Nine Songs: Grizzly Bear
The first artist who made a profound impact on Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen was Elvis Presley in his Jailhouse Rock period.
Rossen’s five-year-old self not only watched Elvis’s ’68 Comeback Special over and over, but re-enacted ‘The King’ at his peak. “I had this crazy phase where I dressed up like him and I danced around like him too.”
Elvis’s take on Rock and Roll may not have made the cut, but Rossen’s choice of pivotal songs, like Grizzly Bear’s music, traverse a vast array of genres, including classical, jazz, blues, samba, soul and heavy metal.
As we chat through his choices, Rossen explains the songs tell the story of the musical evolution of both himself and his Grizzly Bear bandmates Ed Droste, Chris Taylor and Chris Bear. “I’ve put them in chronological order, some of them are songs that we shared between us in our youth and others are closer to now.”
As Grizzly Bear prepare to release Painted Ruins, their first record since 2012’s Shields the songs reveal a love of the power of subtlety and immersion in music, songs that have the ability to transport the listener into another space.
“My Father introduced me to this, he was very passionate about culture, literature and music, especially jazz and classical music and he would take me to see it. I lived in L.A. and on the long drives home he’d put on whatever music he was interested in at the time and was always really passionate about it.
“I was a classical and jazz nerd when I was a kid, that’s what was around me and what I was learning about. My older brother started learning the guitar when I was about ten and I started then too, I got really serious about it and he sort of stopped.
“I’m of a generation where we really listened to records as records, I’d go extremely deep with symphonies and jazz records and this one was really major. It’s a piece of music that’s stuck with me since I was fourteen years old, it’s the harmonic sensibility in it, the drama and the way it paints this very intense, almost kind of landscape picture. There’s a mid-20th Century sense of harmony to it that’s stuck with me and I’ve continued revisiting it and referencing it in my mind as an example of really rich, really emotive writing, without any words whatsoever.
“It was my first experience of a deeply technical piece of music that was deeply emotional and accessed your emotional brain in a really intense and overwhelming way. That’s always been the goal, not to make music that’s cerebral, but to use your technical ability to channel something that hits your emotional brain and takes your entire brain over in almost a trance-like experience.
“This was the first piece of music that I heard that had that level of complexity, but it was still as affecting as a Beatles record.”
“I first met Chris Bear when I was fifteen. We were both at a jazz programme and he was the one person there that was frighteningly talented, just ridiculously talented, I was very intimidated by him.
“He introduced me to this and it was one of the first records the two of us bonded over. I didn’t see him again for a few years, but this record was something I kept with me throughout the last few years of high school and I always remembered this amazing drummer who introduced me to it.
“That first meeting with Chris Bear has been influential in my music and my life. We were all trying to be cool kids, trading on stuff that we knew and he had this record. There’s a wildness and a subtle funkiness to it, it’s functioning within the bounds of what the genre is but it’s pushing these tiny gradations of feeling. That’s what makes really good jazz really great, it sucks you into these funny little changes in the way that people are playing. It’s so human you feel like you’re in it, like you’re the person making it happen, it’s very physical.
“The playing on this is incredibly fiery, Elvin Jones is a classic player and I think Chris Bear’s drumming comes a little bit from his playing at times, but this record is a little bit outside of pure jazz. I feel in our band, and in Chris Bear’s playing, he’s always had that subtlety of feeling, you can play within any one genre, but there’s this lightness of touch and a really subtle dynamic going on.
“It takes knowing the right thing to find what’s good in jazz, it’s got a language and a history and it’s easy to hear terrible shit too, I get that. I remember riding around L.A in the back of someone’s car getting really stoned and listening to the whole record was like seeing colours, it was really intense and overwhelming."
“This is from Live-Evil, which is a really intense and brutal album, but ‘Little Church’ is a little three-minute moment that’s a really beautiful, otherworldly, disorientating and extremely contained song within a crazy, fiery record.
“It’s amazing what this pulls off in three minutes. The lead is somebody whistling in combination with a trumpet, there’s this moving, really melodic bassline and a crazy organ sound swirling around the entire track to this beautiful, almost Brazilian chord progression, but there’s no rhythm whatsoever. It’s so unique and I’d never heard that kind of tonality or sensibility.
“It probably relates more to the kind of songwriting that we do rather than jazz, it’s not really jazz, it’s closer to Brazilian music or like writing a ballad, but without words. It’s another one of those songs I’ve always come back to, I still refer and think back to it when we’re making records as an example of a certain kind of energy, vibe and intensity.
“It sounds like it’s on another planet, I couldn’t have imagined hearing anything like this before I heard it and as soon as I did it transported me in a way that I’d never experienced, it was like entering a dream world. That’s something I always think of as a goal in making music, entering a landscape, a dream-like state or trance, like accessing something outside of your own reality. I love when music can do that, it feels like you’re entering another reality basically.
“I first heard this when I was fourteen and when you’re that age the serotonin in your brain functions so differently, everything means so much more. Your brain chemistry changes over time, it’s still fun, but you’ve got to work a little harder to make it as fun as when you were younger, but because I still have that memory, I can kind of conjure the same serotonin rush it gave me as a kid.
“You learn to appreciate other sides of music as you get older, you can access the same kind of stimulation without it being this overwhelming serotonin blast.”
“This was a record that Chris Taylor or Chris Bear introduced me to in college. We were eighteen or nineteen in New York, they were studying music and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing! I was trying to be serious about linguistics but I was kind of bullshitting myself.
“I’d started writing songs but I was very secretive about it and didn’t take it seriously. I played them to Chris Taylor, he was probably the first person who heard anything I’d done, but I refused to admit to myself that I took it seriously in any real way. When I went to college I decided I wasn’t going to do music, because there was no reason for another white kid to play jazz guitar. I ended up finding songwriting instead and it became a different thing.
“This is a reference point we’ve talked about over the years, when one of us mentions this record, everybody knows what we’re talking about, we talked about it on Painted Ruins in certain places. The whole basis of the groove is built on an organ drum machine and the sound of it is very ahead of its time. It’s very groovy but it’s not beating you over the head, it’s an emotional tune that has this subtly danceable beating heart. There’s a soulfulness and dreaminess to it, it accesses the emotional part of you with this really pointed and tight rhythmic quality.
“We never wanted to approach music from a folky songwriter’s standpoint. Certain parts of our music have come out that way because of what we play, but it’s remembering what it was like as a teenager, being really into music from a players’ perspective and finding the emotional quality in that, trying to build something that’s soulful and hits you without beating you over the head. I love it when people can pull off that subtlety, where they’re barely touching the instrument but there’s this rhythmic quality to it.
“’Aht Uh Mi Hed’ is a touchstone that’s stuck with us, it’s an aspect of music that we really appreciate. We don’t actively strive towards it, but it never quite leaves our minds.”
“This is another record that I think Chris Bear might have found when we were twenty-one, twenty-two maybe, right before the band became Grizzly Bear. It’s a seven-minute, classic metal song with an almost Bowie-esque vocal delivery, it’s raging guitar music basically and I still love that kind of stuff. I had a deep metal phase as a kid, I loved Metallica and that kind of thing, but this is more in the Black Sabbath realm of heavy.
“I’ve got a really strong memory of listening to this with Chris Bear and Chris Taylor. We had this phase between nineteen and twenty-two where we kept trying to be a band but it never really worked out. It didn’t happen until they’d started Grizzly Bear, I was the last guy to join, but when we were bonding over music around then it started to make sense we’d play together eventually.
“We loved this song, it’s so classically heavy and cool and maybe it’s that, learning to appreciate music for what it is and not thinking about what it means, or if it’s moving you. It’s not cheesy or over the top, there’s a subtlety to it, it’s tasteful without trying or overthinking it.
“We saw Danava play a few times in tiny clubs and they were incredible We saw lots of super-heavy music between 2004 and 2006 and being around New York was amazing for that, even Animal Collective were like that then, you’d see these crazy, heavy shows that were super-energetic and vibrant.
“There’s not much documentation about this, but on our first couple of tours there was more of a heavier energy, musically it was much more improvised, frenetic and busy, closer to jazz. Our early live incarnation was somewhere between this and Elvin Jones, trying to channel this heavy energy.
“It’s another one of those touchstones we talked about a lot when we were younger, not that it really made its way into our music very much, we never really made full on metal, but there’s occasional moments where that energy creeps in.”
“For the rest of these songs we’re closer to now. My Father-in-law introduced me to this, he’s not a musician by trade but he grew up in the hippy era and was really into blues. He has all of these reference points, music that went totally over the head of my generation. The reference points from that period for my generation are a totally different set of people, Jimi Hendrix or music that even my Father-in-law didn’t know at the time, like the Jim Sullivan record that people are digging out as an undiscovered gem.
“I would never have discovered Charlie Musselwhite but for my Father-in-law. He was excited that I was a musician and we could hang out and talk about records, sometimes it doesn’t work and his taste will veer in directions that I totally can’t get into, but he’s introduced me to some great music that I love, like Professor Longhair records.
"I heard this in 2009, after Veckatimest and it was really striking because it’s so straight-up and straightforward. It’s the most minimal 6/8 blues tune and it’s very simple, the drums, organ and guitar line don’t change, the harmonica does the melody and a simple solo and that’s it. There’s these beautiful little contained elements, all the sounds are super lush and it’s another kind of subtlety, the attention to tone is so specific. It’s really elegant and hip, but in a totally different realm, a blues perspective from a totally different era, it’s like what Beach House would have been if they were a blues band in 1962.
“It’s not trying to do anything revolutionary, it’s just exactly what it is, great playing without trying to be great playing. It’s so personal and visceral and sometimes you really need that sort of music. It’s the simplicity and soulfulness, it’s so minimal and especially going into Shields we started talking about that more and more, having that sense of space.”
“Cartola is a salty, classic samba character from Rio who I don’t think a lot of people outside of Brazil really know about. I only found out about him through someone I know who married a Brazilian woman and he got super-deep into Samba and its history.
“Brazilian music has always been a part of what Grizzly Bear do, especially Tropicalia records, Marcos Valle and Gilberto Gil. All of that stuff has been part of our vocabulary since our early years and in the last couple of years after Shields, I started discovering and getting into straight-up Samba. It isn’t trying to be psychedelic, blast anything open or trying to be crazy, it hits you right in the heart and does exactly what it’s supposed to do.
“It’s not trying to blow your mind or anything, it’s just doing what people do in a Samba and it communicates so much. I know a little Portuguese, I don’t speak it well enough to know exactly what he’s saying but you can still feel the vibe and emotion of the song without knowing the words. There’s something so great about music that’s so straight-up in its own vernacular, that’s is exactly what this is and it’s just killing it.
“‘Preciso Me Encontrar’ is my favourite track on the record and it’s such a good example of what that music does so well, it’s really honest, as honest as you could possibly be, there’s absolutely zero pretention going on and it’s played beautifully.”
“I was introduced to this in 2009 by a friend of mine who is into super-heavy music and it’s one of his favourite guitar records. I’d never heard early era Fleetwood Mac and I still don’t know many people who talk about it.
“It’s from Then Play On, I think it was the last one they did with Peter Green and Danny Kirwan, there was always a rotating cast of characters in that band, people coming in, freaking out and losing their minds.
“I chose this because in the process of discovering Peter Green’s early music the touch he had as a guitar player was just like magic. I feel as a singer and a guitar player he’s become one of my favourite ever players, there’s certain kinds of tricks he did, especially on this song, that I’ve definitely ripped off, not the blues playing but this incredible soulfulness on guitar.
“I’m not in love with guitar playing, even when I was really into jazz I never liked guitar players, I didn’t care about it that much really. I’ve always wanted to approach the guitar from a perspective outside of just playing the guitar and trying to make it do things that the guitar can’t really do or pretending it’s something else.
“But Peter Green was one of these straight-up, incredible, super-expressive guitar players. He’s not the first name a lot of people talk about because it wasn’t always the most original music, but this song in particular is so specific to what they were trying to do at the time. They were starting to leave pure blues, it has this strange composition going on and the way it progresses isn’t super-standard, it wasn’t psychedelic exactly, it was edging into a world of music that was happening outside of blues at the time.
“Peter Green is such a soulful player, he has a unique quality I’ve never heard anywhere else.”
“This is from Laughing Stock, I wanted to choose something from this, Sprit of Eden or Mark Hollis’s solo record, which I love. Chris Taylor loves those records and when we were doing Shields I got really obsessed with them.
“I didn’t hear Talk Talk until after we made Veckatimest, maybe it was because ‘80s reference points weren’t fashionable when I was growing up. There’s something in the silence and space in this music that feels like it’s not made by a person, it feels like the record made itself.
"I guess that was their process, players would come in and do whatever they wanted them to do and then they took a piece of it and arranged things around it. I’ve always wished I could have been in the room when these records were made, just to see what kind of conversations were happening, if it was actually just a brutal process that they really didn’t enjoy to go through making them.
“There’s certain chord progressions on Laughing Stock and Spirit of Eden where you feel you just couldn’t write them, they sound like they emerged from nature, grew out of themselves and are eating themselves at the same time. With ‘Myrrhman’ especially there’s this weird turning chord progression that starts in the middle of the song, it never releases and it doesn’t let go, it’s moving around itself and imploding, with that quality of using space and silence as an instrument.
“It feels like something that no one person could play, it’s like a mystery. The more you make music you try to channel whatever that mystery is, where you don’t know where something came from or how it happened, it’s something that’s totally human but comes from nowhere and you don’t know why and these records do that so well.
“The more we do this the more I realise that whilst making music and listening to music isn’t the same thing, it’s not really that different. Learning to be good at making music involves wanting to hear what’s going on as if you’re a passive listener, rather than ‘I want to do this and I want you to like it.’ It’s not about trying to make someone like what you’re doing, it’s channelling whatever that Gestalt thinking is that allows these things to happen.
“This was a real touchstone going into Shields, not so much for Painted Ruins, but it’s still something I always want to get back to, because it’s a trance-like state that feels like it came from no one, it just came out of the ether.”