If there is something orchestral and old-timey about the music of Grizzly Bear, it might be due to osmosis. That's according to the band's singer and founder, Ed Droste. "My mother was a music teacher, and her father was a music professor. From as long as I can remember, they would gather around the piano and we'd sing old songs like 'A-Tisket A-Tasket.'"
Despite learning guitar in high school, Droste at first rebelled from his family's musical tradition. "I had written some weird, bad songs as a teenager, but I pivoted toward journalism. I got a job after college working for an audio documentary company. They'd have me dive into files to take out car noises and unneeded phrases, but it taught me Pro Tools."
Mastering that audio computer program piqued Droste's curiosity about what kind of music he could make, and journalism's loss was the world of art rock's gain. In 2004, he released those first songs into the world on the album Horn of Plenty under the pseudonym "Grizzly Bear." His recording label encouraged him to play live shows, but Droste knew the music he created could not be duplicated as a one-man band. So he called some friends from New York University. With guitarist Daniel Rossen, bassist Chris Taylor, and drummer Christopher Bear, Grizzly Bear went from a he to a they.
"We started touring on a self-booked tour, and there would only be ten people in the crowd. We all worked second jobs and we kept our expectations low," Droste recalls. "We hoped we could one day fill a 500-person room."
Over the course of their five albums, as they created quiet pop symphonies in the tradition of Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson, their fan base grew beyond those mild ambitions.
Their latest release, August's Painted Ruins, was two years in the making. "The band has had marriages, divorces, moving, and changes in the world climate since we last put out a record. Our lyrics are vague, but there are references to all of that, along with the chaos of life and how to make it work. In the song 'Four Cypresses,' we have a lyric that says, 'It's chaos, but it works.' That's probably the closest to a theme for this record."
Many of those songs have a sonic complexity that would seem difficult to replicate onstage, but Droste says they have found a way to stay true to the albums in a live setting. Fans and curiosity seekers will be able to judge for themselves when Grizzly Bear performs at the Fillmore Miami Beach November 16.
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"We tweak the interpretations of a few songs, but we try to do everything live. We have a fifth musician onstage who's like an octopus playing everything. We try to layer as much as we can and not use backing tracks. Why go to a show to see a band sing over their CD? It's cool to see people play instruments," Droste says.
That's the kind of philosophy that would seem to make the music educators in his family proud, but Droste says his mom is a tough critic.
"In the beginning, she said, 'I can't understand what you're singing.' I kept telling her, 'I try to enunciate. I try to sing clearly.' It took her a while, but she got over that."