doesn’t have to look at the back of your ugly heads all the time.
(laughs) Exactly. That would be very unfair.
Speaking of heads Ed, how are yours? They don’t seem to have grown too big despite all the accolades and success of Veckatimest. Has it easy been easy to keep yourself in check this past year?
It doesn’t feel like some crazy explosion of wildness or fame or anything like that. Since we’ve been doing it for five or six years it felt like a natural steady build. I think we’re all just super grateful we’re able to do this as a job. One of the best parts about it is getting to come to new places and this trip to Australia has been a trip of a lifetime for us. We got to bring friends and significant others and we’ve gotten to see a lot of the country and meet so many people here. It’s things like: “I can’t believe I finally made it to Australia”, as I remember thinking as a kid “Man that’s far, I wonder if I’ll ever make it down there?” and here I am for almost three weeks with plans to come back soon. And who knows how long it will last, hopefully it will keep going.
Since Veckatimest came out you made “While You Wait for the Others” with smooth soul veteran Michael McDonald. Some interesting people have come into the Grizzly Bear radar in the past twelve months, how did you snare a Doobie Brother, Ed?
(laughs) We’re not really protective of our songs, which is why we’ve released remix albums and let other people play around with songs or mash ups with Girl Talk and stuff like that.
“While You Wait for the Others” (the 7″ single version features a version of the track with McDonald on lead vocals – Ed) happened through a mutual friend. Her father is from Nashville had worked with Michael McDonald who’s one of the coolest Yacht rockers around. We let him know we were fans and he ended up coming to a show and we really liked him and approached him with the idea and he was totally excited to do it.
I guess it must make you appreciate or realise the existence of your music or your songs or legacy — whatever you want to call it — when you can see other people inhabit them.
Yeah it’s always interesting to see what parts of the songs other people are going to pick up or embellish or enhance, whether they’re covering it or remixing it. But it really is cool to see the songs get transformed and changed and just basically see it through other people’s eyes, or hear it through other people’s ears, I guess.
It must also be a nice break after the four of you have been working on album for couple of years to then send them out to the world and have other people’s takes on them.
That’s exactly true. That’s another reason why we try to re-interpret the songs for a live setting, to keep the songs fresh for us, so they’re a bit different from the album. When you’ve been playing the songs all year long, over 150 shows or something, you try to do things to make each show different and special. So sometimes we’ll do stuff with a string quartet, or an orchestra, or a children’s choir or Michael McDonald, or whatever.
Well I’ve seen Burt Bacharach with the Sydney Symphony orchestra so maybe you need to have some talks with them for next time.
That would be wonderful. Fingers crossed.
First broadcast on Static on 10/01/10. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST)