The Grizzly Bear frontman talks about the band's new album, abstract songwriting, and separating politics from art.
09 August 2017
The Grizzly Bear frontman talks about the band's new album, abstract songwriting, and separating politics from art.
A lot can change in five years. In the years since releasing their fourth album, Shields, in 2012, Grizzly Bear have publicly stayed pretty quiet. But that isn't because they weren't doing anything. To hear Ed Droste, the band's creator, tell it, in the half decade that separated Shields from Painted Ruins, the band's fifth album which is slated for an August 18th release, life happened. His bandmates all got married. One of them had a kid. And Droste, who married his longtime boyfriend, Chad McPhail, in 2011, went through an "amicable and loving" divorce after spending almost three years together—an experience he says "definitely took up some time."
When the band finally regrouped to commence work on Painted Ruins in early 2015, Droste found himself in a period where "a lot of shit [was] going on in the world." Sure, Donald Trump had yet to be elected, but even then Droste couldn't help but be affected by what he describes as a "global fear of the other." When I ask for examples during a conversation the 38-year-old and I had at The Standard Hotel Grill in July, he specifically mentions the rising instances of police brutality and the horrific xenophobia associated with the refugee crisis.
"It's not like it wasn't there before," he continues. "But certainly, in this day and age of the internet, it's certainly more in your face, even if you're not directly affected by it." As a cisgender white man, Droste knows he isn't really being targeted—actually, the singer is hyper-aware of his own privilege, noting that all he has to do is "strike off one box for being gay, and that's all"—but he still maintains that elements of the turning political tides would have seeped into his work regardless. At one point, he asks me rhetorically, "How can you not have a piece of this hellhole that we're experiencing right now influence your music?"
Yet, for some reason, as he gears up for an extensive tour starting in October, Ed Droste seems resigned to the current state of things. A quick dive into the history of his vocal support for early Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders could clue anyone into just how willing the musician is to speak on what he believes, but during our meeting, he assures me that he has no plans to go on any "goddamn political rants" in the middle of his shows. He later maintains that his fans "don't have to enjoy my [political] perspective" to appreciate Grizzly Bear's music right after admitting that he and his bandmates feel "weird" about performing in red states now. After all, "It's going to be a new vibe where you're kind of looking over your shoulder."
In that way, Droste presents an interesting juxtaposition: How does one balance his or her own beliefs with what is expected of them professionally? To this effect, it's clear that Droste wants his music to speak for itself. But even the most valiant attempts at remaining neutral in a time of turmoil is difficult for someone as activist-minded as he. Though he is firmly against bringing politics on stage, his stance on bringing politics with him on the road is slightly more relaxed. While discussing what fans could expect from these quickly approaching shows, he excitedly told me about the band's decision to bring a voter registration booth with them to each stop. Sure, he may not see the middle of his set as the appropriate time or place for political discourse—but outside near the merch booths? Well, "Maybe it will help them get to a better place."
From left to right: Droste, Daniel Rossen, Christopher Bear, Chris Taylor / Courtesy Grizzly Bear
What's the story behind the title Painted Ruins?
I didn't come up with the title. Dan [Daniel Rossen] did, and it made sense because I was really into the idea of it being interpreted both positively and negatively. You could see it as "dressing up a pig," or as something that is actually better, like real painted ruins. You could see it as trying to keep a house together that's about to collapse or actually fixing it. We all thought that title worked considering the variety of subjects we touch upon on the album. That's where the title came from, or at least that's my interpretation.
Was that dichotomy tied into any of your thoughts on where we are in our world politically?
I mean, I think there is an element there, for sure. It's like, how can you not have a piece of this hellhole that we're experiencing right now influence your music? We're not the most explicit band in terms of saying, "I went to the store and saw a poster of someone and it made me sad, so I went home and cried at night." (Tons of people write songs like that.) But at the same time, there are definitely elements of the current climate, the vibe. But most of the writing happened before the election, though there was already a lot of shit going on in the world before the election.
What specific things were shifting in the world when you were writing?
Well, it was just a global fear of the other—like the refugee crisis and so much other insane domestic stuff. There were so many issues with police brutality and everything in the past couple of years. It's not like it wasn't there before but certainly, in this day and age of the internet, it's certainly more in your face even if you're not directly affected by it—which I'm generally not, being who I am. I just strike off one box for being gay, that's all.
Haha, being gay and living in Los Angeles is soooo hard.
It's so hard! The struggle! [laughs]
There has been a pretty significant gap in between the release of Shields and the upcoming release of Painted Ruins. What was going on in those years? Did the physical distance between the bandmembers play a part?
Well, now three of [the band members] live in L.A. We've all congregated there. So many musicians that I grew up with here [in New York] have moved there now. All the people I know live there now.
What prompted your move from New York to L.A.?
I think the things I moved to New York for weren't here anymore.
Was that the result of a changing political climate?
The city started changing and we weren't changing in the same direction. We grew apart and it took a while to realize that. There were moments when I'd be like, "Oh, I really want to go do this thing," and then not. Or, "Oh, I want to see this today," and someone would say, "It's been sold out for months. Good luck getting a ticket for that exhibit. You're fucked." Or even jockeying for a seat on the High Line on a nice sunny day like you're on an episode of Broad City. So there's that, and then I also started to notice old people living in the city and just thought, fuck. New York City is a hard place to live. It's just hard. Call me a pussy all you want but I couldn't hack it anymore. I wanted to have space and I wanted to have nice weather. I wanted to be able to go to Palm Springs for the weekend or Big Sur, or like to the ocean.
Yeah, you don't have those same options in New York.
Maybe in the summer you can go to Fire Island or something. But, you know, I can go skiing from L.A. There are so many different climates right there. And it's so foreign to me. It's exotic to me being from the east coast in Boston. It's like, "Wait, I can go to Mexico in three hours?" Sweet! Let's go!
What were you doing during the time you weren't making music?
Well, it was just like life, you know. I moved. I got divorced—so that definitely took up some time. My bandmates all got married; one of them had a kid. So it was just kind of all those things. Everyone needed some time to feel like they weren't trapped in a cycle. [Being in a band] is sort of like a rinse-and-repeat thing, and if you don't take some time, you come home and realize: Oh my god. Five of my friends have kids! Where the hell was I? Well, I was touring for two years! Then everyone is just like, "Sorry you missed my wedding!" I mean…thank you?
Do you have a love/hate relationship with touring then?
Yes! It's exhausting but it's so much fun to perform for people.
What is your relationship like with your fans? Especially as an openly queer artist, do you have people reaching out to you a lot?
I like to try and open up the communication as much as possible, especially because the other bandmembers are very private. I try to respond to messages when I can but I get a lot. Sometimes I get really intense ones. Like really scary ones where I have to be like, "I'm not a therapist. I'm not equipped for this, but I do want to help." You know, it's interesting though, because I was always "out" [as gay] in the band publicly since day one. But it's almost like since you've never "come out" in the press, [you aren't really out]. And then you do gay press, but only gay people read gay press. But randomly, [my queerness] never comes up, which is kind of funny because if I had been in the closet and then like two years ago said, "I'm gay!" every fucking journalist would be like, "So tell me what it feels like coming out. How are you incorporating it into your music?" Like, I don't even know if all the [Grizzly Bear] fans know [I'm gay] even now. But I have a boyfriend.
When I first started listening to Grizzly Bear, I definitely didn't know.
I'm not hiding it! It's just not the story, which is fine because it doesn't need to be. I'm happy to talk about it, but it's not what defines the band. It's not what defines the music. There are lyrics about homosexual love, but that's it.
Most Grizzly Bear lyrics are pretty abstract, so how would you say those tales are incorporated?
There were a couple of lyrics in [first album] Horn of Plenty that were a little overt sexually—like, "Cum again on all over me." But yeah, I haven't done that since. Not that I'm opposed to it, but it was just me alone [making] that first album. Now I have a full band, and I can't be like, "Guys, you want to sing harmonies on this song with me?"
Do you feel at all limited now that you're in band where you're the only queer member?
I'm super grateful that I'm with three other super creative, amazing people. I wouldn't be where I am without them. I like the way that they challenge me. And honestly, I'm actually not too interested in singing about sucking dick. I was 23 [when I wrote Horn of Plenty]. Now I don't feel an urge to sing about that, so we don't really come across that as a conflict. But they don't censor me. I don't even think that they would if I wanted to sing about [explicitly queer subjects], but it doesn't matter. I feel no need to sing about it, you know? We're a rock band. We're not a punk-dance band where you can turn that into a fun hook. [mimics someone singing "Suck my dick"]
How would you describe your genre of music then? What feelings do you try to evoke?
I don't think we try to evoke a specific feeling, but I do like the lyrics to be open enough so many, many different types of people could have their own interpretations. Actually, the last person who was interviewing me described how one song made him feel based on how he read into it. It was a case-in-point of why I love lyrics that are not too explicit because it allows people to have their own experience with it. I'm always hearing from fans after a show or something say, "Oooh, I love how this song is about this topic," and I'm just thinking it's not really about that… But I love that! It's so great. That's my favorite type of music too. Then you form a relationship with it and it becomes this personal thing to you as opposed to some plastic thing or a story that you can't relate to. You know those explicit stories where you're like, well, I wasn't on that boat trying to catch a whale—no one has been whaling for years!
Do you naturally gravitate towards abstract writing?
Kind of. I mean, some songs are more explicit than others, but we generally tend to veer towards [the more abstract]. I think because that's how we express ourselves. In a way, it's like, not everyone in the band wants to put their emotional cards on the table to the other band mates. There are certain songs [that other bandmembers write] that I don't fully understand but can tell are really personal. I don't want to be like, "So, what is this really about?" I have my own ideas and sometimes we talk about it, but for some certain things, we're all just like ehh, figure it out or don't. [Our songwriting style is] more universal for listeners, but I'm not writing to do that specifically. I just appreciate that in music—something where you can come up with your own story. But I love beautiful storytelling; you know, I'm a huge Perfume Genius fan. I can relate to some of his songs too. But it's just a different approach.
Ed Droste at a 2012 Grizzly Bear concert in Berlin / Getty Images
What were some of your first music influences?
My mom was a music teacher and my grandfather was a music professor, so they were a huge influence—just having so much music around. They were really into choral music, and there were these sort of “family sings" that would happen where everyone would just sort of sing around a piano. It was weird, but it is what it is, very old-timesy. My aunt was also a cellist.
But I sort of rejected [music] at first. In high school, I took a couple years of guitar lessons. Then when I got to college, after one year, I was like, “I'm going to be a journalist!" And then I met someone at a party who was like 43—I was still in college—and she was like, “I just got my first piece in the front of [The New Yorker's] 'Talk of the Town' [section]." And I was like, “Fuck. How old are you?" Then I thought, I don't know, maybe I'm not cut out for this. I don't have patience for that.
So did you just jump from wanting to be a journalist to wanting to be a musician?
No, it wasn't such a concrete decision. It wasn't like, "Oh, I'm stopping." I went to work at what was basically an audio-documenting company (there were no podcasts really then, but like places that made stuff for NPR and stories like that) and they taught me how to use ProTools. I was the grunt-work guy that edited out all of the "oohs" and the "ahhs" and the coughs and the cars passing and all of that, as if this was going on the radio or something. So then my parents gave me a ProTools for Christmas. [At the same time] I was kind of depressed, just thinking, like, What am I doing? I'm living in Greenpoint in like 2002, and then I just started writing songs. I had my guitar in the closet and was like, "I haven't used you in a while," and then I started playing around on a little keyboard, and that's really how I started making music.
Were there any artists that specifically inspired you?
The first album I ever bought was UB40's Labor of Love—the one with "Red Red Wine" on it. And then I remember the second one I bought was Edie Brickell's Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars. I was pretty young then; I was probably like eight or nine. But I also really, really, really got obsessed with Liz Phair because she was singing about sucking dick. Literally, like she could do it. I would listen like, "That sounds fun. This song is awesome and you're amazing." I mean, really, that's the most listened-to album of my life: Exile in Guyville. Hands down. Her whole rawness was amazing. But that's another example of lyrics that are super explicit that I couldn't necessarily relate to but still loved them. I learned all of those lyrics and then learned them on guitar. I mean, definitely, she's the reason that I asked to play and tried to learn guitar in the first place—it's all on her. I mean, Pavement and The Pixies and PJ Harvey, them too, but really Liz Phair was the obsession. Like, a crazy obsession to the point where my parents were like, "Stop fucking playing this album."
They were tired of hearing about dick-sucking?
No, it wasn't even that. They were just like, "No more. She's so monotone!" And I was like, "No, she's not! She's perfect!"
Would I be safe in assuming that, having grown up in a musically-inclined family from Boston, you were raised fairly liberally?
I did. I'm lucky. I grew up in an Agnostic liberal family where there was no real crazy religion at all. Even though I took my time to come out, I think that had more to do with just my own discomfort rather than anything in my family because they were really supportive. They didn't care; it was a non-issue. So, yeah, I grew up in a liberal family. Plus I went to a high school where it was trendy to be gay. So like, why wasn't I out? I keep asking myself, "Why were you wasting your time?" but sometimes you're just not ready. Of course I thought about [coming out] a lot, but I was always like, "No, I'll wait." Or like, "I'll lie. I can make this happen. I'm going to make this work."
I know you didn't write this album during the Trump era, but has his election influenced the way you're approaching your narrative as a band moving forward?
On tour, we're definitely going to have voter registration booths but I'm not going to [be] in the middle of the stage going on a goddamn political rant. I mean, that's not what [the fans] came for and there are plenty of other avenues for me to do that where people can just turn it off. They're like, "I came for the music," and I'm like, "Well, anyways, you really shouldn't have voted for him."
Hopefully anyone that voted for him won't be in the crowd at your shows.
They will be, for sure. I haven't experienced it yet, but as a band, we've been thinking: it's going to be weird playing red states. It's going to be a new vibe where you're kind of looking over your shoulders. And, of course, there are red areas of blue states too—but we don't usually play them. I'm not like, "What's up, Bakersfield!"
Does it bother you to think about people who voted for Trump enjoying your art?
That's where I'm just like let people enjoy what they want to enjoy. I'm not telling people not to. That's ridiculous. You don't have to enjoy my perspective—and I'm not going to change it—but I'm not going to say "Don't listen to my music" because that's ridiculous. I've been vocal [politically] but it's like, you know, if someone is enjoying something, why take that away? Maybe it will help them get to a better place. [On the other hand] maybe it will turn some liberals into Republicans! Who knows?
Just someone like, "Oh no, if this guy is a liberal, I can't be doing that anymore!"
[laughs] You play the record backwards and there's a pro-Trump subliminal message or something.
Droste, Taylor, Rossen, and Bear / Courtesy of Grizzly Bear
Much has changed in the music industry since you released Shields in 2012. Where do you see yourself and your band fitting in now?
I don't know. I see a lot of people trying to dress up and get poppy, and we're not. So there it is. I don't want to put on a bullshit act. I don't want to be fake to who I am and I don't want to just churn out garbage. I don't want to make shit just so it's potentially popular. That's not my objective. Hopefully people love it, but I'm not going to go search for some popular producers and be like, "Make me a hit!" I'm not going to get a weird haircut and be like, "Hi, I'm here! It's the new me!"
The four of us [in the band] are so different. It's challenging enough to get the four of us to love it, so if we all love it, then cool. We can stand behind it and hopefully everyone else does too. We have to love it because we have to perform it, and if we don't like what we've made or it feels inauthentic in some way, it's kind of like... Yes, we're putting on a performance, but we're more like, this is real. This is us. It's fine to be a performer, but this is also us. To put on a top hat and dance around is not our thing.
Obviously touring is much more of a necessity for musicians now than it was at one point. Does the knowledge that you'll have to later perform these songs impact how you compose your songs? Grizzly Bear has developed somewhat of a name for making very complicated song arrangements.
No, because we've always had to tour a lot. So it's kind of expected. You don't really write songs thinking about touring or doing shows anyway. You're thinking about your life or what is exciting at the moment or what everyone is into. [When it's time to think about how we'll translate the songs to live performances] we do a lot of rehearsing to figure everything out—reconstructing and trying to get it to work. And sometimes a song just doesn't work for the live setting. There is usually a song or two per album [that never makes it to the live performances]. We're hoping that [with] this album we're going to be able to do every song. Literally, the next thing on our schedule is to start rehearsing and reinvent the songs for the live setting. Some of them will sound very close to the originals and some of them will be a whole new vibe.
Painted Ruins will be available through RCA Records starting August 18th.
Splash photo via Tom Hines