By Kelly Dearmore
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Grizzly Bear member Chris Taylor is on a streak. In just the past few years, he's been responsible for producing critical darling Department of Eagles' 2008 release In Ear Park, as well as efforts from Dirty Projectors and Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson. And, in addition to producing new songs, Taylor took on production and audio engineering duties on the Arthur Russell 2008 retrospective Love Is Overtaking Me—he mixed, restored and edited each of the 21 songs that had been recorded and archived on a variety of media dating back to the mid-'70s, which was a lot of effort in return for just "an early release of the Wild Combination: The World of Arthur Russell DVD and a couple of dinners, beer included," in payment, he says.
Oh, and capping all this? He just happened to produce and play on his own band's just-released Veckatimest, one of the year's most highly anticipated and critically well-received albums.
Veckatimest is a listener's record, sure. But at its heart, because of the way in which it was created, it's a producer's disc too, a collaborative labor of love for the artists that created it—multi-instrumentalist Taylor, guitarists and primary songwriters Edward Droste and Daniel Rossen, and percussionist Chris Bear, each of whom contributes to the exquisite vocal harmonies, with Rossen and Droste alternating lead vocals.
For Veckatimest—just as it has been for each of Grizzly Bear's previous efforts—Taylor was the individual responsible for the band's recording and production, something of a tall task considering that very few of the songs in Grizzly Bear's catalog could be considered to be linearly structured. In his roles of sound engineer and producer, he worked with his band mates to take what often started as just the framework or fragment of a song and build it into a sonically completed work that maintains the listener's interest throughout. In the case of Veckatimest, this meant layering the many and varied disembodied vocals, backmasking (playing recorded tracks backward into the mix) of instrumental tracks, and adding string arrangements, lilting percussion and frequent time changes. The percussion propelling "Two Weeks," the first "single" from the album, or the wavering, reverb-soaked chorus of "Dory" demonstrate Taylor's production values on the release. The effect is to immerse the listener in an exciting soundscape that perfectly reflects lyrics of longing and isolation.
But a life behind the soundboard isn't something Taylor originally anticipated. He moved to New York City to study jazz at NYU, where he met both Rossen and Bear. But, says Taylor, "the academic structure started to create a disconnect between me and the music." Rather than ruin his relationship with music, however, he changed his course of study to audio engineering, figuring that might be a good career choice.
As he gained knowledge and acquired equipment, he found himself serving as sound engineer when playing with friends in bands around Brooklyn. One such band, Fast Fourier, included Chris Bear, who had met Droste at NYU and was already collaborating on Droste's first release of songs, an intended solo album called Horn of Plenty. But that solo album soon turned into Grizzly Bear's debut, as Taylor and Bear shelved Fast Fourier and joined Droste to form a new band, with NYU friend Rossen joining in a few short months later. (In the near future, Taylor has plans to release the music of Fast Fourier and other music he has recorded and produced on his own boutique label, Terrible Records.)
Early this spring, though, Taylor, who has always worn the two hats of player and producer in the band, was perhaps most affected when tracks from Veckatimest started leaking onto the Internet—a trend that Taylor has a difficult time accepting
"[It's] culturally interesting," he says, "and professionally frustrating."
The viral spread of Veckatimest's leaked version and the resulting mash-ups of some songs? That Taylor views as "pretty cool." But there were problems too: The leaked release was not fully formed, musically, and was of very poor sound quality compared to the commercial release. At the very least, it wasn't up to Taylor's exacting standards.
"After spending months finding the right equipment and technique for the recording process and laboring for untold hours recording and mixing the songs, it's crazy to think that a large number of people will settle for the leaked version," Taylor said the week before the disc's official release, worrying that fans wouldn't pay for the superior product that the band produced and released as a commercial endeavor.
But in an odd twist—and perhaps because of the unintended viral marketing of the leaked version—the record debuted at No. 8 on Billboard's Album chart just last week. It's a phenomenal achievement for a band that remains still relatively unknown to much of the listening mainstream.
And it's great news, too, for Taylor—and not just as a musician.
Looks like his track record as the producer of some of the most highly acclaimed releases of the past year is justifying that strategic change in university majors.