JUST AS THINGS were building nicely for Greylag, they decided to slam on the brakes.
The Portland band had been steadily gaining momentum from their debut EP, 2012's The Only Way to Kill You. They'd been booked at that year's Sasquatch! Music Festival and were garnering deserved acclaim for their elemental folk-rock sound. But rather than continue the grind of the road, the band—singer/guitarist Andrew Stonestreet, guitarist Daniel Dixon, and drummer Brady Swan—decided to go back to the woodshed.
"We had been touring quite a bit," says Dixon, "and Sasquatch! was sort of the culmination. We had a big discussion about the next stage of the band, and it was very much these two choices: We can keep promoting this EP that is now feeling a little tired for everybody, or stop that momentum and come back to the drawing board, as far as making our first real statement. The EP was to get something out there and get the ball rolling, and it just kind of kept rolling and we were like, 'Oh, I guess we're going to keep rolling with it.' But we were always very excited to finally make a record that really felt like it fully represented the evolving sound of the band. So we chose to make a record—and then it took longer than we expected."
That record, the self-titled Greylag, is a winning, triumphant statement of purpose for the band. With legendary Northwest producer Phil Ek behind the boards and the imprint of the renowned indie Dead Oceans on the label, it's a fully fledged, elegant, impressively handsome rock album with not a single bad track. Greylag culled the tracklist from more than 100 songs the band wrote over an aggressive writing period, during which they learned to write together as a group. In the process, they made complete demo recordings of a majority of these new ideas, honing their sound and discovering what worked best.
"One of the goals of the band is to push creative limits for ourselves, to explore new sounds, and to make music that's interesting to us," Dixon says. "But we wanted to do that without sacrificing an approachable-ness to the music. For me, the best music does that—it's music that's really interesting, but that also, you know, your mom could listen to. In the end, I think it's almost even harder to do that.
"Along the way, we would go too far in one direction or another," he continues, "and oftentimes we were making music that was maybe just too adventurous. It was sometimes stuff that we were really proud of, really happy about, but it wasn't going to fit with the other stuff. And sometimes there would be a thing that, after we'd write it, would feel like it didn't have enough substance to it, like it was too poppy and lame or whatever. Pretty quickly that sort of thing falls back to earth under its own weight. You throw it up there, and it's like, 'Oh, nope. There it goes.' But you have to have the freedom to try it."
That freedom has led to a terrific album that's already earned positive comparisons to Jeff Buckley, Fleet Foxes, and Led Zeppelin III, although none quite conveys Greylag's mystic yet invitingly familiar qualities. Album opener "Another" is a perfect marriage of Stonestreet's acoustic and Dixon's electric guitars, evoking a misty vista where the clouds are breaking to make way for the sun. "Yours to Shake" is a compressed mini-epic, a roiling tempest that intensifies from its tense opening passages, and the lovely "Burn On" is a plaintive acoustic hymn that picks up thunder as it progresses. Greylag's melodies flicker almost insidiously, increasing their power in organic and undeniable ways, and the guitar lines sound like ones that teenagers will be copying in their bedrooms for years to come.
Greylag's musicianship-forward approach worked well with producer Ek, who connected with the band after a friend passed along some of their recordings. "He does very well in getting the best out of a band," Dixon says of Ek. "He's not about getting in there and trying to remake things. He will not let you get away with something that he doesn't think is awesome, but at the same time, he's not there to tell you what you should do. If something's not working, he's like, 'Hey, that's not working.' And you're like, 'Cool, well, what do you think would work?' And he's like, 'I don't know, it's your damn record! You figure it out.' And he's right, it is your record."
Meanwhile, the band wrings an extraordinary amount of depth from the timeworn palette of guitars, drums, and voice—not so much reinventing the familiar rock sound as providing a living, breathing reminder as to why it's stuck around for as long as it has. Greylag echoes with spooky folk tradition, burns with the gleaming coals of rock, and catches wing on an updraft of wanderlust. It's something the band is rightfully proud of.
"It feels like a relief," says Dixon of its release. "It feels like it was such a long time coming, and we've already gone through the heavy emotions—the hope and the expectations and all of that. So much of the creative work has been done for almost a year, that it's just a relief to finally get it out there and really go to work on it. And that's still uncharted territory for the band. Basically, we're a relief pitcher and it's the seventh inning, and we're excited to get into the game."