When the Brooklyn band Grizzly Bear recorded its debut LP, Horn of Plenty, in 2004, Grizzly Bear wasn't a band. It was amateur songwriter Edward Droste and his laptop, recording his sad, quiet songs in his post-breakup apartment. Friend Chris Bear helped a little, but, mostly, Grizzly Bear was just Droste. Remarkably, people heard the album and liked it. Kanine Records jumped at the chance to release it, and Droste was suddenly confronted with the possibility of his nonexistent "band" playing live. This was a problem.
And so, Grizzly Bear—Droste, Bear, Chris Taylor and Dan Rossen—was formed to rework songs from an album they hadn't written or recorded. They played, but the sense of Grizzly Bear as a band didn't fully coalesce until they started recording the second album, last year's Yellow House, in Droste's mom's house in Boston. Taylor engineered and recorded the entire thing. And, while it may be a bit much to refer to it as the most impressive self-recorded album of this home-computer decade, Yellow House is, at least, a crucial step in proving that the kids can make their own records sound just fine. Everything is cut from the same austere cloth on Yellow House, as few intermediaries as possible cutting the audience off from original intent. How does your favorite producer feel about textural banjo or using the clarinet as a bass? That's what I thought.
Home recording, especially as it translates to full-band albums that are released on labels as notable as Grizzly Bear's Warp, is as nebulous as it is perplexing. A few dozen academic and empirical approaches about what it could do to music have been argued: People making their own records and making them well could serve to democratize music more than file-sharing. Then again, people making their own records and completely ruining otherwise valid songs could damage their own careers and publicly acknowledged standards of sound. Walter Sear founded one of New York's first electronic recording houses in 1964, and he has written that the deteriorating sound quality of records for the last 20 years has been the primary catalyst for diminishing music sales. Home recording by amateurs, he asserts, represents the nadir of that trend.
But the fact remains that Grizzly Bear would have never become the Grizzly Bear of Yellow House—which is to say remarkably interesting, texturally fascinating, structurally challenging—under the aegis of Sear Sound or any other production house. It happened in a band member's mom's house in Boston during an exceptionally hot summer. Infinite monkeys given infinite time, you know. Pick your platitude. Trial by fire, forged by the heat: Either way, long live the little monkeys, trying to make stuff happen.
Grizzly Bear plays Local 506 with Paper Cuts and Dirty on Purpose Saturday, March 3 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $8-$10.