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Grizzly Bear's Daniel Rossen

LA Weekly: I saw you perform as part of the “Songs from the City” songwriters showcase at Walt Disney Concert Hall a few months ago (which featured, among others, Inara George and Van Dyke Parks, John Doe, Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio and Bob Mould). What was that experience like?Daniel Rossen: That was actually my first time ever performing by myself. I’d never done that before, so I was a little bit — I mean, I wasn’t nervous at all beforehand, but when I got there I was a little taken aback, because when I walked into the theater, Van Dyke Parks was soundchecking, onstage playing “Vine Street.” I had heard he might be there, but I had no idea that he’d be performing “Vine Street.” That album, Song Cycle , was one of my favorite records growing up, and I completely idolized him as a kid. So that was a little scary, having to play directly after Van Dyke Parks doing “Vine Street.”

LAW: I remember you mentioning that onstage.

DR: It was a little bit upsetting for me, but I was able to speak to him before the show, and I'd met him once before very briefly, and he was a really a very sweet guy and very reassuring that his songs were just ancient and didn't matter anyway and I shouldn't feel bad about it. But, yeah, it was amazing, in a weird way.

LAW:   I didn't know it was the first time you had ever played solo. I would imagine it's a different atmosphere for someone used to playing clubs.

DR:  Yeah, you know, I'd had a few glasses of wine so...

LAW:  Let alone with like, what, a dozen amazing songwriters listening to you.

DR:  Yeah, you know, but some of them were surprisingly very nice, like John Doe is a very sweet guy, and obviously Van Park is amazing, and Kyp Malone I know from home, and it's kind of nice to have his face around just as something familiar.  Actually I thought his performance, he ended being my favorite of the whole night because it was so starkly different from everything everyone else did.  Like everyone was trying so hard, I felt, to wow the audience with dynamics -- like, 'Just because we're playing alone doesn't mean we can play loud and project' -- and I mean I kinda did the same thing, because I was a little scared to play something too quiet. But Kip just went on and did fifteen minute stories with just three chords pretty much, and it was beautiful. I thought it was amazing.

LAW:  It was amazing. I'd been a fan of TV on the Radio, but it had never really clicked for me until that night.

DR:  He's genuine. You can sense what a genuine person he is, you know?  There's nothing objective about what he does, I don't think, which is kind of amazing.  I don't know, maybe it's because I know him a little bit -- I'm not exactly friends with him, but I know him enough to know when he's being authentic or when he's being honest.  

LAW:  So how did this performance with the LA Philharmonic come about?DR:  The idea of it has been around for a while, but we just never had found the time when it was appropriate or seemed like we would be able to even remotely fill the room at all.  But then when I came back and did this show, in January, I met [LA Phil programmer] Johanna Rees again, and I spoke with her at length about it. And we got along well, so we just decided that there was this opening on March 1 and that we should just do it.  The LA Phil is trying to woo younger audiences, I guess, is what a lot of this is about.  They seem to feel that a lot of younger people don't have the attention span to sit down, or pay the ticket price to listen to a piece by Stravinsky or something.  So this is a way for them to introduce an audience they don't think typically would give them the time of day.

LAW:  And you're collaborating with them on selecting what the Phil is performing?

DR:  To a degree. We originally talked about us basically curating a show.  But the problem is they're only going to rehearse for this maybe once, so they have to be pieces that are generally part of the LA Phil repertoire.  But I talked to the director of the Phil last week and they listened to our music, and he gave me some suggestions of pieces that are in their repertoire that he thinks would be appropriate after hearing our music.  They're doing a piece by Benjamin Britten which is called “The North Sea Portraits.”  They picked kind of impressionistic orchestral music that they felt related, or sounded vaguely like the washes and textures that are on Yellow House.

 

LAW: Disney Hall is such a different atmosphere from the clubs Grizzly Bear normally plays. Will you adjust your set accordingly?

DR: Well, we’ve played those kind of spaces before when we opened for Feist. And a long time ago we played with this band Efterklang from Denmark, and that was all churches and sit-down theaters. When we’ve played theaters before, we end up playing a lot of songs that we don’t want to play in clubs because they’re too somber, or too textural, or quiet. So generally, when we have this kind of set-up, it means that we can actually play more delicate stuff. I mean, our sets usually work the same way: Songs bleed into each other, they flow in and out of moods and dynamics. Really, the only difference with this is that we would be able to keep it a lot more mellow at times, because people are sitting in seats and [laughs] are forced to pay attention.

LAW: Right.

DR: So, I don't know.  We've had a few months since we've been off. We've been off for about four or five months now.  We haven't really been rehearsing too much, I've been recording a lot. The two songs that I did at Disney were new songs from a side project record that I'm working on right now.  LAW:  I know you grew up in L.A. When did you move away?

DR: I went to NYU for college, so I moved away when I was 18. I haven’t lived [in Los Angeles] for a while, and I don’t feel a great affinity for most parts of L.A. anymore, except for the parts that I associate with my childhood, which are very particular.

LAW: You don’t feel like you were influenced by the L.A. sound? I spoke with Stephin Merritt yesterday, and he says that the West Coast sound isn’t about vibe, it’s about the low humidity.

DR: That’s absurd, but, sure.LAW:  He said xylophones sound different.

DR:  That might be true.LAW:  How did you end up in Grizzly Bear?  Did you have to try out? Ed [Droste] did Horn of Plenty almost as a solo album, right?

DR:  Ed did Horn of Plenty as a solo album, but the drummer of Grizzly Bear, Chris Bear, helped him produce it and finish it and add some textures.. Chris Bear and Chris Taylor I've known since we were at music camp. LAW:  What kind of music camp?

DR:  I don't like to tell people this, but when we were very young we were jazz nerds. When I was young and twelve, thirteen, fourteen in high school, I wasn't really listening to rock music. I just kind of liked modern classical music, and John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman, and stuff like that, and that's kind of how the three of us met. And I met Chris Taylor in college, and he ended up, when we were 18 we lived in the same building, and he happened to be friends with Chris Bear who I met when I was a teenager at this camp. So we've been doing stuff together since we were really young, never particularly successfully between the three of us. I mean, we had recordings that we did in college, weird projects that we had, trying to make, starting to venture slightly into more rock type of music, even if when it was a little bit foreign to me.  So I've known them for a long time, but that's how I ended up in Grizzly Bear.  After I finished college, I wasn't really doing much of anything, but I was sitting around at home and making recordings. I mean a lot of the songs on Yellow House, about half of the things that ended up on Yellow House were things that I did, kind of just weird demos that I did, at home when I was unemployed after school. Chris Taylor heard a bunch of them and asked me to be in the band, and I went on tour with them and the songs ended up on the record.LAW: Is guitar your primary instrument?

DR:  Sort of everything. But, yeah, that's always been the primary thing.  And sometimes I get annoyed. I don't like being the guitar player, personally, there. It sort of bugs me for some reason. But its fine, that's fair enough, I can be that.LAW:  Okay, I won't refer to you as a guitar player.

 

DR: Don't ever call me that!LAW:  I'll never call you a guitarist.

D: Okay cool.LAW:  So is Grizzly Bear working on a new full length?

DR:  Not quite yet. I mean, we're working towards that.  Ed is sort of having some time off, as it were.  But we had really intense Europe touring the last couple years -- actually two years, I guess, of touring, since Yellow House came out, which is a lot of time on the road. So he needed a few months to do something else and be away.  And I've been working, just continuing to record. I have a problem being a workaholic right now, so it's hard or me to stop.LAW:  For a creative person, I don't necessarily think that's a problem.

DR:  I don't think it is a problem. But yeah, we should be starting, so once what I'm doing is finished I guess we'll be starting on something new, probably this summer, I hope.LAW:  Tell me about this other project.

DR:  It's something I've been doing actually since before Grizzly Bear. It's this weird -- it was kind of a joke to begin with ... but I had this band called Department of Eagles when I was younger. We've been sort of trying to put another record together for a really long time and we finally have the chance to do it.  And Chris is recording it, and it's sort of this nice melding of the worlds of Grizzly Bear and just my own separate area.  It's a space for me to do slightly stranger things and slightly poppier things and work with a different songwriter that works very differently than anyone in Grizzly Bear.  So that's potentially what we're doing, but I don't know where that's going, and I don't know exactly when that will be out or if it's even -- I don't even know.  But I think its going to be good.  And its a nice segue into the next Grizzly Bear record for me.

LAW:  With Yellow House, did you have thematic conversations before you started writing and recording How did that work? Or was it more that you'd written some song and Ed had written some songs?

DR:  Yellow House was kind of like that. Yellow House is a hodgepodge of things that Ed had done by himself, some of them years old and some of them recent, and then things that I had done on my own, that ended up on it just because we needed material, and then a few songs that we had fleshed out on the road -- like "Knife" pretty much everyone did together. We're sort of talking about how [to work] with different arrangers or work with people that can maybe help us flesh things out even larger, maybe work on the choral parts.LAW:  Like Van Dyke Parks maybe?

DR:  [Laughs]. I don't think he'd want do it, but I mean ... sure. I don't think it would be someone like that, it wouldn't be him for sure, but someone along those lines, probably younger.  That would be amazing for me. The thing is, I don't really know any young equivalent of him. I wish there was some equivalent of Van Dyke Parks, or Andrew Loog Oldham ... [But] there's no equivalent of that anymore thats a bit younger. They're all aging and don't care anymore.LAW:  Yeah, that's true. Beck uses his father, David Campbell.

DR:  That's true. Well, that would be good. I like what he did.  I guess that's because studio production has taken the place of that sort of personality. Arrangement doesn't really -- there aren't really producers that arrange anymore, you know, there's no one like George Martin anymore that “produces records and string arrangements.” No one does that anymore. Record companies don't handle those sort of studio techniques or protocols anymore. It's totally different. I would like it if we found somebody like that, because I try to do that myself but I can only get so far because i just don't have any training really.  But you know, it's all exciting. basically trying to do two records in one year.

LAW:  Is this a full time gig for you now?  Do you have to work a day job?DR:  It is now.LAW:  Wow, congratulations, that's a big step.

DR:  Yeah, it's been great.  Ever since last February -- basically a year now. Its been amazing. It's weird, because when we get back from tour, all of a sudden you're just home and there's nothing to do,  and I guess that's why you're working again because I don't ever want to feel like I'm unemployed and sitting around. It's terrifying. So I immediately just start recording again, because I don't -LAW:  Yeah, that darkness starts to creep in.

 

DR: Yeah, it's pretty amazing. I'm just trying to enjoy it while it lasts.

LAW:  Its an interesting time to be trying to make a mark in the music world, because the speed of information has really changed things. It's helped a lot of bands, but its also damaged a lot of really promising bands that end up being kind of 'flavor of the month.' It's like people develop this crush on a band, bloggers do, or whoever, and obsesses about them for three or four months. You can't turn on your computer without reading about them. It happened to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Deerhunter.  Then there's this huge backlash, and then the crush is over and they move on to their next crush. I wonder if you guys think about that, worry about that, and how you combat that.  

DR:  I mean, yeah, I do -- we worry about that a certain degree.

LAW:  It doesn't have anything to do with the music either, that's the thing.

DR:  No, well, it doesn't.  I mean, it's too bad, because the problem with blog hype is that it  sort of makes everyone -- well it's not just blog hype. It's not really anything new, but I think blog hype is the newest version of this --  just making pop bands more disposable.  I mean, pop bands have always been disposable to a certain degree. Almost any pop band only has a shelf life of a couple years. That's just the way it is, I've always thought. I feel like that was always true in the 50's and 60's until people like the Beatles came along and sort of changed the way people think about it.

LAW:  But when there are three magazines, when there was just Rolling Stone and Spin and whatever, it was very difficult to get sick of reading about a band.

DR:  Maybe this is terrible -- this is terrible, I probably shouldn't say this -- but I kind of believe that the majority of bands that are forgotten are forgettable. I don't actually believe Deerhunter is spent, and I don't actually think they've been damaged by blog hype because I think, critically, their records hold up.  They're young enough and hungry enough that they're going to keep working. They haven't blown up where they're playing giant venues or anything; they're just doing well.  But they're incredibly prolific. They work really hard. The singer, I forgot, what's his name again? Bradford?  Atlas Sound?LAW: It's fantastic.DR:  He's amazing.  And you know, he can be inconsistent. He does a lot. He has a huge output, but he works constantly and he's obsessive and he's a fascinating guy, and I think somebody like that has potential. I don't think blog hype can destroy that. I'd like to believe that if you have that potential it's not going to go away.  Whereas I don't know about Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. I mean, I personally I never really liked the records. I heard it and thought, 'no one is going to care about this in five years.' And that's maybe terrible, but I'd like to think that, you know, if you make a product that's pop that is inherently kind of disposable, then that's what's going to happen.LAW: Do you consider what you do to be 'pop music'?

DR:   I don't know. I don't ... I mean... that's a good question. I don't really know. I'm not really sure if what we do is disposable or not. I guess I don't want it to be.  I'd like to think we kind of straddle that boundary a little bit, and I think most people that have any kind of staying power do that a little bit now. I don't know. I just feel like there aren't really -- the only kind of great pop star we have anymore is someone like Justin Timberlake. I feel like there aren't bands anymore that really occupy that space. Bands like Radiohead, maybe. You know what I mean? There just aren't these epic bands anymore, especially in the indie world.


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