From left, Christopher Bear, Chris Taylor, Daniel Rossen, and Ed Droste looking happy and healthy.
If the creativity of any living creature could be seen, what would it look like?
Last year, the indie-rock quartet Grizzly Bear released a hit record and sold out Radio City Music Hall. But forget about renting a private jet. Some of them don’t even have health insurance. Welcome to the new rock-star economy.
Grizzly Bear’s music videos have this habit of depicting the band members as suffering, blank and deadpan, through conditions that do not appear comfortable. In 2007’s “Knife,” they’re seen sinking stoically into quicksand. For 2009’s “Two Weeks,” they sit like a row of ventriloquists’ dummies, sporting creepily docile grins as their heads distend and explode with light. Now Kris Moyes, the owlish Australian director who’s shooting “A Simple Answer,” has brought them a sinister pile of props, including surgical scissors, electrodes, IV tubing, and a curved linoleum knife that becomes truly terrifying when you remove it from a home-improvement context and place it in a medical one. Today Moyes needs to photograph someone from Grizzly Bear taking a razor blade and excising a piece of his own skin.
Ed Droste, one of the band’s singers, has a long aquiline nose and a sardonic gargle of a laugh, which is his initial response to this development. “I do have a scab we could pick at,” he offers, exhibiting the back of one hand.
Moyes seems pleased with it. The video, he says, is about “extracting creativity—if the creativity of any living creature could be seen, what would it look like?” So he’s arranging “extractions” from the band members’ bodies: hairs being plucked, nails clipped, tears shed. The storyboard sees him zooming into that material to see all manner of creative energy fizzling inside. A nurse arrives tomorrow to draw blood, about which bassist Chris Taylor, who has a fear of needles he’s eager to confront, seems sort of pugnaciously psyched. Drummer Chris Bear, who has an extraordinarily sweet and peaceful air about him, spent early afternoon wandering sweetly and peacefully around the set in an inflatable neck-traction device.
It’s not much of a set, for the record: Only eight people, band and magazine tagalong included, in a house in the woods near Germantown, New York, where the neighboring drive sports copious signage regarding private-property ownership, and you experience that upstate hyperdensity of deciduous trees that makes you feel like the planet must be all set on deciduous trees for a while still. The most complex logistical aspect of the project is simply that four of the eight people present are named Chris or Kris, which makes things difficult if someone’s looking for a prop and you say “Chris has it.” Taylor recently left Brooklyn and rented this house with a friend. He seems to spend every single moment eagerly looking for something he could be doing, thinking about doing, or helping someone else do, so it’s not entirely surprising that his plan is to hole up here between tour stints and write a cookbook for Random House.
The shot is taking place around a small pond behind the house, the kind with the obligatory picturesque swing hanging from an adjacent tree branch. There’s much long and potentially grumpiness-inducing posing in the hot sun, which might explain why Daniel Rossen—who sings and plays guitar, and is pretty reserved and self-contained to begin with—is starting to look a little wilted. (Or why the band members are, at the moment, extending one another businesslike levels of personal space.) Rossen has reservations about the whole razor-blade concept, having known, in his teenage years, several cutters. He seems a little amused by where he’s placed in the scab-picking shot, too: standing at the base of a tall rock, handing a wooden brush to Taylor. While the scene’s being lit, there’s talk of that sinking-in-quicksand-while-wearing-uncomfortable-khakis portion of “Knife.”
“It was a Dumpster filled with water,” Bear explains, posing behind some leaves. “With perlite over the top that looked sandlike.”
“I hated that,” says Taylor. “I would much rather put a syringe in my arm.”
“I love that those are the only two options,” says Rossen.
At some point it begins to feel like this might take a while. The band members all happily double as crew, filling bags of smoke, stringing extension cords, holding reflectors. Three of them plan on driving back to the city tonight. In two days, they’re performing on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, then off to Knoxville to rehearse their show one last time in an empty venue. Their fourth album, Shields, will be released in six days, likely while they’re asleep on a tour bus. A week later, they’re home in New York to play Radio City Music Hall. Then 33 more shows, from here to New Zealand, most at 2,000- or 3,000-capacity venues, before November ends. Droste says he’s as energized as he’s ever been for the tour; after the vexing task of making sure everyone’s pleased with the record, they finally get to watch fans enjoy it. Moyes will continue shooting tomorrow, but “we don’t have time,” Rossen says with a sigh, “to hang out in the woods and cut each other for two days.”
The 6,000-capacity Radio City Music Hall fills with a cheery and stylish crowd of fans, and the band is welcomed, briefly, home. “This is surreal,” Droste announces as they take the stage. “Makes me think back to our first show, at Zebulon, in 2004.” Back then, he was too nervous to stand in front of an audience; the band sat for almost a full year. Now they’re on their feet on a grand stage, a system of eighteen cloth-wrapped lamps floating behind them like synchronized-swimming jellyfish, digging into the squall of guitars that closes a new single, “Yet Again,” or ending the evening with a gorgeously intimate version of the song “All We Ask.” Shields, meanwhile, is about to debut at No. 7 on the Billboard album chart. This is a long way from Zebulon, and certainly not a place an indie act from the cafés and warehouse spaces of Williamsburg could reasonably expect to wind up.
Still, the question of how “big” Grizzly Bear are—where they fall on the long scale between celebrity megastars and those unwashed touring-in-vans-for-the-love-of-it indie rockers whose days consist of, as Droste remembers it, “cars breaking down, sleeping on floors, being allergic to the cat in someone’s house, making literally no money, playing in a diner, having ten people show up, being like Why are we doing this?, eating beef jerky from the gas station for protein”—is a funny and unsettled one, and its answer might depend on your perspective.
Here’s some raw Grizzly Bear data for you to interpret on your own terms. They’re aggressively well regarded in indie-rock circles, and have been since 2006’s hushed, eerie Yellow House. When Pitchfork, the website whose audience has become a sort of metonym for “indie-rock circles,” held a reader poll to determine the top-200 albums since 2006, Yellow House placed at No. 105. Its successor, Veckatimest—an immaculate mix of naturalistic pop, highbrow Americana, and very fine musicianship—was No. 23. It was also a commercial success, debuting at No. 8 on the album chart and launching a single, “Two Weeks,” that bounced extensively through the larger public consciousness, its buoyant intro soundtracking a Volkswagen Super Bowl commercial and appearing in more films and television shows than some successful character actors do. The band’s had a song on a Twilight soundtrack, been repeatedly praised by Jay-Z, appeared on The Colbert Report, and opened for Radiohead. Veckatimest has now sold around 220,000 copies in the U.S., which is remarkable—most of the critically acclaimed records on indie-leaning year-end lists move more in the neighborhood of 30,000, or ten, or five, or barely one—but fewer than, say, Bon Iver’s last LP (over 350,000 last year), Vampire Weekend’s discography (both of their albums were certified gold, meaning over 500,000), the Black Keys (whose 2010 Brothers broke a million), or the English folkies Mumford & Sons, whose debut has sold about 2.5 million here, numbers well into Beyoncé territory.
For much of the late-twentieth century, you might have assumed that musicians with a top-twenty sales week and a Radio City show—say, the U2 tour in 1984, after The Unforgettable Fire—made at least as much as their dentists. Those days are long and irretrievably gone, but some of the mental habits linger. “People probably have an inflated idea of what we make,” says Droste. “Bands appear so much bigger than they really are now, because no one’s buying records. But they’ll go to giant shows.” Grizzly Bear tours for the bulk of its income, like most bands; licensing a song might provide each member with “a nice little ‘Yay, I don’t have to pay rent for two months.’ ” They don’t all have health insurance. Droste’s covered via his husband, Chad, an interior designer; they live in the same 450-square-foot Williamsburg apartment he occupied before Yellow House. When the band tours, it can afford a bus, an extra keyboard player, and sound and lighting engineers. (That U2 tour had a wardrobe manager.) After covering expenses like recording, publicity, and all the other machinery of a successful act (“Agents, lawyers, tour managers, the merch girl, the venues take a merch cut; Ticketmaster takes their cut; the manager gets a percentage; publishers get a percentage”), Grizzly Bear’s members bring home … well, they’d rather not get into it. “I just think it’s inappropriate,” says Droste. “Obviously we’re surviving. Some of us have health insurance, some of us don’t, we basically all live in the same places, no one’s renting private jets. Come to your own conclusions.”
Rock bands are generally obligated to express profound gratitude for any kind of success, and Grizzly Bear’s seems thoroughly genuine. They will also acknowledge that it’s “a weird life,” that it’s not always easy, that it requires a mix of sacrifice and raw compulsion and rigorous overhead-cutting, and that they sometimes wonder what they’d do if the band fell apart. Chris Bear is just now, for the first time, ceasing to handle management of their tours, though he still can explain the band’s accounting in detail, sounding almost guilty about any expenses that rise above a monastic level: The occasional hotel-room rental, he says, is so they can take showers, and the sound and lighting engineers are inarguable necessities. (“You can’t roll into Radio City and be like, ‘Yeah, just plug in my acoustic guitar and turn it up.’ ”) He and Droste go out of their way to stay in the top tier of an airline rewards program for the upgrades on long tour flights. (“I’m six-four,” says Droste, “and I don’t want to pay for business class.”) Sit down with the four of them, and you get the overall sense that the band’s high profile has taken them from ordinary early-twenties NYU grads—working as a temp, a caterer, a coffee-shop employee, and “the guy who edits out the coughs” in audio documentaries—to the early-thirties proprietors of a risky small business: very busy, stuck somewhere between “scraping by” and “comfortable enough,” and unsure how they’d ever manage to do things like support families or pay for any children’s educations, especially given the slim chances that this business will exist twenty or even ten years from now. “If your livelihood is in songwriting, you never know when that’s just gonna stop,” says Rossen. Now that they’ve reached success, they seem to wonder about stability. “There’s people that know they make X dollars a year, and that’s not going to change,” says Bear. “Or if anything, they’ll get a raise. That seems like a pretty reasonable setup, compared to maybe having one really good year, and then who knows what the future is.”
Where this new album, Shields, will take the band, career-wise, is partly a function of a whole unfathomable network of factors that Droste has spent some time pondering, for reasons that seem more academic than self-interested; if he weren’t making music, he tells me, he might try working at a label, out of sheer fascination with the process. Veckatimest’s chart placement, he says, was partly the result of an Amazon “Deal of the Day” price and a not-too-competitive release week; Shields’ feels “slightly more legitimate.” The commercial system, he says, is “utterly fascinating and infuriating at the same time,” particularly the unwritten rules governing what is and is not deemed playable on the radio, and his sense that radio is still about the only way to reach people who don’t spend time actively seeking out new music. “I’ve always thought we write pop music,” he says. “I think songs of ours could be on the radio. They’re not.” The question of which bands get traction in the smaller indie world strikes him as a bit arbitrary and mysterious, too, but that’s a hurdle the band’s already cleared. Now it’s poised somewhere between rock-critical acclaim and genuine crossover. “There’s a ceiling that independent artists hit,” he recently told NPR, “and the only way past it is radio.” And radio “still feels very much controlled by major labels’ ability to use leverage—you still have to have the muscle. Very few indie acts actually have breakthrough radio hits.”
Among fans and critics, at least, Shields is receiving a warm welcome. It’s been hailed as the record where Grizzly Bear “show their teeth,” and their songs move from pristine and knotty beauty (or, as a skeptical New York Times critic once described it, “suffocating fussiness”) into something more visceral and straightforward, with a sturdier pop backbone and more palpable emotional pull. This is part of the narrative beginning to accrete around the album: Proggy sophisticates unclench, kick up dust, slip into something more comfortable.
The band members themselves will indeed describe this one as more “raw” or “in your face.” But when I meet Droste for lunch in the West Village, he has some objections to the notion that any of this involves intent—that what the band does on a record is deliberate in that way. It’s not, he says. His precise response is the spoken word “eyeroll.” You can press him on this point, outlining the ways that deliberation and audience awareness can be a totally noble part of art, driving innovation in all sorts of genres and bands that see themselves as addressing a particular audience, not just doing their own thing and hoping an audience gathers nearby—but you will probably wind up feeling like what you’re suggesting is craven and artificial, a way musicians attempt to do what other people want, rather than what they themselves want, and then you will grow embarrassed for even mentioning it. “It can taint the songwriting process if you’re thinking about what other people are going to think,” he says. Even aiming at a format—say, sitting down to write a great pop song—seems unnatural: “If you go into it with that goal, I feel like what’s going to come out is some sort of turd. Some people come out with a turd that does really well, but …”
This is indie-band boilerplate, obviously: The whole idea is that it’s an art-minded, anti-commercial genre. The irony is that this is less and less how it looks to its audience. A robust machine of online press, publicity, and fan chatter—you can read more about Shields, from blog reviews to the Times, than you could about some platinum-selling pop-chart regulars—does the same thing 24-hour cable news does for politics, wrapping every event in a narrative so quickly that it’s hard to imagine musicians, who are reading the same Internet as everyone else, aren’t reacting to it. Last month, when the band Animal Collective followed up a crossover success with a left turn back to their experimental roots, Grantland’s Steven Hyden couldn’t help marveling at the gap between the optics of that decision and the casual “We just felt like it” explanations: “How can a band that has established a long, successful career—a near-impossible feat that requires more than a little self-awareness—not think about how it’s perceived?” he asked. “Musicians say this all the time in interviews, and it never rings true.”
Droste knows how his band is perceived, including by dedicated non-fans. They’re occasionally charged with being prissy, tame, or “polite”—a recent Slate review lamented that they’re “pale and incorporeal and non–punk rock.” Droste wonders, sometimes, if any of those charges have to do with his sexuality. He also has an extremely persuasive explanation for why the band isn’t consciously mapping out its musical development. “Just the feat of making an album that pleases everyone in the band is so much of an accomplishment,” he says, “that there’s no awareness of ‘We’re gonna top this, we’re gonna show the audience what’s next.’ To make it fresh for us is already so difficult that it’s almost irrelevant whether it’s fresh for the audience. We’re just so fried by the end—we’ve finally gotten to the point where we all agree this is cool. That’s the best we can fucking do.” The four of them describe finishing an album as, variously, “a process,” “challenging,” “not easy,” “exasperating,” “considered and reconsidered and you’ve got to please four people,” “a real journey,” and “infuriating and great at the same time.” Ask them who they’re thinking of when they write, and it’s not an end listener—it’s the other members of the band, who might dislike what’s been written, or lack anything to contribute to it, at which point it’ll be tabled. “Everyone has to have a fingerprint on every song,” says Droste. The whole thing sounds like passing major legislation through Congress.
“Maybe it’s a lot,” says Bear, “that we’re asking ourselves to all be four democratic voices on everything. Maybe that’s not common.”
It helps to imagine the band’s career in Darwinian terms. A decade ago, a thousand potential Grizzly Bears are born, in apartments and basements across Brooklyn. And one or two of them, perhaps, are naturally adapted to wind up someplace like Radio City.
This particular Grizzly Bear didn’t begin as a complex four-person democracy. It started with Droste alone, in the bedroom of a Greenpoint apartment, recording songs he didn’t fully intend anyone to hear. They were slow, spare, and simple, and the way he recorded them—blanketed in muzzy room sounds, noise and reverberation, layers of harmony—gave them a blurry, magical quality, as though he were conjuring them out of ether but could only get portions to fully gel. When he finally shared them with friends, one connected him with Bear, who helped with production and added a few parts.
The material’s audibly uncalculated; it sounds downright private. As of 2004, though, it had social currency behind it. For a few years, indie tastes and rhetoric had pulled toward brash, energetic, danceable sounds—sneery synth-pop in New York clubs, ambitious post-punk acts crossing over toward the mainstream. So when Grizzly Bear’s recordings made their way, via Brooklyn-indie samizdat, to Lio Kanine, who’d recently started a label with his wife, they “seemed like a breath of fresh air, and polar opposite to the disco-punk and electroclash scene popular at the time.” He wasn’t alone in that feeling: An interest had developed in woodsy mysticism and a style critics were calling “freak folk.” When Kanine Records released a collection as Horn of Plenty, the few people who noticed tended to lump it in with that trend.
First, though, Grizzly Bear would play shows. And Droste was not a performer. “I was scared of my own voice,” he says, “uncomfortable in my own skin. The whole thing was not meant to be public.” It was via Bear that the band’s recruits turned out to consist—significantly—of “ex–music nerds.” Bear had come to New York to study jazz performance at the New School, but he tired of classes that were just weekly improv sessions. His roommate, Chris Taylor, had been dead set on becoming a jazz saxophonist, until he met some of the players he’d idolized: “They just seemed bummed out,” he says, “and having a bad time. Trying to make music they cared about, but it didn’t seem that anyone else was caring.” Both wound up studying music technology at NYU; Taylor, for his part, figured recording was a more practical route to making a living—“You go, you get good at it, you can get a job in a studio.” Rossen, last to join, first met Bear as a teenager at a music camp in Illinois. “I think we all had an early phase of getting extremely deep into technical aspects of making music,” he says, “especially music that had nothing to do with rock or indie rock. And in our late teenage years we all tried to forget it. We didn’t really want it.”
They immediately booked their own shoestring tour, which is where all the democracy emerged: Three well-schooled musicians were sitting in diners, barns, and gallery spaces, improvising their parts around the vague template of Droste’s recordings, figuring out how to do the conjuring trick together. “Luckily,” says Rossen, “we started our career making ten-minute droning jams with loop pedals and singing out of our amplifiers, so we gave ourselves a good two or three years to repel audiences while we worked things out.” This is self-deprecating: If you’d caught their shows at this point, you might have seen what would later be tagged “fussiness” as a major selling point. Instead of plowing loosely through material the way a rock band might, they seemed to carefully coax each song into being. Taylor played woodwinds; he also owned a mobile recording rig and would become the group’s producer. Bear took up a manager’s role, simply because, he says, he happened to be the one who set up an LLC for the tour, in case there were profits to account for. (There weren’t.) Rossen’s a more prolific writer than Droste and has a very different voice, a harmonica to Droste’s French horn; he rapidly became a distinct part of the band’s sound.
For Yellow House, their first album as a group, they decamped to a home on Cape Cod owned by Droste’s maternal grandmother. (They recorded Shields there as well, during the off-season; the rest of the time, it’s booked up by relatives.) You can hear in it a band that’s freshly excited about the dynamics it can whip up as a foursome in an empty space. Many songs, like “Colorado,” are shaped like storms: A few phrases hover eerily into view, then roil around one another until they reach a peak, often a Rossen guitar lead full of thunderous slashes. The sense of conjuring remains. They shopped the album around and wound up signing with Warp—in part, Rossen says, because the English label was known for electronic music, a world away from “freak folk.” “I’m sure it was helpful,” he says of the genre tag, “but at the time I don’t think we understood that it was helpful. We were scared it would pigeonhole us, and then we’d be part of this trend that goes away, and then our career’s over.”
But nobody was calling them that anymore; the album was received as more or less sui generis. By the time the band headed to the Catskills to finish Veckatimest, they’d toured with Radiohead, whose Jonny Greenwood called them his favorite band. They’d also become, as Rossen says, “more and more interested in songwriting”—a handy gene, in that Darwinian view. Veckatimest, accordingly, is more crystalline and carefully shaped, very much written, not conjured. The Rossen-sung melodies, like “Dory,” wind ambitiously, with the rambling quality and surly thick skin of folk and blues; the Droste-sung songs, like “Ready, Able,” are elegant and carefully balanced. These days, there’s bandwide agreement that Droste has a firm melodic sense and an ear for pop; that Rossen’s more interested in “jazz-inflected, through-composed movements”; and that Taylor, as producer, pushes the band to experiment with sound and arrangements. But Rossen credits Bear with having started every one of the band’s singles—including “Two Weeks,” the motor of Veckatimest’s pop success. Bear figures this is because he’s not as skilled on guitar or piano, so his ideas come out more straightforward; he also says Rossen underestimates his own hooks, both for Grizzly Bear and his other project, Department of Eagles. At some point it becomes a tangle: A song on Shields I assumed was heavily Droste-driven turns out to have passed back and forth between members several times, with Rossen providing what had seemed like the Droste-iest part. And each member brings a remarkably broad set of tastes to the group: Talk to them long enough and you’ll hear about Shostakovich, Ahmad Jamal, Missy Elliott, Tortoise, The-Dream, Messiaen.
The balance of their different impulses, on any given album, really does seem to have more to do with the band’s internal processes than any vision of its effect on the listener. Take Shields, which seems to have been a stressful record to make. After years of nonstop momentum—recording two albums and side projects and touring constantly—the band took a six-month break. Taylor stayed busy, releasing a solo album as CANT on his label, Terrible Records. Rossen recorded a solo EP, wandered upstate New York, and got a bit ruminative about being a musician. (“I was checking in on what other people were making,” he says, “and feeling real distanced from it, like what I make feels really irrelevant now. Like I guess my ideas are just really old? Very mid-aughts now? I tend to stay in my own aesthetic world, and I was wondering if what I’m still interested in making has any real resonance with people, or if it’s really going to mean as much as it might have in 2007 or something. But even still, you just keep going and work.”) Droste saw friends and pretended he wasn’t in a band. When they convened to make an album at a rented house in Marfa, Texas, they didn’t have much success. “The moods have to align,” says Droste. “The personalities, the right timing, the right tastes, the right demos, the right everything has to come together at the right time. When it clicks, it clicks. But there’s a lot of times when things just don’t click.”
After more time off to work on songs, they regrouped in Cape Cod and spent three months working. The vague idea, Rossen says, was “maybe making the chordal ideas simpler. Pare it down, see if we can do that. Just sit on the couch, play chords, and see where it goes, try not to take it too seriously. Just let this thing develop on its own, in a more casual way.” Given those charges of fussiness, that urge toward looseness might be tempting to read as purposeful. But it’s also easy to see as a simple matter of getting the record finished. “Because we don’t really have a process,” says Rossen, “things can kind of carry on. So this time, we set a deadline. It might have gone on forever if we hadn’t.”
Part of why the indie-rock world bristles at calculation is that calculating your music’s effect can seem suspiciously like pandering your way toward success. And, perhaps, money. And in these parts, at least, audiences can react badly to musicians who acknowledge a relationship with money—whether wanting more of it, complaining about not having enough of it, or really doing anything other than being immensely grateful that people appreciate the work. Even if said people are stealing it. You will rarely hear an indie act complain about piracy; if they’re successful enough to care, they achieved that success in an ecosystem built on piracy from the get-go. But Droste will say that paying $9 for a digital download of an act’s new album—the price of “a fucking appetizer, a large popcorn at the movie theater, and you’ll have it forever, and they took two years to make it”—matters more than people seem to think, and not just in terms of income. “Maybe they’ll get on the radio. Every record sold shows the industry your value.” Meanwhile, streaming the album from a service like Spotify nets the musicians almost irrelevantly small amounts.
The band’s hesitant to talk about money at all. And after I talk to solo artist and former Hold Steady sideman Franz Nicolay about the rigors of his job—constant low-level panic over never having more than a couple of months’ worth of cash, rarely having health insurance, having to tour so often that you can’t take a break to write and record another album to tour for—he sends a quick explanatory e-mail: “I want to make clear,” he says, “because a lot of the response musicians get when they talk about the difficulty of the lifestyle, especially touring lifestyle, is of the ‘oh, boo-hoo’ variety, that I’m not complaining about any of it in any way that anyone wouldn’t grouse about their job. The smart lifer musician goes into it with eyes wide open, assuming it’s going to be a rewarding but difficult way to make a living.” When I go to a Williamsburg bar to meet Frankie Rose, veteran of a string of much-discussed rock bands, she’s just back from touring a solo album—her first stint without a day job—and already talking to the bartender about finding work. “I feel like if you’re in this at all to make money,” she says, “then you’re crazy. Unless you’re Lana Del Rey or something, it’s a moot point. You’d better be doing it for the love of it, because nobody’s making real money.”
This isn’t exactly news. But these days, instead of describing a visibly low-rent netherland of mimeographed fanzines, it describes a world where the songs might wind up in movie trailers or national car commercials. Musicians often find themselves in the position they occupied before the rise of the LP, working as accessories to other, more profitable industries: nightlife, advertising, film and television, “music discovery” engines, streaming services, press, social networks, branding. (Grizzly Bear once licensed an unreleased track to the Washington State lottery.) But these industries also require musicians to approach what they’re doing as an art—something with authentic, organic connections to style, aesthetics, and youth culture—not a craft to be dutifully plied for a living. And in a trend-driven art, success has a tendency to end.
Travis Morrison is one person for whom it ended—an ex–professional musician. From the mid-nineties until 2003, he fronted the D.C. band the Dismemberment Plan, which had a rabid following and briefly signed with a major label; after they split, he embarked on an ill-fated solo career. “I was making absolutely no money,” he says. “It forced my hand into some major life choices, which in retrospect I’m really appreciative of.” He’s now the director of commercial production for the Huffington Post and finds himself enjoying music in ways that vanished when it was his full-time job. “You get popular for a while,” he says, “and then you get kicked out of the game. That’s what happened to me, and if I have reason to complain about it, then so do tens of thousands of people who had some kind of success and then it ended.” As for the money: “You know how some people say, ‘I would really like to make a middle-class living doing the arts; I feel like I deserve that’? Honestly, I never felt that. I never felt like artists deserved a living. I feel like getting a million dollars for my songs is just about the same as getting it from playing a card at 7-Eleven.”
Droste doesn’t expect a middle-class living, but he wouldn’t mind one. “I’d like to someday own a house, and be able to have children, and be able to put them through school, in an urban environment that one enjoys living in,” says Droste. “A lot of people do it. And doing it through music is harder than doing it as a lawyer.” I ask him if Grizzly Bear, with all its success, offers the beginnings of that. “No,” he says, very quickly. “I’d have to keep doing this forever. But the biggest thing you can’t do is focus on money.” I ask how he’d feel if it turned out that pursuing music had prevented him from accomplishing any of that other stuff—would that be worth it? “Totally,” he says, also very quickly. Even the way I’ve phrased it, as a sort of gamble, doesn’t sit well with him. “It’s not a gamble. You’re doing it because you love it. I’m not placing bets on it, like, ‘I hope this works, because otherwise my unborn child …’ I’m doing it because I really enjoy it.”
But: “We’re all aware that there’s a history,” he says, “and our position in it could be very fleeting.” And: “We live in a world of blogs that are super-judgmental, and we’re not in the clear yet—we don’t have a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card. Once you reach a certain level of sales, and you actually hit radio, then I think it doesn’t matter. We’re not there. Mumford & Sons are in the clear—who cares what their reviews are? If you’re already selling a shit ton of records, selling out giant venues, it doesn’t matter.” Doesn’t Radio City count as pretty big? “Maybe I’m paranoid. I feel like people are so fickle, everyone can just turn on you so quickly.”
That’s leaving aside the question of maintaining the band itself. “This is one of those bands,” he says, “where if any member left, the band would end—there’s no replacing somebody. Luckily, I don’t think anyone’s in the mood to leave.” Much will has to be summoned to keep things moving. “We never know if we have another album in us. Can we do it again? It’s not like we can’t write more songs—I know we can all write more songs. Can we get to a place where we’re all stoked about an album? Where everyone agrees? That’s the question. That’s not to be doomed, it’s just … a question.”
*This article originally appeared in the October 8, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.