Photo by Tom Hines
Off the coast of Cape Cod lies a small uninhabited island called Veckatimest. The little island is covered with lush vegetation: soft wispy trees and tall grass, sand and pebbles. It is home to birds and bugs, to little fish that swim softly and serenely beneath the cool waters of the Monsod Bay. The island is a physical space, but for the band Grizzly Bear, it is also a state of mind. Veckatimest is the name of the band’s third full-length record, originally released in 2009 on Warp Records. It is a stunning piece of music, one that catapulted what was once frontman Ed Droste’s bedroom project into something far grander and more publicly lauded than the band could’ve ever imagined.
Grizzly Bear formed in 2003. Back then, it was just Ed Droste, sitting in his Brooklyn apartment recording demos and figuring out what exactly he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. Within 15 months, he’d recorded 35 songs. Fourteen of those tracks became the band’s 2004 debut record, Horn of Plenty, a soft, scrappy and ambient record full of field recordings, aqueous synthesizers and compressed vocals. The record is entirely Droste, with the exception of some percussion by future band member Chris Bear. The album is incredibly lo-fi, but not necessarily on purpose. In a 2006 interview with BrooklynVegan, Droste said the reason for its lo-fi quality was simply because he “just didn’t know that much about microphones, and everyone thought it was this real deliberate thing.” That record laid crucial groundwork for Droste. It taught him how to be a musician and, more importantly, what Grizzly Bear could be.
Shortly after the release of their debut, Grizzly Bear expanded from Droste’s lo-fi torch songs to a full band. Daniel Rossen and Chris Taylor, both friends of Bear’s from their NYU days, lent their talents as a second vocalist and guitarist, and a bassist and a woodwinds composer, respectively. Once the four began to play together, they started conceiving the architecture of Yellow House, the first full-band Grizzly Bear effort, the record that really put them on the map. Yellow House came out in 2006 and solidified the quartet as critical darlings. The record is absolutely stunning, complicated and knotty. It’s full of strings and electronics, and multi-part vocal harmonies — it feels like walking through a forest without knowing where you’re going, where at every turn you find something new, something unexpected and heartbreaking. Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson compared it to music by the ’70s British prog giants Yes. NPR said it sounded like the music of ’60s girl groups. Tiny Mix Tapes compared it to the Beach Boys. By 2008, Grizzly Bear was touring with Radiohead, and the notoriously soft-spoken Jonny Greenwood declared them his favorite band on stage in front of a massive crowd.
On the Radiohead tour, the band test-drove a few of the first songs off of Veckatimest. The record was partially made in the Catskill Mountains of New York, partially on Cape Cod, in big beautiful houses with lots of light and creaking floorboards, kind of like the Band’s Music From Big Pink, a record you can see seep in through Veckatimest’s 52 minutes.
“We had this one space that was so big that we could all be sleeping and no one would notice [if someone got up to play]. There was this freedom of being able to do what you wanted when inspiration struck. There was no 9-to-5, punch-in-the-studio fee. There were old wood floors that creaked and a fireplace and natural reverb in the room, and sunlight coming through the windows,” said Droste of the recording in an interview with Amanda Petrusich for Pitchfork.
“‘Veckatimest’ represents a definitive, landmark sort of moment for indie rock. It moved a genre to the thing that was all the rage on blogs, to fertile grounds for pop and rap to reap from.”
Along with the band’s usual four members, composer Nico Muhly, whom they met when the band played with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, joined to write the record’s orchestral arrangements. It was set to release in May of 2009, and it did — but remember, that this was the time when blogs were at the height of their peak, and when leaking an album still meant something. The record leaked less than a week after it was mastered, months before its release date. It was initially devastating to the band. But it didn’t hinder their success at all. If anything, it made the record even more of a big deal than it already was.
Veckatimest came out during indie rock’s commercial peak. 2009 was a big year for indie music. It was the year of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (VMP Essentials No. 78, and Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca (VMP Essentials No. 85). Vampire Weekend were Columbia post-grads with one record out. That summer in the South, Washed Out and Toro y Moi were starting to release chilled out, distorted pop music for smoking a bong and skateboarding, inflected by the malaise of the 2008 financial crisis. When Veckatimest came out, among all of this momentum, it debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard charts, positioned directly in front of Taylor Swift’s Fearless. The band played Letterman, and “Two Weeks” was synced in a Volkswagen commercial that appeared in the third quarter of the Super Bowl. It also appeared on a Gossip Girl episode and in a scene for Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator. The band was getting noticed by, of all people, R&B’s king and queen, Jay-Z and Beyoncé. There’s a video of the two of them drinking beers and dancing to “Ready, Able,” in a tent at an outdoor gig in Williamsburg, looking like completely normal concertgoers. Not long after, Jay was quoted by MTV saying “[Grizzly Bear is] an incredible band. The thing I want to say to everyone — I hope this happens because it will push rap, it will push hip-hop to go even further — what the indie rock movement is doing right now is very inspiring.”
Indeed, Veckatimest is actually that good. It became such a commercial success because of the climate in which it came out, but make no mistake: Its success was warranted. The record was the band’s best yet. It’s less fussy than Yellow House, more pristine (in Droste’s words: “Yellow House was a product of just constantly adding until it became this thick, textured dream. [Veckatimest] is way more dynamic.”). It’s decadent, but not overwhelming. The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere Jones compared it to a “sprawling water park sending you through different sluices and dropping you from pools down into slides that give onto small lakes.” A more precise analog would be a walk through an ancient French chateau, one covered in vines and decaying, but gorgeous, handiwork. Opening track “Southern Point,” is a freefall into a Fjord, with sloping guitars and crystalline pianos. “Dory” is aqueous and tricky; Rossen and Droste’s vocals are austere and cavernous and the song flickers like burning candles in a cave full of glistening stalagmites. “I Live With You” has choral and string arrangements composed by Rossen, and strings that flutter and flap. On the Muhly-arranged “Ready, Able,” Beach House’s Victoria Legrand lends vocal harmonies, and so does the Brooklyn Youth Choir. Hypertrophied strings and guitars crest in impossibly beautiful warm shades of red and orange, giving off the vibe of the California super bloom, as seen from space.
Grizzly Bear has always been a band where lyrics are textural, as essential to the wallpaper of the song as a bassline or three-part vocal harmony. “Cheerleader” has a wall of sound that feels plucked from a Ronettes song, and Droste and Bear muse softly about how chance is “nothing changes.” The song moves like a cheerleader kicking a leg up into her hand, like doing a perfectly executed split jump. “About Face,” has percussion that clicks like a hand on a grandfather clock, and bellowing woodwinds. The lyrics are simple, quietly poetic. “Makes me wonder / and in this case / there is no thunder / a bit of grace / in our blunder,” sings Droste. The lyrics on Veckatimest don’t have any sort of obvious narrative; they’re all a part of the scenery. They are meant to evoke a mood, to be a polaroid of a landscape, of the kind of headspace one needs to be in to take in the beauty of a place as isolating as a remote island in Massachusetts.
Then there is “Two Weeks,” the song that the band is probably the most well-known for now. It’s the song that propelled them to getting as close to stardom that an indie rock band can, and thrusting the rest of the genre into the limelight with them. “Two Weeks” is a heart-on-your-sleeve kind of song, a glass of champagne with your feet in the sand, wind in your hair while you’re sitting on a goddamned yacht in a pair of linen pants. It’s a first kiss with someone you end up falling in love with, flick the cigarette out of their mouth while they’re smoking it and lean in, eyes closed. Pianos are stoic and resonant. Droste and Rossen’s voices grab at you like you’re being tugged by a rope tied around your sternum. The song is so saccharine you’d be tempted to write it off as twee, as rom-com fodder, but when you dig a little deeper, it’s brimming with intricacies. Like the rest of the songs on this record, the lyrics are simple. It’s mostly the line “would you always / maybe sometimes” and opining about a “routine malaise.” It’s all in the delivery, the sort of energy you get from the vocals. It’s momentous.
Veckatimest represents a definitive, landmark sort of moment for indie rock. It moved a genre to the thing that was all the rage on blogs, to fertile grounds for pop and rap to reap from. Jay and Bey watching Grizzly Bear at a random show in Brooklyn eventually led to people like Ezra Koenig and Josh Tillman penning a track on Lemonade, and Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek on Beyoncé. The Weeknd’s House of Balloons features two songs that sample Beach House. David Longstreth collaborated with Solange on A Seat at the Table. Justin Vernon’s vocals are on a My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy cut. Speaking of Vernon, Grizzly Bear’s world of indie also has found its way into Taylor Swift. folklore and evermore heavily feature contributions from Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner. Indie music, in other words, isn’t really the same thing that it once was. The summer of 2009, and Grizzly Bear, have a lot to do with that.
Speaking of Grizzly Bear, where do they fall in this weird, mercurial landscape for music with guitars? After Veckatimest, they released two more solid albums, 2012’s Shields, and 2017’s Painted Ruins. As of late, the band isn’t really up to anything. Bear started releasing music as Fools. Droste appeared on a Morrissey album. Rossen had a baby and is working on solo stuff. Taylor’s still lending his talents as a producer and mix engineer. They’re adults, living lives that are currently separate from the music they made in their youth.
Veckatimest, then, will always be a moment in time: a dream of being alone, against a staggeringly beautiful backdrop. Put it on. Imagine your toes in the salty waters of New England. Close your eyes. Feel the light pass over your face so the insides of your eyes sparkle in soft tangerine tones. Are those birds chirping? Can you see the forest for the trees? Is that Droste’s voice, singing about anything and everything?