The sound of Shields is the last thing you’d expect from a collaboration between the abstract indie rockers Grizzly Bear and a mainstream mixer like Michael Brauer.
Although he’s not well-known outside of the record industry, Brauer is famous within the studio world for having one of the dozen or so names that seem to appear on every other breakthrough release from the major labels. He’s even become something of a godfather for an entire style of mixing known as the “multi-bus” approach.
When Grizzly Bear hired Brauer to put the finishing touches on their latest release, I expected what anyone else might: A few healthy coats of gloss and shine, along with a general slickening of the group’s sound. Instead, what the band has delivered is its most organic, and at times, its rawest release since their debut in 2004.
During an age in which the sound of music has become increasingly binary and homogenized, Shields is like a ripe heirloom tomato straight from the farmer’s market: Beautifully and uniquely warped on the outside, pregnant with depth and flavor within.
From the first moments of the album’s opener, “Sleeping Ute,” and its garage-y, decidedly unfinished-sounding drums, Grizzly Bear and Brauer seem to scoff at expected sounds and textures throughout the entirety of Shields.
It could be argued that some of the unique sonic character on Grizzly Bear’s earliest releases, Horn of Plenty and Yellow House, came thanks to a degree of technical naïveté. But on Shields, there’s no doubt that the group and their mixer are fully aware of what ‘normal’ records sound like, and how to get there. They just seem not to care.
On “Yet Again,” one of the strongest songs on the album, a kick drum throbs like a muted heartbeat, and cymbals slosh and swirl as if through a veil of molasses. These are the kinds of sounds that tend not to have a place on major releases these days, but the band goes for them with abandon.
I imagine that we’ll hear more and more of these 60s-psychedelia-inspired textures on mainstream releases in coming years, but for now, it takes balls for a “name” mixer to leave sounds this raw, this bare and home-brewed. Initially, I was surprised that an engineer with Brauer’s background signed off on them.
But he did, and in doing so, Brauer managed to get by without triggering the greatest fear that artists like Grizzly Bear tend to have in regards to teaming up with a seasoned professional: Namely, Brauer managed to avoid overworking their music, whitewashing it of their personality, or shoehorning their sound into a preordained aesthetic frame.
This not to say that the album was mixed without care or craft — Far from it. What’s perhaps most impressive about Shields is how much it breathes, and how, in its most dense moments of frenzy, each instrument maintains such clarity and space without losing any of its grit, or its rough, natural edges.
“That’s my favorite thing about the results from these mixes,” Grizzly Bear’s bassist/producer Chris Taylor tells me. “On this record, there are some of the most minimal moments we’ve ever had, and some of the most maximalist as well. The fact that the whole kitchen sink can be present and it can still all make sense to the ear, I think that’s an awesome thing to achieve.”
Clarity in Chaos
The two have decided to meet up for an interview in Brauer’s home away from the city, in the Catskills region of upstate New York. It’s a hot August day around noon, and Taylor sits in a loose-fitting tank top. He has deep-set eyes and a prominent brow that can make him look almost brooding whenever his expression is neutral. But when he laughs – which is often in this conversation – his face is convivial, nearly cherubic.
Brauer, still trim and energetic well into middle-age, has an apparent knack for setting 31-year old Taylor at ease. He has the artless and casual look of a man who’d be as comfortable in the stands at a baseball game as he would be mixing one of the most critically acclaimed and idiosyncratic rock bands of the past ten years.
Even after talking to him at length, Brauer seems very much like a normal, no-nonsense kind of guy who just-so-happens to have a very interesting job. If I had met him at random on the street I might have guessed him for a successful and well-spoken general contractor.
“My goals this year were very, very specific,” he says. “I wanted to mix a record for Dirty Projectors, for Grizzly Bear, and for Twin Shadow.”
“Last year, people wouldn’t have expected me to mix a Grizzly Bear record or a Twin Shadow record; But I did, and when people hear them and they realize they’re awesome, it’s not like ‘Oh shit, he turned it into this’ or ‘he turned it into that.’”
“So my goals were met. Out of the three bands I wanted to do, I got two. And they are both great records. So I couldn’t be happier.”
The rapport between Taylor and Brauer appears to be instant. Taylor had mixed the past Grizzly Bear albums himself, and when he says “This is the first time that I’ve given up that control,” Brauer chimes in immediately: “Which takes balls by the way.”
Both laugh like it’s an exchange that they’ve had a half-dozen times.
“I first thought of asking Brauer to do it when I stopped in during the Twin Shadow mix,” Taylor says. “Having worked on George [Lewis Jr]’s material before, I know what kind of mayhem he presents to a mixer.”
“He makes awesome music,” Taylor adds, “but knowing the kind of chaos that I’m sure he brought in to Brauer, and then hearing what Michael was able to pull out of it – I was like ‘Wow.’ ‘This guy can make sense of something that I know is kind of crazy to make sense of.’”
“So, he was kind of the first person who I ever thought could make sense of our music. Because, well… it’s weird. We have a lot of strange arrangements and we’re very particular about the way we want it all to sound. So to find someone who I could trust, who could make sense of it all — It was really a dream situation.”
Brauer says that with Twin Shadow what he did was “take that mayhem, and just enhance it and focus it a bit more.”
“But I didn’t try to clean it up – which is what I think was his concern. So when Chris walks in, he says ‘I know what that shit usually sounds like. He’s not trying to make it ‘expensive’-sounding. He’s just taking that picture and making it bigger’”
“Exactly,” says Taylor.
Brauer is conscious of the expectations others have for his work, and when I bring it up, he responds readily: “It’s like you said: With most top mixers, you’re expecting ‘the sound.’”
“But I don’t really want to be part of that. I want to be transparent. I just want to take the picture that’s already there and make it huge. Ultimately, Chris thought that sounded like a good idea, and he gave the record up to me – which is just the greatest honor in that respect.”