Now on their fourth album, Shields [Warp], Brooklyn psychedelic folk-rock quartet Grizzly Bear returned to
the church where the members previously recorded much of 2009’s
acclaimed Veckatimest. After writing retreats that took band
members from Texas to Cape Cod, Grizzly Bear reconvened in a space of
unhurried searching and sumptuous natural reverb to wrap up tracking.
With bassist/producer/engineer Chris Taylor’s three rack boxes of outboard gear and his computer rig in tow, the band laid down tracks for ten songs about finding renewed thrills in raw, pleasingly unpredictable overlaps. “I bring everything I have,” explains Taylor. “I might as well use it or get rid of it. And I need it all because I like a variety of timbres. It’s not about going for a unified, ‘creamy’ sound; I weave gear in and around the room and the band to create various characters out of instruments so that they work with and against each other in a way that’s dynamic.”
Make no mistake, the ecclesiastical surroundings offered a familiar enclave appropriate for an album of inward-looking journeys, but no preconceived gospel of how to write and record Grizzly Bear was being strictly preached.
“Every album is a different process, and our way of getting to whatever we end up recording even ends up being different on a song-to-song basis,” reflects drummer Chris Bear. “For this album, we just started floating demos around, passing them back and forth between one another, and it got to a point where we had quite a bit of stuff, demo-wise, to work on. At that point we went to Marfa [Texas] . . . and we did end up recording 10 or 11 things in various states of completion. But once we stepped away from it, we weren’t sure it was all working, so we had to reassess.
“In the past, songs would come from a specific person’s vision and be presented to all of us more or less in the form they were going to be when we got to recording them,” continues Bear. “However, a lot of what became this actual record ended up happening in a much more spontaneous and off-the-cuff way with all of us writing more together and people jumping in on ideas at earlier stages of the game.”
Splitting into every possible grouping at varying times and locations, Taylor, Bear, singer/multi-instrumentalist/band founder Ed Droste, and singer/guitarist Daniel Rossen mapped out nervy riffing, pensive chords, supple melodies, and a more forward approach toward vocals and drums. Writing for each other on Grizzly Bear’s most collaborative album to date, every member of the band made sure to leave enough uncertainty in each arrangement to allow each other to play with the depth, focus, and saturation in the tracks.
“I think something we’re always striving for, and a cinematic analogy is very fitting, as we think of the tracks in a very visual way . . . is the watery moments when the song dunks into the ocean, you lose some focus and you’re disoriented, and then you come back up above the water and it all tightens up again,” says Bear.
Awash in possibilities, Grizzly Bear took the initial sketches gathered from the New England sabbaticals and Southwestern sessions and headed back to Brooklyn to flesh them out. With the prime directive to go in all directions, Taylor set up for several months of exploratory recording to find and own a sense of density for plucked strings, burbling keys, and resounding percussion.
“I would say [2006’s] Yellow House was dense because it had a spirit of throwing in the whole kitchen sink, just trying stuff out all the time, overdubbing like crazy, taking one melody and having three instruments do it. But for this album we were really trying to have each instrument represent something distinct, and when you put all those parts together it’s both sparser and heavier than anything we’ve done.
“It feels almost myopic, but before if you have three instruments doing a melody it sounds a bit like a party,” continues Taylor. “Having the melody played by one instrument, it feels much more serious, more convictive, and that gives it a greater sense of density.”
To capture this dynamic friction and creatively manipulate frequency hype, Taylor uses a collection he describes as “big-sounding preamps and small-sounding preamps and sh*tty-sounding ones, gritty-sounding ones, and tube-y-sounding ones.” With Pro Tools HD and a Mytex Digital 8x192 Series AD/DA at the core of the signal chain, Taylor swapped in and out a Neve BCM 8-channel sidecar console (lovingly overdriven), Chandler TG Channel MKII, and LTD-1 preamp/EQs, Thermionic Culture modules, including the Culture Vulture distortion/enhancer and Phoenix compressor, a Retro Instruments Sta-Level compressor, an Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor, and more.
“The post-production phase doesn’t exist for me,” explains Taylor. “I don’t think, ‘Oh, I’ll put some effect on that later.’ I avoid plug-ins. I don’t want to construct an arrangement without knowing the luster, size, and personality of an instrument, so you can know what role it will serve and what space it will require.”
The exception to this rule (which, like all Grizzly Bear rules, is only as concrete as the current instance calls for) is Taylor’s use of a Nagra portable audio recorder. It had its tape physically manipulated in a pseudo-post-production capacity (or played like an instrument, if you prefer) to create a variable swell of “glassy, sparkly, crashy, thrashy” clutter, an eroding shimmer effect heard on bombastic opening track “Sleeping Ute.”
Along with swapping preamps and compressors, Taylor draws from a signal-processing arsenal for colorization that includes various Electro-Harmonix, Univox, and MXR pedals and rack units. One of Taylor’s most evocative effects, however, is to utilize the naturally reflective façades found in such settings as a church sanctuary. With an array of mics that includes the Shure SM57, a Neumann U 87 set to various polar patterns, some Microtech Gefeil M930s, a large-diaphragm Curtis Technology condenser, and a beyerdynamic ribbon microphone, Taylor used the room to his advantage.
“We don’t set up gobos or sound abatement . . . we just look for ways to pull multiple spaces and different reverberant surfaces from the one space,” says Taylor. “For instance, there was a hexagonal lamp in the church and we set up our instruments at the right distance and miked it on a specific angle to pull this bright reverb out of the church, but it’s softened and tamed by using a little dark ribbon.
“And I definitely like a 57 on wood surfaces, because it has a boxiness to it that’s harsh in a good way without being too detailed,” he continues. “I set that up on a pew about 10 feet away, and I’m always looking for more ways to make a tone more spacious but without it sounding like a diffused cathedral. And if you want a little of that, you just point a mic out into the church. Whatever is appropriate for the song—wet, dry, distorted, emptied out, or epic—I pit a little of all of it against each other in the mix.”
Sculpted through conscientious proximity, volume, and placement to manifest songs within songs, Shields clusters realistic responses into woozy, meditative, unforced chamber-pop that takes journeys without distancing itself from the listener.
Tony Ware is a regular contributor to Electronic Musician.