Grizzly Bear's Daniel Rossen talks Shields' tricky genesis

Rossen explains why a desert retreat, self-imposed pressure, and scrapping an album's worth of material turned in to blessings in disguise for the Brooklyn quartet

Feature by Dave Kerr | 03 Oct 2012

If there was one Brooklyn-based band from the class of ’09 that looked poised to maintain a winning streak, I sincerely hope you put a fiver on Grizzly Bear. Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors both impressed the critics with Merriweather Post Pavilion and Bitte Orca respectively that year, but it was this quieter, unassuming quartet who had the air of a group with so much more in the post.

Seemingly by stealth, they infiltrated the US Billboard top 10 and assured a place in our hearts with their third LP; even if we never did work out how to pronounce the title. Veck-catty-mest? “I don’t think anybody quite knows how to say that,” the band’s singer and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Rossen interjects, mere hours before  the band make their UK live return at End of the Road festival. “I don’t know – it’s a Native American word! We just call it Veck!

Both on home soil and abroad, Grizzly Bear were fortunate to drum up the kind of televised exposure that’s more typically reserved for mainstream performers, rolling the dice by debuting Veckatimest’s lead single via David Letterman’s non-more-huge national television show. “It felt like we jumped right in,” says Rossen of stepping inside the rollercoaster. “We went all the way. It’s always surreal; when you’re experiencing that you’re trying to have a good time, and there’s fun happening, but there’s also just an undercurrent of stress the whole time.”  

Ensuring that the band’s name became lodged in the wider public consciousness, Two Weeks was one of the few unlikely radio hits of the year that you simply couldn’t begrudge one more play. Of course, with pop hits comes great expectation, so it’s a surprise to find their recently released follow up Shields – by now another qualified success with a higher UK and US chart ranking still – sees the band succeeding on their own terms with a jazzier slow-burner, finding the mean between its predecessor’s relative brevity and the unfurling majesty of 2006’s Yellow House.  

Assured and confident though the new record is, in conversation Rossen projects the idea of a band just getting back on the bike – one you sense could either play the long game or disappear completely, such is his own noted personal uncertainty toward a long-term career in the music industry. Since the release of Yellow House, which was ostensibly the band’s first ‘group’ effort, Rossen entered a relentless touring and recording cycle with both Grizzly Bear and his Department of Eagles project that lasted some five years. Having since largely retired that side-project, Rossen withdrew from music for six months, eventually surfacing to release a solo EP this spring. In his absence, co-singer Ed Droste and in-house producer Chris Taylor embarked on a series of writing sessions last year.

When Rossen returned, the band found itself at odds both personally and musically, though they unanimously insist that what came out of it was a more cooperative way of working together, which Shields benefits from by an incalculable measure. Rossen reflects on the initial sessions for the album and re-connecting with the band with equal parts satisfaction and frustration. “It was a slow process and we took some time. We went down to this little town – actually it’s more of an arts community – called Marfa in West Texas. We thought we’d go somewhere different, somewhere sunny and foreign to us and see what we’d do there.

“In the past we’d often just get together somewhere, start working, and the record would just go and go and go until it was done. This time around, when we got together it wasn’t as immediate as it’s been in the past – we had to hang out with each other for a while and get a sense of what we were making. We were all writing on our own and would bring it to the band, which was tough. It wasn’t just this instant thing where there was momentum and we all knew how to interact with each other’s music. We basically recorded ten or twelve things down in Texas and scrapped the majority of it. Well, we did keep Sleeping Ute and Yet Again, which we did there – so it’s not like we lost everything. We did those, then scrapped the rest and tried to write things from the ground up. That was how we did the majority of this record in the end – just getting together and trying to find the most common space between all of us where we could all enjoy it and have a sense of authorship.”

Unimpressed by this lack of controversy, The Skinny asks whether “hanging out in the desert” turned into a few peyote-laced weekends of staggering around the cacti with a half-naked shaman. Rossen shatters our hopes: “Not quite, but we could spread that myth around…” he laughs. “That’s probably a better story!” To dismiss another porkie perpetuated by the press – that Shields is Rossen and Droste’s first attempt to write collaboratively, as though the two were warring factions in the past, he suggests such talk is a Chinese whisper. “That’s actually not true – it’s funny, that’s one of these things that people just keep saying and it’s not even remotely true! It’s the most we’ve ever written together, for sure, the most collaborative we’ve ever been, where we’ve sat in a room and thrown ideas at each other. That, we’ve never really done before – to me, it can feel a little silly to make music that way. In the past, Ed and I had songs on the previous records that we would pass back and forth – have notes for each other, trade lyrics, it’s not that different but not quite the same as it being spontaneous in the same room. That’s the key difference, there’s more of that on this record than ever before.”

Is this to say that the band could finally have a more fluent conversation as they wrote? “Yeah, it’s at the point now where there’s a song happening – you’re not really making it. It’s like ‘oh, this seems to be developing.’ It’s a little bit exasperating sometimes. There’s a song called What’s Wrong that has this strange jazz ending to it; for the longest time that was just two or three minutes of drums rolling at the end of the song. It’s like ‘we know there’s something that’s supposed to go here, I kind of know what it is, but I don’t know what it is! We’re just gonna leave it like this 'til we figure it out. There were these big open questions for a really long time while we were making this record, that’s something I’ve never experienced before. It was kind of scary at points but also exciting in the sense that ‘I don’t even know what this thing is; I just know it’s going to get done.' We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make things as good as they can be, and we all want to feel proud and happy about it. When you have four people with strong opinions and very different tastes, finding that middle ground is tough. But when we find it it’s really interesting – that’s the goal.”

Although Rossen cites Talk Talk and in particular the solo ventures of reclusive frontman Mark Hollis as “a recent obsession” – both in terms of their approach to recording and Hollis’s ego-free philosophy towards his own career – he’s hesitant to comment on Grizzly Bear’s broader common influences. “They’re a band where you didn’t get a sense that they were trying to make a rock record, they were just trying to make music,” he admires. “You get the sense that as [Hollis] got older and they got on in their career he started paying more attention to what he was doing and making these very meditative sound pieces. Then kind of just walked away [from the industry] one day, which I find inspiring too…” he lingers on the idea for a second. “Not that I want to walk away!” 

In the space of one song in particular – Speak in Rounds – there’s a tasteful echo of ethereal songwriting generations past, ranging through Van Dyke Parks (with whom Rossen recently played with live) to John Martyn and Jeff Buckley. As a band by now renowned for plying their own furrow, do they ever knowingly tip a hat to the greats? “We very rarely consciously try to make something sound like someone else,” he starts. “But all kinds of things filter their way in; we talk about all kinds of musicians. The sense of space and openness in Mark Hollis’s music is something I like to talk about, but I don’t know exactly how that worked its way into the record and became an idea. Then again, Speak in Rounds was one of these songs where me and Ed sat down on the couch and he gave some really vague direction that didn’t quite add up, like ‘play some chords that sound kind of like Fleetwood Mac but not.’ I just started playing chords and he started singing. It felt kinda funny, almost like a joke at first, but then it became something that he was really excited about and we just took it and ran. There’s a lot of stuff like that on this record.”

So with the fruits of their Texan think-tank largely on the bonfire, where did the band ultimately find the headspace to complete Shields? “In truth we ended up going back to the same place we always work,” Rossen confesses, in reference to the eponymous Yellow House in Cape Cod, owned by Droste’s grandmother. “We started out in the desert, it was tough and we got a lot out of it, for sure. But ultimately where we found our stride was the same place we always go!”

Playing Barrowlands, Glasgow on 20 Oct