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Grizzly Bear on keeping it simple, kind of 

click to enlarge Grizzly Bear: music with “less moving parts.” - TOM HINES
  • Tom Hines
  • Grizzly Bear: music with “less moving parts.”
Like Wilco and Grandaddy before them, Grizzly Bear have had to get used to the “American Radiohead” label. It was pretty much unavoidable, especially after the Brooklyn-based band was chosen as opening act for Radiohead’s 2008 North American tour, during which guitarist Jonny Greenwood told fans that Grizzly Bear was his favorite band in the world.

Painted Ruins, the group’s latest studio album, is unlikely to change all that. Ed Droste’s ethereal vocals and Daniel Rossen’s echo-laden guitar remain at the center of the band’s orchestral-pop sound, and there are still enough otherworldly synthesizers, electronic beats and complex arrangements to keep the band’s art-rock reputation alive and twitching.

Even so, it’s worth remembering that Radiohead was a pop band that did its best to deconstruct that role as time went on. Grizzly Bear, on the other hand, appear to be following the opposite trajectory, leading to what’s arguably their most accessible album to date.

“I think we’ve always wanted, in theory, for the music to have less moving parts,” says bassist and multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor, who has also produced all of the band’s studio albums. “That’s the ideal; it’s just hard for us to get that to work. As you’ve heard, we like to layer stuff quite a lot.”

But much of that was before recording Painted Ruins songs like “Cut-Out,” a catchy mid-’60s-sounding psych-pop number that Taylor says barely made it onto the album. While Grizzly Bear’s po-faced fans can take comfort in the song’s opening line (“You are like an invading spore, growing inside of me”), its musical simplicity initially made the band uneasy.

“I remember us thinking, ‘Does this song stand up to the other ones on the record?’ Because it just felt so minimal. It was like, ‘Are we overlooking something?’ But it was also sort of refreshing, I guess, and people seem to have taken to it.”

The track may also be an indicator of where the band’s sound is heading after its comparatively complicated predecessor. “Shields had a lot of very carefully done arrangements,” says Taylor of the 2013 album, “which is really cool. But I feel like this is a little closer to how we play live, with a bit more of a band feeling and less kind of tense arrangements.”
Grizzly Bear first developed their orchestral-pop sound in a Brooklyn church that they converted into a studio. It was still the mid-2000s, a good decade before the HBO series Girls helped send the borough’s rents through the roof. At the time, Taylor had already left what would turn out to be his last day job — working in a coffee shop alongside TV On The Radio’s Kip Malone and David Sitek — and Grizzly Bear was part of a closely knit Brooklyn scene that included bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bear in Heaven, Aa, and The Liars.

“It’s like, what else are you going to do when you’re 23?” says Taylor with a laugh. “It was pretty special, going out to see what your friend’s band is doing and how they’re sounding. It’s like growing up together in a way. I feel lucky to have been in that place at that time.”

Meanwhile, back in church, the band recorded its 2009 breakthrough album Veckatimest, which quickly propelled them into the Top 10. “We’d record in the balcony where the choir would be,” he says, “and it was always magical. I’m not Christian by any means, but yeah, a space like that is inspiring and sacred, even if it doesn’t mean anything to you religiously. It has a sort of spiritual kind of gravity to it.”

It was also there that Taylor recorded his solo project CANT and produced albums by artists like Blood Orange, until he finally closed up shop a few years ago. “So much of my career happened in that church,” says the musician, who has since relocated to L.A., where Droste and drummer Christopher Bear also now live. “I remember carrying the last box out and getting super teary-eyed.”

Still, it all paid off. Painted Ruins is the kind of album that invites listeners to drop what they’re doing, take a seat, and spend the next 48 minutes staring at the sound coming out of the speakers.

“I love the idea of someone listening to the album like that,” says Taylor, who studied jazz at New York University back when the only pop band he listened to was, according to a Seattle Times interview, Radiohead. “I bought a nice copy of [the Miles Davis album] Sketches of Spain on vinyl, and when I listened to it, my mind was blown once again. It was transcendent. And the idea of someone listening to our album and taking it all in like that — like you say, looking at the speakers — is really nice.”

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