‘TRX 250’ – a seemingly random collection of letters and numbers, hangs in the thick air of ‘Wasted Acres’: the sinister, dream-high introduction to cryptic, chamber-pop quartet Grizzly Bear’s latest effort, ‘Painted Ruins’. As each rune and digit falls from the mouth of Danielle Rossen, resident guitarist and withdrawn co-frontman, weight gathers in equal measure to curiosity against the slow-motion dirge.
When piecing together the night-drive persistence of such questions as “Were you even listening?” and “Were you riding with me?” that run through the song, you can only surmise that the protagonist of the impressionistic narrative must be semi-strung-out behind the wheel of something deadly and black and gleaming – tethered to reality, but in another world, un-seen. “It’s an ATV,” Rossen reveals, just as much as he painfully abstracts.
When it comes to the Brooklyn-hailing four-piece, vague thought-forms are expected, and are often hidden between sheets of fragmented, moon-sick nuance. Allusions to love, betrayal and detachment are sheltered by dense, pastoral cloud-detail, and are generally written by one member, and performed by another – blurring any confessional line you may feel you’re following. Grizzly Bear enjoy ambiguity, and so the grounded name-check of some 1987 ATV naturally begs questions.
“There’s nothing glamorous about the TRX 250. I recently moved up-state and out of the way. I’d ride out with my dog on this 4-wheeler to collect fire wood. It’s kind of a trashy thing to do, but these rituals tend to take on their own meaning, and I wanted to take something trashy and make it glamorous. I was trying to write my way out of my life.”
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Following the release-arc of 2012’s collaborative acid-test ‘Shields’: Grizzly Bear’s brooding fourth effort that saw the band retiring to Marfa, Texas to record, only to abandon an album's worth of material and transfer to unspoken band spokesman Ed Droste’s old family home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts to slowly bleed out what came to be a beautifully knotted negotiation of intimacy and isolation, it was uncertain whether the band would continue.
“We were realistic about the situation following ‘Shields’,” speaks Droste. “We didn’t apply the pressure. Any time someone feels forced to create, you don’t get interesting outcomes. There are some people who rely on external influence - people on a cycle, but if it’s not there, it’s not there. I like the uncertainty of it all. There are no guarantees. If someone was ever like “I don’t want to do this anymore,” Grizzly Bear wouldn’t exist. I think we all thought on it following the last record.”
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Any time someone feels forced to create, you don’t get interesting outcomes.
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The band eventually escaped their adopted home of Brooklyn, New York following a decade and a half of world-building – scattering themselves as far as they could from the “theme park” that Williamsburg had become and the claustrophobia that they had come to find in each other. Where Rossen bowed out to the northern foothills of the Catskills with his wife – sinking into an uncomplicated life of bee-keeping and self-imposed solitude, Droste self-medicated with world-travel and political activism – adding that, given more time, he would have rather the record be called “Painted Convfefe”.
Multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor exercised his passion for food – publishing a cookbook and dabbling in a culinary career in upstate New York, Germany and Denmark, where drummer Chris Bear married his long-time photographer girlfriend, moved into a dilapidated barn at the end of Long Island and became a father.
In traditional Grizzly Bear fashion, a hyper-fruitful half-decade between records is simply surmised as a “good break”, but where 2012 saw Grizzly Bear roaming Texan deserts slow-motion – figuring out how to further decentralise what was once a one-man-operation and move forward, the now RCA-signed group of husbands, fathers and divorcees - a subject Droste wishes not to discuss out of respect for both his ex-partner and his privacy, are a completely different, mostly Los Angeles-based, band.
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Although their lives are considerably quieter than they once were, their music is more maximal and cosmopolitan than ever. Glassy focus runs through ‘Painted Ruins’ in celebratory technicolour - a monument to the conquering of demons. “We wanted to push things further in every direction. It’s a cumulative thing. We decided on the compositions before recording. We knew where everything would be, so it was a case of exploring the sound.”
However, there were a number of tentative steps that led the band to actually share a room again – the first of which being Taylor’s initiative “Hello?” that soon birthed a digital space where ideas were both planted and explored. “I feel we were able to put our best foot forward, because nothing was forced,” speaks Rossen.
“In the past, when we would record, it would be this pressure cooker situation where we would all go to one place and we wouldn’t necessarily have any of the songs in-line, and we’d be recording at crazy hours of the day – whenever the mood struck, and that was amazing. I think that process yielded some interesting stuff, but it’s kind of hard to do that forever. For this record, we focused on the songs, and slowly piecing them together. We paced ourselves, and part of that pacing was the avoidance of the word ‘album’.”
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For this record, we focused on the songs...
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Following an on-going exchange of musical sketches, the band finally grouped in Allaire Studios in New York - a space that facilitated experimentation and the bravery to admit that the band were finally leaning towards something tangible. “The sound of the room we were working in was incredible, and the owner of the studio owns an incredible collection of instruments. Some of them work and some of them don’t, and it’s this process of digging through the closet and trying things out. It was kind of a dream – a case of rummaging around for your favourite sounding thing.”
However, Taylor interjects – reiterating the importance of song-writing when it comes to ‘Painted Ruins’. “With a song like ‘Sky Took Hold, it started out as a guitar idea, but changed dramatically - what started out as a sunny song went in quite a dark direction. The more we twisted it, the more interesting it was for us. We wanted good songs first that we could later dress up. If things get too hyper-explicit, we let it breathe.”
Following the thought, Droste draws a parallel between the way things used to be and the way they are now. “In the past, we’d stack things to extreme degrees, but each part occupies its own space with this record. Everyone has their own visions and what they want to do, but whatever you make, is what it is.”
As if inadvertently speaking to the very nature of the band on the disorientating ‘Four Cypresses’, Rossen repeats, “It’s chaos, but it works.”
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'Painted Ruins' is out now.
Words: James Musker
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