Ed Droste is settling into the bar of his east London hotel with his Grizzly Bear bandmate Daniel Rossen, to attempt to explain their sky-rocket of a year. All but unknown this spring, the band's third album Veckatimest went straight into the US Top 10 and UK Top 30. Their fans include Paul Simon, Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, who giddily announced on-stage that they were his favourite band, and Jay-Z, who attended their free Brooklyn show last month with Beyoncé and, watching the 12,000 crowd, announced: "they can push hip-hop back a little bit." The only question about their appearance in 2009's end-of-year polls is how high in each Top 10 they'll be.
Grizzly Bear are climbing the low rungs of the sort of success that has crept up on such unlikely bands as Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse and Fleet Foxes. Watching them play a stagecraft and mystique-free London show recently, the crowd's rapt attention was purely for Veckatimest's music: a tautly arranged yet dreamy, mature variant on Brian Wilson's "teenage symphonies to God". Not that this band would make such grandiose claims. "We were only in the Top 10 the first week," Droste guffaws. "It's really a product of people buying less records, and indie bands having strong fan-bases. Top 10 by default! It just looks cool!" Adds Rosen: "Jonny's been very supportive, he wore a Grizzly Bear T-shirt he bought from the merch stall [while they were supporting Radiohead on tour]. But I wonder when he said that whether he thought it would be captured on YouTube. I don't think we're really his favourite... "
The sense of space that adds spectrally powerful dynamics to Veckatimest's intricacy was achieved by playing together in interesting rooms. Recording began in a luxurious 1920s mock-Tudor estate in upstate New York, moving after the Radiohead tour to Droste's grandmother's house on Cape Cod, and finally a New York City church. "We recorded it in a living room half the time," notes Rosen. "We could never do records in a studio. We have to be hanging out somewhere. A lot of it does still feel fresh to play, because we'd get a song down within days of thinking of it. It made this record really wide open."
Both the Grizzlies with me (drummer-producer Christopher Bear and woodwind/bass-player Chris Taylor are elsewhere) come from aesthetically intellectual backgrounds. Droste, droll, and prone to prefixing words with "super", is from a family of Boston academic liberals, where classical music, folk rounds at the piano and the "occasional random country album" were the norm.
"I didn't have any cool listening habits," he considers. "From nine to 12, I was listening to the Top 40. My first big concerts were Madonna, U2, Janet Jackson. It wasn't until we played with Radiohead in Japan that I went to another stadium show. It reminded me of being 12 again. Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville [her 1993 female response to the Stones' Exile on Main Street] is what I obsessed over at 14. I listened to it probably 1000 times! Because, one, I was in the closet, and there's a very strong female talking about sex – cool. Two, there's a lot of melancholy in the songs, with a rough sandpaper voice. I liked how confessional it was."
This year has seen Droste become the object of such adoration, especially online. "The internet is really insane," he says, "because you could go after every show to see what people are saying – there are flash-reviews. But then you get touching notes from really far ends of the world. You've touched someone and meant the world to them, came to their town and they've said so. I love young audiences. Super-wide-eyed with genuine excitement that I certainly don't have any more. I can't imagine our fans being as obsessed about us as I was about Liz Phair. But I guess it's possible."
Droste was distracted from his dream of a career as a New Yorker essayist and novelist by a bad break-up that inspired Grizzly Bear's debut Horn of Plenty (2004). "Being single, depressed, brooding – the cliché bedroom thing," he recalls, miming violins. "I was feeling weird frustration and needed to get something out. I remember in high school wanting to write songs – I just found a journal from those days, and they were really bad. But eight years later, I found that this is what I want to do. Capture sounds, and put them over. I could visually see myself dragging these things over. There was no intention of a career, ever. I didn't think anyone would care. And actually, the first record, no one did. It sold, like, 1000."
Droste and Bear made Horn of Plenty alone. Rossen, a Hollywood "jazz kid and music nerd", was one of the few to notice. "I remember when I first heard that record I was really impressed, thinking: there's all this wild layering, but it's cluelessly intuitive. Not like charming, though, really textured. You were so off the cuff. That record's why I joined the band. It's true. I've never revealed it to you..."
Rossen and Taylor completed the quartet for follow-up Yellow House (2006), a woozy, hazy template for the sound that would cohere into Veckatimest. "My grandfather was a director," Rossen says of his roots. "And ever since, that side of my family is obsessed with following in his footsteps. Everyone after that tried in some way, and most of them failed, and I decided it was some kind of curse. Then when I went to school I decided there's no point in being a jazz musician either. By the time these guys found me, I was living in Brooklyn, recording bizarre demos and doing shit temp work. I was spending all my spare time making songs. But I didn't think I was going to do anything with them. I was a hermetic kinda guy. I'd work a lot for a month, and then just pay my rent and live on cans of soup, and record with weird musicians. Music became like a secret thing. I didn't tell my parents. They didn't realise I was playing music until I joined this band and started touring. I was terrified of performing by that time."
"We both are," Droste considers, finishing another beer. "To this day, I don't know how to talk to the audience. There's no swagger... "
Rossen's childhood love of Gil Evans' semi-improvised jazz orchestrations wasn't wasted. On Veckatimest he's a jazz kid again. "It's really obvious on songs like "Southern Point"," he admits. "And we were listening to a lot of Duke Ellington on "I Live With You". I met Chris Bear on a jazz [college] programme, he's an unbelievably amazing jazz drummer. I had to be part of this band. Playing in it, I've learned so much."
Grizzly Bear are a band where emotion comes from a brush of woodwind or artful harmony, not confessional lyrics. ""I Live With You" is role-playing," considers Rossen. "Taking a kernel of a feeling you're having and turning it into - not a joke, but a caricature. It's this angry drunken love song - like '50s bravado. It's not real."
Grizzly Bear's academic backgrounds – Droste's experience of Europe before playing here was a modern Grand Tour, backpacking to see our art treasures – can be seen in the precision of Veckatimest's swiftly shifting arrangements. Thrilling recent single "While You Wait for the Others" (sung by another fan, Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers on the B-side) abandons the occasional fussiness and reserve to chisel a hard pop diamond.
Rossen recognises this evolution in himself. "When you get really into jazz and technical music, it takes over your frame, you can't do anything free," he remembers. "I didn't think I ever would write songs. It's been a kind of release. The first people I tried to rip off were Elliott Smith, Nick Drake – very tender. When you're 19 and discovering depression, they're pretty interesting! But I'm not that way any more. Especially on this record. There's not a lot of that depressive energy in general. Grizzly Bear got me out of the house? It's true."
Rossen and the once lovelorn Droste dumped their old, low thoughts for the sunny, soaring Veckatimest. They're still climbing, with one of the records of the year.
Grizzly Bear play Bristol tonight (www.grizzly-bear.net). A special edition of 'Veckatimest' is out on Warp Records now.Reuse content