Artists in residence
How a yellow house in Watertown became a creative haven for Brooklyn indie band Grizzly Bear
In Watertown is an old yellow house with a spacious, sun-drenched living room. The house is filled with antiques and generations of photographs. It's home to musician Edward Droste's great-grandmother's turquoise Steinway piano. And in the summer of 2005, for one month it became home to a quartet of Brooklyn hipsters bearing guitars, drums, amps, and electrical cords. Droste, Christopher Bear, Christopher Taylor, and Daniel Rossen left their urban apartments behind and came here to make an album.
The lo-fi indie-rock band Grizzly Bear, which plays a sold-out show at the MFA tonight, quickly settled in. "There was so much equipment around, you could barely walk," recalls Di Droste, Edward's mother and owner of the yellow house, in her living room on a recent Sunday afternoon. A former music teacher, she bought the house shortly before Edward was born, and raised him and his brother here.
Droste and his bandmates wrote songs and experimented with sounds, and soon they had what they were looking for: a collection of whispery vocals and quiet melodies that reference the likes of Elliott Smith and Nick Drake, punctuated by crackling distortion reminiscent of bands such as Guided by Voices and Slint. The album was released on the UK-based Warp Records in September 2006. The band called it "Yellow House."
It's a fitting name -- listening to "Yellow House" feels like sitting in Droste's living room, beside the slowly ticking grandfather clock, watching four musicians add swirling, distorted layers of piano, drums, and strings to songs that Droste and Rossen wrote.
" 'Yellow House' is a debut for us as a four-piece," says Droste, on the phone from Brooklyn. He prefers working with Rossen, Bear, and Taylor to working alone, he adds. "I like having them challenge my ideas."
Grizzly Bear was originally a solo venture for Droste. If "Yellow House" was a living room project, then Grizzly Bear's first album, "Horn of Plenty," could be described as a bedroom project. Over the course of 15 months, Droste recorded 35 songs in his apartment in Brooklyn. "The songs definitely represent the end of a relationship and the start of a new one," says Droste. "It started out not even really as a project. It was just something I was doing because I was learning Pro Tools," a software program for audio editing.
It may not have started as a project, but it soon turned into one. Droste recruited drummer Christopher Bear (his name's a coincidence) for the recordings, which he then sent to Brooklyn-based indie label Kanine Records.
"Since it was just [Droste] recording solo, we thought it was only going to be a cool little bedroom project," says Lio Kanine, who co-owns Kanine Records with his wife, Kay. "As soon as Chris joined, the bedroom project disappeared and Grizzly Bear bec ame a real band."
But a band's not truly a band till it can play live. Droste, who had gone to NYU, contacted two former classmates, bassist Taylor and guitarist Rossen, and asked them to join the group. By the time Kanine put out "Horn of Plenty," in November 2004, Kanine says, larger labels were already interested in producing Grizzly Bear's next record.
"We knew that they wanted a bigger label and were honestly getting too big for us at the time. I helped them by contacting many great labels that Kay and I were friends with," says Kanine.
Droste also generated more buzz for the band by enlisting electronic musicians such as Jimmy Tamborello, of Dntel and the Postal Service, and Owen Pallett to create a remix album of "Horn of Plenty."
"I like remixes for different reasons," says Droste. "I like being able to dance to a song of ours."
Pallett, the man behind the solo project Final Fantasy, has done string arrangements for Canadian indie band the Arcade Fire. He created a version of Droste's song "Don't Ask," adding strings and snare drums and replacing Droste's hummed chorus with horns playing the same melody. Pallett says the process came easily to him, "largely because of the strength of the material."
And that's something Droste was aiming for with his second album. "There's a much more detailed quality to it," he says.
Unlike many singles-oriented pop creations, "Yellow House" is best experienced as a whole. Each track functions as a movement of the entire album, and within each song there are separate movements. "On a Neck, On a Spit" features a series of starts and stops, alternating layers of vocal harmonies and acoustic guitar, before escalating to a final powerful ending. "Marla," a song Droste's great-aunt wrote in the 1930s, is a beautiful, textured combination of booming bass, eerily sweeping violins, and barely-there vocals.
"The songs sounded so massive, yet they were simple melodies," says Simon Halliday, the A&R representative for Warp who signed Grizzly Bear . "I fell in love with them quickly."
The album's release brought the band critical acclaim, but music bloggers had already been praising leaked singles for months. Droste is not only conscious of the leaks, he celebrates them. "I'm fine with giving away music if it means more people will listen," he says. Droste says he finds most of the music he listens to by reading blogs; he also maintains his own blog on Grizzly Bear's website, grizzly-bear.net .
Nearly five months after the release of "Yellow House," Grizzly Bear has sold out shows weeks in advance, appeared on critics' best music lists for 2006, and inspired artists such as Girl Talk to remix songs from the album. Grizzly Bear is busy, Droste says, touring and working on new material. Still, the band is never too busy to visit the yellow house.
"They always stay here when they're in town," says Di. "I love it when they're here."