Folk, Without the Beards
Released last fall to little fanfare, Grizzly Bear’s sophomore album, Yellow House (Warp), came in with a whimper but went out with a bang, making a fine showing in many year-end critics’ polls. Yellow House is that rare thing in an era of ever-shortening attention spans: a grower. That’s par for the course, though, among the Brooklyn bands with which Grizzly Bear is associated. Like TV on the Radio and Animal Collective, G.B. favors hazy atmosphere over straightforward verse/chorus/verse songwriting. But where their peers leaven melody with harsh psychedelic noise, Grizzly Bear prefers mellower harmonic forms — doo-wop, hymns and early music. It’s almost logical that founder Ed Droste has championed the decidedly untrendy United States Army Field Band Chorus in recent interviews: When Grizzly Bear tries its hand at a catchy chorus, the group often sounds like an actual chorus.
On the eve of their latest U.S. tour, I talked to Droste and bandmate Daniel Rossen about sonics, vocals, the gay press and other topics of urgent interest.
L.A. WEEKLY: I feel like music is more disposable than it’s ever been. But Yellow House is a sit-down record. You have to sit down for it.
ED DROSTE: A lot of people have said that they didn’t really feel much about it at first — but then two hours later they say I love it. Well, I’m glad they got there eventually. It’s definitely a grower.
Do you value music over lyrics? Only a couple of your new songs have clear-cut narratives.
DANIEL ROSSEN: Most of the other songs are like little . . . they’re like little haikus or something. [Droste laughs through his nose.] “Colorado” is like four lyrics in 10 minutes of music. It’s haiku rock.
Hey, you have your own genre! A related question: Do the lyrics connect to the fact that Ed is something of a rarity — a gay indie rocker in a scene that can be very asexual?
DROSTE: “Plans” is about a boy, and that’s about it. [“Juan from Argentina, such a strange predicament we find ourselves in/Baby it’s a long way to South America . . .”] The first album [2004’s Horn of Plenty] is definitely more about gay-centric relationships.
A few months back, though, a very gay-centric interview between you and Owen Pallet from Final Fantasy and the Arcade Fire did make its way around the Internet.
DROSTE: That wasn’t meant for everyone to read. I don’t regret doing it — I’ve done a bunch of gay press — but when things get posted on the Web and people start Googling, suddenly a story meant for one audience is in general circulation. All of a sudden, journalists start asking about it.
ROSSEN: We are a gay-straight-straight-straight quadrant.
DROSTE: Quadrant? Bloc Party’s lead singer, Kele, just came out of the closet, so you know . . . add another one to the list! [Fake enthusiasm.] Yeah, sweet. [Everyone laughs loudly.]
I wouldn’t call you a rock band at all. Do you ever feel like you’re floating in this middle distance between genres?
DROSTE: I kind of like not being clumped into a random category. Initially, people were using “freak-folk” for us, but luckily, recently they’ve really dropped that — which is nice.
I think freak-folk kind of got dropped along with it!
DROSTE: But also it’s like, if you really look at us, we’re really not freak-folk. Freak-folk comes with an image attached: You have to have a beard and be Jesusy, if you know what I mean. . . . You have to have a really extreme voice, and be really divisive.
ROSSEN: I think even Joanna Newsome is kind of dropping that.
DROSTE: It’d be hard to get easily classified, like, as a yelp-rock band. You know how all those groups that came out with yelpy vocals were clustered together. [Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Modest Mouse, etc. —ed.]
Talk about the “Yellow House” a little bit. It seems like that’s the story behind the album.
DROSTE: That’s where I grew up. It’s in the greater Boston area. It’s my mom’s house. We didn’t want to stay in New York, because we didn’t have money for a studio, so we went there [to record the album]. It was extremely hot because we couldn’t use the air conditioner because of the noise.
And do you feel like the album is about being there?
DROSTE: Lyrically, no . . . I feel like the house made an imprint on the record in its ambient noise and the feeling we were all having, but . . .
Did you sing in any kind of choral groups or anything like that growing up?
DROSTE: No — well, just music class. Or with my family I sang. It sounds kind of random, but sometimes my cousins would come over to our summer house and sing folk songs and stuff. Like the kids and the adults together. It was sort of like a bonding thing, sort of olden days.
Do any of you have formal training?
DROSTE: I have so little training, but my family is steeped in music. My grandfather was like the head of the music department at Harvard and listened to a lot of choral music, my mother is a music teacher for elementary school children, and my aunt’s a cellist. I’m not referencing something per se, so I guess it’s really just gut intuition.
ROSSEN: It’s not that crazy. You sang a lot as a child. You have a sense of harmony and a sense of melody even if you don’t necessarily know what you’re doing all the time. It’s not mystical.
DROSTE: No, I didn’t mean it like [shifts into hammy magician voice] Where does it come from? I just mean that I don’t know what I’m doing when I’m doing it.
ROSSEN: Which is a good thing.
Grizzly Bear performs Wed., Feb. 21, at the Troubadour.
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