Grizzly Bear Feeds on Psych-Folk

Let’s play a game of name-that-indie-act. Stop me when you know who I’m talking about: They’re a Brooklyn-based duo, recording fuzzy, repetitive psych-folk that sounds like it’s made to be sung and strummed by a slightly stoned campfire. Need a hint? The band is named after a large, hibernatory forest dweller. Those who paid close attention to 2004’s underground hype would probably buzz in within picoseconds. “This is obviously another spinoff from Animal Collective—the critically-acclaimed two-piece that dominated the ’04 with long-player Sung Tongs and a solo debut from member Panda Bear. Next question, please!”

Not so fast, Hipster #1. The band in question is actually Grizzly Bear, an un-Collective-affiliated act led by Edward Droste. The Watertown native, who wrote and performed almost all of Grizzly Bear’s debut Horn of Plenty, grew up listening to the Pixies and his mother’s Scottish folk records, not the Brian Wilson symphonies that other, trendier loopy psychedelic duo always seem to be pining for.

Besides, Droste doesn’t even think the Animal Collective comparison makes much sense—not that that’s stopped this bestial analogy from showing up prominently on Grizzly Bear’s own website.

“I don’t actually think that we sound that alike,” Droste tells me when I call him at home. “They have a much more frenetic energy to them. This is a little more languid, a little more mournful.”

Droste has a point: the tempo rarely rises above sleepy on Horn of Plenty. That said, the acoustic riffs circling around Droste’s slurred harmonies and minor-key melodies are easy enough to pigeonhole, weaving a fuzzily familiar cocoon as the songs’ structures wobble and repeat.

But a more thorough listen to the production on this album quickly banishes the need for any comparisons. The tape is saturated with a woozy, beautiful wall of sound—lo-fi, to be sure—that’s all Grizzly Bear’s own. “There’s a lot of sort of hissing and background noise [on Horn of Plenty] sort of just because I wasn’t pro at it,” Droste says. “I ended up just sort of keeping it.” The album was recorded, after all, in Droste’s small bedroom—but in spite of all this, somehow there was enough space to build a rich sonic layer cake.

You can hear Droste and fortunately-surnamed bandmate Chris Bear reaching into an endless closet full of found-sound bells and whistles, literal and metaphorical, piling on the codas and effects in ProTools, the not-quite-DIY producer’s best friend. “I’ll find weird things in my room to make a noise with,” Droste explains. Songs that began years ago as minimal guitar noodles or melodic whispers into the cheap hand-held tape recorder that he carries have been fleshed out into full-on psychedelic mantras on Horn of Plenty.

All in all, though, it's not quite freaky enough for “freak-folk.” For all his weirdness, Droste's instincts as a songwriter are a little too pop for the self-consciously offbeat genre/catchphrase every critic seemed to swoon over this past year. Just when Grizzly Bear’s aural molasses threatens to overwhelm, an endearingly lively instrumental break or jaunty Britpop bassline interrupts their hibernation dreams. “Fix It,” in particular, flirts with major keys at a non-somnolent pace, suggesting what these guys could do with a real studio budget.

Grizzly Bear began as a post-college hobby for Droste, until his friends talked him into shopping a demo to independent labels. Now Horn of Plenty is building buzz, and simplistic though they may be, all those pesky comparisons to indie flavors of the month can't hurt when it comes to getting signed somewhere bigger. In the meantime, the band (enlarged to four members) just embarked on a 27-date tour, featuring some rather caffeinated modifications to their style.

When they hit the stage of the Middle East Upstairs last Tuesday, Grizzly Bear’s indie promise loomed larger than ever, with untested psych-glammy numbers joining newly-rocking arrangements of songs from the album. Opener “Deep Sea Diver” was a case in point. After a minute or two of meandering keyboards and “Long, Long, Long” moans, the drummer started pounding, walls of feedback kicked in, and—are those power chords I hear? By show’s end, Droste and co. had brought out an oboe, a recorder, a flute, a xylophone and an autoharp—enough instruments for a ramshackle, Olivia Tremor Control-style psych orchestra, without the tape noise that covered the album.

As the decent-sized audience began clapping and snapping their fingers to the ambling, sometimes random beat, getting picked up by a bigger label seemed more than plausible for Grizzly Bear. Still, Droste says Grizzly Bear prefers to do things their own way. He’s hoping to secure a better deal for the band’s next project—right now, he explains, “We don’t really have distribution”—and he wants to get Grizzly Bear more listeners, but Droste isn’t expecting an instant crossover. “This music isn’t Franz Ferdinand style,” he says, accurately enough. “People won’t be like, ‘Whoa, we can totally dance to this!’”

If they do make it big, Droste is adamant that Grizzly Bear doesn’t want money to dress up their sound in an expensive studio. He does expect to have less tape hiss in future Grizzly Bear recordings, but only for reasons of artistic integrity. “That was a technique I used on the first album,” he says. “That was a chance thing then so it seemed sincere to me…if I did it now it would just seem like I was imitating myself to me.”

For now, the furry folksman—who’s spent time in Greece, Berlin, Zimbabwe and Morocco, among other places, in between his education in high school and at NYU’s artsy Gallatin program, from which he recently graduated—is focusing on the short-term.

“I need to have my license before we hit the road,” Droste explained after postponing our interview for a dash over to the Department of Motor Vehicles. “Otherwise my band is going to shoot me, because I can’t drive.”

Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at vozick@fas.harvard.edu.