By Marty Sartini Garner; Photo by Tom Hines on November 7, 2012
There’s a popular aphorism—coined by Martin Mull but often attributed to Thelonius Monk or Elvis Costello or some other ineffable minister of cool—that suggests that writing about music is akin to dancing about architecture. Logical inconsistencies notwithstanding (dancing, while it can be inspired by something, is never really “about” anything, whereas writing is almost always about something), we’ve stuck with it because it sounds so good, smacks so deeply of truth: Of course you can’t recreate in writing the way that music makes us feel. Nothing makes us feel the way we feel when we hear music. You don’t live in a blueprint, either.
My editor’s mortgage and my Twitter following depend on my telling you that Martin Mull is a heretic, but I will cop to there being a certain amount of truth in that old chestnut. There is a certain something that’s lost in the transliteration of notes and noise from air to page. It has something to do with a loss of immediacy. Jonathan Lethem’s 2006 essay “Being James Brown” is the most drop-dead stunning piece of music writing I’ve ever read, but I’m willing to bet Lethem would trade it in for one more chance to witness Star Time.
Writing about music—and, even at its very best, even among your best and brightest friends, talking about music—can never get beyond that single preposition: you’re always writing and talking about something, always one step removed from the thing itself. The very best writing about music is still just the view from the blimp.
Photo by Tom Hines
We are now looking at the thing from a different angle. The great pulpy music magazines that guard the entrance to your self-checkout might have figured something out that we middlebrow glossies missed long ago. Maybe the details of artists’ lives matter. I don’t mean the immediate life experiences that form the basis of their art, but the actual grit, the junk details, the Facebook info. Maybe it actually is important to memorize your favorite band’s details: What’s Craig Finn’s height? What’s Grimes’ favorite ice cream? If Wayne Coyne could be from anywhere else, where would it be? (Best guesses: short, bubblegum, Mars.) We might not be making sweet music in here, but if we dance around to the other side of the façades that our greatest records erect in front of their creators, we might at least have a better understanding of them. After all, the impulse to talk about the things that move you is natural, even if the picture you’re painting in your friend’s head doesn’t quite match the one in your own. If food is important to a band, say to Grizzly Bear, then perhaps it’s possible to hear Shields, their new record, through the propane exhalation of a gas stove and the scrape of a spatula stirring a pan of eggs. And food is important to Grizzly Bear.
“I’m not really sure where we got this reputation,” Ed Droste says, genuinely curious and bemused by my assertion that he and his band have developed a reputation as foodies. “Is it just Twitter?”
Droste has just finished explaining how the new wave of French restaurants that he and drummer Chris Bear recently sampled in Paris departs from the traditions of classical French cooking—“It’s not 10 pounds of foie gras on top of a piece of duck,” he says of the menus at Le Chateaubriand and Saturne, “it’s using French ingredients, but not weighing you down with fat and butter and all of that stuff.” In a few moments, Bear will explain the “pretty easy” process he uses to craft his own bitters, to be used in the cocktails that he mixes for the band. Several days prior, while researching this article, I took a glance at Droste’s Twitter: “Pretty into sugar snap peas as an airplane snack food,” read one. “<3 u grilled octopus,” he’d tweeted the night before. A few days prior to that, he’d simply posted “#bruschetta.” His Instagram is a visual equivalent, stocked with shots of fire-engine-red bell peppers and piles of fresh cabbage plucked from the soil of Cape Cod, where he’s passed off the cooking of a batch of slow-scrambled eggs to take my call. (“It’s more like a custard,” says Bear, who taught Droste how to make the dish, and who is in on the call from Long Island. “Except savory.”)
So yeah, it might have something to do with Twitter. But maybe there’s something else at work. Maybe there’s some synaesthetic vapor rising from within the music made by Droste and Bear, along with singer-guitarist Daniel Rossen and multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor. The group’s 2009 breakthrough, Veckatimest, is a quilt of an album, ornate and somehow humble at its core, and even dating back to 2006’s Yellow House, it’s hard to talk about the sound Grizzly Bear have created without using words like “handcrafted” or “artisan”—words that are more typically used to describe food. Put differently, there’s some innate quality in Grizzly Bear’s music that makes it seem as if it would go well with craft cocktails and a farm-egg brunch. The fact that Droste’s Twitter is what it is really only confirms something that we already hear in the music: this is something exquisite.
“I don’t know how we got this reputation,” Droste repeats, “but in a weird way, we do all care about eating good, healthy, delicious food. Bear is the number one foodie in the band, then Chris Taylor. I’m really great at eating food, but not as good at preparing it.” Bear, to whom Droste refers as “the maestro of the kitchen,” took it upon himself to keep the band fed during the recording of Shields. “I got into making pickles and pickling things, and having different things in the fridge for sandwich-making so that if hunger struck, we could put it together quickly,” he says, his voice tapering off into a gentle hum.
“And you make the best shrimp tacos known to man,” Droste adds.
“We did shrimp tacos quite a bit,” Bear nods.
Photo by Barbara Anastacio
Though it still operates from within the group’s familiar carpentry, Shields is a decidedly rougher record than Veckatimest. Guitars go off like flashpots in the chorus of lead single “Sleeping Ute,” while “Speak in Rounds” chugs past with so much vigor that the minute-long instrumental “Adelma” seems to have been placed after it to allow the listener to catch his breath. “We were basically trying to find an area in which the things that we were all excited about overlapped,” Droste says of Shields 10 propulsive tracks. “There was such a level of trust and confidence in the music that we didn’t feel the need to layer the vocals 10 times and smoothen them out in the ways that we have in the past.”
That focus on immediacy, in both the physical and temporal sense, has resulted in what is easily Grizzly Bear’s most powerful record to date. Despite, or perhaps because of, its stunning beauty, Veckatimest could at times feel too intricate, too tightly woven, the weight of its jewelry causing it to sag in the middle. Shields certainly isn’t afraid of grandeur—stand at the base of “Half Gate” and see if you can scope its spire—but its bowed banjos and drowned horns lend it an angst that the group have never before flirted with. Bear is the record’s true hero, unafraid to bring down the mood but unwilling to let the music stall out. If anything, his percussion work makes the record downright nervy.
Though its title may suggest otherwise, the theoretical weaknesses the group allowed into Shields actually serve to draw its listeners in. “There was a sense of excitement in thinking that we didn’t have to hide all of the little moments of imperfection,” Droste says. “It’s OK if we have a single vocal take and you can hear the crack in the voice. It’s actually bringing the audience closer.” Simply put, Shields has a presence. Its position can’t be inked on a map, and it refuses to be stowed away offshore. “I tend to think of Veckatimest as being more ‘head in the clouds,’” Droste says. “This one is definitely more ‘of the earth.’”
And yet, there are limits to just how “of the earth” pop music can be. With a few arguable exceptions, there is no act more universal among humans than that of preparing and eating meals. The specter of death has lurked over nearly every song written since Jan & Dean crashed through “Dead Man’s Curve,” while sleep, death’s temporary cousin, is the subject of two different Beatles songs. Eating is the only human necessity that is consistently pleasurable: we form memories and friendships and even religions over and around meals, and yet it remains the one area of human experience that cannot be translated into successful, challenging pop music. It’s no different for Grizzly Bear. “I can’t imagine writing a song about food that would have an impact and be taken seriously,” Droste says. “You can be passionate about food, but when it manifests itself in a lyric, and you’re singing it—it’s the ultimate challenge.”
Without a doubt, Droste is right. The catalogues of Shonen Knife and Ween notwithstanding, it’s hard to think of a halfway decent rock song about food since The Beach Boys’ “Vegetables,” and even that seems out of place nestled into the teenage symphony of Smiley Smile. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for other genres, though, or other moments in the history of pop: country and bluegrass musicians sing about farming and eating with aplomb, while the Fab Four and the Davies brothers were comfortable joking around about Savoy truffles and maximum consumption. As Droste notes, champagne brands have become a cultural marker in hip-hop, and in “Sippin’ On Some Syrup,” the deadly serious Three 6 Mafia even boast about eating “so many shrimp, we got iodine poisoning.”
But for all of our talk about community and cherishing human relationships and emotion, for all of our supposed progress, indie rock can’t manage a single song about the joys of gathering together with friends over a steaming table. Droste and Bear are polite, patient and eloquent when I ask them which cities on their touring itineraries have the best grub, but I grow uncomfortable and embarrassed when I try to ask them serious questions about the relationship between music and food. “Music is an emotional thing,” Droste says, “and I think that talking about food in an emotional way is confusing, even though it can be a very personal thing with family and friends. Even if you’re doing it really artfully, and the lyrics are actually really clever, people are still going to think that it’s random, and it won’t make them anything but confused.” Again, I think he’s right, but what does it mean that we can’t treat seriously in our music something that literally everyone we know does and enjoys? What are we so ashamed of?
Serious novelists have never shied away from writing passionately about food—Jonathan Franzen’s descriptions of Denise Lambert’s cooking in The Corrections are practically menu-porn—while films as varied as Delicatessen, Ratatouille and Big Night seem to have been made only as an excuse to film their respective dinner scenes. What makes these works successful is their willingness to surrender the spotlight to the food, and so to create an artistic experience whose chief pleasure isn’t the artifice, but the thing to which the art refers. Every guitar solo refers to itself, but the timpano in Big Night’s final scene refers to every great meal the viewer has ever had and ever will have; it’s no accident that Tony Shalhoub practically escorts it to the table, an anonymous beau on the arm of a starlet.
Writers like Franzen and filmmakers like Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci take their art no less seriously than musicians like Grizzly Bear (a point that should be readily apparent with respect to Franzen), but they seem to feel no twinge of guilt or embarrassment or shame at depicting food with the same reverent tone they use to describe the tragic passing of time, or the entropic erosion of a meaningful relationship. The actual act of eating—and drinking, and sex—is as integral to the way we understand and experience our lives as any of our emotional and intellectual concerns, including the emotional and intellectual concerns we attach to those very acts. It’s OK for pleasure to be pleasurable.
But maybe things are changing. Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox was staring absently at an airline breakfast when the texture of his toast inspired him to write the songs that would become 2007’s Strawberry Jam, and “Applesauce,” from this year’s Centipede Hz, finds the group celebrating mangoes, star fruit and apples, among other things. Just as Grizzly Bear’s skipped notes and cracked vocals lower the shields that the pursuit of perfect sound raises between the band and their audience, so too does our ability to see photos of Chris Bear shrouded in barbecue smoke, or of Ed Droste interacting with cattle in a Cape Cod meadow. These are simple pleasures, sure, but pleasures that are no less real for their simplicity; if anything, they’re more real by virtue of being so common, by being so similar to the everyday pleasures of our own lives. If art is about bridging the unspeakable gaps between people, then surely these moments matter as much as any other, if not more. Short of breath, there is nothing more familiar to us than food, and so there’s no better way for us to connect with one another. Maybe it’s a kind of magic, the ability to share something unspoken like that. Maybe it’s the kind of dance that buildings are made of. F