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Interview: Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear

"When I was 5, I decided I wanted to dress like a late-’50s motorcycle Elvis.”

By

Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear
Tim Mosenfelder/Contributor/Getty Images Entertainment

Grizzly Bear are a New Yorker quartet playing a sweet, harmony-laden, new-millennial take on folk-pop. Born as the solo project of Ed Droste on 2004's Horn of Plenty, they've grown into a full, resplendently orchestral band through 2006's Yellow House and 2009's magnificent Veckatimest. Droste's co-songwriter Daniel Rossen —who also helms the wonderful Department of Eagles— spoke before the release of Veckatimest.

Interview: 8 May 2009

Where are you at the moment?
“We’re up at Ed’s grandmother’s house in Massachusetts, where we [made Veckatimest], rehearsing before we we head out on tour. We’re feeling excited. We’ve never done a tour like this: we have a bus, and we’ve hired a lighting person! Though it's not much, it’s definitely the largest-scale production we’ve ever done. We used to have to drive all day, see the country through the window of a van. That was fine at the time. That life suited me very well, because when I joined the band I basically gave up my apartment and became a vagabond.”

Did you grow up with dreams of being the rock'n'roll vagabond?
“I did, although I didn’t take them seriously. When I was five I heard "Jailhouse Rock," and became obsessed with Elvis. I decided I wanted to dress like a late-’50s motorcycle Elvis.”

Wait, you were a five-year-old in leatherwear?
“Well, no, I didn’t force my parents to buy me fancy outfits. Perhaps ‘dress like’ is an overstatement. It was more about mimicking his facial expressions and dance moves. I remember being obsessed with styling my hair in the right way. It freaked my parents out for a while there. After that, I studied jazz in high-school. I was a music nerd.”

Were you pressed into jazz study?
“No, I was really interested in it! And it was something that I excelled at, so I took it pretty seriously. But, then, when I got to college, I was like: ‘Well, I’m a jazz guitarist, that’s kind of random. I don’t really want to do that; the world doesn’t need another jazz guitarist.’ So I gave it up to study linguistics, then bounced around for few years trying to figure out what I was doing. It was at that time that I started writing songs, then I wrote some more and, next thing you know, here I am in this band.”

What inspired you to start writing songs?
“It was just imitation, to be honest. I had a phase of angsty obsession with Nick Drake and Elliott Smith, and so I wanted to sound like them. For a long time, I only played my songs to close friends; and it just happened that I lived with Chris Taylor my second year of college, so he heard them. He was my entrance into Grizzly Bear. He joined the band first, then after a while he suggested I come in with these songs.”

How did it feel joining a band that already had its own formed identity?
“Well, when I joined, I did about two rehearsals with them, worked out one of my songs to put into the set, then a week later we were out on the road for a two-month tour. It was a real trial-by-fire thing. I was close with Chris and Chris [Bear], but I didn’t know Ed at all; it was weird getting to know a stranger by spending all day in the same car.”

How long after that were you comfortable putting your own voice forward, being a real part of the songwriting?
“It took a while. By the time we did Yellow House, about six or eight months into my being in the band, that was certainly a chance for me to put a lot more of my own ideas, my own songs into it. But, honestly, I was not a performer at all before being in this band, and touring with them taught me so much. Playing for people changes the way you think about music, about songs, about singing, about everything. I felt like I didn’t even really find a voice I was comfortable with until I’d been in the band for a few more years. That’s one of the really interesting things about making music as a young person: the fact that this period of growth, when you’re still learning what you’re doing, is captured. Listening to old live recordings, then Yellow House, then Veckatimest, you can really hear this growth: as songwriters, as performers, as artists, as people. I really cherish that. I think it’s a real privilege to be able to have that record of yourself growing; going from a young person to an adult.”

So, Veckatimest is your adult contemporary record?
“I don’t know about that! I just hear it as older, more confident, more assured as a band and as people.”

And happier?
“Yeah, I think we’re all in better spirits these days. Chris [Taylor] and I had just gotten off doing a Department of Eagles record, which was a lot of these old songs, very intense, introspective, emotional material.”

Did some of those Department of Eagles songs date back to your angst-riddled, Drake-lovin’ days?
“[Laughs] Some of those songs are really old. The kernel of a lot of them dates back years and years and years, for both me and Fred [Nicolaus]. That was the really nice thing about Veckatimest: I had just done this record full of all these songs that’d been propped up for so long, and were so dark and nostalgic, and to just jump into this record, to try and make something happier and more uptempo was great. I guess, for us, moodiness and layering are just what comes naturally; so we found it interesting to make things simpler, more stripped down. It was more fresh and spontaneous, I did a lot of the writing with Ed on the spot, it was much more positive and collaborative. It was a really fun record to make.”

Do you think that sense of ‘fun’ is captured on the record?
“I hope so. I think something like 'Southern Point' really came out of a certain joy we felt in recording. The way that we work is very casual: we like to get out of town, go somewhere beautiful, live in a house together, and record at any time of day. We all like to cook, and relax, settle into it. Because there’s no agenda, it ends up taking a really long time; this time it took three months.”

I interviewed your old pal Nico Muhly recently and he was brining his own pork whilst we spoke. Are any of you that hardcore?
“Well, I’m not the band chef. Both Ed and Chris Bear are really great cooks; Chris Bear is a really excellent Italian chef, he makes his own pasta. They’re really into it. I appreciate that. I benefit from that!”

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