Thursday, April 3, 2014

Daniel Rossen: The Cream Interview

Posted By on Thu, Apr 3, 2014 at 8:00 AM

The highly acclaimed band Grizzly Bear existed before Daniel Rossen joined them in 2004, but his participation is arguably the reason we know them in the context we do today. Prior to Rossen's joining, Grizzly Bear was essentially singer-songwriter Ed Droste’s Brooklyn-based bedroom endeavor, though he received help from drummer Christopher Bear (that’s his real last name) when making Horn of Plenty, the “band’s” debut. But from the first rustles of Yellow HouseHorn’s follow-up featuring Rossen, Bear and multi-instrumentalist Christopher Taylor, alongside Droste — it’s clear that the new members had altered Grizzly Bear’s trajectory. In fact, it’s not Droste we hear first on Yellow House but Rossen, introducing us to the band’s now-cemented two-leads dynamic. To be sure, all members of Grizzly Bear bring substantive, singular talent to the table. There isn’t an interchangeable member in their midst. But it’s worth highlighting Rossen’s contributions here because they put in such stark relief the songwriting gap between Horn and Yellow House. And Rossen’s work outside Grizzly Bear goes a long way toward conveying where the power behind the band’s mid-Aughts shift originated.

I was working at a local boutique when Yellow House was released in the fall of 2006, and I’ll never forget the scene that played out when a colleague played the record in the store for the first time: Without intending to, we all just sat down and sort of stared out the glass at the window shoppers ambling down Hillsboro; we were shaken from the bustle of retail work for a moment and ferried to some elevated place. Reflecting now, I don’t know that I’ve experienced as vivid a moment listening to music ever since. But if you’ve heard Yellow House (or anything Grizzly’s made to date), you know why it may have been necessary to put aside selling shoes for a few minutes. Some other world beckoned. That’s to all the members’ credit, of course, but Rossen’s appearance in the mix stood out to me.

Now the songwriter is going it alone, at least for a little while. Nashville is fortunate to play host to one of Rossen’s 14 solo dates (all of which feature Nashville's own William Tyler as the opener), so I interviewed him for a feature that's running in this week’s dead-tree edition of the Scene. As is typical, I couldn’t use everything we discussed, but thankfully Patrick agreed with me that readers might find the whole exchange interesting regardless. In particular, I found Rossen's experience of the Buzz-Cycle-Hipster-Music Industrial Complex to be illuminating. (Spoiler alert: He despises it.) Carles would probably find it interesting, wherever he is. I hope you do too. See the interview after the jump; it has been edited for clarity and length.

This is your first solo tour. Congrats. What's the live set-up like, and what material can we expect to hear?

I'm going to be playing totally alone, which I've never done before, which is kind of exciting. It's just going to be me. I'll have an acoustic and a 12-string, and I'll be playing electric for certain tunes and I'll have a little upright piano, so I'll be moving around a bit. But it's just going to be me alone onstage. And I'll be playing a lot material from the last few years that I haven't really been able to play live — everything from that EP that I released a couple of years ago, which I never performed, In Ear Park, the Department of Eagles record … I’m going to do a bunch of songs from those. I also have other unreleased songs that I've either shared or that I gave away over the years to fans. There are also tunes that I've kept to the side that didn't feel appropriate to record, but were always sort of nice to play for friends or small things, and I'm going to do some of those too — just more intimate material that is more suited to playing alone. But yeah, I just set this tour up almost as a challenge to myself because I've never done anything like this, and I thought it'd be a good way to, I don't know, grow a little bit as a performer and try something that's challenging in a different way than I'm used to.

Obviously we're very fond of William Tyler in Nashville. How did you become acquainted with him and hook up for the tour?

I just like his records. I still haven't met him. We've just talked over email. When we were talking about openers, there were a lot of names that were suggested to me, but William Tyler was actually the first name that I considered. His was the first name that came up with a few musician friends of mine too. They were like, "That would be a cool lineup. What would you think about that?" I thought it made sense, so I just wrote him directly and thankfully he was available to do it. So I'm really excited about it. I think it'll be really cool to get to see him play live. I've never seen him play live.

There was a New York Magazine profile on Grizzly Bear that ran a couple of years ago in which I got the sense there's a lot of pressure involved in having that band be your main gig — the expectations and so forth. So I'm curious what it's like for you to step out on your own, and if it's somewhat of a relief not to be touring under that banner.

Well, I'll find out [laughs]. But that's something that I do struggle with, because I like to make music more casually whenever I can and just make sure that I'm always enjoying what I'm doing and not get lost in the ... I don't know, bullshit [laughs] of the music industry. I feel like there's a better way to put that. I think we do a pretty good job in Grizzly Bear. It's not like we're some massive arena-touring outfit. We still keep it pretty mellow. But it is easy to get lost in the pressure of, you know … each record has to have a new and different sound and it has to be big and it has to be special.

There is something nice about scaling down and just doing something casually to where it's just a pure experience of making music in a really direct way. Which is why I was excited about making that EP. It was nice, because it was like, "Well, a lot of these tunes are almost just in demo format, built up a little bit," but I just left them alone and left the songs as they were, which was satisfying. And I really like the idea of getting to perform music in that way too, where it's like, "This is it. This is the thing. There's no light show. There's nothing else. This is just a tune." And you connect with the audience, and that's it. I miss that a lot, and I don't feel like I get to see that much myself in shows. I think someone like William Tyler's amazing too, because he gets so much across in such a spare set-up, and he can perform that stuff live in such a simple way. I just like the idea of trying to make a show like that.

I imagine it's got to be bittersweet in a way. My now-wife and I saw Grizzly Bear open for Radiohead in Montreal six years ago, and when they took the stage, Jonny Greenwood walked to the mic and said you guys were his favorite new band. That must have been remarkable to hear. I don't even know if you grew up liking Radiohead, but I found it remarkable in that moment. What it’s like to be at that level — to be revered by people of Greenwood’s stature — but also just want to be able to show up in a smaller room and do your thing without a light show?

Yeah, that was obviously a very special time for us. I grew up loving Radiohead. I definitely did. And it was an honor just to get to do that tour at all and see them play every night. It was crazy. But that was the beginning of a lot of pressure for us. That was right before we released Veckatimest, which if anything caused pressure, either internally or externally, that's when it would've started. But it's been a few years now and, if anything, that pressure's kind of gone and we don't really feel like that anymore. We're all a little older, so, if anything, now it's just keeping things novel and keeping it interesting.

So in a way, scaling down the performance is interesting to me because it's just a totally different challenge. When we do shows with Grizzly Bear, I get to be up front and sometimes I step back and I'm just a guitar player. You move around. If you're not feeling the show that night you can step back and let everybody else pick up the slack [laughs]. But with a show like this I can't do that. It's either on or it's not. If I'm not feeling the performance, it's probably going to be pretty terrible, so I just have to really be in it in a way that it's often easy to check out when you're playing in a big production. I'm excited about that aspect of it. It's a totally different kind of pressure. I'm certainly a little nervous about it. I want it to be a good show even though it's really simple. I'm not going to have anything else supporting me, so it's on me to make it good. I'm hoping that that's a different kind of pressure, that I'll learn something from it.

Now that I'm thinking about it, Ed also did most of the talking the few times I’ve seen Grizzly Bear, so are you at all worried about carrying the show beyond the songs?

[laughs] Yeah, well we did the Department of Eagles shows years back. But no, I don't talk a lot onstage, that's true. I'm not a real banterer. And even at Grizzly Bear shows we keep it pretty spare. There's not a lot of conversing with the audience. I don't know. That kind of thing I definitely don't want to plan. I'm sure there will some interaction. I can't just scowl at the audience between songs as I'm tuning [laughs]. It'll come about naturally. But that's the other thing: Maybe it won't. If it doesn't come about naturally, that'll be something else I'll learn from doing this.

So I find that, of your peers ... I don't know how I'm defining that ... maybe the last 15 years of indie rock and rock music in general, that you have one of the more distinctive styles of guitar playing, as well as writing and arranging. How were you trained as a player and who were some of your big influences?

Well, I grew up as more of a jazz/classical nerd. I got really deep into learning the technical side of playing as an early teenager, then I just kind of stopped taking any kind of lessons around age 15. I was really immersed in mid-century classical music like Gil Evans and Miles Davis and stuff like that when I was a kid. I wasn't really that interested in rock music at all actually until around Kid A. Kid A was the record that changed me to be more interested, like, "There is something possible going on here." Even then I was still too young. I didn't really write songs until I was about 19. But I don't know, I think the reason I have a strange style of playing that is different, maybe, from other people, is that I came to it from an outsider's perspective, having grown up not playing anything like rock music or folk music at all, or blues or anything. Then I lost a lot of the technical ability that I had because I quit music for a while, and when I came back to it, the knowledge in my head was all this classical stuff. I knew more about arranging than I did about playing, and I think I translated that somehow into playing the guitar. I still sort of feel like I'm trying not to think technically, and I'm always trying to tune the guitar in strange ways so I don't really know what my hands are doing — just trick myself into not paying attention to what's going on technically.

So, in terms of influences, it wouldn't be your standard Bob Dylan or … for you it would've been more like jazz and classical icons.

Yeah, I guess so. It was never guitar players [laughs]. I don't really like jazz guitar players. It's just that the music was coming from other places. And, I mean, certainly people like Nick Drake ... he's an amazing, interesting guitar player. I remember I got pretty deep into his stuff. I think Jim O'Rourke is an amazing guitar player. He's somebody that I tried to imitate for awhile. Even someone like Elliott Smith — as I got older, I got into more typical influences like that. But yeah, I started out not listening to music of that kind, so that's kind of always given me a warped perspective.

Do you feel like you connect to the musical history of Nashville in any particular way?

I don't know. The older I get, maybe, but certainly not from my younger days. But Nashville definitely has an interesting, crazy history. I think I don't always realize how much comes from Nashville. I didn't realize when I was younger how much Nashville plays into a lot of music people love even now, like classic Neil Young records or classic Bob Dylan records, or even music outside the Nashville scene that took so much from it, which is cool.

From your Instagram feed and various other things I've read, I get the sense that being away from the city and out in nature is important to you. Is that a rejection of how busy you are in general or has that interest always been with you?

I've always been enamored by the countryside and simpler, non-urban ways of living. I think it was just very exotic to me as a kid because I grew up in L.A., and I didn't really have access to this sort of obvious way of American living [laughs] that is probably really boring to people who grew up with it. But for me, visiting my family in Ohio and seeing their farm and the countryside was a really incredible experience growing up. I actually moved upstate recently. I don't really live in the city anymore, which would probably explain a lot of the random garden shots [laughs] on my not-so-active Instagram feed. I barely even use that thing. It's just a bland landscape every four months. But, yeah, I moved upstate about three-and-a-half hours from the city. It's a great way to live when you're not on the road. When you're forced to always be traveling city to city, it feels really good not to come back to Brooklyn. It's much easier to think and to write and to just have a sense of peace and relax. I feel like it's good for the mind.

Is it isolating at all?

[laughs] Yeah, definitely. Yeah, it's totally isolating. That's mainly why we're always — my girlfriend and I — we're always trying to find a balance with that. It's tough. We have friends that live up there now, but yeah, it's a little hard in that way sometimes.

When your EP was released two years ago, you referred in an interview to a period creative despondency that you went through after touring Veckatimest, and that you weren't sure you wanted to keep making music at all. Have you experienced anything similar in the wake of touring Shields? At least as far as the press narrative goes, Shields was notoriously hard to make for Grizzly Bear, so much so that people questioned whether the band would go on or not.

I find the older I get, the harder it is to put yourself fully in the mindset of making music and not questioning what you're doing all the time. The more records and the more songs we write, and the more we're exposed to what other people are doing, it's hard to keep a focus where you're just sort of naively making things for the joy of it and for yourself. Yeah, I've had some periods over the years where it's either been hard to write, or I get very jaded with the business of music and music press and the fashion associated with it. It really bums me out sometimes the way people's music can be reduced purely to fashion, or all of the sudden it's a lifestyle thing instead of something you really care about. "It's hipster music" versus ”No, this is my life's work, this is what I care about." I've gotten jaded over the years dealing with that kind of crap. I feel like it really gets in the way of making something for its own sake and communicating it to people. To this day I struggle with wanting to engage with that as a way of making music and even making a living. So yeah, there have been times in the past where I wish I could just make records and do something else as a job, and I could share it casually and not have to deal with all of that. I'd prefer it sometimes. In a way the solo tour is like that. It's not about a record. I'm not promoting anything. I have nothing to push. So it's purely me playing music for a willing audience and hopefully it translates and hopefully they're into it and that's it. That's the whole exchange.

As far as the band, yeah, Shields was hard to make for a lot of reasons, including just questioning ourselves really hard and really trying to push ourselves. It was just really hard sometimes to get in a groove with it and really know that we believed in what we were making. We don't really operate on schedules. We make records when it feels good to make them. So we don't have a plan in place right now. We don't have recording time set or anything. Everyone's kind of scattered around the globe right now. When it feels right, we'll do it again, and that's how it's been the last couple of records. Even before doing Veckatimest it was like, “Well, what are we gonna do?” I don't know. It's kind of always like that for us. I'm not worried about it and it'll be what it'll be. I'm sure eventually we'll make another record. I don't know when. It might be later this year. I might be a couple of years from now.

You just returned in January from a Beach House-led Gene Clark revisitation tour of sorts. Were you familiar with No Other prior to rehearsing those songs, and how did the shows go?

I knew the record. I like it a lot, but I didn't go as deep with it as Beach House does. I think that's one of their favorite records of all time. So, yeah, they wrote me about it and I revisited the record and got deeper into it and learned the whole thing front to back. It really is an incredible record. I don't think I gave it enough of a chance the first time I heard it. But, yeah, that was an amazing experience. It was a really moving experience to go so deeply into someone else's music and mindset without any worry about promoting your own record or your own music, or thinking about your own ego in the process. It was like, "Let's just lose ourselves in this record that's so great." And I love that the band played the record exactly as it was. I mean, they put their personality into it, but the guitar player was playing every single note of every solo on the record. It was done in this amazingly nerdy way that was kind of amazing too. So, yeah, it was a great experience. I love ... Robin [Pecknold], he's been a friend the last couple of years, so it was fun to go on the road in a really casual way. I love The Walkmen. When I was in college, I totally idolized The Walkmen. I'd never met Ham [Hamilton Leithauser] before, so that was cool. It was like band camp [laughs]. It was like a fake tour that was set up more for our benefit than anyone else. But, yeah, I think everyone had a good time. It seemed like the shows went over well. I know we really enjoyed it.

Did you play anything that wasn't on the record?

That was pretty much it. We played a couple of other Gene Clark tunes in the encores. But, yeah, we pretty much played the album and that was it. I think they recorded the Music Hall of Williamsburg one. I don't know if or when it will be shared with anyone, but I thought that was cool.

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