First published on 10 Oct 2012. Updated on 19 Oct 2012.
Polar Bear. Panda Bear. Grizzly Bear. Name any kind of self-respecting ursine beast and sure enough, you’ll find a big-on-the-blogs band named after it. For Grizzly Bear, the Brooklyn-based group founded by Ed Droste, this autumn marks their return from self-imposed hibernation. Signed to Warp, their last (third) album, 2009’s Veckatimest, was on many critics’ end-of-year lists. They were championed by Radiohead, asked to score the Ryan Gosling weepfest movie Blue Valentine, then toured relentlessly for two years, pushing the kind of beautifully intense, baroque indie-folk that suddenly, swiftly, became a surprise success in the late noughties.
Their new LP – Shields – is something of an acid test; it’s the first that isn’t written predominantly by Droste, the frontman. Instead songwriting credits are divvied up amongst the four-piece. The album isn’t a huge departure – there’s no radically compromised new sound – but it is richer, the melodies rise a little further to the surface and it’s bursting with what sounds like utter heartbreak.
"No, it’s not heartbreak," insists Droste, who spent his year out from the band getting married to his long-term boyfriend and taking an extended, romantic trip across Southeast Asia. "It’s about negotiating the spaces between finding someone you want to be with all the time, to wanting your own space, to maybe your biggest fear of being alone." Which, arguably, is marriage in a nutshell, but Droste has already moved on. "We’re four very strong personalities and the band is a democracy. This album became a more collaborative process just because we matured, worked through stuff, ironed out the kinks."
If there have been any real tantrums Droste and his bandmate Chris Bear are diplomatically choosing to play them down. "There was no crazy drama, it just wasn’t a priority to go out and have dinner together every week," says Bear, sat with Droste in the beer garden of an East London pub.
"Being in a band is a weird thing," adds Droste. You are friends and you do care about each other but it’s also a working relationship. It’s work." It’s hardly a rock’n’roll revelation, but then Grizzly Bear are very much the flagbearers for the kind of sensitive, cerebral geek rock that has stealthily shifted critical attention away from ‘young, dumb, full of cum’ guitar bands in the last few years – a change that’s been aided considerably by internet buzz.
"We have a love-hate relationship with the internet," says Droste. "It’s a good way to spread the word but…" He leaves it hanging. A few days before we meet, Grizzly Bear were accused of whining about Spotify on Twitter. "[It’s] good for exposure but after about 10k plays we get approx 10 dollars… at least radio and venues look at YouTube counts. With Spotify, it’s nothing," is Droste’s summary of affairs – an eye-opening one given that Spotify is supposed to be the legal, paid-for service helping artists, and YouTube the free, evil enemy siphoning off would-be profits. As controversies go, it hardly matches Metallica-levels of egomania and internet paranoia. But these two don’t really do boorish excess. This is a band that escapes the myriad temptations of New York and retreats to the wilderness instead.
"Marfa is a real desert town, in the middle of nowhere," Bear tells us, enthusiastic about his favourite remote Texan bolthole (population: under 2,000). Close to the Mexican border, it is where Grizzly Bear decided to hold their reunion last year. They caught up, cooked, swam and began working on Shields. "We recorded an album’s worth of material there but we barely used anything," admits Droste, explaining that the trip was mostly needed so the band could "take a moment and get reacquainted again".
"I wouldn’t say it was easier or harder this way," he considers, of the time they spent apart. "But we’ve got to the point where everyone [in the band] can feel equally excited about the album… We will probably always have a situation like Marfa, where we have to go through this to do something new." The band seem very cosy at the moment. But – like all the best love stories – it’s the pulling apart and the coming together again that makes things interesting.