Following in the footsteps of Hole and Spiritualized, Grizzly Bear are the latest in a long line of bands to interpret ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)’, written by Carole King and renowned songwriter Gerry Goffin in 1962 as a response to singer Little Eva’s defence of the domestic violence she experienced at the hands of her boyfriend.
As Daniel Rossen, Ed Droste, Chris Taylor and Christopher Bear close their show at Bristol’s Anson Rooms with their interpretation of the song, it takes on a new meaning similar to that inferred by former Sleater-Kinney luminary Carrie Brownstein about Bon Iver’s debut album – “it’s like being punched in the heart, in a good way.” Grizzly Bear are a genuine example of the sum being greater than its parts, particularly live – their awkward, almost broken-sounding chord transitions combine with visibly manifested classical sensibilities and perhaps the greatest group male harmonies since the Beach Boys to create an otherworldly experience, one whose urgent, crashing punctuations deliver an indescribable emotional blow. Laura Snapes met bassist and multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor before the show to talk orchestral accompaniment, essential classical composers and finding yourself caught off guard by your own music.
Did you get to see any fireworks last night?
Yeah we did see some fireworks, we saw some kids… we were at another university, Leeds, and kids were setting off fireworks. I researched a bit about the holiday, trying to figure out what it’s about. We have fireworks on 4th July on our Independence Day from your fair country!
So you played with the London Symphony Orchestra last week at the Barbican – how did that come about? I know Nico Muhly did the arrangements for you.
We did a thing with the Brooklyn Academy of Music symphony there, and actually this guy we’ve known for a while came through to see it and he’s actually the programmer at the Barbican, for events, so he came through to that show to see it, liked it, and suggested that we do this. So we did!
There seem to be quite a few bands doing this at the moment – you mention the BAM, who worked with Sufjan on that amazing ‘BQE’ project, and it was recently announced that Dirty Projectors are playing with the LA Philharmonic at the Disney Hall in February..
We did that – I wonder if it’s… Yeah, we did that.
Do you think these spate of indie bands working with orchestras is a raising of ambitions, or maybe a counter-movement against much of the indie music that’s come recently? Bands seem to be continually raising the bar.
Well… A lot of these organisations contact the bands, so from my understanding it’s more of their attempt to bring classical music to a younger audience, it’s not like we go out searching symphonies! I don’t think Dave Longstreth from Dirty Projects wrote an email to LA Phil’ and said, “Hey, will you guys play with us?” They asked us, it’s a really cool thing. I played in symphony for eight or nine years and there’s so much amazing classical music out there that no-one ever checks out, they just know like, Vivaldi, Mozart, maybe they know Bach and Beethoven, but generally it doesn’t seem to go farther than that, because, oh man, there’s so much cooler stuff that would be really great if people knew about it. So I think it’s just their attempt to do that, to revive the classical music world a little bit by bring in a younger audience to meld the two together and stuff.
I think for this London show, more specifically, it was actually the promoter’s sort of vision, to, I don’t know, to just see it. I know he’s a fan of the band. He actually used to work for a label which was one of the first labels that tried to sign us. We had a meeting with them a long time ago, then years later he shows up and he’s the promoter and the events director at the Barbican, so it’s weird the way that all turned around. I think that was more his interest in music. That’s a really long-winded answer, but I don’t think that raising the bar really has anything to do with it.
You mention people’s lack of knowledge of classical music – I’m as guilty as anyone else for knowing of the really old composers that you just mentioned, and then nothing in between up until this new wave of young classical composers – Nico Muhly, Peter Broderick, the European vein with Hauschka and so on – who else would you recommend?
Oh we don’t even have to go that far! Nothing I mentioned is even within the last 200 years, so there’s an amazing wealth of 19th and 20th century composers – you know, anyone from Wagner to I think some people know Stravinsky, Debussy, there’s Bartók– these are the big ones, and then going up to wherever you wanna draw the line, but Stockhausen with electronic music, which very much to me feels like an extension of the classical music genre that reached into electronic music. But I mean there’s Alban Berg, oh man…! There’s so many! Those are the heavyweights; there are others that I’m forgetting. Those would be really important to check out.
Have you listened back to a recording of the show since?
No! I’m really, really excited about hearing it. I’ll probably be mixing that in February or something, so we’ll just have it for ourselves to give to friends, show the grandchildren. To hear what it sounded like for us too, because we don’t really know.
The critical reception for the show was really good – I read Ed, I think, saying that he used to read press but doesn’t any more, but he was retweeting links to reviews of the Barbican show – was the reception to something like that more important to you than usual?
That’s not true?? Oh my god! Hahaha, did he say he didn’t read press?! I actually don’t read press! I just worried about it. I don’t really keep up with that kind of stuff. I find it kind of bad to read, because it either pumps you up or deflates you. It’s really not good for someone that’s trying to be creative to have…unless you really don’t care, at all. But then if you really don’t care, then why are you reading it, because that would just be self-indulgent, really. Right?
You get to tour with some really great bands – Beach House and St Vincent, for example. How do you know those guys?
I came across Beach House’s album years ago, their first one, and I was really, really excited about it. I went up and introduced myself, and told them that their music meant a whole lot to me, and then a little while later I was trying to show the band, and they weren’t listening to me, and then they finally came around and checked them out, and everyone decided that they love them. We asked them to go out on tour with us, and we became friends after going out on tour. And now I consider us really close buddies!
I saw you at Green Man when Victoria (Legrand, Beach House vocalist) came on to sing ‘Two Weeks’, that was beautiful.
Oh yeah, yeah! We like to have her sing with us if it’s a possibility, that was fun.
Their new album is supposed to be a drastic departure from what’s come before – have you heard it?
I’m just going to say it’s amazing and hopefully it blows people’s heads away, in the best, most friendly way!
And how do you know Annie (Clark, aka St. Vincent)?
We liked her music and so we thought it’d be awesome if she’d be down to come out with us, which she was! So we’re very lucky because she’s great.
Orchestras aside, live you always seem to take real pride in rearranging your material. What’s the process from getting an album from record to the stage?
Basically the arrangements on the record, sometimes we can play live a lot of the songs from the album that are truer to the recording. Stuff from Yellow House – a lot of it was written in the recording process and never was actually played, so when it came time to actually play the songs we had to really change around the arrangements to make it do-able, I guess. Just because there’s so much layering sometimes that would happen on Yellow House or whatever – four people can only do so much! We had to figure out what four pairs of hands to do.
Ed said that you’d never play ‘Central And Remote’, ‘Reprise’ or ‘Campfire’ again live unless you have an orchestra – is that why?
Yeah, they’re really silly for four of us to play! It really doesn’t work. It’s so much based on arrangement; it’s not like a song song. Neil Young songs can be stripped down to be just Neil Young, and that’s amazing, and those songs aren’t anything close to that, not at all. It’s a limitation to the song – they’re more recordings than songs.
You guys had three or so entries in Pitchfork’s decade charts – what does that kind of recognition mean to you?
In the what?
You had two entries in their 500 best songs of the decade and an album in the 200 best albums of the decade.
Oh. I didn’t know.
It seems like they were quite culpable of fanning the fires of gossip when Jay Z and Beyoncé came to your show…
It was really cool that that happened, but at the same time, I don’t really need people gossiping about it. It doesn’t really do any good, I don’t think.
This might be taking it a bit far, but I interpreted it as some people being almost subconsciously racist that people were so surprised to see him at one of your shows.
Hmm… That’s probably going too far. I think the novelty of it was that one, it’s not only one of the most famous musicians in the world, but two of them! And then from a different genre as well – so I think it was an open-minded nod from another genre.
That’s a great compliment he paid you too, about indie having a lot to teach rap.
Yeah, that was amazing. I couldn’t believe it – I’m such a huge fan, I remember thinking a lot about hip hop and R’n’B when producing this last record, and really trying to get as much of that to work without sounding forced, and I don’t think it comes across but, whatever, the fact remains.
What kind of stuff were you listening to?
To rhythms, more steady rhythm, heavier drums and stuff like that.
The heavy rhythms live really add to the transcendent feel of it all. I read one of you saying that you don’t think you’re really suited to playing festivals…
I don’t think it was me who said that, but yeah, I don’t know, I think there’s a lot of bands that could say that, but they’re still perhaps trying to pull something off that’s fun to watch. So just in general, it isn’t really an ideal place for music to be about the music, it’s not all about the music, you’re kind of playing a really, really chaotic dinner party at a huge banquet hall. Like a jazz band playing in the big huge grand ballroom whilst people eat and have cocktails – it’s sort of like that, but with way less clothes and more beer.
From what I can gather, and I don’t know and I don’t pretend to know, because I haven’t attended a festival like that as a spectator, but I feel like a lot of it is like the social aspect of hanging out with your friends, which is rad, and seeing bands that you like in a chill, kind of low expectation sort of way, and it’s more about fun and less about presenting your craft in an optimal environment. So I don’t know that we’re any less suited to it than any other bands that are playing festivals these days, but it’s fun, we definitely have fun doing it, it’s a different vibe. It’s not like going to a concert obviously. You’re camping, hanging out, running around with your friends. It’s fun, you’re having fun. It’s a lower pressure situation.
The emotion of your music produces a lot of group interaction at festivals that you wouldn’t necessarily get at a concert, like at Green Man this huge group hug started in one corner of the crowd, which built and built –
Yeah! It was amazing, there were guys crying, so much love between people who didn’t know each other, feeding off your music.
Oh my god. That’s so sweet! Really?! Jesus, that’s so sweet. So sweet! I don’t… I’m… I wish I would have heard about that, that’s great.
With that kind of emotion and your songs meaning a lot to a lot of people, do you ever get caught off guard by what you’re doing, like the emotion taking you by surprise – that of other people, or the original meanings of the songs?
Some of the songs in particular come from a very personal place, and I have been caught off guard thinking about it more than usual, and it does mess with me a little bit on stage. This kid sent us – he threw this little note on stage before a show the other day, and asked us to play ‘While You Wait For The Others’, and he had had a loss in the family that was the same… in a similar way to a loss I experienced in my family, and we dedicated this song to him. I remember playing through it and thinking about his situation and having been there myself, I was really choked up. It was really tough not to lose it a little bit – that was really hard. I wouldn’t say that it’s because our music is impacting me emotionally, more it’s just where it might be coming from, where it comes from can be… well it is close to home, and it’s a matter of whether you’re thinking about it or not to that completely having yourself open sort of way, you know? But yeah, I feel that what keeps playing the set interesting and fun for me every night is actually remembering where the songs come from, and presenting that story in whatever role I play in the band to help in presenting it. That’s the only way to keep the music sounding like, musically from the heart, is to think about where it came from or where you might wanna take it. That’s in your head, you know? These sort of inspirational cues. Because you’re playing the same songs every night, so to find a way to keep it refreshing for yourself so that it doesn’t sound dull to the audience. That’ll probably all be summed down into two sentences, but um…
When you come back to the UK in March, are you going to be playing anything new?
There’s actually no time to make any new material, we’re on the road until then. We actually have one month off in February, and I don’t think any of us want to see each other for that month! We’ll just want to have our own time.
This is just a silly question, but I wondered if there was a point until which that you had to have day jobs, and what were they?
Yeah, I had a day job. The last job I had was working at a coffee shop actually with Kyp Malone from TV On The Radio, and that was the last job he had. That’s where I met him and a lot of other nice musicians in Brooklyn. No-one else at the time had any other jobs, I don’t know what they were doing. I was making coffee, I make a really good espresso!
You’re doing Terrible Records, right?
I heard the one song you put out, which I really enjoyed, but it did seem to very much cohere with Grizzly Bear’s sound – what was it about it that made you set it aside and release it yourself?
Maybe it’s because I produce the band and that can be affecting of things and I also play a lot of instruments on the records. I had this song I wrote during Veckatimest and no-one in the band really liked it, so I decided to take it my own way. It’s just the first song I ever finished, it’s not a big deal. It took me like 16 years to finish a song. Not that song! But I’d been trying to write songs for that long and I just can’t do it. Just finishing it is difficult, I think I knock it down and think it’s garbage before I can ever finish it. That’s why I started producing other people’s records, because I can remove that responsibility, and now that I put my own music out there, it sort of in some ways my worst nightmare. Now I am under criticism, and I actually didn’t want that. I really am very disillusioned by this press and review thing. I think it’s really horrible. I think when people are finding themselves… I wonder if people find themselves in a situation where it’s like…all of a sudden, all of your shallow stuff dissolves and you think about, why did I hate on that person? All the mean things you may have done – did you really mean to do that? There’s just a lot of internet…
Do you mean the press and the internet?
Yeah, basically what I feared is what I’m dealing with it now, it’s going to be a further thing. That’s why I call it CANT because I can’t finish anything. Now it’s going to be even harder for me to finish a song because I’m under open fire and I don’t want it to be about that, and I just want to put out songs and share something that I thought I liked and thought was pretty. I didn’t want it to compete, I’m not a competitive musician at all, I hate that about music, when that side comes about. So yeah, it’s going to be interesting to see if I can put out more stuff.
Is that what you’re aiming towards or is the label going to be more dedicated to releasing other people’s records?
Oh yeah, yeah. Releasing my stuff was kind of half the reason. I was like – I like to make my own music, so if I’m going to release it I’m going to put it out on my own label. And then I thought, if I have a label, then I can other people’s stuff as well.
The B-side to your song was an Arthur Russell song, right?
Yeah, he’s like my favourite musician of all time, pretty much. I’m friends with the guy who puts out his records and I worked on the last Arthur Russell record (Love Is Overtaking Me).
Did you see the film about him that came out recently?
Yeah, ‘Wild Combination’. That’s a cool movie. He’s my favourite, and I asked Steve who puts out his records – me and him geek out over Arthur Russell all the time, and was like, man, it would mean a lot to me if I could maybe do a little split, to release a track. I’m trying to do a collection of all my favourite artists right now in this split 7” series – there’s going to be 20 of them – and yeah, Arthur Russell is my favourite and I thought it’d be a fun way to take it off. For me it was just a fun thing to do.
Have you got any more production work lined up?
I’m currently producing Jamie Lidell’s record, which will be done by mid-December, and there’s three EPs lined up for my label that are going to be excellent, I’m really, really excited about them.
You did the first Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson one right?
Yeah, and Kyp Malone did the new one.
Were you around during the making of it?
No, I wasn’t at all. I sort of edited it, they asked me to help edit – to line the drums up. The recording sessions were really messy, and basically I did a bunch of really tedious digital editing, cleaning – trying to make it not sound like a wreck. They were like, “it sounds like a wreck, can you help us out?” So I said, yeah, I’ll try, so I sat down at a computer for twelve hours and did what I could and had to call it a day. It wasn’t really a record that I really wanted to uh… It was very late in the stages.
How did you get involved with the first one?
He’s a friend, me and him, we were just hanging out in the backyard and talking about it, going over demos and sitting writing notes. Sitting in the sun… It was a really pleasant experience – his last one was a very dark experience, which is sad.
You said earlier that you’re disillusioned with the press and things like that – do you think that it’ll have any effect on the next record? Whether the acclaim for Veckatimest has added a weight of expectation to its follow-up? Do you think you’ll go away for a while before coming back with a new recording?
No, I think what’s going to happen actually is… I think that all the nice compliments that have been thrown around about Veckatimest – that really freaks me out. It’s just too complimentary, it’s not fair, it can’t possibly be true. I don’t know – I think I’ll care even less about what those types of people think.