Ed Droste, founding member of the indie group Grizzly Bear, has no time for apolitical artists. "Some people are like, 'Don't mix music with politics!' and I think that's the biggest load of shit ever," he says, making his way down a busy street in Los Angeles. "It's like, the world's burning! Say something!"
Does he suspect that any of his fans are Trump supporters? "I think so," Droste says. "When I was actively engaging in politics, some people were protesting. I was like, 'Well, if you're going to be such a die-hard Republican that you can't engage in anything liberal, then maybe you should just rip out your cable TV and only listen to Ted Nugent.' "
The singer's steadfast progressiveness shouldn't be a surprise to his most ardent followers. He's become known for his spicy, sardonic Instagram posts on subjects ranging from refugees to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. In one post, he detailed how to affect a straight persona while phone banking in red states: "I had to practice a few times to shake off the gay, but trust, with a little work, we can all pass," he wrote. (Although he was a vocal Bernie Sanders supporter in the primaries, Droste quickly switched allegiance to Hillary Clinton after she secured her nomination.)
Droste's outspokenness has its limits, though. In a May interview with Pitchfork, he waved away a question about whether his recent divorce influenced the group's new album, Painted Ruins, out August 18. "This isn't therapy," he replied. "I'm afraid that's where I draw a little bit of a line."
Not that the subject is totally off-limits. "Moving here was an attempt to salvage [my relationship], and it was a distraction subconsciously," admits Droste, who left Brooklyn for L.A. after he married the interior designer Chad McPhail in 2011. The two split -- "amicably and lovingly," Droste tweeted -- in 2014. "Yes, I was gay married, and yes, I got gay divorced," he says. "I've done it all! I got on the bandwagon early, and I got off early."
It may or may not be inspired by his last serious relationship, but Painted Ruins does represent a collision of influences. It's composed of the same baroque soundscapes that filled Grizzly Bear's acclaimed 2009 album Veckatimest, and paired with propulsive beats and snarling bass lines, but even when songs like "Mourning Sound" veer toward rock, Droste's searing falsetto lifts them to a higher plane. It seems entirely fitting that the LP was recorded in a 1928 estate perched on a bucolic hill in upstate New York.
Given that the group's latest tour sold out shows in New York and L.A., Droste expects to finally get recognized on the street -- "mostly for my nose," he says. Yet he doesn't aspire to be famous and seems most engaged when discussing LGBT rights. In the early 2000s, the 38-year-old became a queer spirit guide of sorts. "I remember when we used to sell our own merch, teens would come up to me shaking and say, 'You made me feel better about being gay,' " Droste recalls. "Especially in the indie world, they felt there were no gay people."
His own coming out was relatively painless. He had his first gay experience at 21 in Seattle with a guy he met through his cousin's band Pink Martini. "I went from nothing to everything in one night," he says, "and I had to fly the next day. I was like a fragile bird coming to terms on a JetBlue flight."
At 26, when his band was first gaining traction, Droste described the event vividly to Butt magazine ("I haven't given a candid interview about anal sex since then," he says); his openness inspired fellow indie musician and former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij to come out. "He presented himself as a person who was comfortable with who he was and honest about it, and that resonated with how I felt," Batmanglij says over email.
Droste still receives emails and texts from gay teens across the country; he even recruited a therapist friend to help one fan escape from a toxic home environment. But he doesn't take his role-model status too seriously (he has the words "LOL," "LOL!" and "LOL?" tattooed on his left and right armpits and butt, respectively). "It's not like, in the grand scheme, that many people in the gay world listen to us. We'd need that one golden track to be able to break out and become a meme," Droste says. "I would kill for a Daft Punk remix."
Styling: Alison Brooks
Groomer: Aaron Bock