“Is it just me or is the condition of indie rock in the 24½th century both bad and boujee?”, asked David Longstreth, otherwise known as the frontman of one of Williamsburg’s more visible acts, Dirty Projectors. Using Instagram, Longstreth elaborates, “…bad in the basic sense of like, musically underwhelming…and also bad like [Sartrean] bad faith, outwardly obedient to an expired paradigm that we know in our hearts makes basically no sense.” At the point of this apparent elegy, it had been almost ten years since Dirty Projectors’ seminal album, Bitte Orca, and Longstreth, whether he knew it or not, was expressing a sense of urgency that comes with the recognition of a cultural sea change — a change, to be clear, that was leaving Longstreth and his indie rock brethren navigating high seas on a rickety boat.
Generational transitions in the cultural vanguard have historically been difficult to observe in real time, but the rise and fall of indie rock were televised before our very eyes. And this isn’t surprising, considering we are the part of a generation to be fully engulfed in a technology that tracks and publishes are every movement.
It was less than a decade ago when, in addition to the critical adoration of Dirty Projectors, we saw the advent of similar artists, including, but not limited to, Arcade Fire, The National, Fleet Foxes, Deerhunter, Vampire Weekend, Animal Collective, The Shins, Real Estate, Broken Social Scene, Spoon, and Wolf Parade.- Many of them were east-coast born and bred, venturing to carry the raw spirit of an underground subversion and a vague dedication toward liberal sensibilities nurtured by their art-rock forefathers that preceded them. Though, if you were to ask Longstreth, carrying the flame of what indie rock simultaneously is and never was is just a practice in futility. “[Indie rock is] mostly miming a codified set of sounds and practices whose significance is inherited rather than discovered or reflective of the world as we experience it now.”
Like any trend, there are natural winners and losers. For the latter, in the case of indie rock, the unstoppable passage of time revealed a rot in what we once believed were signifiers of authenticity. With retrospect, some interpret the motif of a sad white man with a guitar as a thinly veiled attempt to mask a burgeoning toxicity by portraying a strong expression of vulnerability. In an age where it seems that the public is consistently sanctifying the immorality of old white men in the political sphere, the cultural response has predictably moved away from said motif, and redirected toward stories coming from individualistic women with guitars; queer folk who are telling queer stories that do not always have to focus on tragedy and death; and black hip-hop artists who are reclaiming their mediums as dispatches from the front lines.
For those who survived this cultural shift, they continue to exist but don’t necessarily thrive in this new environment where the artistic output is proportionate to the political one. Bands like Arcade Fire, a once scrappy collective that seemed to find most of their instruments in a local yard sale, leaned into their natural progression as a U2-inspired, anthem rock band (with fake snow and glowing balls adding to the spectacle). Solo polymaths like Sufjan Stevens and Mount Eerie both cathartically traversed into new and dark territories that can only come with incomprehensible tragedy. And finally, there are bands that, even at the height of indie rock, never quite felt like they fit in — not just in how their music sounds, but in their overarching creative approach.
Last Sunday, on a cold September night, two of these outsiders, both hailing from the famed western end of Long Island, filled 17,500 seats nested in a concave hillside in Hollywood, CA. Grizzly Bear and TV On The Radio, both survivors of the great indie rock purge, ostensibly share an intrinsic quality that enables them to sell out one of the largest venues in California. With Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, an up and coming experimental musician as the opening act, both Brooklyn stalwarts took over the west coast for one night only and reminded an audience full of aging hipsters (an IPA in one hand, a baby bottle in another, and a sleeping infant with earplugs hanging from their chest) why we still choose to spend our weekend nights with them.
TV On The Radio, who have not released an album since 2014, seemed to be genuinely privileged to be opening for Grizzly Bear, who opened up for them in the early aughts when they were both fledgling young bands. Led by the erratic energy of Tunde Adebimpe (who is still responsible for one of the sweetest moments in movie history) and a dreadful sonic atmosphere composed by David Sitek, their one hour set was a firm reminder of an electric voodoo the band was known for. With a setlist comprising of a catalog that starts in 2001, which included socially-conscious parables and interpretations of 13th-century poems of transcendence, TV On The Radio proved that their penchant for shape-shifting between NYC-based art rock, European avant-garde, South Asian rhythms, and powerhouse gospel vocals has always made them stand out from the others.
Grizzly Bear, following as the night’s headliner, is arguably a more culturally ubiquitous band — being in a nationally televised car commercial and having the first family of music attend your show will do that. The group is famously democratic, which shows with how they arrange themselves on stage — standing in a line equidistant from each other. Ed Droste, Daniel Rossen, Chris Taylor, and the ironically named Christopher Bear all have their core competencies on stage, but the sonic landscapes they built is undeniably a result of their cohesion, creating a sound that esoterically textured but angelically accessible.
With their youthful appearance and “I received my MFA at Tisch School of Arts” disposition, Grizzly Bear became poster boys of the indie rock ethos that dominated the mid to late aughts, inevitably succumbing to parody and ridicule as the shift away from fresh-faced white boys with glockenspiels became commonplace. But, if you take an in-depth look at their catalog, Grizzly Bear has charted an astounding progression across five full-length albums that have consistently unraveled in an industry that rewards quick wins.
Their music is layered and can sometimes feel like you’re falling slowly into a bed made of clouds only to realize that a thunderstorm is brewing midway through your descent. Their arrangements are deliberately sprawling, with the hopes of daring the listener to recognize the different paths one can take when interacting with their music. And while I can’t tell you who or what Droste or Rossen is singing about, I can tell you what emotions or imagery it conjures up for me.
Grizzly Bear is the type of band that believes that truth lies somewhere comfortably in the middle, and that’s the kingdom in which critics believe they reside. With melodies that tease out a bombastic crescendo that our ears are trained to expect but never wholly succumb to, the band takes a perverse pleasure in making their audience work for their catharsis. Such an approach can alienate listeners, particularly during an era where streaming services are fostering a playlist-friendly trend. But this is the space that Grizzly Bear has curated for themselves for over a decade, and is the unique identifier that separates them from the white boy with a guitar moniker that they physically appear to be, but is artistically far from.
Layered and patient textures that sound more like the internal dialogue of an acid trip is not exactly the type of music that can fill a ~18,000 seat venue. Grizzly Bear is surviving, and it’s not just because they’re differentiating themselves sonically — they are also sharp enough to comprehend that we live in an age of theatrical spectacle. Covered by a kaleidoscope of warm colors and a draped veil that vacillates between delicate and hardened, the band concocted a way to present an experience fit for Coachella without sacrificing the immediate intimacy of their music. Spectacle, however, is empty without substance, and for a band that finds value in burying the lede, translating a textural tapestry into an enveloping experience is challenging to do. Yet, on this night, Grizzly Bear performed as if they had the gravity of an anthemic rock band as they effortlessly filled the space of the amphitheater. Ironically, this being the fifth time I’ve seen Grizzly Bear, their music, which I’ve always considered to be best understood with a pair of high-quality headphones, never felt more at home than in a stadium.
“Ready, Able,” a stand-out from their 2009 breakout album, Veckatimest, is a song I’ve heard over a hundred times, though experiencing the song live as the angelic harmony grinds up against the fiery feedback of Rossen’s guitar felt like I was being taken to a place I was unfamiliar with. “While You Wait For The Others,” another track from Veckatimest and perhaps one of their most accessible, has never felt angrier as the band harmonizes in unison with the statement “and all we want…” — a plea that they never quite finish lyrically, but is fulfilled by Droste’s haunting wail. And finally, the band ends their set with the masterfully daunting “Sun In Your Eyes,” a track from 2012’s Shields that, when heard live, acts as a thesis statement for the band. Each member stands out through the seven-minute long journey, with every drum fill, saxophone note, and dueling harmony blending together as Rossen’s voice acts as a spiritual guide.
In response to Longstreth’s encapsulation of the disappearing potency of indie rock, another emissary from the era’s glory days, Robin Pecknold of the folk outfit Fleet Foxes, gave his two cents: “Maybe the world is sort of a static constellation of states that we just move through as we get older and it can seem like the world is changing when really it’s just us?” As the debate continued to unfold, music fans and journalists alike stepped into their certain roles as voices from the public square. Ridicule, delight, envy, and bitterness filled these virtual avenues from Reddit to Pitchfork — the binding narrative focused on whether the old guard remains a vital voice in determining what authenticity in music looks like.
As Pecknold continued, he eventually name-dropped Grizzly Bear by referencing Veckatimest as a “fertile strain” of indie rock that felt “progressive” and “commercial” at the same time — implying that sustainability for an indie rock outfit requires both. Surprisingly, after the flurry of hot takes circulating the debate, Grizzly Bear remarked on the situation via Ed Droste’s Instagram account. Droste, ever-so-cooly and relaxed, responded not with a clarifying statement on how a band like Grizzly Bear should coexist in an ever-changing environment, but with a comment that is as cryptic and bizarre as the music he creates — a screaming face emoji.
Words and photos by Eric Han