Grizzly Bear: Soap Opera

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Photographed for SPIN by Cass Bird
WRITTEN BY
David Marchese

Listening to Grizzly Bear's sepia-toned fantasias, you could easily imagine the men who make them spending their leisure time perusing dusty daguerreotypes or promenading down moonlit cobblestone streets. Bowling? Not so much.

"I had no idea this would be so crazy," says singer-guitarist Ed Droste, dressed in beige khakis and a pink plaid button-down shirt (with matching socks) and straining to be heard amid the ZZ Top and rolling thunder of a busy Williamsburg, Brooklyn bowling alley. "Who goes bowling at 8:00 on a Friday night?"

Unfortunately, in a neighborhood with enough idle bobos to support a 33-team kickball league, the answer appears to be everyone.

Bassist-producer Chris Taylor returns from a confab with the dude spraying fungicide into the rental shoes. "It's going to be at least an hour before we can get a lane," he says with a sigh.

Droste ambles over to a table hockey gameboard and challenges Taylor to a match. Daniel Rossen, the band's other singer-guitarist, sips a micro-brew alongside Droste's interior-designer boyfriend, Chad, and passively watches his comrades (minus drummer Chris Bear, who's en route from the airport) send tiny plastic men after a tiny plastic puck.

"The sooner we get out of here, the better," says Taylor, his face illuminated by the dull green glow of a stained-glass lighting fixture emblazoned with the Old Milwaukee logo.

Droste knows a quieter place nearby. "It's not very rock'n'roll," he says. "But neither are we."

Despite Droste's claim, Grizzly Bear have arrived at a well-tread rock'n'roll moment -- the crossroads of cultivated indie buzz and intense curiosity from the secular world. Veckatimest, their third album, was being hailed as an album-of-the-year contender almost a full two months before its May 26 release. The summer will be spent on a two-month headlining tour. And by dint of nearly unanimous critical hosannas -- not to mention sales of 49,000 copies of 2006's Yellow House -- Droste, Taylor, Rossen, and Bear (his real last name) have become standard-bearers for a bloc of artists that includes Final Fantasy, Dirty Projectors, and Beirut, all of whom are more interested in fey vocals, nonstandard rhythms, exploratory song structures, and neighborly collaboration than in blues chord progressions, guitar muscle, and aloof macho cool.

Or, to put it slightly differently, the most anticipated indie album of the year was recorded by a band dispositionally more at home performing with orchestras (which they've done: the Brooklyn and L.A. philharmonics) than at outdoor festivals (which they will do: Sasquatch! and Bonnaroo), whose founding member (Droste) grew up singing "Scottish folk songs about knitting," whose principal guitarist was "really into Shostakovich" as a teen, and whose rhythm section met in a university jazz program.

Unsurprisingly, the guys did not get their start bashing it out in the garage. "I wrote the first album in my bedroom," says Droste, 30, a few days before our ill-fated bowling attempt. He's sitting with Rossen, 26, and eyeing a complementary dish of zeppoles at a small Italian restaurant near their respective homes. (All four members of Grizzly Bear live within a few minutes of each other in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn.) "I'd gone through a bad breakup and was looking for catharsis. So I wrote some songs, put them on a CD, and gave them to my friends. I assumed that would be the end of it."

Hipster samizdat delivered a copy to Bear, 26, who liked what he heard and played it for Taylor, 27. The two met Droste through a mutual pal, and Bear offered some postproduction and remixing help. The results were released in 2004 as Grizzly Bear's Horn of Plenty. Rossen, a friend of Bear's from -- seriously -- jazz camp, was asked to provide some guitar heft for live shows. "I don't think of Horn of Plenty as a Grizzly Bear album. It's more like a weird Polaroid of the fetus," says Droste, whose grandfather was a Harvard Beethoven scholar and whose previous vocal experience included family singalongs of old folk tunes and not much else. "The band began when Dan joined and we started playing more live and doing his songs too."

The transition from the bedroom to the stage was tough. "I was scared out of my mind as a performer," says Droste in a voice that gently reveals a hint of Boston Brahmanism. "I used to look at the floor and try to hide my body with the guitar. Eventually, I was able to look into the crowd. Then I sort of crouched. Then I was able to perform standing up."

"It's been like the evolution of man with Ed," quips the small, quiet Rossen, a Los Angeleno with a bashful smile and his own impressive pedigree -- his grandfather, Robert Rossen, directed the Oscar-winning Paul Newman drama The Hustler and the original All the King's Men.

But even if Droste views Yellow House (released, as Veckatimest will be, on Warp Records) as the first "real" Grizzly Bear offering, its creation was beset by some typically sophomoric rock-band dysfunction. "Making that album was hard for all of us," says Rossen, thinking back to a sweltering July the band spent recording the album at Droste's mom's house on Cape Cod in 2006. "There were so many factors. We hadn't spent so much time together. Ed had never been in a band. I had never been in a band. We ended up having a lot of needless fights about harmonies." (Says Bear: "It was like The Real World if The Real World was about not hooking up and passive-aggressive arguments.")

The clashes were worth it. The album's tremulous folk melodies and deep-focus soundscapes hit like a bolt from some distant, beautiful blue, winning praise from critics and contemporaries. Both Brazilian electro band CSS and Beirut's Zach Condon covered "Knife," a you-done-me-wrong creeper driven by disquieting electric guitars and Droste's spectral vocals. "The day Yellow House came out, I played it on repeat," says Robin Pecknold of Seattle folkies Fleet Foxes. "It had a totally different feeling than any other band I'd heard. All the influences were from before the '60s -- it was inspirational to hear strings and pure harmony used in a modern way. A lot of music that gets called 'independent' is indistinguishable from major-label stuff, but Grizzly Bear sounds unique." Of Veckatimest, Pecknold says, "It's so good it makes me want to quit and become a banker."

Suddenly, a band whose frontman was once afraid to look at the audience was now opening for Radiohead and being invited by Paul Simon to play at a career retrospective. "We're not going to come out and rock you. It took some time to learn how to play in those kinds of situations," says Droste, who, before touring with Radiohead, hadn't been in a stadium since U2's Zoo TV tour in 1992. He was ahead of Rossen, who'd never been to an arena show until he played one.

But despite their unfamiliarity with tailgating and turnstiles, Rossen and Droste soon found themselves living another rock cliché: the press-fueled rift. Last October, when Rossen released In Ear Park with his Department of Eagles side project, a New York Times article implied that the album was a result of his dissatisfaction with Grizzly Bear. Blogs were quickly alight with speculation that the band was in danger of ending before it could really get started. "That whole thing was ridiculous," says Rossen, still clearly annoyed. "I was talking with the reporter about the same frustrations I mentioned to you and that became the focus of the story. I also talked a lot about how playing with Department of Eagles made me realize how much I loved being in Grizzly Bear -- but that didn't make it into the story."

"I was a little weirded out when I saw the Times article," admits Droste, who was wearing a Department of Eagles T-shirt under his button-down on the night we tried to bowl. "But then Dan explained what happened, and we talked about it, and it's now a non-issue. The thing is, we're all so much closer now than we were even a year ago."

Read the complete feature with Grizzly Bear in the June 2009 issue of SPIN, on newsstands now.

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