Amid the relentlessly creative song-oriented drumming on Grizzly Bear’s 2017 album, Painted Ruins, the track “Aquarian” stands out as particularly percolating. It’s got the flowing, forward-motion feel of paradiddle-based phrases dancing by in spiraling patterns that might bring to mind a slower, more organic version of drum ’n’ bass. I imagined Chris Bear sitting at his kit and figuring things out precisely, finding exactly where, and where not, to place the little rhythmic curlicues that animate the beat. I sure was wrong about that.
“There are songs like ‘Aquarian’ that come a little bit more from an improvised jazz background, where it’s sort of turning around on itself all the time,” explains Bear, who as a student moved from the suburbs of Chicago to study jazz improv at the New School in New York City. “Live, I’m really just playing it differently every time, because I can’t necessarily re-create what the record was. Even the multiple takes we did were all a little bit different.” The album’s following track, “Cut-Out,” Bear says, stems from a similar approach.
It turns out that years of playing jazz and other improvised music is one of the things that makes Bear such an effective drummer for his group’s unique type of dreamy pop, which has never sounded more adventurous than on Painted Ruins. He clearly knows how to open himself up to channel any idea that comes to mind and shape it into something distinctive that works for the songs. Bear, of course, is eloquent in the language of rock as well, fully understanding the power of the backbeat and how to elicit the warm, deep drum tones that provide the perfect underpinning to Grizzly Bear’s quietly ambitious music.
On stage at New York City’s Brooklyn Steel last November, Bear was a focal point for the sold-out audience. Set up at stage left, with singer/guitarist Daniel Rossen, singer Ed Droste, and bassist Chris Taylor to his right, and touring keyboardist Aaron Arntz to the rear, Bear drew lots of attention simply by being a swinging, crashing, loose-limbed drummer; in a band that is not necessarily known for its spirit of improvisation in performance, he reproduced his album parts faithfully but also brought the feeling of spontaneity and fun. As he rode on his 1938 Radio King snare with his right hand while coming down on 2 and 4 from high above with his left, he was welcoming the audience into the world of Grizzly Bear with every stroke.
For Chris’s overdue first feature in MD, we chatted during Grizzly Bear’s fall tour behind Painted Ruins, as the band was making the long drive to Austin from Washington, D.C., with a stopover in Nashville.
MD: I saw the first of your three nights in Brooklyn. Do you normally change your set lists a bit each night?
Chris: Yeah, especially when we were there for three nights, we were trying to switch it up, which is not always easy for us. We sort of fall into a zone that works. But once you have five albums, it’s a lot to try to cram something in from every record and not be doing a three-hour marathon.
There’s definitely some chunks that work well together, and different things we’ve kind of worked out—transitions between songs, just to keep the flow and create an immersive live experience.
MD: In the second song, “Losing All Sense,” I heard what seemed like a drum sequence before you came in on the kit. Do you run those types of things on stage?
Chris: Yeah, I’ve got control of all that stuff. We’re not deeply playing with tracks at all, so I don’t really need a computer. I just have the SPD-SX. In that song, it’s this old organ drum machine that we used as part of the percussion on the record, so I’m cueing that. And some other sounds every now and then, but it’s more like playing those pads as if they’re single-shot sounds or one-bar sounds, rather than: “All right, here’s the background that’s going to run through the entire tune.” I’m trying to think of the SPD as more like another auxiliary percussion device.
Some of the stuff is melodic too. Sometimes it’ll be a keyboard stab, if Aaron in the back doesn’t have enough hands to take care of it but we want that sound to be there.
MD: Your parts on Painted Ruins sound like a leap forward for you. Are the beats generally more worked out than on your previous album, Shields?
Chris: In some cases, yes. Of course, a song like “Mourning Sound,” that’s just sort of plowing away. But then there’s tunes where I tried to work something out. Like “Neighbors” and “Sky Took Hold” went through a lot of iterations, and in some cases I tried to go against my first inclination. I’d put that down, and then we were like: What if we really try to think about this in a different way? So in those instances it was figuring out how to do something that didn’t feel unnatural to me but that maybe was not my first thought.
MD: It’s cool to hear you say the beat on “Aquarian” was influenced by jazz improvisation. I might not have guessed that.
Chris: I actually don’t even know how to describe that beat. [laughs] We were just tossing ideas around, in the very, very early stages. All of us were living in different places, so I went up to see Daniel for a couple days and we were working on things. Before I left, he said, “Let’s set up a couple mics and you just play for a while, at a few different tempos. So when I’m working on stuff, maybe I can use one of those as a jumping-off point.”
I laid a bunch of things down, kind of all over the place, and he grabbed like four bars within that to put these chordal ideas over. We sat on it for a really long time, and once we finally got to making the record, it grew into something that took more of a shape. But it always had the beat sort of looping around on itself, not really a solid backbeat but creating this swirling rhythm that isn’t completely grounded but is sort of playing off the guitar hits.
MD: At first, “Four Cypresses” made me think of Steve Gadd on “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”…
Chris: [laughs] Right…
MD: …but at the show it felt more like Afrobeat. And since then I’ve been hearing little bits of that Afrobeat vibe in your playing.
Chris: I’m hugely into that stuff. The internet has exposed so much amazing music from all over Africa. Afrobeat and highlife…and, like, West African disco from the ’70s! It’s just insane and amazing. Just this wealth of music that’s out there, it’s really inspiring.
MD: How did you track the album? Did you all play together?
Chris: I probably did two rounds of drums on almost the whole record. We were working in upstate New York first, so we put down most of the drums there. Most of it was tracked with just me playing, sometimes with Daniel playing guitar as a guide. There was not a lot of separation, and it’s a huge hall, so there would have been too much bleed to try to do something live.
But for a lot of it we knew we wanted a smaller, tighter room sound—still feel the space of it, but not a huge grand-hall feeling. So we ended up tracking in L.A., at a studio that has the ability to do it to tape, which is always awesome for drums. At that point a lot of the tune was already there, in terms of vocals, guitar, bass, and keys. So it was kind of like re-playing to something that had been played around a previous version of what I had done. [laughs] But it didn’t get too hairy.
MD: How do you feel about tracking alone? Is it harder to get inspired when you’re playing by yourself?
Chris: Not really. A lot of the time, the three of us—me, Dan, and Chris—will be playing through the tune and working out smaller details, like what we want it to feel like, and then we’ll go right into tracking the drums. So it still feels fresh, and it’s still on my mind, that feeling. I think we were trying to get a little more of a live feeling, so we would try and play through it in some instances before tracking.
Going through a few rounds, I can start to tell when I’m frying out from doing the solo-tracking thing. At that point you just say, “Okay, let’s move on,” or “Let’s step out for a second and come in fresh.”
MD: Grizzly Bear is sometimes described as “electronic pop,” which seems to lean a little heavily on the electronic aspect. But there are times where I’m not sure whether I’m hearing an acoustic part or maybe a sequence. On Painted Ruins it’s almost all acoustic drums, right?
Chris: Yeah, totally—there’s acoustic drums on everything. “Mourning Sound” has a little drum sample that comes in halfway through, and there’s a couple of little electronic sizzle sounds that appear in there. And then “Losing All Sense” has that old organ drum machine that starts it off. But other than that it’s all acoustic drums.
I don’t really have a qualm with using electronics. But “Losing All Sense,” cueing up that old organ drum machine thing, somehow it doesn’t feel the same as just cueing up a beat on an MPC or something. [laughs] It’s coming from this weird old instrument that people used to play along to, integrating it into the part and interacting with it.
MD: Was there anything that you were working on drumming-wise between the last two albums? Several years passed.
Chris: On Shields, that was when we started touring with Aaron, which was great. He’s sort of a fellow ex-jazzer [laughs], and similarly he had kind of fallen out of trying to be a part of that world. Competitive isn’t the word, but it’s like there’s room for only so many people to be doing stuff, and I didn’t like the way that felt, I guess. So after we started the Shields tour, me and Aaron and our buddy Ben [Campbell] started doing more improvised trio stuff. And that was really fun, to get back into playing improvised music and not necessarily needing it to be jazz, or anything. It was just like: “Let’s play music.” A lot of it was pretty free and would lean in a bunch of different directions. It got me back into being excited by that kind of playing.
So when I would sit down to play, that kind of playing would just come out. We weren’t really playing “swinging” jazz necessarily; it was a more angular and straight-8th kind of feel. So I wasn’t consciously working on anything in particular, but doing more playing like that, I think, helped open it up to some of the things that happened on this record.
MD: Did that trio project have a name?
Chris: Yeah, we were calling it Assembly. I’d like to do more. We’re just figuring out how to do it.
MD: In Grizzly Bear, do you guys like wildly different kinds of music? You obviously have stuff you can agree on.
Chris: Yeah, it definitely varies. I remember the early days, when we were touring in the van, having to find common ground that was okay to listen to and wasn’t gonna drive someone nuts. But I think that’s the exact thing that helps make what we do a little bit different—we definitely have some overlap but also have some things that we’re into that isn’t necessarily in the wheelhouse of everybody else’s taste. Being able to distill some elements from our various different tastes and put that into what the whole package is, I think, makes for whatever our sound ends up being.
MD: I’ve read articles that point to an uncertainty about the future of the band, but you guys seemed really connected on stage.
Chris: Yeah, totally. We’ve never had a super-militant schedule, and I think that allows us to be a little more adventurous or let some ideas develop. Sometimes the time is just to give ourselves space to breathe or come at making a record with a new perspective. We’re always slowly passing demos around in the off period. This time that happened to be longer. But a lot of it, too, was just life stuff—people getting married, I had a kid; that all takes time. But yeah, I think and hope that we’ll continue doing what we’re doing.
Tools of the Trade
Chris Bear plays a C&C kit, plus an 8″-deep 1938 Slingerland Radio King snare. His cymbals are by Istanbul Agop. “It’s always a tricky balance,” Bear says, “for me to find something that has that washy, trashy sound but that’s going to cut in a bigger room, or in an open-air situation it’s going to have that breath to it, and wash, and not enter into full dry-ping territory.”
Bear’s electronics include a Roland SPD-SX and several guitar effects pedals. “The whole pedal world, at this point it’s used less than it used to be. The delay and pitch shifter are what I’m running the floor tom through; sometimes I’ll trigger a delay to create a thicker pattern, and sometimes I’ll kick the mic up and use it as an ambient mic and build loops with that. I used to use it more for making actual loops on the floor tom that I would then play along with.”
And that funny little cymbal fixed to the bass drum? “Daniel [Rossen] got that thing years ago at a yard sale or something. I think it was on an old marching bass drum, clamped to the top, like you’d imagine a cartoon monkey playing. [laughs] We ended up using it on the end of ‘Two Weeks.’ It’s mostly there just for that use. I mean, it is literally a piece of trash.”
“From very early on, my dad was a big Zeppelin-head, so obviously the one and only Bonzo was played a lot, for sure. He’s a master. Early, that made me really excited about wanting to dive into learning.
“My father is a bass player, so there was music around all the time. It was all over the place. I remember him playing this Coltrane record, Infinity, that was really free and crazy, and as a kid I thought, Whoa, this is insane. And it wasn’t even really the drums but just the overall feeling of being transported into music that I was excited about.
“I started playing in different kinds of bands pretty early on. Definitely very into the whole grunge world when I was in junior high. And I was sucked into the music program at school. I was in marching band and jazz band and orchestra and sort of did it all. It became my focus. I started gravitating more toward jazz, and that’s what brought me to New York.
“Tony Williams has always been a massive influence. That sort of cusp period before Miles was going fully electric but still was kind of coming out of the hard-bop world, I think Tony Williams’ playing on that stuff is super-inspiring, because it doesn’t quite fall into any genre that I feel is definable. His playing on Filles de Kilimanjaro is one of my favorites. It’s supportive but it also has moments of totally taking the lead and directing what the whole thing feels like.
“Jaki Liebezeit of Can, rest in peace. That playing has always been super-inspiring—rhythms that have ties to African music and more funk stuff, but coming from this very motorik, sort of German rock thing. And just so melodic in a way. I really love that stuff.
“Growing up outside Chicago, I was also listening to that whole Thrill Jockey world of music, like Tortoise and Isotope 217. There was such an awesome scene of intertwined projects. I related to it in that it was a lot of things—there was an improvised music element to it; there was this Krautrock influence, more sort of funk; and then just the experimental side. All three of those drummers from Tortoise have always been really inspiring, and getting to see them play live was amazing.
“I’ve also been obsessed for a while with Brazilian music and that whole rhythmic feel. Specifically I’ve been getting into Marcos Valle records. Three or four have been rereleased in the last few years. It’s cool—you see him going from being more of a traditional bossa nova kind of dude to experimenting with more psychedelic stuff and then eventually getting into some really weird disco phases in the ’80s, but I still like that stuff too.”